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Hazelwood clings to its post office under threat of closure

Hazelwood seems to be getting the short end of the stick these days. Once an independent blue-collar town boasting a half-dozen factories, it has seen them close one by one over the past two decades.

Now, the community is in danger of losing another vestige of its identity: the post office that stood on its former main street for nearly 50 years.

This time around, Hazelwood residents are taking firm action. More than a thousand Hazelwood residents have banded together to rescue their neighborhood post office from permanent closure, signing petitions and sending letters to elected officials.

The Postal Service has not made a final decision but continues to study consolidating the Waynesville and Hazelwood postal operations. The Waynesville post office is less than two miles away from the one in Hazelwood, which primarily serves Hazelwood and West Waynesville residents.

The Hazelwood branch is certainly not alone in facing closure, as the Postal Service is considering other consolidations across the country to improve efficiency and save some badly needed money.

Six of the 80 post offices in Mid-Carolinas district have already been shut down this past year.

The government agency cites changes in “consumer preference” and the recession-related declines in mail volume for a revenue shortfall of nearly $4.6 billion so far this year, with that figure projected to push $7 billion.

Bill Burkhalter of North Augusta, S.C., who owns the Hazelwood building that is leased to the Postal Service, said the possible closure is definitely not due to increased rents. According to Burkhalter, the Postal Service is actually getting the better deal.

“They have a very good lease rate, believe me,” said Burkhalter.

Despite plummeting revenues, the Postal Service says it will not lay off employees at closed branches but will transfer them to new jobs, according to spokeswoman Monica Robbs.

P.O. boxes at Hazelwood would be installed in an open section of the Waynesville facility with no change in address. Ironically, that would mean the Hazelwood address and zip code would apply only to P.O. boxes outside of Hazelwood itself. Those who get mail delivered to their doorsteps in Hazelwood switched to the Waynesville address long ago.


Signing for support

After receiving more than 1,400 signatures from constituents railing against the proposed Hazelwood post office shutdown, U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler (D-Waynesville) enlisted in the battle to save the Hazelwood post office. That fight has multiple front lines in Shuler’s district, with the Postal Service’s threatened closings of two post offices in the Asheville area.

“I have seen and heard tremendous local support for keeping these facilities open,” said Shuler in a press release. “I am relaying that information directly to Postal Service officials.”

His relaying has helped persuade the Postal Service to keep doors open at the Biltmore post office, which indicates that the movement to save the Hazelwood facility isn’t all that farfetched.

“It’s not locked in stone that they’ll close it,” said Doug Abrahms, spokesman for Shuler. “If we present enough evidence, we have a chance of getting it off [the list], but there’s no guarantee.”

Shuler said there’s even more hope for success since Congress passed a bill last week that cuts its retiree health benefits fund by $4 billion.

“That should give the Postal Service some breathing room to pursue long-term options other than drastically slashing the number of postal facilities throughout the United States,” Shuler said.

Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown is not so optimistic. Though he has also sent on a letter to the Postal Service, stating it would be a convenience to have both offices open, Brown said the post office would “likely” be closed.

“I’m just another citizen in the community,” Brown said “I don’t think my voice has much weight.”

Mary Ann Enloe, long-time mayor of Hazelwood before it merged with Waynesville, said though the Biltmore facility was saved, Hazelwood has always been a middle-class community and residents there might not have the same clout as the customers in the upscale Biltmore area.

“My honest opinion is that we will probably lose this, not because of any ill will toward the community of Hazelwood but because the U.S. Postal Service sees it as a cost-saving measure,” Enloe said.


Fighting for survival

Whatever the outcome of the Postal Service’s review may be, no one can say Hazelwood residents didn’t put up a fight.

On the day Lynda Baltzell learned the Hazelwood post office might close, she became one of the leaders of a campaign to save it. She and others in the neighborhood took petitions to local businesses where they sat collecting signature after signature for three weeks.

“This is a small post office with a big heart,” said Baltzell.

Apparently, many Hazelwood residents feel the same way.

Those who walked into Within Reach Resale Shop were “very anxious” to sign, according to Linda Dirscherl, assistant manager at the store.

“They felt like it is needed in the neighborhood,” Dirscherl said.

