If this were a race, Macon County Schools would win for being the first in Western North Carolina — maybe even the state — to end summer vacation and start classes again.
Teachers returned Monday; students go back Thursday (August 4).
And that’s just too soon, in Sabrina Hawkins’ opinion. The Highlands resident has three school-aged children of her own in the county’s school system.
Hawkins and the North Carolina chapter of the national advocacy group Save Our Summers have filed a petition against the state Board of Education to try to force a later starting date. The case is scheduled for October.
The issue by then would be moot, of course, so pending the trial, Hawkins and the group sought a court injunction to postpone this week’s opening date until August 25. That’s the North Carolina mandated go-back-to-school date for all systems that don’t have a waiver.
A state administrative law judge last week, however, denied the injunction. The trial can go forward, though the group failed in delaying this year’s start date.
So what’s it all about — getting a longer tourist season? Hawkins said no, it’s not about tourism dollars, though she and her husband, Bill, do own and operate the 1880-built Highlands Inn. The lawsuit, she said, is about not taking away that important balance of schoolwork and play for children.
“This has nothing to do with my business,” Hawkins said. “And, I’m not an anti-school advocate — I just feel like they need a long break. What has it been, six or seven weeks off? It feels like we just got out of school.”
Macon County School Board Chairman Tommy Cabe said maybe it’s because he’s from an older generation, but he’s “just fine” with an early August start to school.
“I remember when we were in school, and we had three full months off in summer, but that’s because we worked in the fields,” Cabe said.
Up until 2004, all school systems had autonomy over when to start and end, as long as they met the mandatory number of school days in a year. But a lobbying effort orchestrated by the tourism industry, vying for longer summers and hopefully more family vacations, led to a state law preventing schools from starting back before the end of August.
School systems that see lots of snow days, and thus need the wiggle room of an earlier start date, could get waivers. The law also allows exceptions for individual schools for “educational purposes.”
Macon’s school board in February asked for a waiver to allow remedial intercession periods for students, sessions of intense work to help them catch up when they’ve fallen behind other students.
“The bottom line isn’t to try to get around the calendar laws, it is about student performance,” said Macon County Schools Superintendent Dan Brigman, who added that 62 percent of students in Macon County receive free or reduced lunches. He said that school leaders want to “close opportunity gaps for these children.”
The N.C. Board of Education said OK in April.
In June, Hawkins and the Save Our Summers-NC group filed its petition. A July motion by the state board to dismiss the case was denied, paving the way for an eventual hearing
The case hinges on whether the state Board of Education should have granted waivers to all 10 Macon County schools under the “educational purpose” exception to the law. The school board should not have granted what, in essence, was actually a countywide waiver because that isn’t legal, according to the petition by Save Our Summers.
“It’s simply to try to build in enrichment and remediation opportunities for students,” Brigman said in response. Brigman said that’s the date school always started back until the new law was passed.
Jackson County commissioners are considering whether to renovate the former Southern Lumber Co. building to get the county out of paying rent elsewhere for office space.
The county purchased the property and the 34,633-square-foot building on Skyland Drive in 2008. Architect Odell Thompson was asked to develop options for transforming the structure into county offices, and came up with what he termed a very rough, ballpark cost estimate of $1.325 million. He went over possible options this week during a work session with commissioners.
One of the most costly items are a skylight and solar tubes, at about $150,000 — but without natural lighting added, the building would be a depressing, dark hole for county employees working there, Thompson said. Sprinklers or a firewall and required additions, also ups the price, he said.
Still, at about $70 a square foot (plus additional money for such items as the fire protection and redoing the exterior), renovating the building still comes in cheaper than building something from scratch. That, Thompson said in a response to a query by County Manager Chuck Wooten, would come in at $175 to $200 a square foot.
“The question is, do we want to utilize this particular space for this particular purpose?” Wooten said. “I think this would be a good use for this particular space.”
In a similar move, Haywood County commissioners last year bought an abandoned Wal-Mart and are converting it into an office complex for the Department of Social Services and Health Department. The cost was cheaper than replacing the antiquated, crumbling facilities with a new building.
Renting office space is costing Jackson County $40,000 annually. The rental lease involved comes up for renewal in May of next year, providing fuel to the discussion. Additionally, Wooten said, more space is needed by several of the agencies housed by the county, including the cooperative extension service (a demonstration kitchen is included in the drawings made by Thompson, per the state agency’s request, plus office space).
The federal Farm Service Agency, currently in the federal building in Bryson City but formerly housed in Jackson County, also would like to return to this county, Wooten said.
That agency would pay rent for the needed 1,610 square feet.
Another county owned building, this one vacant, is posing its own set of problems.
Commissioners were told that the rock building in Mark Watson Park is not worth saving, with Wooten explaining there “are some real issues with water drainage.” Jackson County was eyeing the building as a possible site for a new 911 emergency dispatch office, using $1.4 million available through dollars collected through 911 fees for phones.
The dispatch office is currently using the old grand jury room in the Jackson County Administration Building. About 7,000 square feet is needed, Wooten said.
One option would be to put up a metal building with an attractive façade on the same site where the old rock building currently sits. Also, at Commissioner Doug Cody’s suggestion, the county will look at whether part of the Southern Lumber building now eyed for renovation could also house 911.
Additionally, commissioners agreed to list on the county’s website three potentially commercial pieces of properties, and sell them if possible:
• 1.5 acres on West Main Street and Wilkes Cresent appraised at $185,000.
• 1.5 acres in Whittier, the Clearwood property, appraised at $39,000.
• Just less than 1.5 acres beside Sylva Plaza, the old steakhouse property, bought originally as a site for a new public library. The library was built instead alongside the historic courthouse. The property was appraised for $250,000, Wooten said, adding there has been interest from a potential buyer for the property.
Rent or own?
Jackson County could save on rent and overhead if the following offices were consildated into a single county building. The old Southern Lumber Co. is being eyed for that purpose.
• Drivers license office (already there): 994 square feet
• Veterans Services: 520 square feet
• N.C. Cooperative Extension Service: 2,799 square feet
• Soil and Water Conservation District: 2,130 square feet
• Housing: 863 square feet
• Board of Elections: 3,693 square feet
Western Carolina University and the Cullowhee area could prove the decisive battleground in the coming debate about whether alcohol sales should be legal countywide in Jackson, and not just confined to the towns of Sylva and Dillsboro.
Ikran Mohamed, hurrying to class one day last week, said that when it comes to whether she believes the sale of alcoholic beverages would hurt or help Cullowhee and student life in general at Western Carolina University, she might be speaking while under the influence of the history paper she was carrying to class.
Her paper was on the history of drug addiction and trafficking in the U.S., including alcohol — and Mohamed’s findings weren’t positive. Only a light drinker herself, the Charlotte native said she believes (at least this morning, the paper in hand and fresh on her mind) that it might well be best if the sale of alcoholic beverages remains confined to neighboring Sylva.
“If it’s closer to campus, it’s easier to get,” the rising junior said, adding that she has particular concerns about underage drinking escalating on campus if beer and wine could be purchased at package stores, bars and restaurants in Cullowhee.
Next year, Jackson County voters will get to decide on the issue of countywide alcohol sales. Only two counties in the mountains, Buncombe and Clay, currently allow the sale of beer, wine or liquor outside town limits. Henderson County voters, like Jackson residents, get to vote on the issue next year.
A majority of Jackson County commissioners confirmed last week that they plan to put the question to voters on the ballot next year, either during the May primary or the November election.
The area of the county most likely to experience profound changes if the referendum passes is Cullowhee. Before his retirement earlier this summer, then Chancellor John Bardo pushed for the neighboring Village of Forest Hills to annex part of campus, vote in the sale of alcoholic beverages, and help him create an actual college town where students could find more to do at night than get a tattoo.
Because these days, unless they head up the road to Sylva, a tattoo parlor is about the only thing open near campus past 9 p.m.
“Exactly — that’s it,” said Philip Price, a nursing student from Raleigh and a rising junior. “But I don’t really care. I’m not too much of a drinker.”
Neither is Perry Fotopoulos, an environmental health major with a concentration in pre-med, who hails from nearby Franklin. In fact, Fotopoulos doesn’t drink at all. But he believes that it’s unrealistic to think most students won’t drink, because most do — “and it would be a little safer” if they didn’t have to drive to imbibe at a bar, Fotopoulos said.
That’s important to Eileen Calvert, too, who for the last 15 years or so has been busy giving students and faculty at WCU haircuts at her Cullowhee salon, Hairport.
“It’s ridiculous they don’t have beer here,” Calvert said, who lived for a time in Athens, Ga., where there is an active and vibrant campus nightlife for students at the University of Georgia to experience. “And, it’s inconvenient you can’t buy it here. There would be a lot less leaving this community to party if there were beer, and it would keep money here in our own town.”
In what promises to become an increasingly expensive proposition, county taxpayers must now pick up the tab for cleaning up illegal methamphetamine labs.
The federal government notified states in February that it would no longer pay for such clean ups, which involve dangerous, potentially explosive, chemicals and toxic residue. The state covered the cost for a while, but after spending about $165,000 to clean up some 50 labs in North Carolina in the past six months, the state has spent all it wants to and will now place the burden on counties.
More than 230 meth labs were discovered and destroyed in North Carolina last year; Jackson County destroys between one and nine of the illegal labs a year.
Jackson County this week got stuck with its first meth-lab bill.
In this case, the bill was estimated to come to just $1,500, but that’s because the meth lab deputies busted was a particularly primitive operation. Some cleanups downstate of “superlabs” have cost as much as $20,000, according to news reports.
The lab operators were using a makeshift method recently developed called “shake-and-bake,” said Lt. Shannon Queen of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, in which the ingredients are mixed in soda bottles. This can pose great potential dangers, because the shaken chemicals are highly volatile.
During a discussion at a Jackson County meeting this week, Commissioner Doug Cody worried aloud about the possibility of a “huge cleanup” in the future, and the potential cost to a county unprepared for such a financial blow. Queen said that law enforcement and prosecutors routinely seek restitution, but “as the saying goes, you really can’t get blood from a turnip.”
In other words, getting money out of convicted drug dealers could prove an uphill battle for local governments.
Queen said deputies received an anonymous tip late last week that resulted in the bust. Following the lead, they set up surveillance at the bottom of Greens Creek Road on July 29, and discovered Keisha Leigh Maki, 25, of Granite Falls, and Billy Ray Davis, 54 of Waynesville, according to a news release from the sheriff’s department.
The couple was hunkered in the weeded area near where Greens Creek goes into a culvert and crosses under U.S. 441. Queen told commissioners this week that the two were using creek water as part of their meth-cooking cooling process.
Whenever local officers breakup a meth lab, a hazardous-materials mitigation team must come and remove the chemicals involved, and everyone involved — officers and suspects — go through decontamination.
Maki and Davis were both charged with manufacturing methamphetamine, trafficking, possessing precursors for methamphetamine, conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine and possession of drug paraphernalia. Both were being held early this week under $100,000 bonds. Their first court date on the charges was scheduled for Aug. 16.
That the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in Graham County isn’t what it once was is true — the large hemlocks are dying or dead, victim of the hemlock wooly adelgid, a tiny insect that is changing the landscape of Western North Carolina as profoundly as the chestnut blight once did.
But most of the poplars still tower, more than 100 feet tall and 15- to 20-feet in circumference. And to Graham County native and retired U.S. Forest Service Ranger Marshall McClung, Joyce Kilmer is still a rare and beautiful place.
Despite the loss of giant hemlocks and even some of the giant poplars being broken in storms, the trek to Graham County is well worth the effort, McClung said. Around 40,000 people come each year to Joyce Kilmer to walk along its two loop trails under the towering branches.
People will gather here at the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest on July 30 to celebrate the forest’s 75th anniversary. The keynote speaker at the event will be Joyce Kilmer biographer John Covell.
After Joyce Kilmer was killed in action during World War I, veterans of the Foreign Wars asked the U.S. government to set aside a “fitting stand of trees” to serve as a living memorial to the poet and soldier. Kilmer’s best-known poem was called “Trees.”
Years passed until 1935, when a regional forester wrote the chief of the U.S. Forest Service that the forest that now makes up Joyce Kilmer was one of the “very few remaining tracts of virgin hardwood in the Appalachians ... we ought to buy it to preserve some of the forest original growth in the Appalachians.”
The next year, the U.S. Forest Service bought 13,055 acres for $28 per acre — a steep price for its day. Most of the surrounding land was logged, but the area around Little Santeetlah Creek in Graham County had been spared. It’s logging potential and the value of the giant uncut trees, made the cost higher than most tracts acquired by the forest service.
The upper loop, a three-quarter of a mile trail that swings through Poplar Cove, lives on “as a great example of an old-growth forest,” said Lauren Stull, acting district ranger for the Cheoah/Tusquitee districts of the Nantahala National Forest.
Stull, like McClung, believes Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest remains a unique and beautiful area. In addition to the massive poplar trees, McClung said in more inaccessible areas one can also admire huge basswoods and northern red oaks. Additionally, there are 400 or so Indian graves in the forest, victims of a smallpox epidemic in the 1700s, he said.
Old growth isn’t that easy to define, said Norma Ivey of Franklin, who once worked for the conservation group WNC Alliance as an old-growth expert.
It’s not just about old trees. You are really in search of a complete forest cycle, she said, explaining too that tallness is not necessarily an indicator of old.
“You want to see older trees standing, and downed, and smaller trees coming in,” Ivey said. “A rotation of your forest, a mix of trees for that specific site (by such measures as altitude and available sunlight). You want to see a forest that’s being turned over.”
But when it comes to old and tall, Joyce Kilmer is certainly a crowned jewel.
“The big trees are still very impressive,” said Ivey, who visited Joyce Kilmer again a year or so ago after a many-year absence from the forest. “It’s worth going to see them.”
Want to go?
A day of festivities honoring the 75th anniversary of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest will be held Saturday, July 30. Activities will center around the Rattler Ford Group Camp. Parking attendants will direct traffic, and shuttles will run throughout the day to get people around the event area. Bring a lawn chair.
• Guided tours of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest throughout the day.
• Booths and exhibits by Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards demonstrations of primitive forest tools and care for the land, The Wilderness Society, N.C. Agricultural Extension Service, American Chestnut Foundation, U.S. Forest Service, Partners of the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness, Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians with children’s activities and dances, National Wild Turkey Federation N.C. Forest Service.
• Homecoming for all present and former Cheoah Ranger District employees and volunteers throughout the years at 10 a.m.
• Formal rededication ceremony of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest at 1 p.m. Speakers include U.S. Rep Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville; Principal Chief Michell Hicks, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; Kevin Anton, Alcoa’s chief sustainability officer; and the keynote speech by John Covell, author of “Joyce Kilmer: A Literary Biography.” Participation by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and descendents of Joyce Kilmer.
• Bluegrass music by Robbinsville’s “Britthaven Bunch” at 2 p.m.
• Lunch plates will be served by the Robbinsville Lions Club, with baked goods from the volunteers of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library Initiative in Graham County.
• A 5K and 10K road race and 1-mile fun run will be held at 8 a.m. from the Avey Branch Boat Launch.
In her teachings, Buddhist nun Pema Chodron often relates a story about a great spiritual teacher, Atisha, who planned a trip from India to Tibet. Atisha was told the people of Tibet were good-natured, pleasant and wonderful to be with. This worried Atisha, who feared he’d have no one to provoke him and show him where he needed to train. So Atisha brought along with him a mean-tempered, unpleasant Bengali tea boy.
Chodron says the Tibetans like to finish out the story by joking that when Atisha actually arrived in Tibet, he found plenty of irritating people to show him his faults — he needn’t have brought the Bengali tea boy at all.
The Bengali tea boy has become my mental symbol for those times I’m dealing with an irritating person. I’m not advanced enough in spiritual ways to embrace the concept that we should, as Chodron goes on to urge, “be grateful to everyone.” But I do feel confident that she is correct in maintaining that we create — and re-create — identical situations involving different people throughout our life until we learn to break our habitual patterns.
In that way, I can understand that we should all give thanks to the jerks in our life. They help us, you see, to find out where we are stuck. And hopefully, to make meaningful changes that increase our own happiness.
Though, honestly, sometimes I can’t help but wonder if I might just be someone else’s Bengali tea boy.
Hands down, giving up cigarette smoking was the most difficult personal change I’ve ever undertaken. I loved smoking, so of course it became outsized in my life, in the way that I overdo anything and everything that I like. And things I dislike, for that matter. I tend to avoid uncomfortable situations with equal vigor.
I didn’t just smoke a little, I smoked a couple packs a day — a cigarette in every orifice, one friend joked as he saw me inhale and exhale my way through smoke after smoke.
A drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other; I sure was a cool chick in my 20s. When I hit my mid-30s, however, I realized that I couldn’t run 100 feet without wheezing and gasping, and I didn’t feel so cool anymore. In fact, I generally felt bad and unhealthy and as if I might not live anywhere near a ripe old age.
So I quit. And I haven’t smoked a cigarette since, because I seriously doubt I could muster up the necessary willpower to go through quitting again. So I don’t play games by taking “just a puff” or anything like that — sometimes it pays to recognize just how weak-willed you are.
So I was covering something for the newspaper this past week when I got into the oddest talk with someone. And that person surprised me with their sudden gentleness and support, because we were discussing drinking and I mentioned I’d quit that, too, and they immediately offered unreserved, unhesitating support (this is not as inappropriate a subject to have gotten into talking about as it sounds — you’ll have to trust me when I say that it fit into that particular conversation at that particular moment).
For much of my life I’ve been skeptical of people’s basic goodness. It’s nice to find myself so continually wrong.
Scientists now believe the brain is amazingly fluid; that it keeps changing no matter our age. They call this neuroplasticity. The brain can remake itself structurally and functionally if only given new information. Findings about neuroplasticity defy earlier beliefs about human development. Until relatively recently, scientists and those concerned with behavior and the human mind believed our brains pretty much quit developing after early childhood.
I find this research on the plasticity of the brain good news indeed, and it probably goes a long way toward explaining how I was able to successfully quit smoking and drinking. Here’s my undoubtedly overly simplistic version of neuroplasticity: new habits create new brain pathways if you just hang in there long enough. This plasticity of the brain, or so I’m fervently hoping, also applies to our relationships — refrain from responding in a habitual fashion, and eventually we create entirely new ways of relating and being. In this way, you see, we all can be somewhat thankful, at least, to our Bengali tea boys — they give us practice in remaking our brains each time they do something irritating and we respond differently than we have before.
I believe it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean I embrace abusive relationships, or endorse passivity — far from it. The truth, however, is that I could afford to be a little more passive and less aggressive in my dealings with those people who push my buttons.
I’m finding it very helpful to believe the jerks in my life are, perhaps, actually there for a reason; and that I can use their jerkiness, as it were, to further my own happiness.
It’s a typical late afternoon weekday in Hollifield Jewelers on Main Street in Sylva, with four or five customers in the store at one time.
Busy — just the way owner Steve Dennis likes it. But that busyness, the marks of lifeblood in both a store and any downtown district, is posing some problems in Jackson County’s largest town.
Parking — and as difficult an issue as that can be anywhere in any Western North Carolina municipality, there’s an added element of danger to Sylva’s Main Street that is missing in neighboring Waynesville, Bryson City and Franklin.
The diagonal parking on Main Street, with its two lanes of one-way traffic, requires a leap of faith, especially when driving a small car parked beside, say, an SUV for example.
When it’s time to leave, that’s when the fun begins: Back out blindly and hope another vehicle in the process doesn’t smash you in the rear. Or ask a passenger to risk their physical wellbeing by standing in the road to ensure your safety — but not theirs — while backing the car.
Police Chief Davis Woodard doesn’t like the lay-out one little bit. He figures there’s a smashup about once every two weeks. Given the situation, the chief said it’s somewhat inexplicable why there aren’t fender-benders, or worse, 50 or more times a day.
“If you just stand there and watch, it’s amazing there aren’t more,” Woodard said.
