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Canton has new town manager: Lengthy search ends back where it started — with interim manager Matthews

After a search that has dragged on for more than a year, the Canton Board of Alderman has finally selected a town manager.

It’s not exactly a big change. Al Matthews has served in an interim position since long-time manager Bill Stamey retired in December 2007. Before that, Matthews had served as Canton’s assistant town manager since 2000.

The board voted 3-1 on March 23 to appoint Matthews as town manager. Alderman Eric Dills dissented, expressing concern that Matthews doesn’t live inside the town limits. At that meeting, the board changed the town ordinance to permit town managers to reside outside town limits.

Dills has since made it clear that though he disagreed with the rest of the board members, he’ll respect and support Matthews.

Matthews said the fact that he lives in the Jonathan Creek area of Haywood County rather than in Canton would not affect his job performance.

“I feel it’s more of a position of dedication rather than location,” Matthews said. “I’m on call 24/7 and I doubt there are too many times that I can’t be reached anywhere I am.”


More hiring

With the board’s support, Matthews says he’s ready to get down to business — or rather, continue the business he’s worked on as interim town manager.

Matthews enters his new role during a tough economic time that’s not going to allow him much flexibility when it comes to embarking on new town projects.

“We’re not going to have any extra money to play with, so we’re going to have to be extremely mindful of the budget this year,” he said.

That said, Matthews isn’t short on plans or ideas. His first step will be hiring an assistant town manager who will be in charge of economic development, working actively to recruit new businesses and helping existing ones.

Matthews says the process of hiring an assistant manager will almost certainly take a shorter amount of time than the manager search did. Matthews already has a stack of applications from the town manager search that he plans to utilize.



A top priority of Matthews has been, and will continue to be, the appearance of the town. Matthews says that’s an item important to town residents.

“A little over a year ago, we had a public forum on what the people wanted to see, and the recurring thing was the appearance of Canton,” Matthews said. “Not only downtown, but in the residential areas as well. We need to make sure citizens do a good job in keeping up their own properties.”

Town staff have already made some moves toward improving the town’s look by hauling out five dump truck loads of mulch to create flowerbeds and grassy medians.

“That’s something we can do at a reasonable price, that improves curb appeal, and makes a good first impression on our visitors,” Matthews said.

Matthews knows, though, that many other things that can improve the town’s appearance will be costly.

“We have a lot of sidewalks in desperate need of repair, and things that cost a lot of money to work toward. It won’t happen overnight,” he said.

In the long run, Matthews thinks the improved appearance of the town will help economic development, particularly in the downtown area.

“Economic development is at the forefront of this board, and appearance is one of the most important things,” he said. “We’re working on it, and want to actively work with the community to clean up the whole area and make it more appealing. Then hopefully our downtown area will continue to grow and flourish, and older buildings will be renovated and occupied.”

Matthews said the town is also looking into ways to use the many vacant parcels of land flooded by the 2004 hurricanes. The lots are located in the flood zone and for the most part can’t be rebuilt on, so the town board has had to get creative. One recent idea in the works calls for turning a lot across from the town hall that once housed Plus Laundry into an area for downtown activities and events. Another idea: converting vacant lots in residential neighborhoods into community garden spaces, which the Canton aldermen plan to discuss at their upcoming meeting.

Canton Mayor Pat Smathers says Matthews’ ideas, coupled with his experience working for the town under the former manager, make him a good fit at a time when Canton is working to redefine itself.

“He knows the old, but he’s got new ideas and a new way of doing things,” Smathers said. “I think at this time in our town, Al Matthews is the best fit. I think he’s going to be the transition figure we need.”

Haywood tourism board debates ‘Smokies’ slogan

Haywood County is having a bit of an identity crisis.

The Tourism Development Authority touts the county as a place “Where the Sun Rises on the Smokies.” The slogan, created in 2005 by the Tombras Group marketing agency, appears on everything from billboards to print ads to visitor guides. But since it was created, the TDA has welcomed a slate of new members and a new executive director, all of whome have their own opinions about the logo.

At a recent TDA retreat, the slogan’s effectiveness — and whether it’s a good representation of Haywood County — was called into question.

Betty Huskins, a senior vice president at regional economic development group AdvantageWest, facilitated the March 25 retreat. Huskins asked the TDA board to throw out several phrases that represent what attracts visitors to the area. Board members came up with several, including “feeling grounded,” “getting back to basics,” “family values,” and “breath of fresh air.” The current slogan and its focus on the Great Smoky Mountains was conspicuously absent from the suggestions.