The same went for customers at Smoky Mountain Roasters, where most who walked in also signed.

“All the people who come in and sign it say ‘Heck ya!’” said Lauren Lankford, an employee at the café.

Patty Atkinson, a sales clerk at Waynesville Pharmacy in the Hazelwood neighborhood, said so many people signed the petition there that she continually had to add additional pages.

Atkinson herself wrote to Shuler for the first time to try to save the post office. She sent a letter to the Postal Service’s district office in Charlotte as well. Atkinson stressed that many elderly residents use the Hazelwood post office, including veterans who should have the convenience of a nearby post office.

“I don’t think they realize just how much this post office is used,” said Atkinson.

Joe Moore of Hazelwood is one of the neighborhood veterans who will be saddened to see the post office go. Moore makes daily trips to check his post office box where he receives his prescription medicine. He’s worried about how he will get to his medicine if the post office closes.

“It’s a shame because I’m disabled,” said Moore. “I don’t go too much away.”

Moore said his primary concern is the prospect of waiting in long lines at the Waynesville post office.

“I’m worried about the time that it takes to get all this done, waiting in line if you’re not well,” said Moore. “I have to have my rest.”

But for others, the move would simply be a minor inconvenience.

Tammy Hutchison, who works at Hazelwood Family Medicine, runs to the post office three times a week and said she would miss getting her five minutes of fresh air walking there.

“Now I have to get in my car and go,” said Hutchison. “The parking at the new post office can be horrendous.”

Darlene Lowe, who regularly uses the main post office in Waynesville, said it is obviously busier than the one in Hazelwood.

“Parking can get a little crazy,” said Lowe. “I have been here when both parking lots are full. I must admit, I’ve gone to Hazelwood, and I’ve gotten right in.”

According to Moore, the Waynesville post office sees enough people as it is.

“There is no way that they can handle the traffic, they can’t now,” Moore said.

Kim Medford, manager of Carver’s Cloth Shop & Vertigo, deliberately avoids the Waynesville post office because going there is time-consuming, she said.

“This is a small town, but there are a lot of people here,” said Medford. “I think we need more than one post office.”


Disappearing Hazelwood

According to Enloe, the Postal Service had promised that the post office in Hazelwood would remain open when the towns of Hazelwood and Waynesville merged.

Enloe said she was told it would take an act of Congress to close it, since it was a stand-alone post office rather than a secondary branch.

Robbs with the Postal Service said the Hazelwood facility is now a branch of the Waynesville office, so the agency has full authority to close it.

While saving the Hazelwood post office is about convenience for some, other residents are also concerned about preserving a part of history. The post office was one obvious sign of Hazelwood’s former status as an independent town.

“The whole crux of it is we don’t want to give up that part of our identity,” said Enloe.

Atkinson wrote in her letters that that the post office has long been part of the Hazelwood community’s identity.

“I stressed that it was like losing our heritage because it has been here for so many years,” said Atkinson.

Even if the post office does close, thereby striking a blow to Hazelwood’s identity, few say the actual community will ever cease to be a community for its own residents.

“The people will still have the Hazelwood identity,” said Moore. “As for the rest of the world, they’re not going to know.”

Cat lovers quietly care for wild colonies

Move over rabbits, it’s cats that multiply like crazy in Haywood County. According to the Haywood Animal Welfare Association, there are about 12,000 lost or stray cats in the county, nearly a fifth of the Haywood’s total human population.

To help curb growth of the “community cat” population, HAWA recently received a $10,000 grant from PetSmart Charities. The grant will fund spay/neuter surgery for about 200 stray cats.

Penny Wallace, HAWA president, said sterilizing the cats will make a “significant dent” in their numbers by the end of 2010.

In addition to sterilization, the cats will be vaccinated against rabies, treated for parasites, and have their left ear “tipped,” or squared off to show they’ve already gone through the trap, neuter and return process.

Since launching the pilot program, HAWA has been learning about the explosion of “cat colonies” across the county.

“Daily we’re learning about colonies of 20 or more cats,” said Wallace. “There are huge numbers of people in our county feeding the cats who won’t turn them over to the shelter because of euthanasia. Many of these people have been spaying and neutering the colony cats on their own dime for years.”

