Cherokee could do better regulating bear zoos

“Cherokee has so much to offer, such as its beautiful mountains, museums, cultural and historical exhibits, Native American shops, friendly residents, and casino. The caged bears may have been a big attraction at one time but are now seen as an embarrassment to the community and should be permanently closed down.”

— Bob Barker, in a letter to Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks

 

The caged bears in Cherokee that a national animal rights group has recently launched a campaign against have long struck a nerve among many residents and visitors to the area. This most recent effort will once again draw attention to this outdated practice and perhaps end it, but PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) own tainted reputation is likely to be as much discussed as the inhumane treatment charges it has brought up.

According to PETA and others — this newspaper has received letters and phone calls from a half dozen visitors to Cherokee over the past 10 years — the bears kept at Santa’s Land, Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post and the Cherokee Bear Zoo are “not being treated humanely.” The organization has garnered the support of popular game show host Bob Barker in the campaign. Barker was raised on a reservation in South Dakota and, according to his biography, is one-eighth Sioux. He has also spent many years as an animal rights activist.

The issue of treating animals humanely is an important one. At least two of the zoos in Cherokee — Santa’s Land and Chief Saunooke’s — have been cited for problems by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for regulating businesses that keep wild animals. PETA’s foray into Cherokee may lead to discussions by the Tribal Council and Hicks to enact tougher local regulations, which in the long run would likely benefit the businesses who keep bears.

Times are changing, and the very fact that 30 years ago many more businesses in Cherokee had bear displays is evidence that the “market” for this kind of “product” is disappearing. People don’t want to pay to see animals kept in enclosures that don’t mimic their natural habitat. In the end, that fact — that the business model for habitats deemed unethical is shrinking — is what will likely bring an end to these practices. And, conversely, places that go through the expense to keep captive bears in habitats that mimic the wild — like the WNC Nature Center in Asheville — earn kudos from most animal rights groups and get more visitors.

The ethical treatment of animals is a complicated issue, however, and sometimes campaigns like this by PETA don’t address the nuances. We won’t defend any mistreatment of animals, but shouldn’t we differentiate between bears born in captivity that are more like pets from those captured after their mother was perhaps killed by a car or hunters, or an animal wounded that couldn’t survive in the wild? Would PETA better serve the animals whose rights it is fighting for by providing grants to businesses to upgrade their habitats, rather than spending money mounting some of the campaigns that has tainted its reputation? And we won’t even go into the area of whether animals should be used in scientific research.

The real world is also nuanced. These Cherokee operations are legitimate businesses owned by families who are trying to make a living, providing jobs and surviving in this economic environment. That’s not to say it’s all right to treat animals inhumanely in the name of money, but remember there are regulators who do inspect and keep tabs on these businesses.

Cherokee would be better off by enacting stricter regulations, establishing itself as a leader in the field of captive animal welfare, and then helping businesses find a way to comply. That would go along way toward ending this lingering practice that, on its own, will likely die a slow death and likely continue to bring criticism to the Tribe.

No we aren’t becoming socialists

Don’t you just love how words and labels take on a life of their own in the ideological debate that helps shape public policy. The give-and-take of real debate is important — as it helps us find a middle ground upon which to govern — but the word play often gets comical.

My, uhhmm, favorite in this current political climate is the claim that we are becoming a socialist country. The fear is that the trifecta of bank bailouts, red-ink stimulus packages and corporate handouts is sending us down the path of no return, and that soon the government will own even more private corporations. Now, as the politicians try to find a way to provide health care for every citizen, the cry is getting even more common.

As a New York Times writer put it a couple of months ago, “socialism” has replaced “liberal” as the “go-to” slur among conservatives who love to hear themselves talk.

It’s not just at the national scene that this accusation is getting tossed around. At the Tea Parties protesting higher taxes it was claimed that the country is changing, but in the wrong way. As the different groups around North Carolina protested spending at the local level, you could read about accusations that even county governments were becoming socialistic, whatever that means.

“Once the government owns GM,” a man was saying the other day in the locker room at the gym, “there’s no turning back. We’ll have to buy more private companies because no one else is going to want to buy them.”

And that’s really the crux of this new front in the ideological war. In this country, particularly since FDR and the New Deal era, government has taken a strong role in addressing our social problems. Most of these programs were aimed at the poor, the elderly, and the infirm. Those of different political stripes argued over how to administer the programs and how much should be spent, but there was general agreement that the less fortunate deserved government help.

But now it’s not just the needy we are helping. No, this time we step in and help rich bankers and U.S. autoworkers making $60,000 per year, all in the name of saving the economy. Before blasting Obama about all this, let’s remember that it was the previous administration that jumped into the fray by approving the initial bank bailout.