“What do they feel? I don’t think it’s ‘gateway to the Smokies,’” Huskins commented.

Board chair Alice Aumen questioned what the slogan tells visitors about the area, if anything.

“Does “Where the Sun Rises on the Smokies,” say anything?” she asked.

The use of the term “Smokies” to refer to far western North Carolina has long posed a dilemma for tourism groups trying to promote the area. Though the region is technically in the Smoky Mountains, many feel that it’s not thought of as such.

“We’re sitting here touting ourselves as the Smoky Mountains, but as far as the consumer is concerned, Tennessee owns the Smokies,” said Lynn Collins, TDA executive director. “Could we identify ourselves better?”

After the retreat, Collins added that “research has proven that in the consumers’ minds, Tennessee pretty much owns the Smokies, and maybe we could position ourselves better.”

Board member Ken Stahl, who was on the TDA when the slogan was adopted, said he likes it more than some of the others the TDA has used in the past. Stahl said the phrase evokes an image of beauty, which is a major reason visitors are attracted to the region.

“If you’ve ever experienced a sunrise here and watched that, particularly when there’s mist on the valleys and the mountains, it’s a gorgeous, beautiful sight,” Stahl said.

TDA members also questioned whether the current slogan targets the area’s largest visitor demographic, which Huskins said is generally a higher-educated, older individual with money to spend.

“We need to start thinking about who our brand is, and marketing to that individual,” said Board Member Ron Reid.

Stahl, however, thinks the logo already targets the county’s major demographic of visitors.

“Our profile is people who are 55 and older that come here with discretionary spending,” Stahl said. “They come here for the scenic beauty, and you can’t highlight it any more than ‘Where the Sun Rises on the Smokies.’”

The TDA has no immediate plans to change its logo, but members did express interest in collecting feedback as to what the county’s brand should be. Collins, who has experience in previous jobs developing brands, said the TDA could start by conducting an online survey of people who have visited the county and asking them to describe in several words what they think of the area.

“You tally feedback and find a pattern out of it, a common theme,” Collins said. “It usually stands out, and you tweak it a little bit and take it and run with it. I’m hoping that can happen (here) as a result of doing some surveys and things.”

Collins said the method of relying on visitor feedback would be in contrast to the way things have been done in the past, when the TDA board paid a marketing organization to come up with a logo and campaign.

“In years past, that brand has been determined from the top down,” she said. “(At the retreat), we talked about going from the bottom up.”


TDA considers downtown location

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority is in talks with the Haywood Chamber of Commerce about the possibility of moving both organizations into a roomy, historic building on the corner of Walnut and Main streets in Waynesville.

The building, which has sat on the market for more than a year, would be a prominent location for both organizations. TDA Executive Director Lynn Collins said her group has already gotten quotes on the rental price per square foot and has toured the house to determine which part of the building the TDA would occupy.

Collins said the TDA is waiting for the owner of the house to get back to the group with drawings, square footage and prices.

“Then we can look at our budget and see if we can afford it,” Collins said.

The TDA will also look at costs it will save by combining some of its business equipment with the Chamber.

Collins cautioned that discussions about the move are still “very, very preliminary.”

Civil suit following toddler’s death blames DSS for failing to intervene

A lawsuit filed against the Haywood County Department of Social Services charging the agency could have prevented the death of a 22-month-old baby but failed to take her out of harm’s way continues to make its way through the courts.

The child, Adrianna Lynn Earley, died in November 2006 of “acute oxycodon toxicity” after she got into her mother’s pills in Waynesville, court documents state. The mother, Heather Lacey, admitted that she had prescriptions for Oxycontin and Percocet. She was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2008.

Assistant District Attorney Jim Moore prosecuted the case and told The Smoky Mountain News last week that Lacey and the child were spending the night at a couple’s house in Waynesville. When Lacey and the child went to bed the pills were in Lacey’s purse. Lacey woke up to find the child dead and the pill bottle open, Moore said.

Moore said leaving the pills so the child could get to them was reckless and careless. District Attorney Mike Bonfoey compared it to “leaving a loaded gun in reach of a child.”

Now that the criminal proceedings are complete, the baby’s father, Joey Earley, has filed the civil lawsuit representing the child’s estate. The lawsuit charges that DSS could have prevented the death of the child but failed to heed warnings about Heather Lacey being a danger to the baby.

