A witness to the Cherokee renaissance

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has a resilient, independent spirit. When the U.S. government forced the majority of the tribe to head west to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears, those who remained were the defiant ones, and it is their offspring who now form the nucleus of the tribe. It is these Native Americans who are using the profits from what was originally a controversial casino to help rediscover their cultural identity.

Prior the construction of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, the Eastern Band were a poor tribe with little influence. Tribal members who lived in Cherokee struggled to make a living in a tourism-dominated economy. Because there was little industry and because the region was so isolated, the area around Cherokee, Swain and Graham counties perennially topped the state in unemployment, averaging around 25 percent for many years when the state first started keeping statistics.

Much of that changed with the coming of casino profits. The tribe found itself with a newfound wealth and power. What’s noteworthy in this transformation is how that money has been used to invest in Cherokee and its people, when it could have gone to line the pockets of only the most powerful.

The Cherokee Preservation Foundation might be the most notable symbol of this transformation. The Foundation was created as part of the second gaming compact with the state in 2000, and it has funneled millions of dollars into cultural, historical and economic development projects on the Qualla Boundary and surrounding region. Those investments include the Cherokee language immersion program, a Native American art institute, helping restore rivercane for traditional basketmaking, investing in traditional Cherokee arts such as metalsmiths, making broadband more available in rural Western North Carolina and dozens of other worthwhile projects.

The tribe itself has built a new school that uses green technology and celebrates tribal traditions, invested in health care and public safety, and is teaching its youth how to wisely manage the per capita payments they receive from casino profits. It also helps each of its high school graduates pay for college. Men and women who work for the tribe earn good wages and benefits.

In other words, the tribe is investing in itself, its people and its traditions. When you talk to members of the tribe today, the pride in what is happening in Cherokee is obvious.

There are still problems in Cherokee, just as there are everywhere in this country. But over the past decade those of us who live here have witnessed a resurgence among the Eastern Band that surpasses what most thought possible when gambling was first approved. They’ve used the casino profits wisely, to say the least. That’s a credit to the Eastern Band members and its leadership.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

WCU’s future important for entire region

Once you hit the Haywood County line after heading west on Interstate 40 out of Asheville, Western Carolina University is the acknowledged cultural focal point for all the remaining seven counties in this southwestern corner of our great state. We expect vision and smarts from university leaders, the professors and the students it graduates. We expect those same leaders to value the culture and history of this region, and to help us preserve, protect and brag about our assets.

That’s why it is refreshing to see new Chancellor David Belcher re-start a strategic planning process that he hopes will help steer the university as it deals with the new realities of state budget cuts and other financial challenges.

Many in this region take for granted the gem that we have in WCU. All it takes, though, is a roll call in our public schools and community colleges, small businesses, financial institutions, arts communities and the local governments to see the impact of this university. Its graduates are our leaders, particularly in the seven western counties. WCU and this region are inseparable.

I think the university recognizes this special relationship, though some of its leaders have placed a higher value on it than others. As long as these ties remain strong and grow even deeper, both the university and the region will be better off.

•••

Town Public Works Director Fred Baker. Town Planner Paul Benson. Planning board member Ron Reid. Concerned citizens like Bicycle Haywood’s Cecil Yount. Realtor Brian Noland.

That’s a short list of those who think the state Department of Transportation’s initial plan for Waynesville’s South Main Street does not fit what Waynesville needs. We offer our wholehearted support to those who want something better than a four-lane road with a raised median.

By the time this edition of The Smoky Mountain News hits the streets, a community brainstorming session to gather ideas for the road will be in the history books (it was held Sept. 20). But that doesn’t mean those who want something better shouldn’t continue to let those in charge know exactly how they feel.

Those who want to maintain the character of Waynesville while still allowing Wal-Marts and Best Buys are asking for a smaller road — three lanes at most — with roundabouts instead of traffic lights, bike lanes, and trees between the road and the sidewalks. This is the vision laid out in the Waynesville’s comprehensive land-use plan, and it’s one I believe a majority of citizens want.

Many of us who argue for smart growth have been in this situation too many times: disagreeing with DOT and seeking a compromise that is about more than just moving cars quickly from one spot to another. In this case Waynesville has had to spend its own money to hire a traffic consultant in hopes it can convince the state bureaucracy that it knows what is best for its own community. It’s frustrating to be in the same position again and again.