Then along came Obama and the tab to the banks grew, along with the approval to help the auto industry and the larger package of stimulus spending. And now, there’s a chance this government largesse will extend to California and maybe another state or two who are drowning in red ink.

But just what defines socialism, if that is indeed where we are headed? According to Newsweek, European democracies spend on average 47.1 percent of their country’s gross domestic product, while in the U.S. the figure is 39.1 percent. I don’t know what an economist would say, but it seems we still have a ways to go in a strict economic sense before we resemble those governments we love to hate in Europe.

The argument — whether one is conservative or liberal — should not be about labels. Those labels — like “socialism” — make arguing the nuances of important policy more difficult, kind of like demonizing the opponent rather than matching wits against them. What we should be worrying about is just how much government intervention is necessary, and what is the wisest way to spend our depleting federal and state resources.

Way back in March, President Obama had this to say during an interview on this subject: “By the time we got here, there already had been an enormous infusion of taxpayer money into the financial system. The fact that we’ve had to take these extraordinary measures and intervene is not an indication of my ideological preference, but an indication of the degree to which lax regulation and extravagant risk taking has precipitated a crisis.”

Both the private sector and the government failed us in this crisis. Now as a country we have to find some middle ground between the wealth production that comes with a freewheeling private sector and unfettered capitalism, and the proper role for government oversight and stiff bureaucratic regulations.

The government has a role in helping us out of this mess. How large a role is still being debated, but that intervention has nothing to do with socialism.

It won’t be easy, but I don’t think there’s much chance we’ll become a socialist country in the process.

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

The new frugality is an old idea

There’s talk all over about America’s newfound love affair with frugality. What Time magazine has dubbed the Great Recession is threatening the American consumer culture, pundits and writers say, forcing us to re-think whether we need the biggest plasma screen television or the newest and greatest cell phone.

But it’s not just the gadgets that we’re re-thinking. Read the newspapers and news magazines and they also tell you that we’re eating out less, going less often to the high-end grocery stores, keeping the old car longer and putting off repairs to the house.

This may be new lifestyle for many, but not at my house. My wife has always been the “bring it back down to earth” person in our family. She enjoys nothing better than catching me or one of our children talking about how we “need” to get one of those or we “need ” to do that. “Need?” she’ll ask, eyebrows raised. OK, scratch that.

My wife’s point is this: for too many of us, what we “need” and what we “want” seldom diverge. They are one and the same, and so gadgets and other stuff piles up in closets and under beds as we gobble up everything the retailers throw at us.

Who knows whether this new emphasis on frugality is a fad or a permanent change, but it is interesting to note how lifestyle choices like these ebb and flow with the economic times. I’m old enough to remember the OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil embargo of the early 1970s. Price spiked, lines formed, and all of a sudden the country’s consciousness about energy and where it came from were all over the news.

Then came the late 1970s and early 1980s and inflation, job losses and more focus on our energy. Both presidents Nixon and Carter tried to raise our awareness of the country’s need to change its policies, but even during those bad economic times Americans didn’t embrace a radical new lifestyle.

But there was a rising consciousness of what was happening. Those times did signal the start of a concerted, mainstream environmental movement. The idea of using less, recycling and saving energy became commonplace, even though we didn’t all embrace it. The 1960s subculture had fomented into a fringe movement that now had advocates all the way to the White House. I remember some guy in Fayetteville who taught at the college near our house, and we’d see him riding his bike to work even in the winter.

That memory came back to me last week when we wrote a couple of stories about farmers and retailers. One story was about the growing popularity of biking to work again. Companies like Mast General Store even pay their workers to bike, figuring the benefits to the environment and their employees’ health are worth the investment.

The other story we wrote was about Whittier farmer William Shelton who has begun selling his products to individual families in addition to maintaining a wholesale business. Sign up for a share and you’ll get fresh vegetables each week from his farm.

Many growers are doing this, but Shelton is the first we’ve heard about who has been on the farm for several generations and has changed his business model to connect with the growing demand for local food. The markets also influenced his decision. Farmers like Shelton find it hard to compete against huge corporate farms and foreign competition.

And so he and others have decided to sell their food to people like you and me, counting on our desire for fresh and tasty food rather than the bland vegetables available in our grocery stores. These growers are also counting on the fact we, the consumer, will work harder to get our food. The large retailers are awfully convenient, but — just like biking to work — the benefits of eating local food go beyond taste to helping create the kind of community that most of us want to live in.