“They (DSS) had a report before them that this lady was dangerous to the child, and they didn’t take action to protect the child,” said the plaintiff’s attorney, Randy Seago of Sylva.

Superior Court Judge Laura Bridges in Jackson County has ordered the Haywood County Department of Social Services to turn over Lacey’s medical records after they were requested by Seago. Seago said the medical records deal with drugs Lacey was allegedly on when DSS was investigating her.

Haywood County and DSS hired Attorney Christopher Geis of Winston Salem to represent them in the suit. DSS’ position in the case is that it did the best it could for the child and could not have prevented the death, Geis said.

There is no trial date set, but Seago thinks the case could be heard this summer.

It took a court order from Superior Court Judge Bridges presiding in Jackson County to release the medical records because such documents are confidential.

Geis said Heather Lacey is now in the custody of the Women’s Prison in Raleigh but is scheduled to get out this month after a 13- to 16-month sentence.

Specific damages being sought in the case are unknown because in North Carolina civil suits heard in Superior Court only specify “over $10,000.”

Agencies, departments reeling from county budget cuts

Non-profit agencies and county departments in Haywood County are still reeling from massive budget cuts announced by commissioners last week.

The county commissioners cut funding to all non-profits for the rest of the fiscal year, and called for county departments to scale back their budgets by 7 percent.

The cuts will affect everything from arts to recreation to schools. Leaders continued to call emergency meetings this week to grapple with the grim financial picture.

Some non-profit agencies were hit harder than others, like the Haywood County Arts Council. The group receives $15,000 per year from the county, an amount that will be cut by $11,250 in 2009.

“That’s a lot of money — it’s hard to make up that amount,” said Arts Council Director Kay Waldrop, who called an emergency meeting Monday (March 16) to discuss the cuts with her board of directors.

Waldrop said across-the-board cuts to the arts at federal, state and local levels are making it hard to cope.

“It’s the snowball effect,” Waldrop said. “Just one thing you can try to overcome pretty easily, but when your grants are cut, government funding is cut, donations are down and ticket sales are down — when all of those are cut, it’s a double whammy.”

Waldrop said her organization will battle to keep itself afloat.

“We’re fighting to keep the arts alive in our community,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Waynesville Recreation Center is doing its fair share of fighting. The Center receives $70,000 per year in county support, but won’t get any more for the rest of the year.

The county supplement has allowed county residents to pay the same amount as town residents for a recreation center membership despite not paying the taxes that town residents do to support the center.

Now, the recreation center must find some way to make up for the shortfall — and raising rates for county residents is one option on the table.

“We don’t have differential rates right now for the town and county, primarily because Haywood County was giving us money to supplement the difference,” said Rhett Langston, director of recreation for the Town of Waynesville. “We’ve got to come up with the money to supplement the difference some other way. We want to be very, very careful and be as fair as possible.”

Langston said the cut won’t affect programs or classes, but that the recreation center, “will definitely feel it.”

Other non-profits to feel the cut most include the Haywood County Agricultural Activities Center, the low-cost Good Samaritan Clinic, and Haywood Mountain Home.


Feeling the pinch

County departments are also reeling from the round of cuts. Some have struggled to trim their already slim budgets. A week after a county mandate to departments to cut 7 percent of their budget, across-the-board cuts only totaled 3.7 percent, Haywood County Manager David Cotton told commissioners at their Monday (March 16) meeting.

The county has tossed around various ideas to save money, including making employees take mandatory leave or cutting work weeks to 36 hours. The most drastic step will be unavoidable, Cotton said.

“We’re looking at layoffs. That’s where we’re going,” Cotton told commissioners.

Cotton said the county will take a look at the departments that have seen a slowdown in a need for their services as places to cut positions.

Robert Busko, director of the Haywood County Public Library system, said his employees have already volunteered unpaid time off and are bracing for more.

“I’m taking a week off without pay, and most supervisory staff are taking five days without pay,” Busko said. “Whenever you have to have employees take time off without pay, that’s one of the last resorts.”

The budget cuts mean the library system is holding off on developing its collection at a time when library use has increased with people seeking low-cost entertainment. The library constantly reviews it collection, ordering new materials on subjects that may be lacking and replacing out-of-date materials.

“We got a few materials ordered before we had to make the cut, but we’re ordering bestsellers only right now,” Busko said.