But it’s a good fight, one worth all the time and energy we can give it. When roads are done wrong — Russ Avenue in Waynesville, N.C. 107 in Sylva — the problems linger for many, many years. Getting it right on the front end is critical.

•••

Our cover story last week on Macon County’s Phil Drake and his business success (“Seizing Opportunity,” www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/5066) ran at a time when there is great controversy in this country about how best to nurture the economy and shake the lingering recession.

Drake is a local example of someone taking a small family business and growing it exponentially, taking some lumps along with way but finding his way through problems. Just as important as his business success, though, is the commitment to Macon County and Western North Carolina shown by Drake, his family, and his network of businesses.

The global economy has brought riches to many people and lifted many from poverty to the middle class. At the same, however, it has robbed many communities of the ability to control their own destinies. Decisions made in boardrooms thousands of miles away take jobs from thousands, leaving families and communities to pick up the pieces.

The “buy local, shop local, do business locally” concept can only go so far, but we in this region can help lift ourselves up by pushing it to its limits. It’s easy to shop with the big boys and to buy stuff over the internet, but in most cases it doesn’t do as much to help your neighbor.

Phil Drake is proving that doing business locally when possible can lead to great successes. Whether you’re a consumer or a businessperson, there’s never been a more important time to take that lesson to heart.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

More media is almost always beneficial

I don’t listen to local radio so much anymore, but the story in last week’s edition about the demise of WRGC in Sylva still struck and emotional chord somewhere inside.

When I say I don’t listen to local radio regularly, I mean the very small, very local AM and FM stations like WRGC in Sylva or WPTL in Canton or similar stations in Franklin and Bryson City. Almost every small town has one or two. When I’m in my car I tune them in, but that’s not a lot of listening. I do love nothing better during night driving in the mountains than to see what kind of AM signals I can pick up by just scanning through the dial, and that method leaves me listening to local stations as well as radio personalities from far-off cities in the Midwest.

No, those super-local stations have become, in many ways, irrelevant. I listen to four radio stations here in the mountains, and in this order — WNCW 88.7, WCQS at 95.3 (a very close second), and 104.9, and on rare occasions the WCU station — 90.5 —when I can pick it up.

We even did business with WRGC a few years back. We were the new kid in town then, and our newspaper was trying to gain an audience in Jackson County. We would sponsor the newscasts of local events, hoping to familiarize its listeners with what we were doing.

Perhaps the closing of another business shouldn’t resonate so heavily. But I’m in the media business. When local radio — or local media of any kind — dies a death related to an unsustainable business model, I start sniffing around for clues to survival. Secondly, I’m a small business owner. Anytime someone else shutters their doors I feel some of their pain, and questions about the recession and what it will take to ride out this storm come front and center.

My description earlier, of these stations being super-local, was in all likelihood wrong. These stations used to be hyperlocal. But to keep costs down, the companies that own many of these little stations program national talk shows and no live disc jockey segments where some engineer in some faraway place is keeping an eye on things. This model takes away the local part of a local radio station.

That’s the first step on the path to irrelevance — trying to do the same thing the satellite and internet stations are doing. That’s exactly what happened to newspapers during their great demise in the 1980s and 1990s. Big corporations bought them all up, and so they quit focusing on their local communities and instead focused on profits. The quality of the product suffered, and much of their news was and remains wire copy, the same stories we get from a dozen different places these days.  

And it happened at the same time some very passionate internet bloggers and news sites started, which allowed them to gain a foothold. This sent many good newspapers to their grave, and rendered many others irrelevant.

But there’s a glimmer of hope. We small guys are reporting stories no one else reports. We’re figuring out the internet and even social media, finding ways to grab pieces of those advertising pies. It’s a struggle, but show me companies in any industry — not just media — that aren’t struggling these days.

Here in Western North Carolina, I think we’ll also benefit from the growing realization that it is important to support the local economy. Whether it’s at the farmers market, the local pottery studio, the insurance guy down the street or the dentist you see at the coffee shop, there’s a growing acceptance that if we send our dollars out of the community we are sapping our community’s strength and vibrancy. This only works, though, if the local business produces a quality product. Otherwise, the local side of the equation doesn’t hold up.

We work and live and play in a very unique place. The vacuum created by WRGC’s demise will be filled, and there is a lot of commotion going on right now in Jackson County surrounding the issue of local radio. But we are all better off when there are many media sources doing good work and competing and complementing each other. Well-done local radio can still work. Here’s hoping WRGC finds its way back on the air and into the media mix.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

It’s time to approve dealers at Harrah’s casino

Been to the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino? Even if you don’t gamble, I’d encourage a walk through. My bet is you’d be absolutely astounded at what is happening in Cherokee.