Susan Kumpf, a field coordinator and volunteer for HAWA, is currently working with “cat colony caregivers” to humanely trap the cats before transporting them to Humane Alliance for the spay or neuter surgery.

Kumpf said it’s vital to establish a relationship with the cat caregivers since they can aid greatly in trapping the cats that trust them most.

“Sometimes we set them up with traps, stand back and let them do the whole thing,” said Kumpf.

The caregivers, who are usually retired people, those with fixed incomes, and cat lovers in general, have been very cooperative with the program so far — only after they are reassured that the cats will be returned.

“You have to really exude trust and shared care about the animals,” Kumpf said.

Two such caregivers, Ruth and Bill Green of Waynesville, started off feeding a couple of cats that seemed to be starving to death. Now, they take care of approximately 30 cats in their colony.

“We got more than we can handle,” said Bill. “I couldn’t name them all to save my life.”

Bill and Ruth have named a few of their favorites, however. Both say they have never gotten sick from handling the cats.

Though cat lovers obviously have the interest of community cats at heart, they do face some stiff opposition from those who prefer birds.

The American Bird Conservancy states that free-roaming cats kills hundreds of millions of birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians each year. They are exposed to injury, disease and parasites and are capable of transmitting diseases and parasites like rabies.

The ABC launched the “Cats Indoors!” Campaign for Safer Birds and Cats in 1997 to advocate keeping cats indoors, in an outdoor enclosure, or trained to go outside on a harness and leash.

According to the ABC, managed cat colonies don’t always decrease in size because cats that have been spayed or neutered, vaccinated and regularly fed will also live longer. Cat colonies also attract more cats, whether it’s because of the food provided daily or because the colonies serve as a “dumping grounds” for unwanted cats.

While Wallace admits that the community cats do kill birds, she pointed out that they also handle the vermin population very well.

“The real danger is when they’re not spayed or neutered,” said Wallace. “They expand exponentially.”

What’s in a name? Tourism web site succumbs to proper spelling

The Haywood Tourism Development Authority announced some good news last week for all those miffed by the incorrect spelling of “Smoky” on its official Web site’s address.

The TDA has put up $14 to buy a new URL, www.visitncsmokies.com, to eventually replace the old address, www.smokeymountains.net. Jay Sokolow, who helps market the TDA, said the new URL is advantageous for multiple reasons.

“It’ll be much more recognizable, memorable,” Sokolow said.

For starters, there’s the use of an action word “visit.” Another improvement is the phrase “NC.”

“It really reflects and addresses a concern of the TDA that the Smokies are more heavily associated with Tennessee than North Carolina,” Sokolow said.

But the improvement that may stick out most to sticklers for correct spelling is the nixing of “Smokey” in the site address — which incorrectly boasts the letter “e”.

“They don’t want people to think we don’t know how to spell Smokies,” said Sokolow.

Having a .com ending rather than a .net is also beneficial since most of the well-known Web sites have that suffix, Sokolow said.

Until the new site is fully set up, visitors to www.visitncsmokies.com will be redirected to the existing site. The TDA will soon begin to use the new site address in its marketing materials, literature, and the visitor’s guide.

In addition to news of the new URL, Sokolow said his marketing company would try to decrease dependence on Google Adwords while optimizing SEO terms. In plain speech, that means the TDA will try to help online searchers find its site more easily with tactical placement of keywords, rather than via pay-per-click advertisements that show up at the top of Google search results for those very same words.

Still, the TDA will have to continue paying to show up on top when it comes to such generic terms like “Smoky Mountains,” and even “Smokey Mountains” since there are so many business names and Web sites that include those particular words.

Other keywods the TDA has purchased in the past include “Ghost Town,” “North Carolina Mountains,” and “NC getaways.”

Sokolow said while Google Adwords clients must only pay up when someone actually clicks on the link to their pages, it would be best to pay nothing and have the page show up “organically” in search results.

According to Sokolow, the TDA has spent a ceiling of almost $2,500 a month on Google Adwords alone.