“A tremendous hit”

Meanwhile, the school system is figuring out how to cope with budget cuts. The school system has already slashed its budget by 3 percent to comply with a state mandate, and is bracing for additional state cuts that could total up to 9 percent — in addition to the county reductions.

“This last (county) one was totally unexpected,” said Mike Sorrells, chair of the school finance committee and member of the school board. “We are taking a tremendous hit.”

School superintendent Anne Garrett called the cuts, “serious — very serious.”

So far, the school system has been able to avoid layoffs. But various projects will have to be put on hold. One of them is a five-year project to get all student records put on microfilm, since some of the paper copies are old and deteriorating. Other cuts will mostly be supplies and materials to various programs, including vocational, special needs, the Gateway Program for at-risk students, and staff development for substitute teachers, who will not be attending conferences in the near future as a result of the cuts.

School officials expressed concern about the impact the latest cuts have had on the system’s general fund balance, or money not targeted for a specific purpose, which has been slashed in half.

The 2004 floods highlighted the importance of having a fund balance. When the school system was hit with unexpected costs, it had reserves to pull from to pay for upfront repairs before federal and state reimbursements came in.

“If we have some kind of crisis where a major piece of equipment goes down and we don’t have money in the fund balance,” that’s not a desirable situation, said Larry Smith, Chief Financial Officer for Haywood County Schools.

The county’s fund balance has dipped as well, and mandatory budget cuts are a necessary way to get the fund balance back to acceptable levels, said commissioners. Plus, cuts have been felt in private industry for some time, so it was only a matter of time before local governments were forced to follow suit.

“The private sector has been having to cut back for several months, and now the county has to cut back,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley.

Balsam Range’s mountain mantra

By Christi Marsico • Staff Writer

Little girls clacked their clogging shoes while families ate hushpuppies and barbecue in anticipation for the band, Balsam Range, to play at the Fiddlin’ Pig in Asheville last Friday night.

Teens in camouflage hats and T-shirts checked out the band’s CDs while the Southern Mountain Fire clogging team strolled through the restaurant claiming their turf and sizing up the onlookers.

Like five train cars hooked together cruising down the track, the musicians of Balsam Range announced their presence.

“We’re having fun already so you might as well go with us,” bass player Tim Surrett said.

Balsam Range performed a smattering of songs from their repertoire, including a few numbers from their latest CD release “Last Train to Kitty Hawk” while some listeners kicked up their heels and others relaxed.

Spread over two picnic tables was the church group from Rocksprings Baptist Church in Crabtree.

Wearing a pink sweater with a napkin in her lap, Frances Clark said seeing Balsam Range at the Fiddlin’ Pig was better than going to Dollywood.

Charlie Simpson, pastor of Rocksprings Baptist Church, believes Balsam Range’s music has made a lasting impression on the local music scene for generations to come.

“Buddy Melton has researched the history and sees who we are and not who we are influenced by,” Simpson said.

Rocksprings Baptist Church member Marlene Hills is a big Balsam Range fan, adding “they seem to work so well together, like peanut butter and jelly. They are an asset to Western North Carolina and represent what Appalachian music is all about.”

As the band took five they talked to The Smoky Mountain News about their latest CD and a few other musical anecdotes.

Balsam Range, based in Haywood County, is comprised of Marc Pruett on banjo, Caleb Smith on guitar, Darren Nicholson on mandolin, Tim Surrett on bass, and Buddy Melton on fiddle. All five sing lead on some songs and bring aspects of bluegrass, gospel and country music steeped in an Appalachian-meets-Grand Ole Opry style to their performances.

Smith’s favorite song off the latest CD is the title song “Last Train to Kittyhawk.” The guitarist feels the bands background sets them apart from other bluegrass ensembles.

“Our versatility is a big deal. People don’t expect to hear the diversity we bring, and not a lot of people are doing that,” Smith said.

Surrett declared he “plays the bass with a Led Zeppelin mentality,” and is grateful for the support Balsam Range has had.

“I never call people fans because I am making friends,” Surrett said. “It’s really nice to play this quality of music and go home at night.”CD release concert


So what is Balsam Range currently listening to when they are not performing?

Smith: Miles Davis

Melton: Osmond Brothers, Journey

Surrett: Miles Davis

Pruett: Louis Armstrong

Nicholson: Joe Nichols, Osmond Brothers

What advice would these bluegrass professionals give to younger musicians?

Smith: “Work together and do positive things.”

Melton: “Be comfortable with your own personal limitations. To do something great surround yourself with great musicians.”