The problem isn’t a simple one to solve, though town leaders are trying to sort out what best to do. Commissioner Ray Lewis has suggested angling the parking spaces more deeply, as is done in Franklin. That means, however, losing some 20 to 25 percent of parking on Main Street, according to what Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower has learned from the state Department of Transportation.
“We can’t afford that,” said Holly Hooper, co-owner of Black Rock Outdoor Company. “It is hard to back out, but we just can’t lose any more spaces.”
Besides, both business owners — Hollifield and Hooper — believe the problem needs to first be sorted out at a different starting point: by slowing down speeders on Main Street.
“It’s unbelievable,” Hooper said.
“It’s like they are on I-40,” Hollifield said.
Combine those speeders with motorists jostling for position, shifting from right lane to left, and shoppers backing cars out into traffic or circling endlessly around town looking for parking … oh yes, don’t forget the jaywalkers, and delivery trucks stopping to unload — that’s downtown Sylva in a nutshell these days.
But there’s also a vibrancy to the downtown, a special quality that Sylva needs to be careful not to lose, said visitors Madeline Crawford and Marti MacMillan, who both live near Clayton, Ga. The two women were returning to their vehicle after an afternoon of shopping in Sylva, their arms burdened with shopping bags.
Take away downtown parking and force people to walk any distance to shop, and you can kill a downtown and kiss much of the business goodbye, MacMillan said.
“It really hurts a town if you take away the quaintness. Then you might as well go to a mall,” the Rabun Gap resident said, emphasizing that she, for one, wouldn’t hike from a distant parking lot to shop the downtown area.
One other, quicker fix the town is leaning toward implementing: marking off the parking spaces at the back ends, as well as the sides, to eliminate vehicles longer than about 19 feet.
Tom Rodgers of the Caney Fork community drives a big Ford F-250, exactly 20 feet long (he knows that because, being a careful man, he measured before building a garage). He elected one day this week to park in a nearby parking lot and walk across Main Street to Vance Hardware — both because he knows his truck would be difficult for motorists in smaller cars to see around if he used a street space, and because the back few feet of his truck would jut into traffic. Rodgers wasn’t eager to have a passing car clip the back end.
But not everyone is as thoughtful, or self-considerate of the back end of their vehicles, as Rodgers, so the size-marking of parking spaces on Main Street looks to become a certainty, based on recent meetings of the town’s commission board.
Chief Woodard is also getting ready to interview, then hire, a foot-patrol officer for the downtown, something Sylva has lacked since the late Officer Joe Frigo (fondly dubbed “Officer Friendly” by Sylva residents) retired in December 2003.
The new Officer Friendly will be tasked with enforcing Sylva’s relatively recent rule forbidding merchants and their workers from parking in the prime spaces downtown, and generally providing an official reminder for motoring civility in the downtown area.
Voters in Jackson County will get to decide next year whether to allow alcohol sales countywide.
Four of the county’s five commissioners told The Smoky Mountain News this week they would support an alcohol referendum. The commissioners have not publicly discussed the issue yet, nor formally voted to put the measure on the ballot, but have confirmed their intention to do so.
“To me personally, alcohol sales mean nothing at all,” said Debnam, the driving force on the board behind the upcoming referendum. “But we’re going to give the people a choice.”
Still to be decided is whether the vote will be held in conjunction with the May primary or during November’s general election.
In Western North Carolina, only Buncombe and Clay counties currently allow alcohol sales countywide. Henderson County residents will vote on the issue in the May primary.
SEE ALSO: Poll results bode well for supporters of countywide alcohol sales in Jackson
Chairman Jack Debnam, and Commissioners Doug Cody, Charles Elders and Mark Jones said they would support the referendum. Joe Cowan did not return a phone message before press time seeking comment.
“We live in a democracy,” Cody said simply, on why he is throwing his support behind the referendum.
Currently, Sylva and Dillsboro have a corner on the market when it comes to alcohol. Given the long trek down twisty, narrow roads from Cashiers, its not surprising residents and businesses there are among the most eager to usher in countywide alcohol.
“I think it would be super for the economy of the Cashiers area,” said Sally Eason, owner of Canyon Kitchen restaurant at Lonesome Valley in Sapphire.
Restaurants could expect to see a boost to their bottom line — as will waitresses who get tipped based on a percentage of the bill — if alcohol hits the menus.
Diners will not only spend more, but will be more likely to go out in the first place, Eason said.
Now, people who want a glass of wine or a pint with their meal might opt to stay home and knock back a few while grilling out on the deck instead. But the absence of beer and wine from grocery store shelves is probably most irritating to those who don’t live close to Sylva — and even more so to second-home owners and vacationers bowled over by the concept of a dry county.
“A lot of our guests are from Atlanta, Charlotte or Knoxville. They have been a little a surprised at that. It is a turn off,” said George Ware, owner of The Chalet Inn bed and breakfast in Whittier.
Although Ware said he personally wouldn’t start serving up Mimosas with breakfast even if legally allowed to, Ware does believe a countywide vote is a good idea.
“I am happy to hear it is being considered. I think people should have the opportunity to vote on it,” Ware said.
Then there’s Cullowhee
A nod by voters to alcohol sales countywide could bring profound changes to Cullowhee, in particular. Western Carolina University lacks the typical array of bars and restaurants found in most college towns. But that’s because Cullowhee is not actually a town, and thus is dry like the rest of the county.
Curt Collins, who went to WCU and is now owner of Avant Garden, a community-based farm and event venue in Cullowhee, said alcohol is needed to spur economic development around campus, making Cullowhee a more vibrant community, and help create the college town other university’s take for granted.
“It would create a better atmosphere for new businesses and existing business who serve food and have entertainment,” Collins said. “There is so much evidence to show that will increase the local economy. It will create new business opportunities, and those will put people to work, and increase people moving their money around.”
To solve the problem of no alcohol, Former Chancellor John Bardo crafted a complex plan. He wanted the tiny nearby town of Forest Hills to first legalize alcohol sales and then expand its town limits to include parts of campus, hopefully paving the way for a vibrant college scene to spring up. He also wanted the Fine and Performing Arts Center and the sports stadium to be part of Forest Hills, so alcohol could be sold at events there as well.
Those plans have foundered with Bardo’s leaving, but are still percolating behind the scenes.
Countywide legal alcohol sales would likely make the issue moot, however.
SEE ALSO: The historical perspective: who’s dry, who’s wet
Jeannette Evans, owner of the Mad Batter Bakery & Café on “The Catwalk” near the center of WCU, said she strongly supports a referendum. But, ironically, she isn’t sure that she could, even if the referendum passes, legally sell alcoholic beverages at the popular Cullowhee establishment because the university owns the building.
“But it’s the right thing to let people vote on it,” Evans said.
Fears of chain restaurants flooding into Cullowhee if alcoholic beverage sales become legalized in the county are legitimate concerns for such buy-local proponents as Adam Bigelow. The recent WCU graduate and member of CuRvE, a group working to revitalize old Cullowhee, said that there were similar fears about Sylva when the sale of mixed drinks were legalized.
“But that really didn’t happen,” Bigelow said. “But, if they could go to Cullowhee and find a readymade thirsty market, that could be a problem.”
Still, overall, Bigelow supports the concept of legalizing alcohol sales throughout Jackson County as part of building the community’s economy.
Collins said it would just be more convenient if people didn’t have to drive to Sylva to buy a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer.
“Students want to be able to walk or ride their bikes to the bar,” Collins said. It would be safer and reduce possible drunk driving between Sylva and Cullowhee by students.
Help everyone but Sylva?
Meanwhile, however, Haley Milner, co-owner of Soul Infusion Tea House and Bistro in Sylva, gets a lot of customers filtering down the road from Western College University. And on weekends, live bands clearly cater to that college crowd.
If new restaurants and bars opened in Cullowhee, Milner could lose some of that business, but said she would still support countywide alcohol sales. Besides, Soul Infusion might just move closer to campus.
“There is also the possibility that we could move out there ourselves,” Milner said.
Milner said her food is the top draw for clients, not beer and wine, but alcohol sales are important to the bottom line. And giving up that piece of revenue is a strike against moving to Cullowhee without it.
Although Sylva establishments might lose a little business if other restaurants serving alcohol cropped up around the county, the town of Sylva likewise would lose some of its ABC revenue.
The town runs the only liquor store in the county right now. Debnam said he would like to see a liquor store in Cashiers, another measure that would have to be included on the ballot and approved by voters.
“Obviously it would impact us greatly. We wouldn’t have the monopoly we have right now,” said Kevin Pennington, chairman of the Sylva ABC board. “If that’s what the commissioners want to do and what the people of Jackson County want to do, that is their total prerogative.”
Sylva’s ABC store netted $360,000 last year. The town split the proceeds with the county. Of the town’s share, a portion is reserved for the police department and the swimming pool, but the majority — about $130,000 a year — goes straight into the general budget to spend on whatever town leaders please.
Putting an ABC store in Cashiers might hurt Sylva’s sales some. But doing so would at least keep more of the money from liquor sales in Jackson County.
And Commissioner Mark Jones believes the amount gained could be substantial.
As it stands now, he said, Highlands in Macon County and Transylvania County capture a share of the Cashiers market, as does neighboring Georgia, draining both sales tax revenue and ABC profits away from Jackson. And many second-home owners have likely gotten in the habit of buying in their home state or town before they come to the mountains.
Jones is also bothered by what he considers the unfairness of certain private clubs in the area being able to legally sell alcohol while other establishments cannot. There are loopholes in the law for private clubs or restaurants tied to a golf course, development or resort.
Several in Cashiers have capitalized on the arrangement, but they still have to buy their liquor from the lone ABC store in Sylva, logging weekly trips down the mountain to get their stock.
“It is a two hour roundtrip, and you are putting that on top of the cost of the product,”
Time will tell
Ultimately, it’s simply up to the county’s just more than 40,000 residents to decide, the commissioners interviewed said, and to argue the pros and cons of their decision.
“Nobody can tell me the last time Jackson County had an opportunity to vote on the issue,” Jones said. “It’s only fair to put it out to the people.”
Commissioner Elders, arguably the most traditional member of the board, said he expects some backlash to his and the board’s decision from more conservative members of the community. But, like Jones, he said that he believes it’s important that citizens be allowed to make a decision.
“The fairest way of doing anything is to put it out there,” said Elders, who owns and manages a gasoline station near Whittier on U.S. 23/74. “And let the people decide.”
How the ballot would work
It might sound simple enough, but a vote over alcohol sales isn’t a plain yes or no question. At least not to the state of North Carolina.
Voters in Jackson County may face an arsenal of questions as they wade through exactly what form of imbibing should be allowed and where. Beer, wine, liquor — or all of the above? At grocery stores and gas stations, or only sit-down restaurants? And what about a liquor store?
“If they do everything at one time, it could be a very lengthy ballot,” said Lisa Lovedahl-Lehman, director of the Jackson County Board of Elections.
County voters will face a separate question for each type of alcohol and each way it could be sold.
Most towns that allow alcohol sales have warmed up to the idea gradually: first putting beer and wine to the test, later opening an ABC store for the public, but only recently voting in the sale of liquor drinks by bars and restaurants.
The mix of what’s allowed and what’s not can take many forms.
Dillsboro, for example, allows only beer and wine and only at restaurants. No mixed drinks, and no over-the-counter sales by gas stations or grocery stores.
The towns of Highlands and Franklin for years allowed wine, but not beer.
Meanwhile, Waynesville opened a liquor store for the public in 1967, but more than 40 years passed before you could buy a liquor drink at a bar or restaurant.
There are two ways to get an alcohol referendum on the ballot. One is a petition from 35 percent of the registered voters, a highly ambitious prospect.
The other is a vote by county commissioners to place it on the ballot.
Community colleges in the crosshairs: Merging colleges could save money, but erode meaning for county
Local and state leaders in Western North Carolina are vigorously opposing a cost-savings plan to consolidate administrations of 15 of the state’s smallest community colleges, including those of Haywood Community College and Southwestern Community College.
A joint state legislative committee on government efficiency has recommended merging the leadership of community colleges with fewer than 3,000 fulltime students. The group said this would save taxpayers about $5 million a year.
“I’m still not clear in my own mind about what exactly we are try to accomplish through this, except to save a little bit on administration,” said Bill Upton, a Haywood County commissioner and a retired educator of 38 years. “But what is it going to cost? Ultimately, I think it would be the staff and students who would suffer.”
Scott Ralls, president of the state’s community college system, agreed with Upton, saying what isn’t clear on a simple spreadsheet “is the role of community in community colleges.”
SEE ALSO: Are community colleges efficient?
“HCC, for example, is the best community college in the nation — for Haywood County,” Ralls said in an interview last week at Haywood Community College. He was in town for a meeting of the state’s community college presidents.
Over the decades, counties and schools such as Haywood County and HCC have together created this community-unique college, Ralls said, with the programs and the instructors tailored to fit the needs of Haywood County’s residents. Start lumping the leadership of various community colleges together, and you risk destroying what is arguably one of the best community college systems in the U.S., he said.
“The nature of these colleges would not be as colleges anymore, but as the campuses of other colleges,” Ralls said.
Any potential savings would be negated by the heavy toll, in terms of the loss of its colleges, to the communities involved, Ralls said.
HCC President Rose Johnson serves as an example of what intricate roles a community college leader plays in the lives of residents. Johnson became president of HCC in January 2006.
She helped start a green initiative through the chamber. She has volunteered on the elk project in Cataloochee Valley. And Johnson has worked directly with local businesses such as Evergreen Packaging to tailor employee training.
President Ralls said the smaller, rural colleges listed in the report for consolidation provide education and training in 36 counties with an average unemployment rate of 11 percent, compared to the current state average of 9.7 percent. They include nearly half of the state’s 40 most economically depressed counties.
Additionally, 23 percent of the funding for the state community college systems comes now via the support of local county commission boards.
On a practical level, Ralls said, how willing will those community leaders be to keep chipping in dollars if local control is jerked away?
Local support could erode, but savings could mount
Probably not very willing at all, said Conrad Burrell, chairman of Southwestern Community College’s Board of Trustees and a former Jackson County commissioner.
“The state’s system was created to serve the needs of the community, and this would be taking away from the community,” Burrell said. “We’re all different, with each of our colleges responding to the differences in the communities. I feel this would be detrimental, and it would be wrong.”
But on paper, and given the difficult economic times, the proposal would appear to have merits. Additionally, SCC seems to exist as a perfect model of how multiple counties actually can be served — and served very well indeed — by a centralized administration. SCC is headquartered in Sylva, with facilities in Macon, Swain, Cashiers and on the Cherokee Indian Reservation.
Twenty community colleges in North Carolina, such as SCC, already currently serve more than one county.
“The high level of local control that allows colleges leeway in how they implement administrative structures and activities is staunchly supported by college administrators, but it reduces the efficiency of the colleges and the system office,” the report notes. “Back-office functions — administrative activities that do not necessarily require face-to-face interactions, such as payroll or receiving — are performed at every college, resulting in 58 iterations of each activity.”
It’s cheaper per student, too, the larger the college, with the report finding that cost ranged from $447 to $1,679 for each student. As for administrative costs at colleges with fewer than 3,000 fulltime students, the cost per student averaged $983; this compared with $647 at larger institutions.
“Larger colleges benefited from economies of scale,” the report notes.
The mergers would involve combining the administrations of two or more colleges into one, creating a multi-campus college. The government group suggested such functions such as senior administration, financial services, human resources, public information, institutional information and information technology could merge.
In turn, the newly merged administration would determine the staff needed at each campus to ensure smooth operations of the college.
The State Board of Community Colleges would be responsible for determining the actual number of mergers based on the groupings of colleges selected. The government group noted that, assuming each merger involves two schools within 30 miles of each other, at least one of which is a small school, there would be 15 mergers. However, the system could opt to merge three or more schools to create one multi-campus college under the recommendation.
Not so fast
But those educators actually working in the state community college system warn to look deeper.
“If you’re just materialistic in looking at the numbers, maybe it looks good,” said Donald Tomas, who became SCC’s president just at the beginning of this month. “SCC is sitting at 2,800 students right now, with double-digit growth (over the past few years) — are they projecting all this out a few years?”
An apparent lack of projecting into the future contained in the report, and of getting into the nitty-gritty of the numbers actually used to compile the recommendations, is what Tomas said disturbs him the most when he looks at such sweeping recommendations.
“What is the criteria that they are using?” he said. “If you just look at the savings it all sounds good. Until, that is, you get behind the scenes and really try to understand what they are looking at.”
Tomas seems to make a valid point: the report, one that if adopted would make irrevocable changes in the name of saving dollars to North Carolina’s community college system, is just 32 pages in length. It does not assess the rapid growth currently being experienced by the state’s community colleges and how that will play out in the future, nor does it discuss more abstract concepts, including whether there would be continuing local funding support if the recommendations were adopted.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the community college system in North Carolina: The state’s community colleges serve some 243,854 fulltime students, with enrollment over the past few years (since the recession started) increasing by 28 percent, with no drop in numbers anticipated, according to President Ralls.
Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten, who served as the vice chancellor of administration and finance for Western Carolina University before retiring after a 30-year career as an educator, said he believes there are too many unanswered questions to take such a huge gamble for relatively small apparent gain.
“Obviously, the identity with a local community college is important to each county and its citizens,” Wooten said in an email. “I believe commissioners will not be as interested in allocating funds for a community college if the local identity is lost. Certainly, there are some efficiencies to be gained by eliminating duplicative administrative positions; however, the local county will be impacted by losing jobs.”
Johnson, president of HCC, believes merging colleges — say, HCC and SCC, though the report doesn’t specify particular mergers, only in broad terms merging the ones that are “too” small — would be bitter pills for the communities being pinpointed to swallow. Each community pushed for a community college, usually provided the land needed for the colleges, handed over many dollars over the years, and have taken enormous satisfaction in the colleges that were built.
“I believe it would remove the pride of having a higher-education institution, that was created by the community and sustained by the community for all these years,” Johnson said. “I believe the greatest danger is of losing that community involvement.”
Thom Brooks, SCC’s vice president for instruction and student services, also believes consolidating college administrations would have serious local consequences.
“Our success as a community college is directly attributable to responsive local leadership that ensures that we meet the unique needs of our students and communities in a timely and effective manner,” Brooks said in an email. “I am unaware of many models where education is enhanced through added bureaucracy and long-distance decision making.”
N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, said he’ll oppose any move to merge community colleges, terming the report “pennywise and pound foolish.”
“It is a bad idea,” Rapp said, “and it would undercut local autonomy.”
That said, Rapp also emphasized the report points out some areas for increased efficiencies in the state community college system, particularly through combined purchasing power.
President Ralls said there has been movement in that direction, and noted that in recent months the community college system has sought private-sector advice on saving money through collaborative purchasing.
Ralls said while he did not want to dismiss the importance of potentially saving $5 million a year, the truth is the potential savings through mergers represent just .04 percent of an overall education budget of $11.9 billion.
He wrote in summation to the Program Evaluation Division’s recommendation that compiled the recommendations, “I would hope that there may be several places state leaders would want to look first before tackling the costs, both tangible and intangible, that would come through such a drastic change to our state, our citizens’ access to education, our communities and our colleges.”
A new strategic plan for Western Carolina University will include ideas and voices from the local community, new Chancellor David Belcher promised Jackson County’s town and county leaders.
In a wide-ranging address at a breakfast gathering held late last week at the county’s senior center, Belcher spoke on themes of cooperation, partnership and engagement. He said Jackson County’s residents could rely on him and his wife, Susan, to be visible and active members of the community.
“You are going to see us out in the community because we want to be part of the community,” said Belcher, who started in his new role July 1. “We know that WCU does not exist in a vacuum. We are a part of Jackson County, and Jackson County is a part of us. Whatever we do, we need to do together. We don’t want you to consider us that monster down the street. We want you to consider us part of you.”
Belcher took over from Chancellor John Bardo, who retired this summer after 16 years in the top university post. Belcher came to Cullowhee after serving as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Strategic planning will start this fall and take up to a year to complete. The new chancellor is familiar with the process: he completed two such plans for the University of Arkansas, one just a few days before he made the move to Western North Carolina.