Lasting precedent doubtful as county closes books on erosion suit

Developers looking for shortcuts around erosion laws won’t find amnesty in a recent court case between a landowner and Haywood County erosion officials, according to the state authority on erosion enforcement.

The landowner, Ron Cameron, won a lawsuit claiming he was a victim of overbearing erosion enforcement.

While the county settled out of court for $75,000, the county stood a good chance of winning at the state level had they gone forward, according to Mel Nevils, the Land Quality section chief with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Nevils said state precedent sides with the county, citing at least two similar cases that have been decided by the Court of Appeals and even N.C. Supreme Court.

In the Haywood suit, Cameron claimed he was logging his property and should fall under a laxer set of erosion rules that apply to forestry rather than a more stringent set of rules that apply to developers.

The county questioned the landowner’s true motives, however, citing Cameron’s creation of a development master plan, registering a subdivision name with the county and applying for a septic tank evaluation. The county insisted on holding him to the higher erosion standard, and Cameron sued to get out from under the county’s jurisdiction, ultimately prevailing in a three-week trial in May.

In the state cases, “The basic premise was the same,” Nevils said.

“You had a landowner claiming forestry and we felt that it was not forestry, that it was development,” Nevils said.

Both sides in the Cameron suit argued that a terrible precedent would be set if the other side won. If the county lost, it argued the case would provide a road map for developers who want to exploit the forestry loophole.

Nevils isn’t concerned, however. He said the precedent already on the books in higher court rulings, which sided against the landowners, will trump the Haywood County ruling, which was made by Judge Laura Bridges.

“It is the only time I am aware of this type of ruling has been made,” Nevils said of the Haywood suit.

Meanwhile, Cameron argued that landowners everywhere would shy away from logging, for fear they could never change their mind without their motives being questioned and triggering retroactive enforcement and fines.

Nevils doesn’t foresee that kind of entrapment by erosion officers happening, however.

“Practically, if you are logging now and 20 years down the road you do a development, we are not going to make you do that,” Nevils said. “We look for evidence whether there was intent to develop at the time the road building occurred.”

Nevils, who testified for the county during the trial, said Haywood County’s Erosion Control Officer Marc Pruett was doing his job properly when trying to enforce county erosion laws.

Haywood County initially planned to appeal the ruling, but Cameron was going after damages and hefty attorney’s fees from the county. The county commissioners had already spent $282,000 on attorney fees to defend the case and chose to cut the county’s losses and settle out of court.

Nevils said he doesn’t know if the state law could be clarified to avoid the situation in the future. It might not be possible to clarify it more than it is.

“Technically the way the law is written, it says if you are planning to disturb land, no matter when, if it is for the eventual purpose of residential development you cannot claim forestry,” Nevils said.

Local illustrator part of upcoming Open Studios Tour

James Lyle is an internationally renowned illustrator and artist whose work appears in comic books, in campaigns for major corporations, in video games and in the Weekly Reader read by thousands of students each week. He lives in Haywood County and is participating in the Oct. 3-4 Haywood Open Studios Tour:

SMN: Why do you participate in this event?

Lyle: I grew up in Haywood County and have spent most of my life here, but in spite of the fact that I’m known nationally — and even internationally in some circles — very few folks around here know what I do. So when the HOST event first started, I thought it might be a good way to let people in on the secret. It wasn’t until this year that I had the opportunity to actually participate.

SMN: What about your work gives you the most pleasure?

Lyle: Actually sitting down at the drawing board and drawing gives me the most pleasure. The difficulty now is that it seems that I have to spend a great deal of time in self-promotion and networking. Fortunately most of my experiences in “networking” have been positive, and I find that to be nearly as pleasant as the drawing process itself. I’ve been spending a great deal of time lately as vice chairman of the Southeast Chapter of the National Cartoonists Society and that offers a chance to work with a number of up-and-coming artists in the region. Mentoring them is a close second to actually drawing.

SMN: Is your art your sole source of income; and if so, how long did you work at it before getting to your current status?

Lyle: Art is my primary source of income. But my wife and I both work, and I do play an occasional gig with our band, Gypsy Bandwagon — which is technically still “art” in the larger sense of the word. I’ve been working as an artist full time since graduating from Southwestern Community College back in 1992, but actually did quite a bit of work as a freelance artist before getting that degree. So all in all, I have been working professionally since 1983. So, 25 years, give or take a year.