Surrett: “Practice and learn to play together.”

Pruett: “Be open minded to growing. Be humble. Treat people fairly and have fun. Don’t let it consume you, and treat it as a business.”

Nicholson: “Be good to folks. Stay true to yourself, and play to the best of your abilities.”

How they would describe the band and/or their latest CD in one word:

Smith: “Influenced”

Melton: “Interesting”

Surrett: “Teamwork”

Pruett: “Productive”

Nicholson: “Sexy”

Angry residents call nuisance ordinance ‘a bunch of garbage’

A proposed Haywood County ordinance that prohibits various kinds of waste and junk was harshly criticized by speaker after speaker at a public hearing Monday (March 2).

The “Public Nuisance” ordinance prohibits everything from outdoor storage of scrap metal to junk cars to non-maintained swimming pools. Though the ordinance aims to safeguard public health, many county residents attacked it for infringing on their personal property rights.

The ordinance drew more than one reference to communism.

“All of this is like something right out of Karl Marx’s handbook,” said Randy Burris, a Cruso resident. “We have drawn a line today — I will not surrender any more of my rights to any government.”

Russell McLean, a Waynesville resident and the first to speak, called the ordinance “unconstitutional.”

“It completely rips away property rights,” McLean said. “I can’t even have a lawnmower sitting in a shed unless it’s fully enclosed.”

Colin Edwards of Maggie Valley said the ordinance had some good intentions, but ultimately was too restrictive.

“Some things I can understand, like garbage piling up, but you can’t tell somebody what they can and can’t have on their land,” Edwards said.

Maggie Valley resident Burton Edwards said things that appear to be uselessly taking up space can have value to someone else.

“One man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” he proclaimed. “If all you’ve got from your dad or granddad is a tractor that don’t run, that’s your heritage.”

The speakers professed an overwhelming live and let live attitude. That’s the way it’s traditionally been in Haywood County, they said, and if newcomers have a problem with that belief, they can take a hike.

“If people moves in here and they don’t like what they see, why don’t they move back out and leave us alone?” said Pauly Sidler of Canton.


Some support

The stiff opposition was a marked change from the official public hearing on the nuisance ordinance held two weeks before. Then, just a handful of speakers voiced messages of support for the ordinance.

Phyllis Brockman, a resident of the eastern end of the county, was one of the speakers. She hoped the ordinance would target the auto salvage yard near her property, where she witnesses mosquitoes and rats breeding in discarded tires.

“I believe that anybody should be able to do with their property what they want, up to the point where it begins to infringe on the rights and properties of their neighbors,” Brockman said.

Brockman’s neighbor, Noreen Langford, said she and others “have been held hostage in the community.”

Brockman asked that the ordinance have “an extraordinarily sharp set of teeth in it.”

Commissioners had few comments at the initial public hearing. Commissioner Skeeter Curtis told the speakers, “this ordinance is considerably stronger than we have now, and I think it will solve a lot of problems” near their properties.


Commissioners shy away

At the public hearing on Monday, however, Curtis said he wouldn’t support the ordinance.

“The way the draft is written now, there’s no way I could vote for it,” he said.

The rest of the board agreed with Curtis.

“I don’t think any of us support it in its present draft,” said Commissioner Bill Upton.

Though many in the audience called for the county to drop the ordinance altogether, commissioners didn’t promise to do so. Instead, the board implored residents to attend the next planning board meeting to vent their concerns. That meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. on March 23 in Haywood County Annex II.

In tough times, local company looks to expand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HVO has developed a huge market for its products.

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

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

Haywood extends token to Canton solar farm

FLS Solar Energy wants a tax break from Haywood County in exchange for an $8 million solar farm the company is building near Canton.

FLS is asking county commissioners for financial incentives that would allow the company to pay 20 percent of the taxes on the equipment it uses to operate for five years, saving FLS $6,400 a year or a total of $32,000.

Through the program, FLS would pay the total equipment tax up front, then receive a grant for 80 percent of the bill from the county.

The company’s request has received the endorsement of the Haywood County Economic Development Commission, though it’s not exactly in line with the intent of creating jobs. The solar farm will only create 12 jobs, most of them during the design, development and installation stages, said FLS president Michael Shore.

However, EDC officials believe the county will reap more benefits from the project than just job creation.

“This is kind of unusual because this really won’t create jobs, but you kind of have to look to the future,” said EDC director Mark Clasby. “This will bring recognition and awareness that Haywood County is interested in green initiatives.”