I took a media tour a couple of weeks ago and, honestly, couldn’t believe what I saw. The reality that there is something that huge, that glitzy and that busy juxtaposed so near secluded mountains, vast wilderness areas and all of our very quaint, very small downtowns at first take seems a little odd.

What’s not odd, though, is how Harrah’s has changed the fortunes of the tribe — and the region — for the better. In fact, as this recession lingers, it’s painful to imagine how Cherokee, Swain and Jackson counties would be faring without the casino revenue.

The casino, in what is admittedly an understatement, has blossomed. It now employs more than 2,000, and that will go up to 2,400 once the current expansion project is done. It attracts about 3.6 million gamers annually, making it the state’s largest tourist attraction.

And now the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians wants approval, to use a poker term, to go all in: it wants dealers instead of video machines, a move that it estimates would add at least another 400 jobs. Along with those dealers, say gambling industry insiders, would come tens of thousands of more patrons.

The governor and the tribe are both playing hardball in the dealer negotiations, and reportedly the two are not very close to a deal. The state wants an agreement with the tribe for a percentage of casino revenue for its coffers before allowing dealers. While we agree that the state should gets its fair share, we also hope state leaders take into account what Harrah’s provides for a region that has little industry, few large corporations, and traditionally doesn’t get the attention that is lavished on the coast or the urban centers in the Piedmont. I suspect every leader in this part of the state wants the casino to continue to prosper.

Here’s what leaders in Raleigh need to understand: the casino is the right kind of tourist attraction for the mountain region. It doesn’t pollute like a traditional factory (and thereby spoil the attraction of the mountains), doesn’t add to urban sprawl, doesn’t strain infrastructure, and its patrons come for a few days, spend their money and leave.

The state spends millions on tax breaks to attract jobs in other parts of the state, and yet it could shackle the next planned casino expansion because it wants more revenue than the tribe has so far been willing to relinquish.

It’s been more than a decade since the state let the genie out of the bottle when it comes to gambling. Not only did leaders roll out the welcome mat for the casino, it has since set up a lottery. So there’s no moral or ethical argument for delaying approval of the tribe’s attempt to win approval for dealers. It’s all about the money.

The governor, state leaders and the tribe need to get a deal done so Western North Carolina’s lead economic engine can reach its full potential.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Wake up America, the world is watching

From the hotel window in Durban, South Africa, I can see the Indian Ocean. Freighters line the horizon like parapets on a castle wall, waiting their turn to berth at the busiest container port in the entire continent of Africa. The ocean breeze makes the water warm enough to swim even as winter here turns to spring, and we did just that today, splashing in the ocean after a run along the sand.

And we weren’t alone. The beach was packed with vacationers and locals, all enjoying a gorgeous Sunday after a rare cold, rainy spell late last week. One of the locals I was talking to said getting the sun back was a welcome occurrence. “Cape Town is supposed to get the rain in winter, we’re not supposed to get rain. Now things are right.”

It’s easy to get lulled into a sort of stupor in a place like this. I am removed from South Africa’s many problems as we work on press releases high atop the Durban Hilton. But even in this tourist district, I move from place to place among a mix of humanity so diverse it is staggering.

I’ve done a bit of traveling, and nowhere is there a mix of humans so colorful in skin color and dress. It’s a human bazaar, and as we strolled along the promenade along the beach I was as wide-eyed as a kid.

Even here, I am reminded of the politicians in Washington and the last few weeks of debate on the debt ceiling and the country’s future. CNN’s worldwide news service is here to remind me. As this is published on Wednesday, Aug. 3, I expect a deal will have been struck to meet a deadline that, if missed, could have sent our country into the first stages of default.

We should all be frustrated at the way this has played out, as politics has trumped the nation’s best interests. “Like spoiled children,” was the phrase that kept coming to mind as I watched and listened and then moaned and groaned. Each day one side or the other sounded more petulant and immature.

I’m in Durban with Ken Howle, a friend who works at Lake Junaluska who asked me if I’d accompany him to the World Methodist Conference to help with media. Ken was asked by the WMC General Secretary George Freeman to handle all the communications at the conference, and so here we are with a couple of thousand Methodists from all over the world. Ken and I are trying to mix fun and work, taking in the local flavor — including the great beach, a brutal rugby match, and some of the local seafood — while we also prepare for the work of communicating what happens here to Methodists around the world.