SMN: What attracted you to Western North Carolina?

Lyle: Besides growing up here, I think it’s a beautiful place to live. When I met my wife, I thought for a while that we might live near where she grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, but the cost of living there is so high that we added it all up and realized that the mountains was a great place to be. So we came back home.

SMN: What would you do if you weren’t an illustrator or cartoonist?

Lyle: I’d like to be a musician if I weren’t able to be an illustrator or cartoonist. Most graphic artists do seem to have some musical aspirations, so I’m in good company.

SMN: Who is your clientele?

Lyle: My clientele varies a great deal, from small comic book publishing companies and personal commissions to magazine publishers, major apparel companies, and advertising agencies. At the moment I’m working on an advertising campaign for a theater company out of Toronto, Canada, while also working on a series of event T-shirts for the U.S. Marines, illustrating a Pirate novel, and preparing to launch a new webcomic.

But there have been any number of other art-type jobs along the way. From painting billboards and doing mechanical paste-up (back before computers), to laying out catalogs and designing Yellow Pages ads. All in all, I’d rather draw.

SMN: Where are you from and what kind of training and education do you have?

Lyle: While we covered this one briefly a little more info might help. I’m from Haywood County. Our family has roots in Haywood from at least four generations back. While I was born in Asheville, Dad moved us back to the family home when I was just two. And except for a brief time in the Chicago suburbs and some time spent in Salisbury, I’ve been here most of my life.

I have an Associates of Applied Sciences degree in Commercial Art and Advertising Design from Southwestern Community College. I still try to help out there serving with the Graphic Arts advisory group and sending promising students their way when they present themselves. But most any artist will likely tell you that what they studied in school was primarily how to teach themselves. A degree is really just the beginning of an education in art, constant practice and application are required to achieve any real success as an illustrator or cartoonist.

County ensnared in lawsuit over historic courthouse renovations

Haywood County is being sued for $2 million by the contractor in charge of renovations to the newly restored historic courthouse.

Haywood County commissioners fired the contractor 18 months into the job, citing serious delays and poor work. The construction company claims it wasn’t their fault, and instead blames the architect for inaccurate blueprints.

The county is meanwhile caught in the middle. If the contractor prevails in its demand for more money, the county would have to pay up then go after the architect to cover the pay-out.

County commissioners have had a rocky relationship with the company, KMD Construction, for much of the project. The county actually fired KMD from the project in May 2008 — 18 months into the job and a month away from the target completion date.

“At that time we had no idea when, how or if they were going to finish this job,” said Bob Menadue, a construction lawyer based in Raleigh who is representing the county in the dispute.

The county had also gotten a tip from a worker on the job that the contractor was cutting corners to save time and money.

“At that point it became a no brainer we had to terminate them,” Meynardie said.

The county had insured the project through a surety bond company, which took over when KMD was fired. The surety company rehired KMD to finish the work, but under a new project manager and with additional oversight by the surety company themselves. Meynardie said it is not unusual for the surety company to bring the same contractor back in.

“They should know the job better than anybody that could be brought in to finish it,” Meynardie said.


Tit for tat

The contractor, KMD Construction, is being represented by Steven Smith, an attorney with Smith, Parson and Vickstrom in Charlotte.

Smith said the architect provided poor blueprints that did not accurately reflect what the job would entail.

“He did not go out there and do an adequate investigation of the building,” Smith said.

Plans called for an addition on the back of the courthouse. The addition would be bolted into a large concrete beam supposedly inside the exterior wall of old courthouse.

“When they opened up the wall, guess what? No concrete beam in the wall. That one example crippled this project,” Smith said.

But the examples don’t stop there, Smith said. The architects also failed to realize that large granite blocks around the base of the courthouse were the structural support for the building — not a veneer — and could not easily be punched through.

Another example: the historic courthouse contained jail cells on the fourth and fifth floor. Plans called for ripping out the jail cells. What no one knew is that the bars for the jail cells ran through the ceiling that separated the fourth and fifth floors, so tearing out the cell bars required tearing out the concrete slab between floors, Smith said.