While the amount may not seem like much, it will make all the difference to FLS, Shore said. FLS will have to pay back money put up by investors — about half the total project cost — within a five-year period, making for very thin profit margins, said Shore. Financial incentives from the county will help the project make it through the lean time.

“This allows us for it to be a profitable project in the first five years,” Shore said. “Starting year six, the margins of the project improve significantly, so we’re happy to pay our fair share of taxes at that point.”

FLS has signed a 25-year contract with Progress Energy to sell solar power generated at the Haywood site, guaranteeing that the company will be shelling out full property taxes for at least a 20-year period.

“Over the lifetime of the project, we anticipate paying at least $180,000 in taxes,” said Shore.

Shore says that by providing tax breaks for FLS, Haywood County could position itself as a good place to locate a green startup.

“In the Southeast, it’s up for grabs where the leadership (in alternative energy) is going to come from,” he said. “Now, Haywood County has the opportunity to put itself on the map as a leader in this new green economy.”

Loss of Hazelwood prison likely just a matter of time

Local legislators are preparing to fight yet another attempt by the state to close the only minimum security prison west of Asheville.

The 125-bed Haywood Correctional Facility in Waynesville, commonly referred to as the Hazelwood prison, has landed on a list of potential closures as the N.C. Department of Corrections looks for ways to scale back its budget.

It’s not the first time the state has considered shutting the Hazelwood prison. The aging facility was built in the 1930s and now sits between a neighborhood and commercial district.

“The prison has been recommended a couple of times for possible closure, but some of us in Western North Carolina that represent Haywood County have been able to stand at the front door and put it off,” said Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva. “This is not something new — it’s been discussed.”

Haire is hopeful that legislators will be able to save the Hazelwood prison this year, as they have in the past. But he says that the fight is already becoming more difficult, and that legislators can’t hold off forever.

“I think that down the road at some point it’s going to be a greater issue, and it is now, about keeping it open,” he said. “One of these days it’s going down.”

Haire said it won’t matter how powerful the coalition of legislators from the region are or how hard they fight.

Legislators have always been able to save the prison, arguing that it benefits the area. The facility provides jobs for 44 people. Inmate labor has fueled hundreds of public works projects around the region — everything from picking up roadside litter to construction projects at public schools and government buildings.

“It’s a very important facility not only for serving the minimum security needs of inmates, but they do a lot of work across Western North Carolina,” said Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville.

Haire estimated that inmate labor saves western counties, “thousands in construction projects.”

Additionally, the prison is conveniently located for families to visit their loved ones behind bars.

“It gives folks hope for their family to be able to visit them and hopefully help to transition them back to everyday life,” Haire said.

Two other minimum security lockups are on the chopping block, too. The three facilities, among the smallest in the state, have been grouped together as one item that could save the state $3.4 million per year if all were shut down.

That begs the question of just where inmates would go.

“Where would these prisoners be sent?” asked Haire. “I don’t know. That’s where we’re really short on beds at the time, is minimum security.”

The state’s prison population recently spiked for the first time in many years, Haire said. State projections show that starting in the next fiscal year, North Carolina will have nowhere to put an estimated 2,300 inmates. California plans to deal with a similar problem of too few beds and not enough money by releasing prisoners.

The rise in prisoners in N.C. is linked to the state’s sentencing system, which leaves judges with little discretion and clogs prisons.

“The prison population is going up much faster under structured sentencing, where judges are tied into this sentencing grid,” Haire said.


Other options

Queen said the Hazelwood prison is actually on another list — “not for closure, but for being reconstructed as a new and modern minimum security unit serving Western North Carolina.”

“WNC needs a new minimum security unit that is modern, a little larger, and that is both economical in size and an economical new building,” said Queen.

Queen said he and other local legislators have continued to fight to keep the Hazelwood prison open until the facility is updated or a new one is built nearby.

“We’ve been fighting to keep it open until we can get it rebuilt,” he said.

Haire thinks Western North Carolinians should be thinking about whether, and where, they’d want another minimum security facility located. The issue of having a new prison in the region came up several years ago, but no site was ever picked.

“There was no site identified, but a lot of people became very concerned because they thought it was going to be in their community,” Haire said.

Haire says residents need to weigh the benefits of having a prison in considering whether a new one should be built in the region. For many, it may be a case of “Not in my backyard,” but if the prison comes, so would added benefits of jobs and public works labor, Haire says.