I was talking to a woman here from the U.S., one who has traveled the world extensively with her husband, and the debt ceiling debate came up. She seemed frustrated, and reminded us: “Yes, they say when we hiccup, the rest of the world gets a cold; when we get the flu, the rest of the world dies.”

The South African paper today (Sunday, July 31), bemoaned the potential fallout to this troubled country if the U.S. does not get its act together. This is a place that suffers from 25 percent official unemployment, where young and old alike beg on the streets to gather enough money to feed themselves and family members.

Ken spoke with a woman waiting in line with us at a restaurant. She had just returned from America, nine months as a CNA at a Mississippi rest home. She told him she would have never come back but her visa expired. Bongie, a local newspaper editor who’s helping us, said the problems in her native Zimbabwe are much worse than here, and that she came to South Africa to find opportunity.

While our own country and the rest of the world suffers, we can’t find leaders who really care. The problem with America isn’t that we’re prosperous. We should be proud of our successes, developing an economy and a standard of living much of the world still envies.

The problem is that we seem to have forgotten how to lead, how to use our great wealth to fix problems in our country or anywhere else.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Leave politics at the door and enjoy Folkmoot USA

I’ve been volunteering with the Folkmoot USA International Dance Festival for about 15 years. It’s one of the most culturally rich, unique events in these mountains. It was going on before the Iron Curtain was raised, bringing dancers from those former communist countries to the U.S. for some eye-opening adventures.

Today, as terrorists lurk in shadowy places around the world and political divisions remain firmly entrenched, the message of this festival remains as strong as ever: people are more alike than they are different, and overcoming political and religious differences isn’t all that difficult when you focus on sharing instead of dividing. For the 28 years that Folkmoot has been in existence, politics has never won out over the sharing of traditions.

During the planning for many of the festivals in past years, some of us on the Folkmoot Board had nagging worries in the back of our minds that some countries would simply not get along. But it never happens, at least not for any kind of geopolitical reasons.

No, the worst we’ve had in 28 years are disagreements over who should do the finale, complaints about beds not being comfortable or rooms being too hot. Some of these are problems that have to be dealt with — and thank goodness for the Folkmoot staff — but these aren’t game-changers.

Folkmoot is an opportunity to forget politics and put xenophobic notions aside, and I would encourage everyone reading this to do just that and enjoy one of the performances happening in your community over the next week or so (July 22-31). You won’t be disappointed.

•••

I wrote a story for this year’s Folkmoot Guidebook about the history of the festival. While doing the research, I learned about an early attempt to bring Folkmoot under the tent of Bele Chere, Asheville’s huge street festival.

Charles Starnes, a former Tuscola High School principal and Folkmoot volunteer, was a close friend of Dr. Clint Border, who founded the festival. After Folkmoot’s first festival in 1984, it became very popular very quickly. Asheville’s own Bele Chere started in 1979, and was a small event compared to what it has become today.

Starnes told me — and Brenda O’Keefe of Joey’s Pancakes confirmed — that early on Bele Chere organizers contacted Folkmoot about bringing the festival to Asheville and running it in conjunction with Bele Chere. The idea was that the two festivals together could turn into something really big.

According to both Starnes and O’Keefe, Dr. Border was absolutely adamant that moving the festival to Asheville was not even open to discussion. Folkmoot, he said, would always be based in Haywood County. Twenty-eight years later, it is still here and is very successful.

As for Bele Chere, well, it did not need Folkmoot to thrive. It has become Asheville’s signature event and one of the largest street festivals in the country.

•••

And now for a little politics.

The current debate about debt and spending in the U.S. has highlighted a fundamental flaw of democracy: can people vote against their self-interest in the name of shared sacrifice?

As democracies across Europe — Ireland, Portugal, Greece, and now Italy — teeter on the verge of insolvency, governments are struggling to find a middle ground. Those on opposing sides of the political divides are whipping up their constituents, just like here in the U.S.

Many people have seen this coming and been writing about it for years. We have created social welfare programs — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — that have become very expensive. The senior citizens who get those benefits aren’t about to support cuts. Military spending here is huge, but those states and communities who depend on military bases don’t want them downsized or closed. The wealthy don’t want to pay more taxes, but they are the ones who can afford it. And on and on.