“My planning processes never stop at the edge of campus,” Belcher said. “We must go out into the community to get input from our external partners. We want our community partners talking with our people on campus about their vision for the university. …We take this very seriously, because you have as much at stake in the university as we do.”
The relationship between WCU and Jackson County at large could be described as strained at best.
Bardo, though he took steps during his long tenure to strengthen ties with the surrounding community, at times came in for criticism on that point, too: for not participating in day-to-day local affairs, for being absent on important political issues taking place in the university’s home county of Jackson and, most often heard, for reportedly spending much of his time at a second home in Raleigh.
Despite his critics, Bardo took some concrete measures. With Sylva, for example, by bringing WCU’s homecoming parade back to downtown in 1996 — it had pulled out in the mid-1950s.
Danny Allen, a Sylva commissioner, said the relationship between the town and WCU is very important, and that the two entities “could both benefit the other.” Allen said he believes the student population at WCU is a great, untapped economic resource for Jackson County, and that he’d specifically like to see a small shopping outlet built that targets the 9,000 student-body population.
It will take work to improve the relationship between WCU and the greater community, which has “been bad at times,” said Suzanne Stone. Owner of the Cullowhee restaurant Rolling Stone Burrito and a member of the Village of Forest Hill’s town board,
Stone said she was optimistic about Belcher, saying he seems sincere in his efforts to improve relationships off campus. Stone said the new chancellor responded within 10 minutes to a welcoming email sent from a collection of business owners along what’s known as “The Catwalk” in Cullowhee, a gesture she said she and the others on the strip greatly appreciated.
Stone said the business owners are specifically interested in developing some kind of card for students to encourage them to patronize local businesses. The CatCard, the official WCU identification card, also serves as students’ meal-plan card through Aramark Dining Services, so that’s not a viable option for other establishments.
“We, too, want to talk about developing a relationship,” Stone said of Belcher, “and we would love to talk with him about the future of Western and our role going forward.”
What about that Town Center?
Bardo drew the ire of some local business owners and buy-local proponents by pushing for franchise-type establishments to come into Cullowhee.
Belcher, in a separate interview with The Smoky Mountain News, said “my own preferences are for the unique,” and that he has “no predisposed feelings about building this campus community with a bunch of chains.”
Still, that’s what must be decided during a visioning process that he’s promising will include people from the community, Belcher said.
Bardo had developed a schematic and vision for a 35-acre commercial development on campus he called “Town Center.” Bardo pictured a built-from-scratch college town with buildings that would be leased to restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores and even a specialty-style grocery store.
The new chancellor did emphasize that targeting specific businesses and exact enterprises for recruitment falls outside what he considers the purview of his job as WCU’s top leader.
Also up for debate is the role of Forest Hill, a small town across the highway from campus, in the plans for Town Center.
Bardo had asked leaders of Forest Hills to expand its town limits to include the property where Town Center would be built. The major reason: to allow businesses populating the new Town Center to sell alcohol. Alcohol sales currently aren’t allowed in Cullowhee, since the county is dry and Cullowhee isn’t its own town.
But Forest Hills is, and Bardo saw it as, the ticket for Town Center’s development. He wanted Forest Hills to legalize alcohol sales, then annex the site for Town Center, paving the way for the type of restaurants and bars usually associated with a college campus.
The university might no longer have a need for Forest Hill’s help, however. County commissioners have announced plans to hold a countywide vote on whether to legalize alcohol sales across the county in 2012. (See story on page 10.)
Clark Corwin, a council member for Forest Hills, said the small, incorporated village located cheek to cheek with WCU “backed off” the project once Bardo announced his resignation. The town has scheduled a retreat at the end of September to conduct its own visioning process, Corwin said.
Belcher, for his part, said he’s not yet “in any position at this point to throw any of those ideas out, or embrace them.”
Want to meet the new chancellor?
Western Carolina University Chancellor David Belcher will meet with alumni and friends from Jackson County from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 2, in the new Jackson County Public Library in Sylva.
It is the first stop on a “get acquainted tour” that will take WCU’s new chief executive officer to 15 stops during a four-month span, from Cherokee and Bryson City to Atlanta and Charlotte.
For two decades, the Little Tennessee Watershed Association in Franklin has been monitoring the health of the river’s water basin from north Georgia to Fontana Lake.
Last week, the group released a State of the Streams report, showcasing both its work and what has been found over the years, particularly the trends from 2002 through 2010. The unveiling took place at a noon luncheon of the Macon County League of Women Voters in Franklin, with about 30 people in attendance.
Overall in the upper Little Tennessee River watershed, two worrisome points stand out, according to the report. Monitoring of threatened and endangered species in the mainstream below Franklin suggests that the decline of native mussels is long term and not just cyclical; and a fish species, the Wounded Darter, has almost completely disappeared from the Cullasaja River.
The good news? The most significant development was the closing in 2006 of the Fruit of the Loom plant in Rabun Gap, Ga., which the group said accounted for more than 95 percent of the total permitted industrial discharges to the entire watershed.
While the closing was hard on those whose livelihoods were dependent on the plant (30 percent of the workforce was from Macon County), benefits were almost immediately visible in the downstream ecosystem. This included the recovery of riverweed, an aquatic plant of the Little Tennessee.
Additionally, in Highlands, macroinvertebrates from Mill Creek are showing slow but continual recovery following the late 1990s shutdown of the Highlands sewer plant.
The condition of the river in the now-protected Needmore area (since 1999) also suggests that positive actions have, at the very least, “counterbalanced” negative trends. The Needmore tract, purchased from Duke Energy to protect it from development through a combination of private and public funding, has been under management by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission since 2002.
“Thirteen miles of free-flowing river, no houses or bridges — that’s a pretty unique thing in this part of the world. It’s a really exceptional piece of river,” Bill McLarney, an aquatic biologist who has studied the Little Tennessee River and its tributaries for at least two decades, said of the Needmore stretch of the Little Tennessee River.
Additionally, “we are relatively blessed that we don’t have a lot of point-source pollution,” McLarney said. “Habitat modification and sedimentation is the biggest problem here … that’s what we need to focus the most attention on if we want to see healthier streams.”
Jason Meador, the watershed program coordinator for the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, said the group focuses on a “holistic approach.” The staff and the many volunteers involved don’t just study fish, they also look at and study everything involved in a healthy watershed.
That’s also involved restoration projects, such as taking out culverts and replacing them with bridges, such as the group did on Bradley Creek. The culverts — essentially places where a stream is forced into a giant pipe to pass under a road — often block fish from being able to travel freely up and down tributaries, particularly if the culvert is crumbling, Meador said.
Additionally, the culverts often can’t handle big storm flows, flushing excess sediment.
Where is the Little Tennessee watershed?
The upper Little Tennessee watershed covers 450 square miles of forests, fields, towns and communities in the heart of the Southern Appalachians.
With headwaters in Rabun County, Georgia at the confluence of Billy and Keener creeks, the Little Tennessee River flows north and northwest for 55 miles, unimpeded for its entire length except for Porters Bend Dam, which forms the relatively tiny (250 acre) Lake Emory in the town of Franklin. Before reaching Lake Emory, the river makes its way through a flat, wide valley, dropping less than 50 feet of elevation in more than 10 miles of channel length. Here, the valley is defined by the Nantahala mountains to the west and the Fishhawk mountains and Blue Ridge escarpment to the east.
The stretch of the river between Lake Emory and Fontana Lake is one of the highest quality rivers in the Southern Appalachians, making it unique among the Blue Ridge rivers to have escaped much of the industrial pollution that has degraded so many other rivers in the region, according to the Little Tennessee Watershed Association.
Out running early this morning, I was struck by the colors of summer found in the fields along Fairview Road in Sylva. Purple clover, the unique blue of chicory, Queen Anne’s lace providing intermittent touches of white — the fields are lovelier than the most carefully designed perennial garden.
British gardener Mirabel Osler, in her book of essays A Gentle Plea for Chaos, calls on us to intentionally seek wildness in our own gardens. Osler appeals for “controlled disorder,” a pairing of words I like very much indeed.
But controlled disorder can be harder to achieve than one might think.
That’s because it involves risk. And it requires creative ability, and ways of seeing that not all of us have been equally blessed with. All of us, however, can aspire to add touches of wildness to our creations, or let others do so even when we cannot.
It is through failures that much fun comes; or at least, that’s what I’ve experienced in various life roles as gardener, musician and writer. And the occasional, seemingly out-of-the-blue flashes of success can be heady indeed. Those moments provide incentive to keep trying to reach new heights, when the words actually say what you meant, or the music sounds like you hoped it would, or the garden looks like you thought it would look — but better somehow, because there now exists something uncontrived and original. It is your own creation.
The greatest pieces of music, the finest paintings, the pieces of literature most of us consider works of genius — all are stamped with individuality and wildness.
The critic Harold Bloom described this better than I can. He wrote about “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange. … When you read a canonical work for a first time you encounter a stranger, an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfillment of expectation.”
Even in news writing there can be wildness, though we are seeing increasingly diminished willingness among journalists to take risks — failure these days can mean getting booted out of the field altogether, because there aren’t a lot of newspaper jobs out there anymore.
Several people recently have asked me whether I like writing for The Smoky Mountain News better than I liked writing for the Asheville Citizen-Times, where I spent 10 years as a regional reporter, investigative reporter and editor/manager.
The answer is complicated, but it’s directly connected to what I’m trying to write about in this column — there is more freedom with The Smoky Mountain News to experiment, and I love that. I can put a bit of controlled disorder into my writing, take risks and venture beyond my own skill level, even get a little wild. Sometimes I fail; in fact, often I fail — but I believe that failure has value. It is real, you see.
For instance, I never, ever used four-letter words in the Citizen-Times. I quoted someone using the “f” word repeatedly, however, in a recent article for The Smoky Mountain News, and I did so without feeling the least bit apologetic or ashamed. The story was shocking and the word belonged, and I was pleased everyone at the paper seemed to understand that was so.
I never used first person when writing a news article for the Citizen-Times. I don’t a lot even here, but I do if it seems right — playing the omniscient narrator sometimes grows old. Who exactly do we think we are fooling, anyway? Obviously real people write news articles, and sometimes it feels comfortable to acknowledge that truth.
I never was sarcastic, or ironic, in my news stories for the Citizen-Times. Sometimes I’m too sarcastic in articles for The Smoky Mountain News, and there have been occasions when I realize (oops, too late, it’s already been printed) that I went too far.
I’m taking risks because I told myself that this time around, I’d do things differently. It’s not about my having fun at someone’s expense, I promise you that. I decided, the moment I came back to newspapering after a three-year hiatus, that I’d write what really takes place or I’d leave the field again, and for good and forever this time.
What does that mean? Well, it means that if Commissioner Joe Blow says something stupid, I don’t cover for him anymore — he gets to look stupid in the newspaper, too. Or, if people are clearly trying to undermine or sandbag something they’ve agreed to do, I try now to spell that out, and not pretend everything made sense and everyone is getting along when, in fact, it didn’t and they aren’t.
All that said, there is much I do miss about working for a larger organization. And probably what I miss most dearly is the opportunity to work with a variety of different writers and editors, all bringing their individual creative abilities to the task at hand. I learned a lot rubbing shoulders with people who saw things differently, or had been trained in doing things another way than I had been trained.
We are a much smaller staff at The Smoky Mountain News, meaning there isn’t a lot of opportunity for being exposed to different methods of presenting, reporting or editing. By now, we all are pretty much familiar with each writer’s gee-whiz writing tricks, personal idiosyncrasies and general ways of doing things.
But there is great opportunity at this small, independently owned newspaper for an individual writer to take risks, to enjoy controlled disorder and even to be a bit strange — and for that, I’m very grateful indeed.
A dire space crunch for Sylva’s police officers has been solved.
Jackson County will give the old library building on Main Street to the town for a new police department. In return, Sylva will give the county the former chamber of commerce building on Grindstaff Cove Road.
“One hand washes the other,” Commissioner Charles Elder said in summing up the deal. “Maybe some people will think we are giving too much for a lot less from the town, but it’s not just for (Sylva’s) benefit.”
The old public library has an appraised tax value of $796,000; the former chamber of commerce building was valued at $157,560. County commissioners met with town board members Monday to discuss the trade and voted unanimously to make the deal. Commissioner Joe Cowan was absent.
Town police are strapped for space in the current police department on Allen Street. Fourteen full-time officers (soon to be 15) and three auxiliary officers share just 1,000 square feet. The old library is 6,400 square feet in size.
“We’re not trading apples for apples, I recognize that,” Commissioner Mark Jones said before endorsing the deal as ultimately beneficial to both parties involved. “Let’s help each other out.”
Commissioner Doug Cody said he had some reservations, primarily because he’d prefer to see more retail business on Main Street.
“But I think we can probably work things out since we don’t have anyone beating our doors down to get that building,” Cody said.
County Manager Chuck Wooten confirmed Jackson County hasn’t received any inquiries from anyone interested in buying the old building. The library in June moved to a new location at the historic courthouse overlooking Main Street.
“We need the space, bad,” said Harold Hensley, a Sylva town council member, who added that the swap would also be good for the town and county’s overall relationship.
Chris Matheson, a former district attorney who sits on the town board, confirmed that prisoners would not be detained in that building. As takes place currently, any prisoners detained by police will be transported immediately to the county jail at the administration building, she said.
Matheson said Sylva merchants have repeatedly requested a greater presence on Main Street by town police. In addition to the prospect of now having the department located physically there, council members also decided recently to hire a new police officer assigned to foot patrols downtown.
Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower, in a follow-up interview after the workshop, said there are already rough blueprints drafted for how the new police department would be built. She said the town’s public works department, also currently strapped for space, would probably move into the vacated police department.
Police Chief Davis Woodard described he and his officers as “just tickled,” and emphasized his gratitude for the united backing of town commissioners in helping the police department gain more space.
With hurricane season looming, Jackson County wants to remove a number of large trees that were blown over into Caney Fork Creek. Downed trees could cause a log jam in the creek, causing water to back up and overtop the banks during heavy rains, or wash downstream and slam into bridges.
County Manager Chuck Wooten said a June 15 storm caused considerable damage in the Caney Fork community, located off old Cullowhee Road between Sylva and Cullowhee.
“We’re really not sure what the extent of the damage is,” Wooten told Jackson County commissioners this week, but added that what has blown into the creek needs to be removed “before we have a situation like we had in June.”
Wooten has submitted a request to the Natural Resources Conservation Services for funding, and representatives were in Jackson County earlier this month to inspect the damage. The agency asked for an estimate on the cost of cleanup.
The county manager said Omni Pinnacle, a debris-removal company, would provide an estimate. The Natural Resources Conversation Services, if the agency agrees to do so, would pay 75 percent of the clean-up costs
Dianne Lee is one of the lucky ones — an experienced and talented stained-glass artist, she has a ready-made job to replace at least some of the income she earns at the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching in Cullowhee.
This month, NCCAT Director Elaine Franklin was forced to notify 50 percent of the teaching center’s workforce they were losing their jobs because of state budget cuts. That translates to about 30 fulltime jobs in Jackson County, plus another five to 10 at the center’s campus in Ocracoke. The annual salaries of the laid-off workers ranged from the lower end of $20,000 up to $80,000, Franklin said.
Lee was one of the victims. She has worked at NCCAT for 18 of the institution’s 25 years, helping with programs and running NCCAT’s Alumni Weekends. NCCAT provides training and development for teachers around the state, keeping them inspired and, in turn, more likely to stay in the profession.
“I’m going to make lemon out of lemonade,” said Lee, who in a lengthy phone interview sounded more worried about her colleagues’ employment prospects than her own. “I am losing sleep over them — some are scared to death.”
And, in fact, it’s not going to be easy in this harsh economic climate for the NCCAT workers to replace those state salaries and benefits. They are more likely, experts say, to join the ranks of the growing underemployed in North Carolina.
How WNC’s recession unfolded
“This thing has come in waves,” said Victor Moore of OnTrack Financial Education and Counseling, a nonprofit based in Asheville that offers consumer credit advice for North Carolina’s 18 westernmost counties.
Moore said the first wave of help seekers to come to OnTrack when the recession hit were people who basically had engaged in bad loans and were defaulting at the first hint of economic trouble. Then, the construction and building industry faltered, and threw many in the region out of work. The land speculators were next — plans to “flip” properties and make quick profits were no longer viable options, and some people with second homes were also soon in trouble.
Now, to an extent, come the underemployed, Moore said. These might be workers who find a lower paying job, but can’t bank on 40 hours a week and aren’t working up to their earning potential.
Lee, for instance, won’t necessarily start showing up in the official monthly unemployment rate, because she will be operating her business, the Stained Glass Bungalow in Waynesville.
The unemployment rate decreased in just under half of North Carolina’s 100 counties in May, which state officials attributed to a rise in seasonal employment. The state rate was 9.7 percent for that month. Jackson stood at 8.8 percent, Haywood 9 percent, Macon 9.9 percent and Swain 11.1 percent unemployment.
But those numbers fail to take into account the underemployed, a demographic Lee and her laid-off colleagues who are lucky enough to find work are likely to fit — people in WNC who lose one level of job and pay, and are forced to accept a lower level job for less pay and, often, fewer hours.
“Because they are not just going to go out and find comparable employment right now,” said Amy Grimes, director of The Community Table, a soup kitchen in Sylva. “Or, the jobs they can get pay them less than collecting unemployment, which was based on the job lost.”
A recent survey at The Community Table showed an increase in the number of people seeking help who are college educated, Grimes said.
Mark Clasby, executive director of the Haywood County Economic Development Commission, said the unemployment numbers don’t truly reveal the extent of the problem.
“They don’t include the people who have given up on the system,” Clasby said, adding that he worries about what’s coming down the pike for North Carolina.
The state budget problems might continue to compound, he said, leading to even more job losses in the local and state governmental sectors.
“It could be an even bigger problem next year,” Clasby said.
It’s all in the numbers
Franklin, head of NCCAT, gets emotional when she talks about having to lay off about half of the 82-member staff, which followed a budget cut by the state General Assembly from $6.1 million to $3.1 million.
This wasn’t about performance issues, this was about money, said Franklin.
“We’re losing good people,” Franklin said, apologizing for tearing up during the interview. “We also told them we hoped to be getting funding through grants and contracts — I hope to hire them back if we can.”
Lee said she has no bitter feelings toward NCCAT or Franklin, she just regrets losing a job she loved so much. Franklin, Lee said, did what she had to do following such drastic budget cuts.
“NCCAT is the only organization in the nation who does this sort of work for (state) teachers,” Lee said. “I cannot tell you how much it means to me.”
Lee has just two years left before she could draw full retirement benefits from the state, and she said there is a possibility that she’ll move to get the necessary time in with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
There are jobs openings to be found locally, but they pay $8.50 to $9 or so an hour, said Ann Howell, branch manager in Sylva for the N.C. Employment Security Commission. Howell went last week to NCCAT to talk with the people being laid-off.
“I try to be positive,” the 26-year agency veteran said. “You’ve got to be positive — new doors open everyday. Right now, in these times, perhaps it’s not the brightest doors, but there are some jobs out there.”
The N.C. JobConnector is a new state service that’s proving helpful, she said. It uses an automated system that matches job orders and job seekers based on job-order requirements and job-seekers’ experiences. People are alerted by email to possible employment opportunities — kind of like match.com for employers and prospective employees.
Dale West, a regional manager for the Employment Security Commission based in Macon County, said she is stunned by the impact the construction drop-off had to Western North Carolina’s overall economy, and that the waves are continuing to roll in.
“I knew the construction trade was a major force in our economy, but I’m not sure I understood how big a force it was,” she said.
The jobs lost did not come in one fell swoop, West said, but in a continuous trickle from such tangential businesses as building supply companies.
“A few from lots of different places,” she said.
West also pointed out that many of the people who work in construction or related trades can’t draw unemployment because they worked as sub-contractors, and their bosses did not have to file unemployment taxes as a result.
Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon County, doesn’t mince words: he knows perfectly well that his budding state political career is being jeopardized by his own party’s redistricting proposals.
“But it follows the state constitution, and I’m in favor of that,” Davis said. “The districts are clean, and they are fair, and I think following the law is a lot more important than catering to my political career.”
Davis, a Franklin orthodontist and longtime Macon County commissioner, beat incumbent Sen. John Snow, D-Cherokee County, during last year’s election in a Republican scrum that saw conservatives wrest control of the General Assembly. The victory won the GOP the right to reconfigure the state’s political landscape for the next decade.
But in recompiling state House and Senate districts to comply with population changes as recorded in the 2010 U.S. census, the GOP sure didn’t do party-member Davis any favors. The 50th Senate District has been redrawn minus Republican stronghold Transylvania County, and including all of Democratic-heavy Haywood County.
Davis knows that he could be fighting for his state political life.
The race last year was close: Davis trumped Snow by just more than 200 votes.
Not too fast, boys
“The 50th could be vulnerable to a Democratic challenger, but it’s far from a sure thing,” said North Carolina political expert Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
With the reconfiguring, Gov. Beverly Perdue still would have won the district 50-46 percent, Cooper pointed out. On the other hand, Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole would have won 49-47 percent over challenger Kay Hagen, a Democrat who went on to win the Senate seat, and Elaine Marshall, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Richard Burr, would have ended in a dead heat, he said. Despite all of those relatively close races, however, Sen. John McCain, a Republican presidential candidate, would have won soundly, 57-44 percent.
“It’s an interesting one for political prognosticators,” Cooper said. “We talk a lot about ‘incumbency advantage,’ the name recognition and benefits that come from being an incumbent, but with two potential challengers who have been in office before, it’s tough to know exactly how it will play out.”
Careful what you wish for
Janie Benson, chairman of the Haywood County Democratic Party, is excited about the prospects for her party.
“We feel like we do have two strong candidates,” she said.
Republicans, on the other hand, are left in the awkward position of supporting their party’s proposed redistricting plan even while acknowledging Davis has been left vulnerable.
“It’s going to make it very rough on Jim,” said Ralph Slaughter, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party. “It really hurt to lose Transylvania. But, it’s logical, and it equalizes the counties (population numbers).”
Slaughter said the Republican Party would need to get conservative voters “revitalized” in Haywood County, and that the GOP has its work cut out for it to hold on to the 50th.
Ironically, Haywood County’s Republican Party openly lobbied for the county to be returned to one district. Haywood currently is a split county in both the Senate and the House, and is represented by two different legislators.
County Republicans, apparently with some success, argued that two House and two Senate districts are confusing to voters and have diluted the county’s legislative influence. Local Democrats fought the change they now are embracing joyfully, maintaining only a few weeks ago that Haywood County residents were well served by having two senators and two representatives.
Davis said the Haywood County precincts he currently represents are solidly Republican, but that he’s now picking up strong Democratic-dominated precincts, based on party registrations.
But, he said, it’s impossible to argue with the geographic logic of having the 50th Senate District made up of the state’s seven westernmost counties, as it once was.
For his part, former Sen. Joe Sam Queen, a Democrat from Haywood County, doesn’t believe that GOP redistricting leaders were trying to develop a perfectly balanced and fair political scenario in this part of the state. He thinks they simply ran out of North Carolina counties while trying to juggle things elsewhere in favor of Republicans.
“They didn’t have a lot of options at this end of the state,” Queen said. “You can’t get behind John.”
Cherokee County is the state’s westernmost county, bordered by Tennessee and Georgia.
Elsewhere, the GOP’s proposed redistricting does appear to favor the party’s chances of retaining House and Senate seats. Transylvania County would shift from the 50th to the 48th District, further locking down the Republican’s hold through Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson County, the rules committee chairman in the Senate.
Also shifting in a dominoes-like manner? Polk County would move from the 48th to the 47th District, and more of the 48th District’s precincts in Buncombe County would shift to the 49th District. Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, a Democrat, represents the 49th.
“Six incumbent Democrats were placed in districts with other incumbent Democrats, compared to three Republicans who were doubled up,” Cooper said. “There is also some evidence that Democratic voters were ‘packed’ into districts, increasing the chances that the Republicans hold onto more seats or expand their lead.
“We can’t forget, however, that the Democrats would do the same thing — and did do the same thing 10 years earlier. It is one reason these districts are so difficult to analyze — we tend to compare them to the existing districts that were drawn by Democrats.”
Franklin, long a popular byway for motorcyclists heading to Highlands, or via N.C. 28 to the Tail of the Dragon at Deals Gap in Graham County, wants to capture some of those pass-through dollars.
Next year in August, Franklin’s Tourism Development Authority will host a three-day motorcycle rally. It will take place along U.S. 441 north in a field usually reserved for one of the many gem and mineral shows Macon County is renowned for.
“I think it would be great,” said Doug Hastings, the owner of the Moka Latte Express on Highlands Road just outside of Franklin. “This is ideal motorcycle country. Anytime we can bring revenue into the area that is clean — and most bikers are clean — it’s good.”
Franklin joins a long list of towns trying to court the motorcycle dollar. Maggie Valley is already well-established as a biker-friendly town, with numerous motorcycle festivals every year and a renowned motorcycle museum. Cherokee has been successfully tapping the motorcycle market for years as well, along with the string of communities in closer proximity to the infamous Tail of the Dragon and Hellbender routes, each with dozens of twisty curves per mile.
Mike Grubermann, Franklin town planner who serves as a liaison to the TDA, said a topnotch, reputable promoter with considerable experience in organizing similar shows in Georgia has been hired. Plans call for the event initially to be financially subsidized by the tourism group, but to ultimately become self-sustaining.
Grubermann said a motorcycle rally fits well into Macon County’s push to capture more tourism-related dollars.
“The nature and background of motorcyclists have changed over the years — this is not a Hell’s Angels event,” he said.
Grubermann said most tourism-drawing events in Macon County attract about 3,000 people, and that the motorcycle rally is expected to start with 1,000 to 2,000 motorcyclists and build up to the 3,000 number.
“We have some wonderful motorcyclists come through,” said Patti Koch, who owns Peppermint Patti’s Ice Cream & Sweets with her husband, Eric, and supports the concept of a motorcycle rally in Franklin. “They’re all stopping in on their way to the Tail of the Dragon. This year, I’ve seen whole convoys of them.”
Not everybody is enthralled with the idea of bringing in motorcyclists for a rally, however. Alderman Bob Scott said the TDA needs to do more research on holding such a rally, including finding out how such events have gone in other towns. “How does this fit into Franklin’s reputation of being family friendly? I have serious reservations about this expenditure of tax funds.”
Minutes of the TDA meeting show that $14,800 was approved for marketing and promoting the event.
MANNA FoodBank will close its Franklin distribution center by October, putting three part-time employees out of work as the agency moves to streamline its system and cut overall operating costs.
Cindy Threlkeld, executive director of the Asheville-based nonprofit, blamed rising food and fuel costs and potential threats to federal funds the agency relies on. MANNA’s distribution center in Franklin served as a clearinghouse and pass-through point for food supplies bound for “partnering agencies” in the western counties for 20 years.
Franklin headquarters the only branch office of MANNA, located on Depot Street.
The nonprofit had to make hard decisions about how to maintain the same level of service while cutting costs, Threlkeld said.
“We are fully committed to providing the same level of service, or even more,” she said. Online ordering was already used by most of the 250 agencies that tap MANNA’s food stores across a 16-county service area.
MANNA FoodBank Board Member Amy Grimes, executive director of The Community Table in Sylva, said the online system works well. She said the agencies that haven’t made the transition yet seem to understand the difficulties faced by MANNA, “and people seem OK with it. Everyone is having to make hard choices right now.”
But MANNA will still need a pick-up point, a centralized location somewhere in the western counties where pallets of food can passed off to agencies. Threlkeld is currently hunting for such a site. It will not be a formal distribution center, however, such as the one in Franklin. The phase-out of the Franklin center will start in September, Threlkeld said.
On a more positive note, MANNA’s executive director said a couple in Henderson County has donated the entire production from a 5-acre orchard, contingent on MANNA handling the harvesting. Threlkeld said she foresees the agency ending up with some 150,000 pounds of apples, raising possibilities MANNA could trade apples with another food agency for other supplies.
The town of Sylva plans to start advertising soon for an in-house director for the Downtown Sylva Association.
Julie Sylvester, the current director of the promotional group that runs Sylva’s Main Street program, does not plan to apply.
“I’m going to concentrate on my family,” said Sylvester, who has served as DSA’s executive director for almost three years and is now the mom of twins. “That’s a job that takes a lot of time and energy.”
The job of DSA director has moved under town control. Previously, the DSA director was solely answerable to the DSA board, made up of Sylva business owners, but will now be a town employee.
The change comes in response to a request by DSA for more money from the town, from $12,000 last year up to $25,000 this year. Town leaders compromised, opting to pay a DSA director $15 an hour for 20 hours of work a week (just less than $20,000), but only if the director gets placed under the town’s umbrella as an actual employee.
DSA had stated it faces “solvency” dangers without additional town money. DSA is dropping what it said was an unsustainable funding method — raising money directly from merchants.
Moving the DSA executive director position in-house shouldn’t pose difficulties for the group, board member John Bubacz said. The coffee shop owner, who is also running for a spot on the town board in this fall’s election, said that having the position in-house “has been done before in other towns. We’re not breaking new ground — we’ll be looking for models and seeing how to make it work for Sylva.”
Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower said the job description will be modeled after the one used by Franklin for its Main Street program, where the director is also a town employee. She said the town would be seeking an individual with tourism experience, public relations skills, grant-writing abilities and some background in economic development.
Isenhower plans to form a committee to help her make a selection.
When it comes to noise, Commissioner Harold Hensley of the Sylva town board is clearly prepared to make a bit of it himself if necessary to get others to turn the volume down.
“The complaint I’ve got is when you can hear music in your house with your door shut,” Hensley told a restaurant owner during a discussion of the proposed ordinance at a town meeting last week. “I don’t need to hear it in my living room.”
Tori Walters, a co-owner of The Soul Infusion Tea House and Bistro, was one of several who shared concerns over the ordinance at a public hearing last week.
“We’d like to have the opportunity to have a little fun in town,” Walters said.
Under the new ordinance, noise heard more than 20 feet from its source between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. is too loud.
Hensley has led a push recently to tighten the town’s ordinance. Walters pointed out that Hensley didn’t exactly live in a rural section of Sylva, however.
“I do want you to know I lived out of town,” the commissioner responded. “Town came to me.”
Hensley suggested Walters consider a “sound shell” to help contain the music at the restaurant, which has a small outdoor stage.
“Your entertainment cannot disturb the neighborhood,” he said.
The town’s current noise ordinance relies on the key words “reasonably prudent,” as in what an average person would consider to be excessively loud between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.
The new language sets a distance requirement: “The playing of any musical instrument or electronic sound amplification equipment outdoors or from a motor vehicle, between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., that can be heard from an adjoining property or at distance of greater than 20 feet from the sound source.”
Other towns, such as Highlands most recently, have opted to rely less on subjectivity and instead have set decibel levels that can’t be exceeded.
Walters told commissioners she did not actually have any problems or objections to the tougher ordinance. What she did want, however, was for the town to be aware of the need for business owners to bring in live entertainment to help attract customers, and not to become increasingly restrictive.
Walters said during a grand-opening celebration a few months ago, the restaurant had a rock-and-roll band perform. It was a successful draw, but “they wanted to squeal their wheels a bit,” she said of band members, and perhaps were noisier than they should have been. Walters said she is attentive to the noise levels and has asked groups to turn it down, and that the rock-and-roll group was the exception, not the rule.
“A lot of businesses are pretty loud around there, I’m not the only one,” she told Hensley, pointing out that UPS, which is next to the Soul Infusion, is even louder when workers there are using pneumatic tools to fix equipment.
Mayor Maurice Moody assured Walters and the crowd of 20 or so gathered for the hearing that the noise ordinance “is not directed solely toward Soul Infusion.”
And Commissioner Danny Allen added that he recently received complaints from a town resident about music from another restaurant: “You are not the only one,” Allen told Walters.
Amanda Dugan, a Western Carolina University student, also cautioned commissioners not to be excessive in applying noise-ordinance restrictions. They risked squelching the local economy if they do that, she said.
“If they are not going to be having music, I’m going to Asheville,” Dugan said. “It is really important to have somewhere in town we can go and spend our money locally.”
Curt Collins also asked commissioners not to become overzealous in regulating noise.
“It seems like there’s been a lot of clampdown lately,” Collins, a farmer with Avant Garden in Cullowhee, said.
A proposal by Duke Energy to hike electricity rates by 17 percent isn’t sitting well with many of the company’s customers in this region, who question why the power giant should be seeking any increase — much less such a large one — during these times of economic hardship.
Because Duke is a public utility, the final say on whether the proposed residential rate increase goes through rests with the N.C. Utilities Commission. If granted, Duke Energy would see a jump in revenue of about $646 million. Customers would see a corresponding increase of about $19 a month or more, based on a 1,000 kilowatt-per-month usage rate.
The company filed a rate case with the Utilities Commission late last week. If approved, the new rates would start around next February.
The rate request also seeks a 14 percent increase for industrial and commercial customers. The average of rate increases for all types of customers is 15 percent, Duke said.
“They can just go electrocute themselves as far as I’m concerned,” a miffed Angela McGregor, of Bryson City, said. “I would like a cost breakdown on exactly what they plan to spend it on.”
In a news release, Duke said it needs the money “mainly to recover expenses that have already been made to comply with state and federal laws and replacement of aging infrastructure necessary to meet customer needs.”
In an email sent generically to “dear southwestern NC community leader,” Duke District Manager Fred Alexander, based in Macon County, noted “no one likes rate increases. But they’re necessary to ensure the availability of affordable, reliable and clean electricity today, and for decades to come.”
That explanation hasn’t deterred leaders in Franklin from passing a resolution opposing the rate increase, with Alderman Bob Scott leading the charge.
“Unfortunately, this is but another example of large business taking liberty with corporate welfare as opposed to those who really need financial help,” he wrote fellow town leaders in an email sent last week. “This rate increase will severely hurt the elderly, the poor and those trying to live on fixed incomes whose incomes have been slammed by corporations that caused the financial mess the nation is in.”
The Macon County Board of Commissioners will likely follow suit, Commissioner Ronnie Beale said. The matter was discussed at a county meeting last week, and appeared to have the unanimous support of the five-member board.
Franklin, which once headquartered for the region the Duke-absorbed Nantahala Power and Light Co., has surfaced in the recent past as an area of heartburn for the power giant.
The last time Duke sought a rate increase, in late 2009, the company faced vocal and sustained opposition at a public hearing held by the utility commission in Franklin.
At the time, Duke claimed the then sought-after 12.6 percent hike was needed to pay for upgrades to power plants and infrastructure across its system, including construction of a controversial new coal plant near Marion. Duke also said the rate hike would help maintain its credit rating.
The Utilities Commission allowed Duke only a 7 percent increase. That increase saw the average customer using 1,000-kilowatt hours per month pay $7.30 more each month.
“They are not giving us anything better for the increases,” said Randy Gogolin of Sylva, who makes his living as a nurseryman through his business, the Garden of Weeden.
Gogolin said that he and his wife would like to go completely power-company free by getting off the grid and becoming fully self-sustainable. This was something they dreamed of doing some 20 years ago after moving here, Gogolin said, “but life hit” and there were kids to be raised.
A rate increase, he said, only provides additional impetus for such a move.
Becca Nestler, who with her husband, Stephen Beltram, own and operate Balsam Gardens in Jackson County, said paying more for electricity would pose a true financial hardship on the farm. The couple, which raises and sells broiler chickens and vegetables, is currently using a walk-in cooler, three refrigerators, an upright cooler and a chest cooler, Nestler said.
“That would be awful,” she said of the proposed rate increase. “It would mean more expense for our farm. It’s hard enough as it is.”
Dave Nestler, her brother, is a woodworker in Sylva who relies some on electric-powered tools. He said while his business could more easily absorb a rate increase than his sister’s farm, he isn’t happy about doling out more dollars unless it truly helped produce cleaner energy.
“But, it’s not,” Nestler said. “It’s just going to be more profit for Duke.”
Chris Dole, a trained chef who currently works in marketing in Sylva, like David Nestler, said he wouldn’t mind paying more if the tradeoff was cleaner energy.
“I just think (a flat increase) is wrong, though,” Dole said.
And Duke is indeed being duplicitous, according to longtime foe Avram Friedman, executive director of the activist clean-air group, the Canary Coalition. Friedman said the rate increase would help pay for its expansion of the controversial Cliffside Coal Plant. Friedman said Duke plans to sell electricity generated at Cliffside across the grid in other states, yet is trying to pay for the new coal plant on the backs of North Carolinians.
New Congressional districts crafted by state GOP leaders that appear to position the party for political domination in North Carolina for the next decade drew sharp criticism late last week during a state hearing in Cullowhee.
Asheville and parts of Buncombe County would be booted out of the 11th Congressional district and lumped in with Piedmont counties and metropolitan areas on the outskirts of Charlotte.
The liberal voting bloc of Asheville would be replaced with four conservative-voting northern mountain counties — tipping the district decidedly more Republican and making it difficult for a Democratic Congressman, even one as conservative as U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, to get elected.
And that smacks, opponents said, of in-your-face gerrymandering by the GOP. Because if the plan stands despite the court challenges that are sure to come, Republicans will have neatly sliced out and diluted the liberal votes Democrats have long counted on from the Asheville area. The mountain district would shift from 43 percent of the voters being registered Democrats to 36 percent.
SEE ALSO: Proposed N.C. House District map
SEE ALSO: Proposed N.C. Senate District map
The districts must make geographic sense to not be overturned. If Democrats can prove gerrymandering and show that districts are not geographically “compact,” a lawsuit over the district lines could send North Carolina’s redistricting efforts back to the drawing board.
“Sirs, you overplayed your hand with this one,” said Janie Benson, who chairs the Haywood County Democratic Party. “It may be good politics for the moment, but it is not good for the people of Western North Carolina. Asheville is the soul of the area. Asheville is the historic, the judicial, the health, the shopping and the entertainment center of our area.”
Benson was one of at least 12 Democrats alone from Haywood County who gathered at Western Carolina University for an interactive redistricting hearing that included various other North Carolina sites.
A before-the-event poll at WCU by The Smoky Mountain News found one lone Republican signed up to speak, Ralph Slaughter, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party. He, not surprisingly, thought the proposed map simply looked great.
“There will be more minorities involved this way than were before,” Slaughter said. “I really don’t have a problem with it. This comes closer to the equalization needed, population-wise.”
N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Hendersonville, said as a result of the redistricting Buncombe County would actually gain more representation than it has ever enjoyed before — it would, he pointed out, have two congressional voices instead of just one.
“Most of the bigger cities in the state have more than one representative,” Apodaka said. “It’s a sign of things happening all over the country.”
Jeffrey Israel of Haywood County, however, said he could find no historical basis for removing Asheville from the 11th Congressional District.
“It attempts merely to subvert the traditional political will of the western mountains and can only be thought to stab a knife in the progressive heart of Western North Carolina,” Israel said.
In addition to threatening Democrats’ hold on the 11th Congressional District, Democrats could also lose control of the 7th, 8th and 13th districts as a result of the redistricting.
Luke Hyde of Bryson City, before the official hearing started, said that he believes “gerrymandering was wrong in the early 1800s, and it is still wrong in 2011-12. It does not benefit the voters or serve anyone well. I’m opposed to either party redistricting against logic and geography, and I don’t think it will stand in court.”
The GOP won the right to control the redistricting process after taking control of the state General Assembly in last November’s election. Redistricting takes place every 10 years after new census numbers are released.
“No matter how you shape it, now matter how you slice it, Asheville is not a Piedmont community,” said N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill. He said compactness is out the window under the new map, with a drive from Avery County in the north part of the district to Cherokee County in the west taking four or five hours — if you don’t stop for restroom breaks along the way.