“I think we’re going to start having to look to the future, and I think the future is now,” he said.

Queen doesn’t anticipate a large amount of opposition to a facility that houses only low-risk inmates.

“The minimum security unit doesn’t have that level of pushback,” he said.

Queen said an updated facility was initially on his list of priorities for this legislative session, but the economy will likely put a hold on plans.

“The economy has changed priorities,” he said. “Though it doesn’t necessarily change the demand for prison beds in our state. It may actually exacerbate the demand.”

A stockyard lost: Cattle farmers round up support for new auction

How far would you drive for $100?

That’s the dilemma Haywood County cattle farmer Neal Stamey faces each time he hooks his trailer up to his pickup truck, loads up the cow or cows he’ll sell that day, and makes the 100-mile round-trip trek across the state line to a cattle auction in Newport, Tenn. There, a bidder will snap up Stamey’s animals, hopefully for a fair price. If Stamey’s brought only one cow, he’ll be lucky to make $100.

“There’s not enough money in the cattle business to have to haul cattle 100 miles to sell them,” Stamey says. “You can’t afford $150 bucks of gas for one cow.”

Since the closure of the only regional livestock market five years ago, these far-reaching auction houses are the only viable option Western North Carolina cattle farmers have if they hope to make a sale. The financial burden of the journey has forced an increasing number of cattle farmers out of business.

But now, the local farmers have asked for the state’s help to stop that decline with the construction of a state-of-the-art livestock market in Haywood County — a move that could prove crucial to preserving the region’s rural heritage and landscape.

In recent years, North Carolina lost more farms than almost any other state.

“Our concern is to keep producers in business, and keep all this land in farming,” said George Ivey, a Haywood County farming advocate. “In many cases, if you sell off the cattle, the only thing you’re growing there are houses.”


A blow to farmers

Livestock is a surprisingly big industry in this region. More than 3,000 farmers in 19 western counties keep cattle, selling off 80,000 each year. Haywood County leads the region in the number of cattle farmers, with 500 farmers that raise nearly a quarter of the region’s cattle.

But the total number of cattle in this part of the state has been on a decline since the region’s primary auction house, located in Asheville, shut down five years ago. Most farmers now trek to markets in Tennessee South Carolina, and Georgia.

“Historically, we’ve had markets here in WNC, and it’s been tough without them the last several years,” said Bill Teague, director of the Mountain Research Station in Waynesville.

The lack of a market, coupled with a severe drought that has gripped the region and led to skyrocketing hay prices, has led many cattle farmers to get out of the business altogether.

“A lot of people just quit and sold,” both their cattle and farms, said Lyman Bradley, a Jackson County cattle farmer.

“You’ve had the loss of a reliable and local market, and that’s enough to drive some people out of business,” agreed Ivey.

The situation has been helped a bit with the re-opening of a 1960s-era livestock auction in Canton, today run by Ed Johnson, a Madison County farmer. The auction was re-opened a year ago, and it’s seen some success.

“Before Johnson opened the auction, most everyone had to go out of state,” Bradley said.

But the facility is outdated and small, lacking the capacity that the former Asheville market had. A recent auction there featured 18 cows for sale — an impressive number given the icy, chilly conditions that day, but still far below the 800 to 900 cattle that were auctioned off each week at the Asheville market.

A large livestock market, “is something we need drastically,” Stamey said.


Big shoes to fill

Market advocates estimate it would cost $2.5 million to $3.5 million to construct the type of livestock market that will bring buyers — and in turn, competitive prices — to the region’s cattle farmers.

Initially, they wanted to build a slaughterhouse, but then realized they needed to lay the groundwork by providing a place where farmers could sell their cows.

The proposed market will be located in the heart of Western North Carolina cattle farming country along I-40 at the Haywood-Buncombe County line.

The first round of funding for the market — $500,000 for construction planning — will come out of the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund. The trust fund was created following the lawsuit against Big Tobacco and used to help tobacco-dependent regions find another economically viable way to make a living. Essentially, one industry that has all but vanished in WNC could help another embattled industry survive.

“Our primary purpose is to improve the quality of life by increasing the income for the family farmer, and hopefully be able to replace the loss of income that occurred with the loss of tobacco,” said L.T. Ward, chairman of WNC Communities, the organization through which the Tobacco Trust Fund grant has been funneled.

Stamey, a cattle farmer, said that’s exactly how the trust fund money should be used.