To fix these problems, I have to vote for leaders who will vote against my self-interest. So do you. The big question is whether any democracy can take this step, where the majority votes against what will benefit them in the short run.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Proposed 11th District rips out the center of WNC

Redistricting is always political, and voters on both sides have to accept that. The party with a majority will get districts that it hopes will advance its ideology.

But the recently released map for our 11th Congressional District has ripped out the cultural and business heart of Western North Carolina. By taking a large part of Asheville out of the 11th, we’re left with a district lacking a center, merely a collection of mountain counties strung along the spine the Smokies.

Look, there’s a lot most of us don’t like about Asheville. Most of us in this part of the state prefer small towns and isolated mountains and we don’t like traffic and crowds. Some of us can’t stand the very idea of malls and mega shopping centers.

Still, it is the metropolis of our region. We go there for festivals, we go there to shop for big-ticket items, to attend concerts and other cultural events. We use its hospitals. Many of us go there everyday to work, returning to our small towns every evening.

It gives our district more clout to have a vibrant, growing city whose name constantly comes up around the country as one of the best places to live and raise a family.

On the other side of the coin, I imagine folks in Asheville might be more upset than we are. Now they have to share a representative with Gastonia, a former mill town that has become, more or less, a suburb of Charlotte. There’s little hope that a representative from that new Piedmont district will actually know anything at all about Asheville, which is a mountain town through and through.

Redistricting is difficult and complicated, no doubt, and there is no mandate to think about a region’s culture and history. But Asheville and all of Buncombe County should be in the district that includes the seven western counties. In this case, we belong together, and I hope the lawsuit challenge that is sure to come succeeds.

•••

A report sent to the General Assembly last month recommended — for all intents and purposes — that all three community colleges west of Buncombe merge administrative functions with a larger institution. This is just a bad idea that hopefully will be shelved.

The report’s intent was to find ways to save money at the state’s community college system. That’s a great idea, but unfortunately it is those of use in smaller, rural counties that would suffer from the proposal.

According the report, community colleges with less than 3,000 full-time equivalencies (which is sort of like a full-time student) would merge many of its accounting and administrative positions with the larger colleges. That means no president and no deans locally. Haywood, Southwestern and Tri-County community colleges all have less than 3,000 full-time equivalencies.

Right now, community colleges get 27 percent of their funding from the counties where they are located. Cut the staff, get rid of the local presidents and move staff to Asheville, and you can kiss that money good bye. The local county commissioners would not pay, I’ll guarantee it. Then the savings would disappear.

Plus, community colleges by definition are supposed to serve and reflect the communities where they are located. Without local leaders, they would lose that local focus and the ability to work closely with the local business community.

Finally, this fundamental change would only save a pittance: $5 million out of a $1.2 billion state budget. That’s less than one half of 1 percent. That speaks, it seems to me, to a pretty efficient operation.

Our community colleges are going to take their budget cut from this General Assembly session and make do as best they can. But this merger plan is just a bad idea that would do much more harm than good.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Appreciating good stories, civic engagement

A week before this week’s dedication of the new Jackson County Library complex, this newspaper’s 12th birthday passed almost unnoticed by those of us who work to put it out each week. Where there used to be celebrations, we just don’t make a big deal out of it anymore. Another year, another number — now at 13 — on the volume that shows up on the front of each week’s paper.

The first edition of The Smoky Mountain News hit the streets of Western North Carolina on June 2, 1999. The Jackson County Library saga has run like a thread through our paper’s history, starting that first year when there was talk about expanding the library into the land where the Hooper House now stands.

This issue was has been important to me professionally because it acquainted me with so many Jackson County leaders. After having been a reporter and editor in Haywood for nearly eight years, this story got my feet wet in Jackson and was the first issue our newspaper got very involved with. From day one we’ve covered it very closely, following all the twists and turns.

Way back then I got to know people like Jay Denton and Stacy Buchanan, Gail Findlay and Cecil Groves, Julie Spiro and Joyce Moore and many others as these community leaders all got involved in this long, somewhat convoluted debate.

Now, it ends with the Sylva’s oldest Victorian-era home — the Hooper House (once slated for demolition to make way for a new library) — serving as the gateway for visitors and the courthouse (sitting empty and unused all these years) getting a second life. What was once the home of law and justice is now the epicenter of culture and history for Jackson County.