Smith said there were several show stopper issues that paralyzed the project. The contractor could not move forward without revised plans from the architect and new engineering. But the engineer and the architect were uncooperative, Smith said.

“We either got insufficient guidance or they said, ‘You deal with it,’” Smith said.

As the project got more and more behind schedule, the architects blamed the contractor.

“They were telling the county that we were holding things up, that we were responsible for the delays, when really we were without adequate design guidance and the project could not move forward,” Smith said.

Smith questioned whether the architects purposely drug their feet to hold up the project, since they are paid extra if the project goes over schedule.

The contractor is suing the county for $2 million. Of that, $800,000 is what the contractor claims it lost on the job, while $1.2 million is the profit and overhead KMS should have realized but didn’t.

KMD had to pay the fees for the surety company’s point man supervising the project’s completion, footed the bill for work that went beyond the scope of their original bid, and incurred extra expenses when hiring back subcontractors after the job was put on hold and then resumed.

The contractor also alleges they were wrongfully fired from the job.

Meynardie said the county tried to work with KMD to get the project back on track, but found them uncooperative. Meanwhile, KMD claims they were never given fair warning or a chance to address the county’s issue with their performance.

KMD named the architect and project engineer in the lawsuit as well, but the county is the main target since it holds the contract with KMD and the purse strings for the project.

“The architect and engineer are going to get to stand on the sidelines,” Meynardie said.

The architecture firm, Pearce, Brinkley, Cease and Lee, would not comment for this article.

Meynardie admits the blueprints were not 100 percent accurate.

“But that is not unusual in a renovation project,” Meynardie said. “The whole idea is the contractor and designer work together.”

Meynardie said the contractor plowed ahead on their own in some cases, ripping out structural elements of the building without the architect or engineer’s approval.

“There was a period of time when this building was in danger,” Meynardie said.

The county racked up additional expenses of its own during the drawn out project. It had to pay rent on satellite office space during the renovations, had to pay architects for their additional time and faces a big legal bill. The county withheld payments from the contractor to cover some of the extra costs it incurred as a result of the quagmire. Historic courthouse renovations have cost the county $8.2 million — only a slight cost overrun compared to the original budget of $8.038 million. It would have been more, however, if not for withholding a portion of the contractor’s payment.


The down and dirty

Tension between architects and contractors often goes with the territory. Contractors get frustrated by architects, whose plans on paper don’t always work on the ground. Architects get frustrated with contractors who can’t follow plans correctly and are constantly angling for change orders.

Change orders are the bane of any major construction project. When a contractor encounters added work not reflected in the plans, they ask for a change order outlining the extra work and adding to the project cost. The result is a constant tug of war between architect and contractor.

When competing for a building project, some contractors will underbid in order to score the job, since jobs go to the lowest bidder. The contractor is banking on pushing up the price tag through change orders over the course of construction, however.

Contractors nitpick the architect’s blueprints, claiming the plans were incomplete and that they are performing extra work outside the scope their original bid and thus need more money. The architect meanwhile insists that the plans are indeed accurate, and that the contractor is responsible for delivering the project for the price they promised.

In the end, contractors can come to blows with a hard-nose architect who holds the line on changes orders.

Jack Patterson, a professor in the construction management program at Western Carolina University and a former contractor by trade, said communication between the contractor and architect is vital, especially in renovations.

“One thing we stress with students to alleviate that problem is good communication skills,” Patterson said. “A lot of times the break down is in communication. Sometimes they get so frustrated that neither side is going to budge and there is no line of communication left to try to resolve that problem.”

Patterson also teaches students to do their own due diligence when bidding on a project to uncover hidden issues an architect may not have realized.

“As a contractor, I tried to find any defects in the blueprint or the building at the very beginning and address it before the bids are let,” Patterson said.

While any project — especially a massive renovation of a historic building — has its share of legitimate change orders, it can be difficult to discern which are legitimate and which are part of the game played by contractors to make more money.

“Animosity can be created through that cycle,” Patterson said. “It can get worse because each starts stonewalling the other and you end up in arbitration and along the way the building ends up not getting done. Somewhere down the line, people have to say this is what has happened and what do we need to do to get it done.”