“This is not taxpayer money — this is money the tobacco industry made before it was put out of business,” Stamey said. “In surrounding states, they’ve put that money back in agriculture, and we deserve some of that money.”

The parallels between tobacco and livestock are many, and both played a vitally important role in sustaining families in WNC. Just as families kept a small tobacco crop to supplement their income, many also kept a few cows — and that number has increased since the tobacco buyout.

“Tobacco used to be a good cash crop for a lot of farmers,” said Ivey. “With that gone, more people have turned to cattle to recover some of that income they used to get from tobacco.”

Stamey says beef cattle, like tobacco, has long played an important role in Haywood County. “In the past, tobacco and cattle have been big industries here,” he said.

Stamey’s parents kept a few cattle, and Stamey himself continued that tradition, though his full-time job was at the the paper mill in Canton.

The cows “sort of help supplement your income,” Stamey said. And there are several advantages to raising cattle. Cows can graze on hillslides unsuitable for crops, and they’re easy enough to tend to, requiring a feeding every three days in the winter and none in the summer, when they can be left on open pasture.

Stamey says he, like others, continues to keep cattle not just for some extra income, but also because it’s in his blood.

“I reckon it’s sort of like fishing. If you ever get hooked on it, you just keep doing it,” Stamey laughed.

By building a new livestock market where farmers can sell their cows easily, those involved hope to preserve a way of life in Western NC and possibly attract a new generation of farmers.

“You’re not going to get as many young people in the cattle business if they don’t have somewhere to sell them,” Stamey said.


Ripple effect

Besides preserving mountain heritage, market supporters predict that a new livestock auction will have more tangible economic benefits.

First and foremost, the new facility will benefit farmers — not only by saving them the cost of transporting livestock long distances, but also by earning them more money on each sale.

“A viable market will attract buyers that are willing to pay higher prices,” said Ward. At a recent presentation of the livestock market plans, Ward promised a group of cattle farmers: “You will have more money in your pockets when you complete those transactions.”

Officials hope the new market will also generate jobs, and in turn, that employees will put their money back in the local economy. Ward predicted an increase in the number of livestock produced. That could bring more industry that centers around livestock, such as veterinarians.

Additionally, a portion of $1 from the sale of each cattle will go to fund the state’s Beef Checkoff program, which goes to market and promote N.C. beef products. The state misses out on that money when its cattle are sold out of state.


Pushing out private industry?

Some in the cattle industry don’t support the proposed market, particularly operators of existing markets who feel like the state is pushing them aside and out of business.

“That’s not what the (tobacco trust fund) money is for, to build a facility to compete with private industry,” said Al Eatmon, who runs a cattle auction in Shelby.

However, a state report that analyzed the need for a livestock market in WNC found that the Shelby market attracted less cattle than the closest out of state markets, though it’s one of only two in WNC.

Ed Johnson, owner of the cattle market in Canton, says advocates of the new market have ignored the effort he has made to help farmers by opening up his operation last year.

“They told me, if you don’t get this open, some of us will lose our farms,” he said.

Johnson has sacrificed to keep his operation open for the farmers who rely on him — he hasn’t pulled a paycheck in three months. He says just $10,000 would go a long way toward making needed repairs to his facility, and help it become a viable market.

“This works. We can make it work,” he said.

Johnson questions why the state is choosing to spend millions on a new facility rather than helping out an existing operator like himself.

“They’re looking to help out the local guy, yet they’re wanting to spend $3.5 million on a new market,” he said.

Randy McCoy, a Macon County cattle farmer and frequent patron at Johnson’s auction, said the money the state wants to spend is excessive.

“I don’t know if they have enough cattle in the area to spend that kind of money on a stockyard,” he said.

The state’s report did find that there aren’t enough cattle in WNC to sustain two competing markets. Ward said the plan to build a market was already in motion by the time Johnson opened his, and that the new market is targeting the 40,000 cattle currently being sold at auctions out of state, not the ones Johnson is selling.

“I’ve spoken to Johnson to clarify that we are not creating a market to try to take his market,” said Ward. “On the other hand, we will not be able to direct the producer, and if they emigrate from him to our market,” there’s nothing the state can do, he said.

Ward said Johnson is welcome to throw his name in the hat along with other operators interested in running the market. WNC Communities, the recipient of the grant that will help build the market, plans to lease the facility to a private operator at a low cost.

Ward said the state’s study showed that most cattle farmers support the new livestock market, and that benefiting the farmers is the ultimate goal of the market project.

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