In an era where football stadiums and corporate headquarters too often depict our most ambitious building projects, it is nothing short of brilliant that the citizens of Jackson County have, through heart-rending, sometimes tumultuous debate, ended with this library and the renovated Hooper House. It’s one of those not-so-small miracles that define a community, showing what it values and what is important. What a grand statement.

I told someone last week that an idea was percolating for a column about our newspaper’s anniversary coming at the same time as the library dedication. To me the correlation is simple: when we started this paper, we did so under the pretense that people in this region would value a journalistic endeavor that sought to reach between counties to discuss issues that are important to all of us who live in these mountains.

We are no repository of learning, like the library, but this newspaper has taken a stand against the notion that everyone wants short, surface-level articles without meat and depth. We’ve rebelled a bit against the notion that newspapers needs to dummy down to a populace that has a short attention span and can’t digest complicated issues.

There’s no doubt we lose a lot of readers because of what we don’t do with our newspaper. We don’t try to be a community newspaper — this region has several that are very strong and very good — because that’s not our role. We aren’t an entertainment and music mag, though we do try to cover these areas. I’ve come to the conclusion that we are a hybrid, and our goal is to be interesting, informative and useful each week. Our success, I believe, is a testament to some of the same values that led to the success of the drive to build this new library.

There are many who would argue that neither libraries nor newspapers are needed these days. The digital literary catalogues created by companies like Amazon and Google and the Internet’s infinite news sources have rendered us both obsolete. At least that’s what I’ve heard — at least about newspapers — many, many times since we unloaded those first issues in those brand new blue boxes 12 years ago.

But here’s the truth: both the library and most good newspapers are embracing the digital revolution while still acknowledging many peoples’ abiding love affair with real words on real paper.

What’s important, at least by my estimation, is that this region still shows such strong support for knowledge and civic engagement. That’s worth remembering as we celebrate the people and the accomplishments that led to this one-of-a-kind facility atop that little knoll in downtown Sylva.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Six pints of Guinness and a glass of milk

What do Barack Obama and my son have in common? They both visited Ireland in May. Obama, though, was proud to partake of a pint of the national drink, Guinness Stout, and was shown on dozens of television stations imbibing. My son wouldn’t take a sip, no matter the teasing. Good for him. He’s only 12, for God’s sake.

It was my father-in-law who made the call about bringing Liam on our guys’ trip to Ireland. The idea was to take Bill Sullivan — my father-in-law — to the country his relatives emigrated from to Canada, eventually making their way to Detroit. At first the plan was for the adult males in the family — my father-in-law, my brother-in-laws Patrick, Joe, and Jim, and Patrick’s son, Matthew, who had just graduated from Florida State — to make the trip.

When we sprung the surprise on Bill, his response was almost  immediate. “We gotta take Liam. He’ll be the life of the trip,” he said.

I wondered how Liam would travel with six men, if he would even like it. Most of all, though, I worried about what he would eat. Few humans would survive even a couple of days on his bland diet. I can use my fingers to count what my son will eat. It goes something like this — pasta, pizza, cereal, bag soup, select sandwiches, and ice cream. He’s gotten to where he’ll mix it up with a few beans and, after a bit of cajoling, will even try a few spinach leaves.

In addition to this limited selection, remember he’s also 12. That means he begins to ask about the next meal before the one he’s currently consuming is finished. I remember those days, and most parents of boys know exactly what I’m talking about. So I was a bit worried, but his mother and I decided he would survive the dietary struggles during the trip and that the whole international experience would be worth the possible problems. If any problems arose concerning food, we would just deal with them.

His older sisters, though, were a bit put off by the prospect of Liam going, and it had nothing to do with whatever gastronomical challenges he might have to endure. They’ve done their share of traveling, but neither has been to Europe.

“I can’t believe he’ll get to Europe before me,” fumed 18-year-old Megan.

“Unbelievable,” pouted 15-year-old Hannah.

Truthfully, the sisters were just teasing. I think. I’m over 50 and still can’t decipher the intentions of women young or old, even those I’m closest to (you girls were just joking, right?).

Then the teasing from the men started. In addition to his utter lack of creativity with solid foods, Liam’s liquid diet is an either-or proposition. Water or milk. Nothing else. Nada. I’d like to take some credit for this, like those parents whose children enter college and have never had sugar or a soda. But no, it’s just his choice. Milk or water. Water or milk.