Lawmakers will vote on the redistricting plan in a special session that starts July 25.
N.C. House and Senate districts due out this week
The maps will reflect new state legislative districts. How western counties are sliced and diced has been the source of much speculation, and will impact which party has an easier time getting elected to seats in the state legislature.
On Monday, July 18, a public hearing on the state redistricting process will be held at Western Carolina University. The session will be held from 3 until 9 p.m. in Room 133-B of the Cordelia Camp Building on the WCU campus. Speaker registration will begin at 2 p.m.
Members of the public may comment on the current district plans, communities of interest, voting history or any other topic related to redistricting. Each speaker is limited to five minutes.
Two weeks ago, state GOP leaders released redistricting plans for the state’s congressional districts. Democrats have accused Republicans of gerrymandering, or drawing the maps to favor the likelihood of Republican candidates being elected.
To sign up for the public hearing, or to submit comments on line, go to www.ncleg.net/sessions/2011/publichearings/redistricting.html.
It’s a busy day at the farmers market, and William Shelton is red-faced and sweaty as he hands out boxes of vegetables to his regular weekly customers. One of his four sons — his namesake, Wil — is manning the cash box, adept after three or so summers of making correct change while exchanging pleasantries.
Farming, at least at the Shelton place in Whittier, is a family affair. And keeping that tradition alive and profitable hinges on making personal and meaningful connections with the people who purchase what the farm produces. This is true, not only for the Shelton family, but for all small farmers in Western North Carolina — and one of the best opportunities for farmers to do just that is coming up this month at the third-annual Local Food Gala in Macon County.
The gala is a fundraising event for the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, headquartered in Franklin. Last year, the sold-out gala raised $22,000 for the group, which since 1999 has conserved more than 12,000 acres in its six-county area of Macon, Swain, Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Jackson, including 1,000 acres on actual working farms.
Farmers such as Shelton donate produce for the event so proceeds can go entirely toward the land trust.
“It’s a good event, with really good food, and it’s mutually beneficial for everyone involved,” Shelton said as he handed a woman a box of vegetables grown on his farm, taking time to tell her that yes, corn was included this time in the selection.
Jill Wiggins, outreach coordinator for the Land Trust, said the money raised through the farm-to-table event goes into the group’s agricultural fund to help preserve farmland.
In addition to showcasing what’s in season, local and fresh (though there is a possibility that locally grown but frozen asparagus also might be included on the menu), the gala features a local wine and beer tasting. Plus a silent auction featuring “experiential packages,” Wiggins said, including a scholarship for John C. Campbell Folkschool in Brasstown.
“Not only do local foods reward our sense of taste, but locally produced food nourishes and strengthens our families and communities, sustains our mountain farming traditions, and protects our natural resources through productive land conservation practices,” Wiggins said, adding, “there’s nothing else like the local food gala. It’s a great feeling to be there.”
That’s true, said Ron Arps, a Jackson County farmer who has been involved with the gala since its inception. This year, because of heavy demand through a new CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) venture, Arps said he and his wife, Cathy might be donating only a few pounds of carrots. If, Arps said, they even have those — it’s been busy this year for the couple.
The Local Food Gala, Arps said, has evolved into an important event in Western North Carolina, and serves as an excellent means of connecting consumers to area farmers. He believes in throwing his support behind it whenever possible.
The night’s menu for the gala is still being decided on, Wiggins said, but it will definitely include a vegetarian and meat options. The meat and fish will both be locally produced, plus there will be sides featuring local vegetables. Dessert most likely will be a blueberry popover, Wiggins said.
Macon Bank and Duke Energy are sponsors of the event.
Want to go?
The Local Food Gala, an annual fundraising event for the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, will be held Saturday, July 30, at the Bloemsma Barn in the Patton Valley area near Franklin.
A limited number of tickets will be sold at the Land Trust’s office in Franklin, or via the group’s website, www.ltlt.org through July 20th. Tickets are $75 each, or $500 for a table of 8.
With the weather so hot and sticky, it’s hard to grasp that now is the time to start preparing the fall garden.
I, for one, am glad. I’ve always hated summer gardening, which for organic gardeners poses particular difficulties. Heat and moisture equals blight and disease, and those are exactly the weather conditions summers usually cook up for us here in Western North Carolina. Then, of course, there is the unending war with legions of summer insects bent on destroying whatever might be left.
Additionally, as I’ve written previously, the garden got away from me this year. It is a weedy mess, totally unlike any garden I’ve ever had before. I blame the shock to my system of having to actually work again at a newspaper — I believed those days were long in my past, and yet I awoke to find myself once again a reporter. Laboring under deadlines, attending municipal and county board meetings, conducting endless interviews on an endless number of subjects, it’s no wonder (or so I reassure myself) that I haven’t devoted the time needed to the garden. Why, it’s amazing I even get out of the bed some mornings.
But the changes of seasons can bring rebirth, and I’m now planning a fall garden that will redeem my summer failures. I will be a phoenix rising from the ashes; or something like that, anyway.
• I am slightly behind on the calendar of when I usually start my Brussels sprouts plants for later transplanting, but it’s not too late yet. I’ll start them when I also plant broccoli and cabbage, this week or this weekend at the latest.
• This week or next is also the time to direct seed rutabaga in the garden. This is a slow growing plant, and it needs ample time to reach its full potential before cold weather sets in.
• Beets, too, can go into the garden now, as can additional carrots. The difficulty is germination — if the rains let up, then I’ll need to use shade cloth to keep the soil from drying out too quickly after I seed. Or, you can use a board — seed, water well, lay a board on top, and be sure to check each day for signs of germination. When you see the tiny green sprouts, remove the board, which helps to trap moisture in the ground so that this small miracle can take place.
• I tend to plant my fall greens later than is traditionally done in WNC. Many local gardeners will start seeding turnips, mustard and so on in mid-August. I generally wait until the first week of September, because it seems to help with insect control. Besides, unless you are a market farmer, what’s the rush? You don’t want a cooked mess of greens anyway until you can eat them alongside a bowl of pintos and a slice of cornbread, and that culinary delight is only enjoyable with a bit of frost on the ground.
• In late August I direct seed winter radishes, such as the black Spanish radish and daikons.
• From late August through the first couple of weeks in September is a good time to plant Chinese cabbage and other Asian greens such as mizuna and tatsoi. More on those, and soon — I’m a big fan of Asian plants, and each year I’ve tried a few new ones, and rarely been disappointed.
Scotty Bowman always knew he wanted to work outdoors, but he couldn’t figure out how to live his dream and also make a livable salary — so he instead paved a career in restaurants, including stints as a chef. At least, this is what Bowman did until hitting his 40s, that momentous time when folks often realize that it’s either now or never to indulge their passions.
Bowman, in taking the risk to build a new career focused on the outdoors, has become part of a unique movement that might just help the Southeast get more Wilderness Areas to enjoy. Bowman has been busy this summer building and fixing trails in remote backcountry settings with Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, a new program of The Wilderness Society that works directly with the forest service to provide support for Wilderness Areas and Wilderness Study Areas.
In Wilderness Areas, you can’t use chainsaws or power tools for trail work, which makes building trails in the backcountry miles from the closest road tough work. The SAWS group is deploying volunteers into Wilderness Areas who are willing to do the heavylifting of trail work using only hand tools, such as crosscut saws, in those remote territories where firing up power tools would violate wilderness regulations.
The labor from SAWS crews not only blazes new trails and keeps existing ones maintained, they could also be key in the effort to get more areas in the national forests designated as wilderness.
Designating new wilderness areas can be controversial given the stricter rules that apply, limiting everything from motorized recreation to hunting to logging to road building.
But even hiking clubs can be against new wilderness designation if it means their volunteer efforts to maintain trails in those areas will become more difficult, explained Brent Martin, Southern Appalachian program director for the Wilderness Society’s, based out of the regional field office in Sylva.
Hiking clubs are the front line when it comes to trail maintenance. But, Martin pointed out, they are generally made up of older, retired folks, with small core groups who also work on trail maintenance. And with limited time and energy, these good Samaritans often understandably balk at the wilderness rule of not being allowed mechanized tools such as chainsaws.
Enter younger, eager men and women such as Bowman, who are simply enchanted with being able to use crosscut saws and other primitive tools. A volunteer stint with SAWS has led to a summer job for Bowman as head of a SAWS volunteer trail crew. He hopes to repeat the experience next summer.
The trail crews are trained in using the necessary primitive tools, and learn trail building and trail maintenance techniques.
Bowman is in college, and anticipates perhaps mingling the contacts made through SAWS into a more permanent outside-oriented job, such as with the U.S. Forest Service.
“I always wanted to be outside, to be a part of doing something for the trails and for the public,” the 42-year-old said. “And I’ve picked up some really cool skills doing this.”
And the wilderness areas are picking up a lot of extra maintenance help these days, said Bill Hodge, director of SAWS.
“The idea is not to replace the hiking clubs, it’s to supplement their work,” Hodge said.
In the Southern Appalachian region encompassing North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina, there are 22 federally designated Wilderness Areas and another 14 Wilderness Study Areas, which fall under the same set of no-mechanized-tools restrictions. Wilderness Study Areas requires congressional approval to move into actual permanently protected Wilderness Areas.
Crews, such as the one led by Bowman, go into the backcountry for five-day stretches at a time to work on the trails. There have also been shorter, weekend-long programs. SAWS is also active through its Wilderness Rangers program, which has placed SAWS “rangers” on the Cherokee National Forest in east Tennessee and on the Chattahoochee National Forest in north Georgia through November.
The initiative is part of a wilderness challenge funding grant, a 10-year effort to bring all of the U.S. Forest Service’s wilderness units up to a certain standard by 2014. North Carolina’s Wilderness Areas were at a higher level this year, but since the areas are reassessed each year, it could be that a SAWS ranger will be used in this state next year, Hodge said.
The SAWS rangers are, along with other duties, helping map where camping sites are being set up in the wilderness areas, Hodge said. Plus, they often serve as the only “official” many visitors will see in these remote regions, helping to guide hikers and provide help as necessary.
SAWS also will hold its second Wilderness Skills College in partnership with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy with two weeks worth of trail techniques and crew-leadership training. This past spring the conference was at the Ocoee Ranger District Work Center in Ocoee, Tenn.
Next spring, the hope is to hold the workshops here in North Carolina, Hodge said.
There is much myth and lore connected with beekeeping, such as telling the bees when the master has died so they won’t abscond after his or her death, and a method of swarm control called “tanging.”
Research studies have debunked the virtues of tanging, or beating a stick against something metal to drum down the bees. There is no scientific evidence, zippo, to support people who believe the folk tale that you can bring home a swarm.
I’m a modern girl and all, but I flat-out believe in tanging — and I nearly brought a swarm of bees down on myself this past Saturday doing it. I learned tanging from local guys. They learned to tang from their parents and grandparents, who in turn were taught tanging by their parents and grandparents, and so on — this is an unbelievably old practice, a method of bee husbandry that dates to antiquity.
My reading has muddled up my memory, and I frankly am unsure if anyone locally uses the word tanging — more likely, they just told me to beat on a washpan with a stick when there was a bee swarm. Lacking something metal at hand, I’ve seen these guys drum on empty wooden hives (called “gums” by oldtimers), and on empty five-gallon buckets. Bees, apparently, aren’t particular in this one respect.
So on Saturday, at about 10 a.m. just when it was starting to get really hot, I was working in the garden when I heard the familiar roar, looked up, and saw the bees taking off from the hive. It surprised me, frankly, because this is sourwood season and they ought to have plenty of work to keep them happy and focused. But bees, as I’ve mentioned before, do whatever they please, others’ wishes and needs and limited time to deal with swarms be damned.
This particular swarm was determinedly headed west, over the house and away from me, seemingly intent on settling high out of reach in a cherry tree. I’ve lost at least four swarms this year, and I wanted at least a shot at putting up this one — tanging was the only thing I knew to do.
A swarm does not move particularly fast. The bees have gorged on honey before leaving the hive, I suppose to help sustain them while they move in to a new home, and they fly heavy in the air. Watching a swarm of bees has a mesmerizing quality that is different from anything else I know, and you can get lost in following the languid flight of individual bees who are caught up in the tornadic motion of the swarm — the swarm seems to form a huge single organism. The noise, too, lulls and draws you in — that hypnotic roar, the noise of thousands of bees sounding together, a chorus like none other.
I broke the spell, however, and looked around for something to beat on. I noticed a metal watering can. After emptying the water, I started hitting it with a stick. I drummed, and the large swarm seemed to hesitate in the air; then it slowly returned in my direction and began revolving more or less just over my head. They dropped down, and I went into a crouch, worried I’d get a drive-by sting or two.
After several minutes, the swarm settled into a nearby, small tree, me still drumming away on my watering can. I wish I could tell you that I went and collected the swarm, but after a short time they simply went back into the hive — a false start, probably indicating the queen wasn’t able, or willing yet, to go.
Still, I’m left as always believing in tanging, research findings to the contrary. Is it the rhythm that brings them down? I don’t know, but it works.
In a somewhat surreal meeting last week of Macon County’s planning board, progress on developing regulations for steep slopes were stymied by turn-of-the screw technical discussions and semantic stumbling blocks.
The accuracy of GIS maps, the accuracy of the state’s landslide hazard maps and the meaning of the word “may” dominated the two-hour long meeting. Sorting through the debris, the biggest sticking point on developing a steep-slope ordinance for Macon County is, at least for now, planning board members’ ability to define an “influence zone.”
An influence zone, in theory, means that what you do on your land could be regulated if it impacts or threatens your neighbors.
More technically, and as debated for at least 30 minutes, an influence zone would be any area that “may be subjected to the effects of earth movement” from construction on another piece of property.
“The influence zone completely scares me to death,” Planning Board member Jimmy Goodman informed his fellow members.
Goodman’s fears, however, were expressed well into the discussion, long after the debate started over the meaning of the word “may,” at least as used in this context. Planning Board member Larry Stenger questioned why use “may” — instead just use “shall.”
But the larger question is what happens once the influence zone is determined, in otherwords what regulations would then be triggered?
Ed Haight, a steep-slope subcommittee member, directed the group to another section of the proposal. Essentially, tougher regulations apply if the “influence zone” of a construction site is on a slope greater than 40 percent or a high landslide hazard area — even if the construction site itself doesn’t fall within that treshhold.
If your land lies in the high landslide hazard area or on a slope greater than 40 percent — or apparently if any work on your property “may” impact other property that is — the property owner must consult an engineer or other “design professional” before building.
For property-rights advocates such as Goodman and fellow planning board member Lamar Sprinkle, a local surveyor, such government regulation clearly seemed intrusive. What wasn’t clear is whether the two men were trying to deliberately sandbag the debate over steep-slope regulations by raising tangential issues, at best.
Sprinkle, in an out-of-left-field kind of way that seemed to raise the hackles of longtime planning board member Susan Ervin, among others, veered from Stenger’s concern over the word “may” into questioning the use of county GIS maps to determine property lines when it comes to a proposed steep slope ordinance.
“If you look at the GIS maps, that property line may not be accurately marked,” Sprinkle said.
“What is the point?” Ervin asked.
“If you are going to say what he’s got to do by the line of that map, and it ain’t right,” Sprinkle said, trailing off before Goodman jumped in.
“He (the presumed male hypothetical builder) may have to do geological work on someone else’s land,” Goodman finished.
“Not at all,” Ervin said.
“We’re just trying to do a site plan based on the GIS,” planning board member Al Slagle tried to interject. “It’s a preliminary way to look at it and hold the cost down for the property owner.”
“If that map is wrong, what are you going to do about that?” Sprinkle said.
Ervin asked what his point was, again, and Haight noted the process was “just a screening tool.” He might as well have thrown a pebble in to dam the flooding Mississippi River.
“I’m not arguing,” Sprinkle said before doing just that. “Have you ever been back in the mountains?”
“Yes, Lamar, I have been back in the mountains. Lamar, please tell us what is your point?” Ervin said.
“I’m telling you that if you are telling that man (the hypothetical male builder) that he has to do something based on those maps …” Sprinkle said before his conversation drifted off, then was interrupted by Slagle: “If it’s wrong, he’ll have an option to go to an administrator if he wants to appeal it, and he’ll have an appeals process,” Slagle said. “It is the same in any ordinance.”
Sprinkle, still undeterred, unabashed and unapologetic, then wanted to know about slope percentages in the event the GIS map lines were wrong.
“I’m thinking of all the difficulty a man’s going to have getting a building permit,” Sprinkle said. “Those maps are overlays … and a lot of them are grossly wrong, with lines running through houses.”
Haight asked how frequently that type of error actually does occur.
“You could come down to my office and stay there for about a year and see what I’ve seen,” Sprinkle suggested.
“Well, we’re moving on now,” planning board head Lewis Penland said, but to no avail. His board members weren’t done with the influence zone.
“I get worried when I see the word ‘may,’” Stenger said again, bringing the conversation full circle.
Lawyers for the county, Penland suggested, would work out such technicalities as “may” versus “shall,” and the debate eventually fizzled out without immediate resolution.
The planning board did manage to go completely through a list of definitions for the proposed steep slope regulation. Board members said they want commissioners to let them know if they want an actual draft ordinance written or not.
“I don’t want to sit here and waste my time writing an ordinance if it’s going to be shot down,” Slagle said, adding that was one point he and Sprinkle (who by then had left for another appointment) could agree on.
The planning board is set to meet again July 21 at 5 p.m. to discuss whether they are for or against individual sections of the proposed regulations.
Linda Harbuck doesn’t own a smart-phone herself, but that doesn’t stop the veteran Macon County tourism official from understanding and touting the potential benefits of a new phone app being developed to steer tourists through the westernmost tip of the state.
“This is where things seems to be going,” said Harbuck, who has been the executive director of the Franklin Area Chamber of Commerce for 21 years. “So we voted ‘yes’ to buy in and make sure we would be represented.”
The concept spearheaded by the regional tourism and marketing group Smoky Mountain Host is to promote local events and attractions through a smart-phone app. Individual businesses will be able to buy in, too.
Tourism entities in Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain, Graham, Cherokee have at least verbally committed to the concept. It costs tourism groups $11,000 to be included in the phone app. In return, they get to select 10 “story points,” Harbuck explained. These are fairly general story ideas, such as waterfalls visitors can go see, museums to visit, the history of gem mining, for example. There will be a minute or two of video, plus photos and links.
The app will be called “UGO Tour NC Mountains,” and is being developed by Story Point Media of Asheville.
Jon Menick, president of Story Point, got the idea after moving to Western North Carolina from Los Angeles, where he worked in television and some in the filmmaking industry. Menick said he quickly fell in love with the far-western counties, but soon realized how difficult it could be for newcomers to find easy and good sources information.
“It was very unsatisfactory,” he said of his early tour efforts. “I knew a travel app would work, because that is quickly becoming the way to travel.”
So what about those dead spots for cell phone users? No problem, Menick responded — the app is designed so that visitors can preplan their trips to the area, which includes downloading the information as desired. That means the information can be available even where cell-phone reception isn’t available.
The plan is for the state Department of Transportation to put the app on its list of some 2.5 million people, who will be notified that they can download the smart-phone enhancement.
The app should be available to visitors by the end of this summer, Menick said.
How much the phone app costs to develop was not available at press time. In addition to the buy-in fee paid by tourism entities, Smoky Mountain Host got a $10,000 grant from Blue Ridge National Heritage Area for development of the app. Along with county tourism agencies and chambers of commerce, individual tourism-based businesses can buy a place in the app as well.
It is not by swiftness, nor by strength and valor, that races are gained and battles won, but by sheer luck, tenacity and about $8 worth of duct tape.
So sayeth we concerning the winners, Drew Cook and Taylor Bennett, who floated to first place in the annual Tuck River Derby atop their homemade raft, constructed out of PVC sewer pipes and a few empty drywall buckets, and lots and lots of duct tape.
Cook, an advertising representative at The Smoky Mountain News, tried to chalk his win up to stellar kayaking skills and river know-how, but the truth was simpler and quite evident to the crowd of 40 or so gathered to watch the race.