Smith, of course, claims the change orders requested by the contractors were all legitimate. Meynardie said all legitimate change orders were approved.

But Smith said the contractors eventually quit pursuing change orders and just did the work at a loss, with the intention of settling up when the project was over.

“It got to the point with this job where it was clear where the architect had set up his tent,” Smith said.

Haywood celebrates completion of historic courthouse renovations

Haywood County leaders held a ribbon cutting ceremony Monday on the steps of the newly renovated historic courthouse.

The $8.2 million renovations to the 1932 courthouse have been a long time in the making. The project has been under discussion since the late 1990s, when the county began studying a plan to address cramped and inadequate court facilities. The result was a new justice center to house court functions, with the historic courthouse being remodeled to house county offices.

While the price tag of the projects has been the source of public controversy, county leaders say they made the right decision for the future.

“I hope they will look back and say our forefathers did us right,” said County Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick.

Speakers at the ceremony lauded the restoration for accommodating the modern needs — such as elevators for the handicapped to high-tech computer wiring — while still preserving the historic aspects of the building.

“Haywood County citizens have long been committed to their roots while at the same time cognizant of their future,” said Marlene, an longtime Superior Court Judge who recently retired.

While a newly constructed justice center the new home for trials, records and court functions, it will never take the place in people’s hearts as the “courthouse,” said Glenn Brown, a former district attorney who spoke at the ribbon cutting.

Loss of Hazelwood manufacturer marks the end of an era

When Mary Ann Enloe was growing up in the blue-collar hub of Hazelwood, she didn’t know anyone with an alarm clock. The town woke to the sound of the factory whistle and followed its cues all day long.

“Everybody here had jobs,” said Enloe. “Industry is what made Hazelwood what it was.”

The town’s stationary and the badges of police officers even bore the town’s motto: “A Center of Diversified Industry.”

Tight-knit neighborhoods proliferated around several factories, especially after WWII. A quintessential mill town, everyone walked to work carrying their lunch pails. Credit flowed from merchants, be it the local grocer, the drug store or dress shop.

“I could go down there and get what I wanted and it would be written up on mother’s bill,” recalled Enloe, who was the last mayor of Hazelwood before it merged with Waynesville. Enloe’s father was also mayor of the former town.

But one by one, the factories have closed shop: a leather tannery, a textile mill, a furniture plant, a rubber factory. There was just one holdout from a bygone era— until now. Wellco shoe plant announced last week that it will cease operations in Waynesville in September, taking with it 80 jobs and yet another piece of Hazelwood’s former heart and soul.

Wellco shoe plant opened in Waynesville in 1941. Enloe remembers Wellco’s early days, when you could walk through town and see women on their porches stitching boots under contract for Wellco.

“They have been extremely important to Hazelwood,” Enloe said of Wellco. “This is a sad day for Hazelwood.”

Wellco was taken over by new owners in 2007. The owners issued a press release announcing the closure last week, but declined to elaborate beyond calling the plant “no longer economically feasible.”

Wellco had long been battling the pressures of cheaper imports, said Rolf Kaufman, president of the company for 30 years and vice chairman up until 2007.

In Wellco’s early days, it made shoes of all sorts and even slippers, but the market “became so dominated by imports from China we could not longer compete,” Kaufman said.

Over the years, Wellco had shifted more and more of its production to Puerto Rico where wages and overhead were cheaper. By the mid-1990s, nearly all production was done in Puerto Rico to remain viable, but it was an uphill battle to compete against plants in Mexico, China and India.

Wellco ultimately survived as long as it did by catering to a single but powerful customer: the U.S. military.

“The military must purchase garments, including footwear, from U.S. sources whenever available,” Kaufman said. “That protection did save us.”

Wellco began courting military orders in the 1960s, when the company’s innovative technology for attaching soles to boots proved invaluable.

“They had so much trouble in Vietnam in the jungle with soles not staying attached,” Kaufman said.

Military contracts became a larger and larger portion of Wellco’s production line, eventually dominating it operations.

HVO to purchase Wellco site

Although Wellco shoe plant in Waynesville is closing, the community will be spared the blight of another vacant industrial site.