“This will be his chance to expand that limited fluid intake to include Guinness,” declared Uncle Patrick Doone, the only among us with living relatives in Ireland. As emails, cards and calls were exchanged during the planning of the trip, the teasing built to a bit of a crescendo, with me doing my bit to egg it on. One day Liam — not knowing whether we were kidding or not — decided he wasn’t going to take it any more.

“Dad, I’m not going to do it. I want y’all to quit saying that,” he pronounced, rather forcefully, one night at dinner.

Point taken. We all enjoyed the teasing, but we put it to bed rather quickly.

So we got to work planning the trip. A couple of days before departure, Liam decided that he and I should play Frisbee across Ireland. “I hear there are a lot of green, grassy fields there,” he said as we looked over a map. Indeed. So we did just that, pulling out the disc whenever possible to celebrate the beauty of island. The green fields did not disappoint.

So we made our tour of castles, manor houses, museums, national parks, rugged coastlines, small villages and large towns, breweries, distilleries, restaurants and pubs across southern Ireland. Every grand trip needs a rallying cry, and we found ours the first day, repeating it across the land: “Six pints of Guinness and a glass of milk.” Onward.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

SCC road gets mired in questions about motives

A planned new access road that will provide an exit and entrance into Southwestern Community College in Webster should not be a controversial project. The college’s growth, the entire country’s renewed emphasis on public safety in the post-9/11 era, and SCC’s unusual layout running up the side of a hill all point to the need for the project.

But this project has become a hotly debated topic among many in Jackson County now that the chairman of the board of commissioners is criticizing the preference given to the road despite what he says are other important needs in the county.

“There are some projects in our county that have been put off for years for the funding to be acquired for this road right here,” Debnam said at a board meeting last week. And, even more pointed, “I told (Department of Transportation officials) 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.”

What’s important here is that those critical of the road be sure to separate what are two different issues: SCC’s need for the road versus how this road was OK’d over other projects.

About 11,000 vehicles a day travel past SCC on N.C. 116, right past the school’s entrance. The college has seen tremendous growth in the past decade, jumping from 2,372 full-time students in 2000 to 3,668 full-timers in 2010. That’s a 54-percent growth in enrollment over the past decade, and yet traffic in and out of the school must use the same roads.

The safety issue is one that has gained priority over the last decade. As we pointed out in an article in last week’s newspaper, both Tuscola and Smoky Mountain high schools have had second entrance/exit roads built in recent years to make sure there was more than one way in and out of the campuses. County Commissioner Joe Cowan, in response to Debnam’s criticism, was adamant that public safety is a very important aspect of this project.

Finally, in this economy it pays to feed your biggest existing industry. In Jackson County, that industry is education. Between the two colleges, there is no larger employer in the county and no other entities that attract more people. It’s good for Jackson County when the state invests money in Western Carolina University and SCC.

But it’s easy to understand why the issues raised by Debnam are getting traction.

In Jackson County, the Southern Loop controversy has led to a substantial level of mistrust about just about all Department of Transportation projects. There’s also a new, combustible mix on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners — two new GOP members and one Independent, along with two incumbent Democrats.

Conrad Burrell, who is the regional representative on the state Board of Transportation, is also a long-time member of the SCC Board of Trustees. The fact that he openly supported this road, and that some speculate it could provide a ramp that would aid the proposed Southern Loop — which Burrell also supports and many others in Jackson County don’t — has opened the door for criticism of the SCC project. Debnam thinks Burrell’s support of SCC has pushed this project ahead of others.

Some also think that DOT officials and Burrell are laying the groundwork for the Southern Loop, and that this road getting pushed ahead of others is part of that plan. Let’s hope not. Grouping these two projects could put SCC in the crosshairs of a controversy it in which it doesn’t need to be involved.

Road building decisions are as byzantine as any process in government. It’s never a bad idea to closely examine decisions by state bureaucrats about expenditures, especially when it comes to roads. The DOT has proven itself over the years to be an insular agency that too often makes decisions contrary to the wishes of the taxpayers who are paying its bills. Because of that, the public — and leaders like Debnam — has every right to scrutinize the projects that will affect their communities. Sure, the influence of someone as powerful as Burrell will definitely play a part in which roads are built — that’s his job as a DOT board member.

In this case, though, SCC shouldn’t be punished because of suspicions about the motives of those who support this project. The road is been discussed for more than a decade. Let’s get it done. The other issues will still be there to investigate for as long as anyone wants.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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