Cook’s and Bennett’s raft held together — unlike the Tucktanic, which lived up to its name and sank shortly after rounding the first river bend. It didn’t get stuck on a rock like the elaborately constructed Bucket Brigade (built in Florida and transported all the way to Dillsboro for the race).
In all, 15 teams entered homemade rafts made of recycled materials, in the second-annual derby held on July 4 on the shore of the Tuck in Dillsboro.
The furthest afield contestant, Pete Matejka of Mount Dora, Fla., was urged to enter by his siter-in-law, who has a summer home here.
“All the way up, people were taking pictures, and honking at us,” Matejaka said of the drive to WNC with his raft creation.
But early crowd musings that his slickly built raft (it even had a rudder and steering wheel) would win didn’t bear fruit after it stuck fast on a rock at the starting line. Bystanders finally pushed the raft into the current, but by then Cook and Bennett were well down the Tuckasegee River on their way to victory.
Brant Barnes, who helped organize the race, said the point was mainly to have fun. He floated down the river in a cardboard raft of his own creation. But, Barnes said, the hope is also to help the tourism-dependent town link itself to the river that runs through it.
“We’ve lost the train, so we’re trying to connect ourselves to the river,” Barnes said. “And it’s just been a hoot.”
In the do-you-remember, they-were-right-after-all category, the enormous popularity of Jackson County’s new library has meant finding parking at the renovated courthouse and library addition can sometimes prove a real pain.
So much so, Assistant Librarian Liz Gregg has taken to parking off the hill and walking to work, even while wearing dress shoes and slogging through wet grass. A minor inconvenience for her, she said, that frees up one additional parking space nearer the building for library patrons.
“Besides, I’m here for eight-plus hours. I need that exercise,” Gregg reasoned.
The only real problem for Gregg and others who are willing to walk to the library? The stairs from Mark Watson Park, one of the major sources of extra parking that is located below the courthouse on the backside of the hill, are not in very good shape.
“The steps are kind of crumbly,” Gregg said.
Enter the board of county commissioners, which is now considering what best it should do. County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners last month that to officially reopen the stairs from Mark Watson Park “we’ll have to put in a railing, and assess other possible repairs.”
That assessment is under way.
Also expected to help ease the parking strain is a continuing slowdown in construction work. Those final fixes that always seem to surface with a new project should continue to diminish, meaning fewer workers’ trucks and more patron parking, said head Librarian Dottie Brunette.
Air conditioning has been an ongoing problem, as have lightening strikes and simple electric surges that knock out the computer circuit boards, requiring workmen’s services.
“We’re the highest point on the hill,” Brunette said. “It’s like I’ve told people, we’ve got Lady Justice on top of the courthouse with her arm up in the air just beckoning for it.”
One day, for undetermined reasons, each punch of an elevator button triggered the security gates to sound. That made for an interesting work atmosphere, the librarian said.
But overall, the opening has been gone smoothly, Brunette said. The new library celebrated its grand opening last month. It was forced to shutdown entirely for one day after a waterline break, but otherwise, the library has been open for business when promised.
In all, 402 brand new library cards have been issued, and the library (including the grand opening celebration and subsequent programs) had 8,184 visitors in 20 days — an average daily attendance of 409 people. That compares with average daily attendance of 300 to 350 in the old library on Main Street.
“Before we ever moved up here, there were folks for various reasons and from various points of view who felt that the parking would be more limited than we would like it to be,” Brunette said.
There are two actual parking lots at the library, plus some additional spaces right out front and down off the hill.
Supporters of the courthouse site wanted a library within walking distance of downtown. Putting it there on the hill overlooking Sylva, they said, would avoid sprawl and help keep the downtown area vibrant, and give the iconic but vacant historic courthouse a community purpose.
From the get-go, however, the community and the then board of commissioners knew the site wouldn’t be perfect. There is no room for future expansion. The road winding up the courthouse hill is steep and narrow. And, of course, there is that lack of parking.
A group who wanted the library built at the Jackson Plaza touted the two-acre tract on the outskirts of town as being easier to work with, and pointed at the time to its ample parking as one highlight that should be considered.
Most of the business being done at Perry’s Water Garden these days is selling plants through the wholesale market. But if you are interested in aquatic plants even the tiniest bit whatsoever, it’s well worth a trip over the Cowee mountain range and into Macon County to visit this unique Western North Carolina garden attraction.
I went there last week with a friend who was interested in buying aquatic plants for a small home-water feature. We left with water hyacinths, a lotus, a couple of lilies, five water snails (guaranteed to eat the slime off the sides of ponds) and a lot of really useful information from Nikki Gibson, whose step-grandfather, Perry D. Slocum, founded the garden in 1980.
Nikki clearly knows her water plants. And that’s no surprise, given the high stature in the water-garden world once held by Slocum, who died in 2004.
He was an internationally respected hybridizer, winner of the 1986 Water Lily Hall of Fame Award. Slocum also was the president of the International Water Lily Society from 1988-89.
Flip through a book on aquatic water plants, and you’ll likely be both flipping through a book he helped write — Water Gardening: Waterlilies and Lotuses, published in 1996, or Waterlillies and Lotuses: Species, Cultivars and New Hybrids in 2005 — and eyeballing plants he hybridized.
The list of plants bearing the Slocum stamp is stunning: by one accounting I found on the Internet, he hybridized 83 waterlilies, 30 lotuses and two irises.
Slocum was born in New York state in 1913 on a dairy farm that also produced certified seed potatoes. In an April 1996 article for Water Gardening magazine, Helen Nash noted that Slocum’s interest in aquatic plants started at age 13, when he and a brother ordered three water lilies from California and planted them in an iron kettle normally used for scalding hogs.
Slocum went to Cornell University for his undergraduate work, and spent two years in medical school at Syracuse University before devoting himself to plant hybridizing. He first built a 10-acre water garden near Binghamton, N.Y.; then went on to build Slocum Water Garden in Winter Haven, Fla. After “retiring” to the Cowee Valley area in Macon County, Slocum promptly built Perry’s Water Garden, 13 acres of aquatic ponds. This, I theorize based on the evidence, must have been a man who liked to stay busy.
Ben Gibson bought the water garden in 1986 from his stepfather, and the two worked side by side until Slocum’s death. Hybridizing still continues at Perry’s Water Garden — when the family sees a particularly lovely or interesting volunteer, they carefully cultivate it.
Nikki clearly loves the family business, which to survive has meant everyone now works outside jobs to help make ends meet and keep the garden going, she said.
This means you’ve got to get to Perry’s Water Garden in a window from about 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. You can find Perry’s Water Garden on the Internet at www.perryswatergarden.net, and there is contact information there as well. Good directions to this out-of-the-way place can be found on the home page.
When Sam Greenwood retired as Macon County’s manager and almost immediately accepted the same position for the town of Franklin in March of 2008, he made sure everyone clearly understood that his time there was limited.
Greenwood wanted to help Franklin make a seamless transition from a mayor-council form of government to a council-manager style. This task now completed, Greenwood is set to retire from public service for a second time.
That means November’s upcoming election in Franklin — where the mayor and four of the six aldermen are up — is particularly critical to the long-term future and wellbeing of the town, the incumbent aldermen and mayor said in a series of interviews last week. To a person, they agreed the key issue for the next board would be finding the right person to replace Greenwood as town manager. Greenwood isn’t the only turn-over the town will see. Terry Bradley, Franklin’s longtime police chief, also is going to retire this year. And several more of the town’s top employees have enough years in that they could opt to leave, too.
“There’s a lot of people who are department heads who are eligible for retirement,” Alderman Bob Scott said.
Mayor Joe Collins, who said he is “strongly considering” running again, has been mayor for four two-year terms, and before that, was an alderman.
Scott said rather than run for another four years, he would instead run for the seat formerly held by Jerry Evans, who passed away this year. Evans’ seat only has two years left on it, rather than a full four-year term.
“Jerry and I were pretty good friends, and I’d like to serve out his remaining time,” Scott said. Scott is finishing out the end of two terms, and he started his tenure of public service as an advocate of term limits — there are some projects Scott said he’d like to see through, however.
Alderman Farrell Jamison, appointed to fill the seat after Evans died in February, said he’d run, too, to keep on serving out Evans’ unexpired term. Jamison wants to focus on economic development issues, bringing more businesses into Franklin, and to help with general revitalization in downtown.
Alderwoman Joyce Handley said she probably plans to run again, although she acknowledged she’s technically supposed to be “sitting on the fence” and weighing that decision because her husband has suggested enough, perhaps, is enough.
Greenwood, Handley said, “has done a marvelous job,” but now a replacement must be found, and it needs to be the right person for the job. She wants to help pick that person.
Alderman Verlin Curtis, who has served two four-year terms, does, too. Curtis said another issue in Franklin is the changes a flood insurance program could bring to some property owners, particularly in the Crawford Branch area. What’s at stake is whether Franklin participates in the National Flood Insurance Program, which could mandate certain property development restrictions in the 100-year floodplain.
When construction on the lofty Clarion Inn started in 2008, the town of Sylva thought it was finally going to get a recognizable name-brand hotel to help attract visitors and commerce.
Three years later, and the Clarion Inn is instead the town’s biggest eyesore, defacing the viewscape high atop a mountain along the main commercial corridor. If the unfinished hotel today serves any useful purpose, perhaps it’s as a visual reminder that when granting regulatory breaks, beware of big-talking dreamers bearing big plans.
The developers, TJ Investments — father and son team Thomas and John Dowden — went into bankruptcy. Alpharetta Community Bank of Georgia, which seized the property after the men failed to payoff a $5 million loan, now owns the unfinished Clarion Inn.
In turn, however, the bank is being sued by Cooper Construction Company, which the Dowdens left $1.9 million in the red after failing to pay the firm for all its work. DeLaine DeBruhl, vice president and field operations manager for the Hendersonville-based contractors, declined to comment about the situation here in Sylva, citing the pending litigation.
Court records indicate the case has been stalled since February, when one of the parties involved had a lawyer withdraw as counsel. The two case files at the Jackson County Clerk of Court on the hotel litigation are some six inches thick, including depositions and court motions. But there is not the smallest sign to be found of possible resolution, and in the meantime, finding a new buyer to take over the project seems remote given the lien against the property.
A tangled, drawn-out court battle over an abandoned building sure wasn’t the economic development the town’s leaders dreamed of when they granted that building height variance to the father-and-son duo.
“We were so thrilled to be getting a big chain hotel there,” Sylva Commissioner Harold Hensley said of the town’s decision four years ago to allow the Clarion Inn a fourth floor instead of holding it to three.
The developers claimed the hotel required a 75-foot maximum height instead of just 45 feet as mandated by town regulations.
Hensley, Stacy Knotts, Ray Lewis and then-commissioner-now-Mayor Maurice Moody voted in favor of the variance; Commissioner Danny Allen missed that meeting and an opportunity to vote yes or no.
On paper, at least, things looked good: plans called for a restaurant, convention room and 78 guest rooms.
Instead the economy crashed, and the hotel never opened. In fact, the hotel was never even finished. Today it’s a hulking, depressing presence on top of a steep cutout bank, with boarded-up windows, a surrounding chain-link fence to deter derelicts, and landscaping consisting of waist-high weeds.
“Obviously it didn’t turn out how it was expected,” Knotts said. “I didn’t envision it would be sitting there vacant. We’ve been waiting a long time for something to happen.”
You do the best you can do at the time, make the best decision that you can, and move forward, Hensley said.
“I don’t know that (it’s particularly useful) to go back and regret anything you’ve done,” he said. “Hindsight is 20/20.”
Chris Matheson, a council member who was not on the board at the time of the variance, said she could sympathize with how the situation must have appeared then.
“Had the economy not taken a turn for the worse, if it had been completed as planned and bought a tremendous amount of revenue and activity to that end of town, we’d look at it through different eyes,” Matheson said. “I don’t think we’d even be having this conversation.”
Hensley said he hopes something changes — positively — in connection with the vacant hotel, located across from Wal-Mart.
Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower said it has proven difficult to get straight answers about the hotel’s future — or determine if it even has one. She spent some time early on trying to track down decision makers.
“When I first got here, there was an investment company that said someone was interested. But I haven’t heard anything since. Something needs to happen, it’s a major eyesore,” Isenhower said.
She said if there isn’t an actual use for the building, perhaps the time has come to consider tearing it down.
The problem is, the town isn’t legally in a position to make that decision. And it would seem that until the court case is resolved, no one — anywhere — can make any meaningful decisions regarding Sylva’s empty Clarion Inn.
Just stepping inside the Sylva Police Department gives a person an immediate understanding of why Chief Davis Woodard is pushing so hard for a new building.
The department’s 14 officers, with one more being hired soon, and its three auxiliary officers share 1,000 square feet of room in the 1927-completed building, located on Allen Street. The building was originally designed and built for the town’s fire department; the police department started using it in 1990.
To describe the Sylva Police Department as rather crowded is akin to describing Sylva’s newly renovated historic courthouse and library complex as merely pretty. The words fall short of the reality.
The town’s police officers are crammed into the equivalent of five to seven standard parking spaces.
A few highlights include:
The women’s bathroom at the police department was recently sacrificed to create a tiny break room; all officers now share what had been the men’s bathroom.
Evidence is stored in three different areas; only one of which is actually in the police department. One of the evidence rooms, down in the basement of the building, sometimes floods when bordering Scotts Creek jumps its banks.
There is little to no room left, anywhere, for storing any additional items critical to any successful police investigation. This means when the State Bureau of Investigation finishes up lab work on evidence from a recent double homicide in Sylva, Woodard needs the town’s maintenance crew to construct some kind of special holding place to hold the dozens of items that will be sent to Sylva in anticipation of a trial. Who knows what the officers will do if another big case takes place anytime soon within the town’s limits.
A weight room or workout area, common to most police departments in the region in hopes officers will keep in shape, is simply out of the question. A Bowflex machine is gathering dust in storage at the back of town hall.
Full-sized personal lockers for the officers are also impossible given the space limitations — Woodard jokes about the “preschool”-sized ones in use now, quipping that he’d like his officers to have big-boy and big-girl lockers instead.
The first door to the left in the Sylva police department opens into a 20-x-18 square foot room used by the assistant police chief, four patrol supervisors and seven road officers. Lt. George Lamphiear said the scene is particularly chaotic during shift changes, with everyone jockeying for a place to work. Or in the middle of a huge case such as the double homicide, when the building had to host an additional four or five SBI agents, the district attorney and three or four of his assistants.
“We came into work (that day), and turned right around and went back out,” Lamphiear said. There was no room left for patrol officers and their supervisors to work in the building.
The department also has a small office for the police chief, a slightly larger office for the department’s two detectives, and a tiny reception area at the front. A couple of storage closets, and that’s it.
No interview room, no conference room and inadequate parking in the back, to boot.
If the Sylva Police Department does acquire the old library, Woodard and his officers will have, in place of 1,000 square feet, an airy 6,400 square feet at their disposal, plus 19 parking spaces.
Sounds like heaven on earth to Woodard and his officers.
Sylva’s council members have asked Jackson County to give the them the old library building on Main Street, now standing vacant, to use as a police department. County commissioners agreed last week to meet with their town counterparts on July 18 to discuss it. Sylva is offering, in return for the old library building, to give Jackson County the old chamber of commerce building it owns, a small building on Grindstaff Cove on the approach to downtown.
The sticking point, if there is one, might involve the disparate tax values of the two buildings involved. Sylva’s building is valued at $157,560; the county’s building is $796,000.
Town leaders, however, have described the swap as an issue of fairness, noting that in past years they have allowed the county to use town-owned buildings, such as the senior center, for no charge to taxpayers, or at nominal lease amounts such as $1 a year.
Easing congestion on N.C. 107 and general economic development issues look to shape the context of Sylva’s upcoming municipal elections.
Three commissioner positions are open. Two landed in their seats via appointments instead of election by voters: Harold Hensley and Chris Matheson, who will now have to officially run to keep their seats. Ray Lewis won his seat four years ago.
Hensley was not prepared to commit this week on whether he will seek election, saying he is truly undecided at this juncture.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” Hensley acknowledged, adding that his decision, however, will hinge on whether he feels he “can benefit the taxpayers.”
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, being appointed to replace the outgoing Sarah Graham, who resigned after moving out of the town limits.
Like Hensley, Lewis wouldn’t commit one way or another about whether he will run.
“It is a little early yet. I haven’t made my mind up,” said Lewis, who is finishing a second term as commissioner.
Matheson said she would run, seeking this time to win election to the post she was appointed to fill when Maurice Moody moved up from commissioner to mayor in the November 2009 election.
“I do want to be a part of helping ease congestion on 107,” Matheson said. “To continue working with the DOT, and the county.”
Matheson also wants to see further improvements to Mill Street (known as Backstreet locally). And, the former assistant district attorney is adamant about helping shepherd the police department from cramped quarters into more spacious accommodations.
The town is trying to get the county to swap the old library building for the town’s former chamber of commerce building. The old library, Matheson said, would make a perfect home for the police department.
One newcomer has announced his intentions of running for a town commissioner position. Sylva businessman and resident John Bubacz, owner of Signature Brew Coffee Company, said he became interested in serving after Commissioner Danny Allen indicated he would resign for unspecified reasons at an unspecified point in the future, something which has yet to actually happen.
And, Bubacz said, he was motivated to run while following the town’s wrangle over how best to fund the Downtown Sylva Association. Bubacz is on the DSA board.
“I literally want to do this because I want to be a part,” he said. “There is nothing specific I want to change or accomplish, but I do feel that responsibility.”
Feeling a bit stuffy these days? You’re not alone — stagnating weather patterns and excessive heat, coupled with a heavy pollen load, made for difficult breathing conditions for some this month.
Take Joan McDonald, 66, of St. Petersburg, Fla., who was in a Sylva pharmacy recently shopping for allergy medicine. She was surprised to discover her allergies in “high gear” in the supposed pristine mountains of Western North Carolina.
“I can’t breathe,” said McDonald, who was camping in a local RV park. “I’m totally stuffed up.”
She’s got plenty of company. But what is simply a discomfort for people such as McDonald presents potential real dangers for others. Ozone levels have prompted a series of warnings from air monitoring agencies, and it’s early yet in the season.
Air quality officials earlier this month warned of “Code Orange” conditions at elevations higher than 4,000 feet, and yellow — moderate — conditions down the mountains some.
Ozone comes from sources such as automobile tailpipes, “baking” in heat and sunlight on hot days.
Exposure can impair lung function, cause respiratory irritation, aggravate asthma symptoms and weaken the immune system, experts say. Not to mention particulates are creating a heavy haze over the aptly named “Smoky” Mountains, though recent rains have helped improve visibility.
Jim Renfro, air quality specialist for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said although the air-quality situation obviously isn’t terrific, it’s actually an improvement over the 1990s, say, when air quality was even poorer. Clampdowns on emissions have made a difference.
“We are heading in the right direction,” said Renfro, who has been helping to monitor the quality of the air in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park since about 1986.
And there will need to be even more improvements, because the bar will be raised again this summer.
Renfro said yet tougher restrictions are coming down the pike. This increases the likelihood of even more bad-air warnings, though ironically, the air quality could actually be improved, he said.
The blossoms on the sourwood trees are opening. This is exciting for mountain beekeepers, though in their enthusiasm for the light, fine honey that bees produce from this flower, they sometimes dismiss as paltry and unacceptable to their delicate palates the earlier dark wildflower honey.
I have even known beekeepers in the area — usually small, wizened grumpy ones who are old enough to still be angry that the park moved their family and others to make way for a national playground — who refuse to even harvest the spring honey. Instead, they either don’t collect it at all; or they do, but they feed it back to the bees come winter.
Each to their own, of course, but I say phooey — this prejudice must be, I believe, a hangover from poorer days here in the mountains of Western North Carolina. A belief, hard won through poverty, that things white are more genteel and more refined; which, of course, they are — in every sense of that word. People with a bit of cash in their hands could choose white bread instead of heavy brown, white sugar instead of sorghum or molasses, store-bought clothing instead of rough hand-me-downs. These days, they instinctively reach for light sourwood instead of dark wildflower honey, according it virtues that are more related to childhood training than taste.