Haywood Vocational Opportunities, which manufactures and assembles medical supplies, is buying the site to expand its own operations. HVO, which currently has 320 full-time employees, hopes to add 75 more within two years at the Wellco site.

“This certainly softens the blow,” said Mark Clasby, Haywood County’s Economic Development Director. “Obviously you hate to lose any jobs anytime, but fortunately in this situation, HVO has been a great success story for Haywood County.”

An expansion was already in the works for HVO. HVO was planning to buy a site in the Beaverdam Industrial Park near Canton, but will now utilize the Wellco site instead.

“It is very conducive to upfitting, upgrading and renovating to meet our needs,” said George Marshall, CEO of HVO.

The Wellco site is less than half a mile from HVO’s current operation. That proximity was the main factor in the decision, Marshall said.

HVO’s main product is medical drapes used during surgery. The company also assembles surgical kits — up to 800 a day — customized with the suite of instruments a particular doctor might need. The new space will be used to expand HVO’s production capacity and grow new product lines, Marshall said.

Clasby is grateful HVO stepped in to buy the Wellco site, even if it meant backing out of the deal in the industrial park. When it comes to courting new industry to set up shop, Clasby feels the 10-acre graded site in an industrial park on the side of Interstate 40 will eventually find a new taker. As for the old Wellco site, Clasby fears it would have been impossible to recruit a new tenant.

“Manufacturing companies are not interested in old buildings with lower ceilings,” Clasby said.

“The Wellco property probably would not have a lot of interest from manufacturing industry,” Marshall agreed.

Tourism office takes tech strides

In her nearly six-month tenure as executive director, Lynn Collins has been helping Haywood County’s Tourism Development Authority make strides — especially in using technology to be more effective for tourism operators and visitors.

As a prominent example, the tourism authority plans to implement a top-of-the-line booking system on its website. Visitors to the site will be able to get tickets to attractions and make reservations at local accommodations with just a few clicks of the mouse — making it simpler than the systems on lead booking sites such as Travelocity.com, Collins told the TDA board at its June 24 meeting.

Under the new system, “bookings can take only three steps versus five or six” with others, Collins said.

The system will be embedded in TDA’s website, but will connect invisibly and seamlessly to the ticketing or reservation system of tourism businesses, Collins said. The company offering the system will preview it for the board TDA and its members in the near future.

Other advances include installation of a new phone system in the TDA’s office — “with voice mail,” Collins told the board with a hint of mock exultation.

On the outreach and PR front, TDA’s monthly newsletter, “TDA Tidbits,” has gone digital, for the kind of immediate and ongoing accessibility sometimes compromised with a paper publication, which can get tossed aside or lost in piles of clutter.

The TDA also previously launched a YouTube channel, where tourism operators can post short videos about their establishment. And it is leveraging so-called social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook to broaden its reach and appeal. According to TDA’s inaugural March edition of its newsletter, “This presence on these Social Media sites allows us to directly connect with potential visitors, providing interactive content, a blog, video, photos, quick responses to any questions, and more.”

Finally, TDA is grappling with helping tourism operators create and raise their profile with users of the “mobile web,” where people can access travel and tourism information from their cell phones.


Marketing plan

The board also adopted its new marketing plan, following a presentation on it by TDA board member and marketing committee chair Marion Hamel, in absence of Jay Sokolow of The Tombras Group, who developed it. The plan aims to concentrate advertising in what are believed to be the highest-value markets — namely nearby metro areas such as Charlotte and Atlanta. Generally considered the top sources of tourists in the region, Collins said that’s likely truer than ever, with more people vacationing closer to home in a tough economy.

The plan also seeks to be more selective and cost-efficient in how it spreads its advertising dollars around in national publications and other venues. The TDA’s revenue comes from a 4 percent tax on overnight lodging in the county and is pumped back in to tourism promotions. The marketing plan calls for spending $254,000 on advertising buys.

The difficult economy notwithstanding, Collins said tourist spending on overnight lodging in the county is only down about 6 percent so far for the fiscal year ending June 30, while many colleagues encountered at a recent conference reported double-digit declines. She said she believes that is because the area is rather central to key locales where the county draws visitors from, something of a crossroads.

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