Having grown up myself using an outhouse and without electricity or hot water unless you fired up the woodstove (my family were 1970s back-to-the-land folks, but poor is poor, whether you are born to it or come to it), I’m not unsympathetic with that line of reasoning. Once I could afford to do so, I found it quite exciting to buy clothes full price from a real store rather than for a few quarters from a thrift store, as crazy as that might sound. Though now that I’m older and so amazingly cool, I’m back in thrift stores by choice instead of need. Which somehow makes it just peachy, a free choice you understand instead of one forced upon me by necessity, or in my case, through others’ choices.
As it happens, I most enjoy the robust notes of the spring wildflower honey. In it you find a roll call of the early bloom: dandelion, blackberry, privet (“hedge” to you older locals), holly and more — most importantly the tulip poplar, which this year to me at least appeared heavy but brief lived.
I’m not selling honey these days to make my living, so the mad rush to remove supers and extract the wildflower honey before the sourwood emerges is no longer part of my life. I don’t particularly care if the two varieties mix, though I’d still like to have some supers (boxes the bees pack honey in so that beekeepers can rob them easily) with pure sourwood. Or, as pure as one can ensure, knowing that bees will damn well work what they want. But at sourwood time, there is so little other bloom, and the sourwood nectar is so enticing, bees tend to focus on it almost exclusively.
That focus can be problematic for migratory beekeepers, who make their living helping farmers pollinate fields of crops. I understand, by way of example, that good orchardists mow their apple orchards before the bees are brought in. Otherwise, the bees of the migratory beekeepers might just choose to focus on dandelions, say, to the exclusion of the apple trees. This focus is very intense, and very much part of the honeybee makeup — their obsessive-compulsive disorder is one big reason they are such excellent pollinators for us, because once you can get them focused on your flower of choice, they stay with it.
They don’t, like the independent bumblebee, visit an apple bloom on one outing and a dandelion on another, willy-nilly with no consideration at all for the poor farmer needing a field full of trees pollinated. Bumblebees just bumble mindlessly about, heedless to others’ desires and wishes, landing here one moment, there the next — how infuriating for us humans not to be able to control their movements and selections.
But I digress. The sourwood trees are blooming, and this is exciting, as I mentioned previously. Sourwoods, if my memory serves correctly (the Internet has been out, and so I can’t easily check, unless of course I were willing to get up and walk three feet to the bookshelf, which I’m not) are only found in the Appalachians. Or, that’s not quite true — they can be found outside that narrow band, but they don’t produce enough nectar, or aren’t found in enough numbers if they do, to be of use to the beekeeper.
This is swell for savvy beekeepers, because they often market the sourwood honey as a varietal. That’s a fancy word for you-pay-more-for-it, though I didn’t fall in with that line of reasoning when I was peddling jars of honey. I love wildflower and I figured the bees worked just as hard to produce it, so I asked and received the same amount for both. Folks didn’t object, or insist on paying more for sourwood or less for wildflower. They instead seemed quite happy to accord dark and light honeys equal respect, based on taste preference only, a nice lesson from the apiary for us all about not making judgments based on something as arbitrary and meaningless as color.
Macon County’s commissioners want their planning board, if possible, to finish up work on a steep-slope ordinance by August.
Commissioner Bobby Kuppers last week also asked planning board members not to give up on the proposed ordinance, but to see it through as commissioners had requested.
“Let’s finish the conversation,” Kuppers, who serves as the county commissioner liaison to the planning board, urged members.
This after what Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland wearily described as a long few weeks, in which members have drawn the ire and criticism of local anti-planning advocates. Coupled with less than enthusiastic support of even the concept of a steep-slope ordinance from some of its own members, there have been difficult times, he said.
The steep-slope subcommittee presented its recommendations to the full planning board May 19.
“We need to finish this document,” Penland said. “If we don’t, then two years worth of work (by the subcommittee) would have been in vain.”
The previous board of commissioners sanctioned the creation of a steep slope ordinance and even signed off on guiding principles developed by the committee. But two of the five commissioners are new to the board of commissioners since the last election, Republican Ron Haven and Republican Kevin Corbin.
Corbin said it’s too soon to speak on whether he will support a steep-slope ordinance.
“They have not presented us with anything – it’s still with the planning board, so there’s nothing to approve or disapprove at this point,” he said this week. “They’ve got to go through the process on what the planning board actually wants to present.”
Haven could not be reached for comment before press time.
During the planning board’s meeting in May, member Lamar Sprinkle said of the proposed ordinance, “as a private property owner this scares me to death.”
He added that while he felt that road standards did need to be addressed, there was simply no need to go to the level of detail contained in the proposed ordinance.
Sprinkle, a local surveyor, said he felt the recommendations would “be a detriment to development” in Macon County.
Penland urged members, including Sprinkle, to set aside for-and-against feelings and concentrate on the task at hand — a line-by-line, technical review of the recommendations.
“There’s a time and a place for the other discussions, and we’ll have those,” Penland said.
The planning board reviewed basic definitions contained in the proposed ordinance, and discussed the finer points of LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), a device similar to Radar that can be used for slope measurements. Members also began discussing the slope thresholds used in the proposed ordinance.
Points from Macon County’s draft ordinance
• Regulations vary, with rules becoming stricter as slopes get steeper. Certain rules would apply everywhere regardless of slope.
• The draft makes use of landslide hazard maps prepared by the N.C. Geological Survey. Areas at risk of landslides must comply with stricter parts of the ordinance even if their slope is not terribly steep.
• The proposed ordinance establishes an “influence zone” that includes both on-site and off-site land that might be influenced by land-disturbing activities. At a minimum, the influence includes the “grading envelope” plus an area defined by a line located 35 feet beyond the grading envelope.
• A design professional, typically an engineer, is only required or the steepest or potentially most hazardous sites.
• The proposed ordinance does not contain any language that precludes building on any site in Macon County, no matter how steep or potentially hazardous it may be.
Crafting a sliding scale
Basic rules would apply to every building site in the county, regardless of how steep the slope is. Those include:
• Graded or structurally stabilized slopes cannot be higher than 30 feet.
• Fill slopes must have a minimum compaction of 92 percent standard proctor density and must be benched.
More stringent measures are required on the highest risk sites. Construction sites are placed into one of four categories, three of them dependent on how steep the slope is, and one dependent on the landslide risk.
• The least steep slopes or no slope at all — less than or equal to 30 percent — are only required to comply with the general requirements. No additional action required.
• Intermediately steep sites — having slopes greater than 30 percent but less than 40 percent — may be approved by the county slope administrator as submitted if they meet certain conditions.
• The steepest sites — with slopes greater than 40 percent — require the services of a design professional such as an engineer to prepare plans, specifications and a written report for development of the site.
• Sites classified with moderate to high risk on the state landslide hazard map even though they may have minimal slopes, may be in the path of hazardous debris flows. These sites also require the services of a design professional.
Jackson County Commissioner Doug Cody said he was as surprised as anyone to learn that his name would be included on a bronze plaque destined to hang on the newly renovated courthouse and library complex. So was his fellow board member, Charles Elders, who noted last week that frankly it seemed kind of peculiar, even a tad inappropriate, to him.
That’s because during last November’s campaigns, the two Republicans and Jack Debnam, an Independent-but-conservative candidate for commission chairman, were rather free in their criticisms about expenses connected with the $8 million renovation of the old courthouse and construction of a new library annex in Sylva.
Cody was careful to note that he didn’t actually campaign directly against the new library — which, in fact, he didn’t, but he frequently questioned the cost.
Debnam said he truly couldn’t care less whether there’s a plaque or not — the library belongs to the citizens of Jackson County, he said, not to government officials.
“I don’t even know why we have to get into this self-glorification,” Debnam said.
Be that as it may, how then did it happen that two boards of commissioners are destined to have their names listed on the bronze plaque? It will list eight individuals from two Jackson County commission boards, an odd merging of the very men who waged war in one of the most bitter political battles this community can remember.
When it was done, Democrats William Shelton, Tom Massie and Brian McMahan were gone; Elders, Cody and Debnam were in.
Democrats Mark Jones and Joe Cowan are twice designated on the future plaque, because they were and are seated on both the former and current boards. The two men were not up for election last November.
“Nothing is simple in life when it comes to local politics,” County Manager Chuck Wooten wrote Architect Donnie Love in an email dated Jan. 24, which he made available to The Smoky Mountain News. “I suspect with a new board in place when the library opens they will also want to have a presence on the plaque. I’ll talk to the chairman and let you know.”
This followed a query by Love about who should make the plaque, and whether the new county manager was “comfortable with the wording, spelling etc.”
Well, no, it turned out he wasn’t. Wooten, in addition to adding the extra commissioners, removed former County Manager Ken Westmoreland’s name. It should be pointed out that he did not add his own name, either. Wooten said he simply didn’t like the idea of having a county manager, any county manager, on the plaque.
The changes did not cost the county any taxpayer money, Wooten said.
Dottie Brunette, head librarian in Jackson County, declined to comment on the library plaque, or on public speculations she was offered a Faustian deal: agree to the names being added, or risk losing library funding. Wooten flatly denied such a conversation took place.
He was, however, clearly sensitive about talk in the community concerning the plaque leading up to the library’s grand opening. The day before, on June 10, Wooten again emailed Love, querying him about the not-yet-delivered plaque:
“Could you determine when he anticipates delivery or should I pursue ordering the plaque from someone else? I’m having a temporary sign printed for this weekend to head off rumors about excluding the prior board of commissioners from a permanent sign. You know how local politics can be.”
Mary Selzer, who helped head a fundraising campaign for Friends of the Library, said Shelton, Massie and Jones were “the three commissioners who had the vision, and who got the project approved and funded, working with then County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland.
“Without their commitments and hard work, the courthouse would still be standing empty, and we would still be having discussion about where to put a library in Jackson County.”
Massie and Shelton declined to comment.
The cost to the county — and ultimately the taxpayers — for the new library complex was approximately $7.1 million. The total project budget was more than $8.6 million, but the Friends raised the $1.5 million for furniture, fixtures and equipment plus an additional $300,000 to cover campaign-fundraising expenses and to expand the library’s collection.
Selzer added in a delicate step-on-nobody’s toes straddle, “the current board of commissioners did allot money to keep the current level of services at 45 hours.”
Staff, too, was added. The library saw funding increase from $500,000 to $675,000 under the new board of commissioners. The library, Selzer noted, was the only county department that actually received a financial increase.
The delivery date for the new plaque is unknown. So, exactly, is where on the courthouse/library it will hang once it arrives.
Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, called on Sylva leaders to join him in his bid for increased scrutiny of local N.C. Department of Transportation projects.
“I’m not here as a representative of the county commission,” Debnam said. “This is something I feel as a citizen needs to be addressed.”
The county commission chairman has already spoken against the DOT projects to the towns of Dillsboro and the Village of Forest Hills, as well as stumping at one of his own county commissioner meetings. He’s scheduled to visit Webster, too, to discuss his self-described “pet project.”
At issue in particular are two roads, both of which are destined to benefit Southwestern Community College campuses, that are being built to the tune of about $30 million.
Conrad Burrell, chairman of the SCC Board of Trustees, is also the DOT board member for the state’s 10 westernmost counties. Burrell has defended his role in the roads, and defended why he believes they are needed. He’s cited safety concerns among other reasons.
Burrell has noted, correctly, that he has not violated state ethics rules in regard to these projects, and he emphasized that he does not stand to benefit personally.
Debnam remains unconvinced about the need for the two roads, however, noting that “safety” didn’t become a stated goal until well into DOT’s planning process.
“Out of 39 projects, these two got moved up to be the most important projects we have in Division 14,” Debnam told the Sylva Board of Commissioners last week. One provides a new entrance to SCC in Sylva off N.C. 107. The other makes upgrades, including wider, straighter lanes and better shoulders, on Siler Road leading to SCC’s campus in Macon County.
The new SCC entrance road in Jackson County has grown in scope from a regular road “to a boulevard-type road” for an estimated cost of $12.3 million.
It would involve a bridge over N.C. 107, he said, and a round about on Evans Road. This, he said, for an estimated 400 cars a day, when nearby N.C. 107 carries 30,000 cars per day. And N.C. 107, county leaders have been told, can’t be fixed anytime soon — at least seven years, Debnam said, while the SCC entrance road will have taken just four years to bring to fruition if construction starts next year as planned.
“If we let this happen to us, we deserve it,” he said.
Town Commissioner Harold Hensley commented that the design for SCC’s entrance road was conceivably a “grander entry” than even the one built to serve Western Carolina University.
“It depends on whose wish list you’re on,” Debnam responded.
Hensley said he believes DOT’s ostensible desires to include local voices in the planning process is simply an empty gesture “to make you feel involved.”
“I think it is time we figure out what’s going on,” Debnam said. “About why some things can happen, and some can’t.”
Julia Merchant, spokesperson for DOT, this week declined to comment on behalf of the agency.
It doesn’t take long to survey North Carolina’s newest town; perhaps five minutes, tops.
There’s the swanky Fontana Village Resort, the community’s sole employer. Just down the road are an ice cream shop, laundromat, post office and gasoline station. There’s a combined general store and outfitter where tourists can purchase their T-shirts, ballcaps, refrigerator magnets, beer and that Smokies gift-shop standard, the iconic black-bear figurine.
That’s pretty much it.
Fontana Dam, despite officially encompassing 250 acres, isn’t even a one-stoplight town — it’s actually a town of stop signs, a blip of urbanity within a huge swath of federally held forestlands.
The General Assembly earlier this month agreed Fontana Dam could incorporate.
This is a company town in every sense of the word. It existed initially to accommodate the workers and their families who helped build Fontana Dam during World War II; and later, to serve Fontana Village Resort and the 100,000 visitors who make their way each year to this remote spot.
“We are a half an hour from any other group of people,” said Theresa Broderick, breaking briefly from greeting and checking in new arrivals at the front desk of Fontana Village Resort to chat. “If you don’t like your neighbors, you’re in trouble.”
During the warm months, about 140 people work at Fontana Village Resort. Come winter, however, the staff drops to a core 45 or so. Officially, just 33 fulltime residents call the new town of Fontana Dam home, including Broderick.
The nuts and bolts of incorporation
It took community unity and a concerted push to get the incorporation approved by the General Assembly. That vote followed literally years of efforts, said Mack Tallent, a lawyer in nearby Robbinsville who has been handling the town’s legal matters.
Tallent believes Fontana Dam’s unusual circumstances — being on federal Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) lands — gave legislators pause.
Unusual it might be, but the situation is not unheard of: Tallent pointed out that there are military bases in the eastern part of North Carolina where municipalities can be found, like Fontana Dam, situated on federal-land holdings.
Craig Litz, one of the town’s newly appointed interim council members, said the option for Fontana Dam to be a township was contained in original land leases with TVA. It just took this many years to actually make that happen.
This is not about opening the door to selling legalized alcoholic beverages, Litz emphasized. People can already buy beer and such through Fontana Village Resort, if they want to, though Graham County itself is dry.
Fontana Village Resort has supported the incorporation efforts, including offering the use of its events hall both for town council meetings and an election polling site in the fall.
The attorney said that sometime this week, Fontana Dam would have its first town council meeting. The interim board will be sworn in, a town clerk hired and an attorney officially appointed — probably Tallent, though he was careful to emphasize the town can hire anyone it pleases. His firm, McKinney & Tallent, already represents Graham County’s other two municipalities, bringing a certain level of municipal legal expertise difficult to find elsewhere in a county of fewer than 8,000 people.
It’s fun, the 44-year-old attorney openly acknowledged, to help create a town from scratch. After all, how many people ever experience such a thing?
Though, interestingly, Graham County had another town form within the past couple decades.
Robbinsville was incorporated in 1893. It was joined by the Town of Santeetlah, which incorporated in early 1989 after a developer more or less abandoned the infrastructure of what was then called Thunderbird Mountain.
State grants and assessments on the properties allowed Santeetlah to build a water system; roads were also repaved. A volunteer fire department and community center were built, and a decade later, in 1998, a town hall in Santeetlah was dedicated.
Fontana Dam hopes to follow suit. In November, the new town will hold its first election. But Fontana Dam “needs to be up and running” by then, Attorney Tallent said.
That means creating a budget from scratch. And it means sorting out what Fontana Dam will get in tax payments from Fontana Village Resort. That’s just one of the many issues facing this new town, Tallent said.
Interim Mayor Tammie Dees had just come off working the third shift at Fontana Village Resort. She was clearly tired, but still excited to be talking to a reporter about her new town.
Dees’ accent tags her as having growing up in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Turned out she was raised not too far away, on Cochrans Creek in Graham County. As a child, Dees and her family used to travel over to Fontana Dam to see movies. There was a theater in the community in those days.
She takes her new duties seriously.
Residents of the community, Dees said, “have put faith in me to try to get the town off the ground.” She isn’t sure whether she’ll actually run for election in November, but Dees clearly plans to put her heart and energies into Fontana Dam until then, regardless of future political decisions.
Dees said Fontana Dam plans to hire a town manager and clerk; long-term, residents want municipal fire and rescue services and police. Town residents also want Fontana Dam to oversee municipal infrastructure that’s already in place: a sewage and wastewater plant, disposal system, a water treatment plant, solid waste pick up and disposal, paved roads and electrical systems.
That is actually more than many small towns in WNC can offer. Dillsboro has a part-time employee — Webster, none.
Being officially incorporated should allow Fontana Dam to tap state funding these other municipalities take for granted.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Dees said. “We’ve been operating as a town since the 1940s — I think it is about time.”
I have not put the time into my garden this year that I usually do. Between a lack of rain early on and a failure to attend to weed pulling, the beds aren’t looking particularly attractive.
Even given my unusual neglect, however, there are still many vegetables to harvest and eat. Evidence, perhaps, of the undeniable will of living beings to produce, though perhaps not thrive, in the worst of situations.
Lettuce, the summer variety at least, is coming on strong, though it will probably bolt in the next week or two. There’s chard, beets, carrots and onions. The soybeans look good, too.
And busy I might be, but now is the time to plant a mix of greens to serve when the summer lettuce bolts and turns bitter. Sometime this week I hope to broadcast patches of kale, chard, collards, mustard, beets and arugula. I usually add whichever Asian greens I happen to have on hand, and this year that would be mizuna and kommatsuna.
Some people grow these green mixes on top of hay bales, crowning the bales with prepared soil mixtures or mushroom compost. This removes the possibility of weeds, and is a very nice idea, except that most of us would have to buy hay. At about $6 a pop right now through the local feed and seed stores, that route seems a bit pricey. You would, of course, get a desirable return on the cost of the bales because they would be turned to rich organic material for the garden. But still — there are less expensive ways to have your salad and eat it, too.
The other option is to pay great attention and care to the area being planted. Eradicate every weed possible, knowing that despite these great efforts, weeds will still compete and ultimately emerge victorious against the greens. All we can do is the best that we can, taking satisfaction in the effort, I suppose, if not always the results. Though in this situation, I believe the results will be surprisingly pleasing if you’ve not grown hot-weather greens before.
Prepare the planting areas. Broadcast the seed (this means to scatter it liberally about by hand), rake the seed in lightly, and be prepared to water frequently if there isn’t adequate rain. In this case, adequate means enough rain to keep the beds continuously moist.
Germination occurs quickly this time of the year, almost as if by spontaneous combustion — within two or three days, generally.
These greens are to be cut with scissors, or handpicked, when they are still quite small: three to 4 inches tall is about right. You are not growing cooking greens, but young succulent baby greens to eat raw in the place of salad.
I like to cover my greens patch with an insect barrier so that I don’t have to use sprays. The problem with that method is the possibility of trapping moisture, and a corresponding risk of rot, if we are experiencing a humid weather pattern.
Every two to three weeks, plant the mix again. This ensures a constant supply of greens for the table. And when you lose the race against weeds, you switch to the other beds that are now ready for cutting.
One other note: do not mix the greens. That is fine in the fall when you are allowing them to mature before cutting. With baby greens, however, there are extreme variations in rates of growth — one variety of green will grow wildly with great joyful abandon, others will pick their way into the world slowly, with apprehension and fear. It is imperative — if one is to sustain the greens beds for salad production — to keep them cut back. The new growth is what we are seeking for our salad bowls, and it helps if the rates of production are identical, or nearly so, when you go to cutting.
Jackson County’s new public library in Sylva kicked off in grand style, with dozens of people on hand to celebrate the grand opening on Saturday.
The library complex and the renovated courthouse cost $8 million, with the Friends of the Library raising another $1.8 million to outfit and furnish the new library.
The achievement, said Doug Cody, vice chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, stands as a visible symbol on the hill above Sylva as a “credit to the spirit of this community.”
Former Commissioner William Shelton, who played a critical role in helping keep the library in Sylva’s downtown area and in approving the needed funding, shied from taking much of the credit.
“It was a privilege to me to be at the right place at the right time,” Shelton said.
Shelton posited the courthouse and new library complex as a symbol of something wonderful, a place where “history, our culture and our quest for knowledge” merge.
The Jackson County courthouse is devoted to providing space for the community, The old courtroom was converted into an approximately 2,500-square-foot auditorium available for almost any type of function or meeting. Office space for the county’s arts council and genealogical society also are provided in the old building.
A giant addition built to the rear houses the new library. A glass atrium connects the two, serving as the entrance to the complex. The children’s section alone is larger than the entire old library it replaces.
REACH of Jackson County continues to struggle financially, but fears this winter that the agency might actually shut down now seem unlikely.
The “village,” a transitional-housing complex for women escaping domestic violence, was bleeding dollars from the nonprofit organization. The complex has since been taken over by Mountain Projects, and that has certainly helped REACH’s financial outlook, said REACH Executive Director Kim Roberts-Fer.
But even more importantly, she said, REACH is a leaner, meaner, anti-domestic violence fighting machine … or something like that, anyway.
“Sometimes a crisis can get you to rethink, and I think this has put us in a place where we will be even more efficient and effective,” Roberts-Fer said.
The near financial meltdown has taken its toll, however. The projected budget for REACH this fiscal year is $400,000, down from $1 million just two years ago. And the staff is down, too, with nine positions slashed: half of the people who once worked for the nonprofit are gone.
What’s left, Roberts-Fer said, is the core, essential duty that rightfully belongs to an agency such as this: the ability to help victims of domestic violence during times of crisis.
The hotline is manned, the money-raising thrift shop is open, and the workers remaining for the agency are being cross-trained to handle a multitude of services. The days of specializing are over, Roberts-Fer said, and so are nice-but-not-essential services, such as long-term counseling for victims. That’s being farmed out into the community when there’s a need.
The continued viability of the nonprofit hinges on two critical points: continued grant money from a dollars-strapped state, and the ability of REACH to ride out a four- to five-month expected delay in receiving that funding. These days, North Carolina is slow to put the checks in the mail, and agencies that desire solvency have learned to stash money or use lines of credit from banks to ride out the drought that begins with each new fiscal year.
REACH, however, has no piggy bank, and no real bank that is willing to extend credit — the agency went into foreclosure proceedings with the village, subsequently missing payroll twice and even seeing the water cut off for nonpayment of bills. REACH isn’t exactly the kind of customer most banks will open their vaults to.
Money woes or not, the need for the nonprofit’s services are great; however, during fiscal year 2009-10, REACH of Jackson County received more than 400 crisis-line calls, provided emergency shelter for 37 women and 48 children, and was involved in 269 counseling sessions.
Finance Director Janice Mason said the thrift shop isn’t making much money, but that it is holding its own. One positive sign is that donations are up, she said.
Roberts-Fer has warned her staff that she cannot guarantee all the hard times are over, or even that the agency might not again miss payroll. Still, she remains optimistic.
“Progress towards stability has been slow, but there is definite progress,” Roberts-Fer said.
A REACH of Jackson County fundraiser is set for Saturday, June 18, from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. at the Country Club of Sapphire Valley. Tickets are $75 per person. The evening includes dinner, drinks, dancing and gaming, with a special appearance by the Gamelan Ensemble. 828.631.4488 ext. 207.
The tiny town of Webster has suddenly emerged as a player in whether a controversial $12 million entrance road is built into neighboring Southwestern Community College.
That’s because the state Department of Transportation wants the town to sign off on a municipal agreement for the new route from N.C. 107 to N.C. 116. In other words, the town is still large enough to encompass some of the road’s boundaries, and that means big DOT seems to need little Webster’s OK.
But if a meeting of the town board last week is any indication of which way the wind might be blowing, it looks like this town of fewer than 500 souls could put the kibosh on SCC’s road, a pet project of SCC Board of Trustees President Conrad Burrell. He is also this region’s board of transportation member. The board, until Gov. Beverly Perdue somewhat changed the process recently, has had virtually total say-so on what roads get built when, and where, in North Carolina.
Burrell voted three times to give the SCC road project money, with $680,000 since 2007 already tagged for the new SCC entrance. Despite also sitting on the community college board, his voting does not violate the state ethics law. Burrell has emphasized that he does not view his advocacy for the road as improper since he does not stand to gain personally. A new building going up on campus has been named in honor of Burrell, partly in acknowledgement of his strenuous efforts to see the road built.
The college currently has only one road in and out, and if something happened to block that road, students could be stranded on the hillside campus, Burrell has said.
But others aren’t so sure this is a good use of such a large chunk of taxpayer dollars.
“I personally have some concerns about this,” said Webster Mayor Larry Phillips. “Not so much about the road itself, but the cost of the project.”
That concern, Phillips indicated, is directly attributable to Jackson County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jack Debnam, who has embarked on a one-man crusade against the DOT project.
Debnam has publicly questioned whether a new entrance road for SCC is that important when compared to other state road needs. Debnam met with DOT officials, reporting to The Smoky Mountain News, “I told them this whole thing stinks so bad I can’t hardly stand to stay in the room. I told them I was going to do everything in my power to stop them.”
Debnam is scheduled to meet with each of Jackson County’s three town boards to layout those concerns, including Webster. Debnam also used his position as commission chairman to stump against the project during a county meeting. Commissioner Joe Cowan countered Debnam’s criticism of the road. Cowan last week repeated his call that it would be only fair invite the DOT to a meeting to give its side on the project.
Cowan, like Burrell, is a Democrat, while Debnam is a conservative-leaning Independent.
County Manager Chuck Wooten said a date in July or August for such a discussion has been tentatively set, per Cowan’s request.
Webster Commissioner Mark Jamison resigned from the town’s board last week, citing unexplained issues with his real job as the community’s postmaster.
In a short letter by Jamison read aloud by Mayor Larry Phillips, Jamison said: “My service on the town board has begun to have an impact on my position as postmaster. Unfortunately in a public position such as mine I’m an easy target.
“Regretfully I must tender my resignation from the Webster town board effective immediately. It has been a pleasure serving with you.”
The letter was dated June 9.
Jamison had more than two years left on his term. Jamison’s seat likely will be filled with an appointment by the remaining town board members, said Lisa Lovedahl-Lehman, who oversees the Jackson County Board of Elections.
The postmaster took a seat on the town board after prevailing in an unusual write-in election in 2009. There were five open seats on the town board, but only two candidates signed up to run that year. The lack of interest by official candidate meant write-ins were destined to fill the slots on the town board. When Election Day rolled around, however, more than 20 write-in candidates emerged in an election that drew 42 voters. Jamison and Alan Grant, an instructor at Southwestern Community College, garnered as many votes as sitting town board members Billie Bryson and Jean Davenport, whose names officially appeared on the ballot.
Jamison, at the time, told The Smoky Mountain News that the unusual election process indicated to him that the town board didn’t have a message from voters to create change.
“It’s kind of weird, but what it tells you is you don’t have much of a mandate. It tells you people don’t want you to do a whole lot. In my case, I think I’ll tread lightly,” Jamison said.
Jamison has occasionally been outspoken on community issues, and a regular columnist and letter writer to local newspapers.
Law enforcement officers and court officials are being trained on how to use a new $17 million state database that pulls together everything known about a criminal to the screen of a laptop.
Officers using the system will know who and what they are dealing with upon arrival at a traffic stop or crime scene. State Controller David McCoy said during a training session in Franklin last week that he is certain the Criminal Justice Law Enforcement Automated Data Services (CJLEADS, for short), will save lives.
Officers and court officials from Jackson, Macon and Swain were at the Franklin training. Similar teaching efforts are under way across the state.
In addition to integrating data, the new system provides an “offender watch” to alert officers and others who might need to know when there is a change in status. For instance, when a warrant is issued on an offender, or if a particular suspect is due in court, officers can receive email alerts.
The database is massive: 41 million files on 13.8 million offenders in North Carolina.
Previously, officers and court officials were forced to search up to seven different systems for the same information, McCoy said. Now, files including the state’s Administrative Office of Courts, the Department of Corrections and sex-offender registry have been merged.
Privacy issues have been considered, and were at the forefront of the database design, the state controller said. Public records on regular Joes and Janes in North Carolina have not been co-mingled with that of criminal offenders.
“And even for bad actors we don’t want to violate anyone’s rights,” McCoy said.
Sondra Phillips, who works in the data integration section of the state controller office, emphasized the system was built using on-the-job suggestions by officers and court personnel. Warnings on an offender come up immediately to help protect those working in the state’s law enforcement field, she said.
Federal agencies also are gaining access, she said, including the FBI, immigration officers and the U.S. Marshals Service. For its part, by June of next year, Phillips said North Carolina hopes to jump through the necessary security hoops to bring national alerts into the state system — such as missing people and wanted suspects.
The Office of the State Controller was selected to rollout the project after building and launching a $100 million payroll system for North Carolina.
The new criminal database will cost taxpayers $8 million a year to maintain.
The General Assembly’s budget would cut funding for a professional development center for teachers in Cullowhee by nearly half what it was allocated last year, slashing the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching from $6.1 million to $3.1 million.
Leaders at NCCAT stopped short of declaring that such a sizeable cut would force them to shutdown. But they do say that without additional funding, the 25-year-old institution will have to severely cut back on services. NCCAT and its 82 full-time and part-time employees, to a large degree, will have to transform, and quickly, to survive into the future.
A likely short-lived reprieve came with Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto this week of the Republican-crafted $19.7-billion budget. Perdue’s proposed budget had called for only a 10-percent cut to NCCAT and the elimination of eight positions.
On the heels of ever-dwindling state backing the past few years, even Perdue’s proposed cuts would have been difficult to absorb, said NCCAT Executive Director Elaine Franklin. She left her job at Western Carolina University in April to oversee this neighboring institution.
Since July 2008 and not including this current fiscal year, NCCAT has seen its funding cut $1,886,821 by the state.
Perdue is unlikely to win her budget battle with the Republican-controlled legislature over the budge. NCCAT could join the ranks of casualties brought on by diminished state funding, with little time to plan or make requisite program changes. Franklin said that would severely damage NCCAT, and disregard the 25-year investment into it that the state’s taxpayers have made.
‘Vitally important,’ or boondoggle?
Supporters tout NCCAT’s ability to help keep thousands of pre-kindergarten through 12th grade teachers in the state’s classrooms. Envisioned and pushed through by then Gov. Jim Hunt in 1985, at its height about 5,000 teachers a year came to either Cullowhee or to its smaller sister campus in Ocracoke for seminars and programs. The number in the past few years has been closer to 2,800 teachers, a cutback that is the visible result of dwindling funds.
The programs are interdisciplinary, targeting the environmental and biological sciences, technology, humanities, arts, communication and health.
The teachers who attend NCCAT are transformed professionally and seem visibly reenergized about teaching in the state’s classrooms, said Regina Ash, director of instruction for Swain County Schools.
“NCCAT is important to our teachers, and because of that, I think it is vitally important to our students,” said Ash this week. Her duties include overseeing professional development for Swain County’s educators.
Ash said one of the most critical services NCCAT provides is helping to underscore that teachers are important, and to give them visible evidence that others value them as professionals. The seminars are free, and NCCAT (via state dollars) has even paid for substitute teachers to take over during teachers’ absences.
That type of spending, however, goes to the crux of the criticism NCCAT has attracted in such lean economic times as these. And so does the very appearance of NCCAT, a stunning facility that features state-of-the art equipment and such perks as a small fitness center. On the walls hangs a large modern art collection — never mind that it’s on permanent loan, and cost nary a taxpayer penny; “boondoggle” is the word some have used. Staff at NCCAT still feel the sting of an article published in 2009 by the right-leaning Carolina Journal, a Raleigh-based publication targeting North Carolina’s political scene. Headlined “Teacher Paradise in Jackson County Attracts Scrutiny,” the reporter noted:
“… the center’s rambling stone buildings and finely manicured landscaping could be mistaken for that of an upscale mountain resort. And it offers a range of amenities to match. The grounds feature an idyllic lake, nature trails, and garden complete with covered picnic tables, benches, and fountain. A detached lodge has 48 individual living quarters and includes private bathrooms, common areas with access to outdoor patios, kitchens stocked with snacks, wireless Internet, and even a Hershey’s Kiss on each teacher’s pillow in the morning.”
Fighting for NCCAT
Given the harshness of NCCAT’s detractors, the names of some of its supporters might just surprise you. Numbered in the institution’s fan base? That fiscal conservative, no-apologies-for-it, newly elected Republican member of the state legislature, Sen. Jim Davis of Franklin.
Davis recently toured the NCCAT facility in Cullowhee. He heard and believes the pitch staff there make: that an investment in NCCAT is an investment in the state’s teachers, and one that pays off big for the children of North Carolina.
NCCAT reports a 96.9 percent average annual retention rate for teachers who participate in the professional development it offers. This compares to 87.9 percent statewide and 83.2 percent nationally from 2004 through 2007.
But hard times result in hard choices, Davis said while back in his home district this past weekend and in Sylva to attend the new library grand opening. NCCAT was lucky to get even $3.1 million, said Davis, who voted for the budget that cut NCCAT’s funding.
“It was a fight,” Davis said, adding that he believes anybody who actually takes the time, as he did, to “go out there and see it, and find out what they really do” will come away “convinced it is a good program.”
So what does the future hold for NCCAT? That’s difficult to say right now, because planning in these uncertain times is practically impossible, said Tina Wilson, director of business services.
“How can we plan?” Executive Director Franklin asked rhetorically.
One simply does the best one can, added Peter Julius, an NCCAT center fellow who helps design programs, and a former Swain County teacher. Programs are usually planned out six months ahead; Julius is simply warning people that everything hinges on the final state budget.
Franklin believes NCCAT, if it can claw up from that $3.1 million in state funding, can still survive and prosper.
“We do fully realize that this is a difficult budget for North Carolina,” she said. “(But an additional infusion of dollars) would give us the time to do better planning, strategic planning.”
And transform the institution into what must become NCCAT’s future, she said: an organization that relies on private fundraising to pay portions of the bills. Franklin said she has no doubts that NCCAT supporters will open their billfolds and wallets to ensure the institution stays afloat.
But NCCAT must, she said, have a bit of wiggle room to make that transition.
There are two puncture wounds decorating my left leg, courtesy of a rooster who has taken an inexplicable but pronounced dislike of me.
This rooster is a white leghorn. He has a twin, another white leghorn rooster, who also escaped the hatchet. Both roosters should have been sent to freezer camp a good two months ago.
I spared them because I couldn’t capture them. They’d taken to roosting 20 feet or so up in a tree, and were well out of my reach that April evening when I came to collect the others. You want to capture chickens either at dusk or before sunrise in the morning, after they have gone to roost or before they start the day’s activities.
I’ve pretended since not to notice these two very white, very large, very visible roosters strutting about the chicken yard having their way with the hens. I guess I’ve been hoping they’d be raptured up into the freezer without my divine assistance, but reality has proved disappointing — they’ve just lived on, getting bigger and bullying the hens more and more.
The rooster started our duel by getting underfoot while I was feeding the hens and the chicks. I somewhat sensed that this rooster was with me every step of the way, but didn’t pay him any attention.
While getting feed for the chicks, I inadvertently left the gate to the chicken yard open. Of course the hens wandered out. The roosters, who weren’t about to let the hens find respite from being ravished for even a moment, went out, too.
Seeing the chickens escape, I went over, picked up an empty plastic feedbag, and used it to scoot them back into their yard. I closed the gate, and returned to feeding the chicks.
In retrospect, the rooster must have been working his nerve up all along. Being touched with a bag was the proverbial straw, however: He’d identified The Enemy.
I was carrying a refilled waterer when he attacked. I knocked him back and off with the container; then the rooster and I squared off for a showdown. My leg hurt and blood was dripping steadily, but I realized this was no time to nurse my wounds.
It looked like a possible fight to the death.
The rooster was about five feet away, dancing about like a boxer taking my measure, his beady eyes fixed on my every movement. I knew then that I had a serious contender on my hands.
I had a secret, though, that the rooster didn’t — couldn’t — know. The rooster had taken on a former, albeit mediocre, student of Shotokan karate. I’d worked my way from a white belt to the dizzying heights of a brown belt before, as is typical with my athletic endeavors, I quit.
Taking deep calming breaths, I reached back into my athletic memory, tapping those three or so years of not-very-intense martial arts training. I tried to bounce a little on the balls of my feet, just like I’d been told to do when sparring, but found it impossible to bounce lightly in rubber muck boots. Deciding that bouncing was overrated, I braced myself instead, waiting for the rooster to make the first move.
He danced, I braced; he danced, I braced.
Finally, the rooster lunged. And my moment arrived.
The killer rooster came at me, and I planted a perfect front kick on his chest, booting him back and up several feet through the air. I can only hope that the hens saw me kick the snot out of one of their great tormenters.
Temporarily cowed, the rooster backed off; I finished taking care of the chicks. By that evening’s feeding, however, he was circling me again. I was forced to feed and water carrying my shepherd’s crook, figuring in a pinch this symbol of good husbandry would serve as a rooster cudgel and I could batter him to death.
There is no end yet to this story, no fitting finale with which to neatly sum up the situation. Instead, I’m licking my wounds, left plotting against a rooster who is busy plotting against me.
After a decade-and-a-half of stable leadership — a situation almost unheard of within the greater University of North Carolina system —Western Carolina University is about to embark on a whirlwind of change.
In addition to the replacement of Chancellor John Bardo by David Belcher of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, who starts July 1, a bevy of top positions at the university are filled, for now, only on an interim basis. This includes the provost (WCU’s second in command) and the university’s vice chancellor of administration and finance.
Also coming open? Six of the 13 members of the WCU Board of Trustees are up for appointment or reappointment. This includes Chairman Steve Warren and Vice Chairman Charles Worley, who have served two- and four-year terms respectively on the board, meaning they cannot be reappointed as trustees.
The governor gets four appointments; the UNC Board of Governors appoints eight of the trustees, plus the president of the student government is automatically placed on the board.
This board of trustees and Bardo met for the final time last week. In an emotional meeting that left Warren and Bardo, at times, choking back tears, the outgoing chancellor said he truly believes WCU’s best days are before it.
“These 16 years (as chancellor) represents a quarter of my life,” Bardo said. “This was about trying to make a difference in lives of people.”
The average tenure of a UNC chancellor is four-and-a-half years.
Warren spoke of Bardo’s “incredible vision” that transformed “the spirit of the campus.”
“Everything we ever wanted for this university is now within our reach — everything,” Warren said.
To honor Bardo, the board of trustees voted to name the university’s Fine and Performing Arts Center after the retiring chancellor.
In a related matter, Faculty Senate Chairman Erin McNelis told the board of trustees that this faculty leadership group would consider a resolution for more openness when it comes to a chancellor search.
This resolution would seek for the finalists’ names to be made public, so that the final selection would become “an open process,” she said. This is routinely done in many states, but North Carolina allows universities to opt to keep chancellors’ searches secret.