Last week’s paper brought together several of the issues arising from this new way of thinking that this Great Recession is helping promulgate. The demise of a consumer culture changes the equation of our lives. Cheaper, faster and easier don’t add up to better. The truth is that we’ve always known this, but often it takes eating a little humble pie before we remember what our parents and grandparents tried teaching us a long time ago.

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

Perdue’s no-show was a missed opportunity

“Gov. Beverly Perdue probably didn’t set out to give Western North Carolina a slap in the face Wednesday.

“But we know a slap in the face when we see one, and this sure qualifies.”

— Asheville Citizen-Times editorial, April 23

 

Asheville Citizen-Times Editorial Page Editor Jim Buchanan — a Haywood County resident and a friend of mine — was right on target with this one. My sentiments exactly, and a sentiment shared by a whole lot of people in our region.

Gov. Beverly Perdue chose not to attend the first official event in the yearlong celebration of the 75th anniversary of the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The occasion was a Governors Proclamation Ceremony and it was held at Clingmans Dome. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen was there.

According to Perdue’s spokesperson, Chrissy Pearson, “The governor was invited and did give serous consideration but given the length of the trip and the potential travel cost involved she declined. It is so far out of the way and we are trying to cut back on travel.”

Perhaps Ms. Pearson didn’t get the significance of her words, but the “so far out of the way” line is a bit hard to swallow. Everyone out here knows how far we are from Raleigh (it’s about 6 hours from Clingmans Dome to Raleigh, and MapQuest estimates the fuel cost there and back at about $70). The distance in miles is significant, but it’s the attitude that can be read into the governor’s statement that is more revealing.

I could go on for thousands of words, but here are three important points about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the southwestern part of her own state that Gov. Perdue might need to be reminded of:

• The park is probably the single largest economic engine in the state, if one doesn’t consider the “beach” as one entity. Nearly 10 million people a year visit the park, and the surrounding communities depend on it — especially when times are as tough as they are now. But somehow Tennessee has laid claim to the Smoky Mountains. Most citizens of this country think of Tennessee when they think of the park, and its governor made sure he had time on his schedule to get to the ceremony. Perdue’s absence only solidifies Tennessee’s link with the Smokies and surely will help the towns on the western side of the park.

• The still-evolving legacy of the park— from a cultural standpoint — deserves recognition from leaders in Raleigh, including the governor. She could have stood on the podium and made note of how the creation of the park was controversial in its day because so many residents were uprooted from their homes and communities, their land forcibly “taken” (though they did get compensation, that’s the general phrase used). She could have pointed out that the initial skepticism about the park was heartfelt but that its creation has become a grand success, creating a jewel for future generations and a permanent gold mine for the economies in the state’s far west.

• Finally, she could have assured citizens here that this region, though many miles from Raleigh, is not “out of the way.” From a political standpoint, Perdue should know that citizens in the mountains have a long history feeling that they have been left out. A visit to this important ceremony would have helped establish that Perdue does indeed feel differently.

I’ve had the good fortune to live, literally, all over North Carolina — Fayetteville (south piedmont), Boone and Blowing Rock (northwest), Durham (central), Raleigh (central), Roanoke Rapids (northeast), Elizabethtown (southeast) and now Waynesville. All of those places are special, but not a single one has people imbued with the strong sense of place that is the norm for those here in the mountains. The creation of the park is an important component of this legacy, and Perdue’s no-show will have some saying that she just doesn’t understand that.

In the grand scheme of things, this probably doesn’t rank very high in terms of Perdue’s mistakes during her early months in the governor’s office. What it indicates, however, is that some things just haven’t changed much in Raleigh.

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

Nuisance debate both crass and credible

Every now and then a government proposal takes on such a vigorous life of its own that its intent gets clouded, those supporting it — or just discussing it even-handedly — get tarred and feathered and what started as an honest effort to do something worthwhile just blows up.

Such was the case with the proposed nuisance ordinance Haywood commissioners and their planning board abandoned last week. In the end, even what was good and right about this proposal just got lost in the noise.

The ordinance started out as an attempt to protect public health and clean up some of the junk that accumulates on private property. Cleaning up junk and protecting public health are, in almost all cases, admirable goals. The ordinance would have regulated items like open sewage, refuse, old swimming pools, garbage, junked vehicles and such. It’s intent was to prevent injuries, get rid of junk and abandoned manufactured homes and to “abate public nuisances.”

As a citizen of Haywood County, I don’t have a problem with this proposal. In plain English, the law was trying to get people to keep their old stuff from causing health hazards or looking just plain ugly.

But therein lies the problem. This ordinance, stripped of all the lawyer-speak, in essence would have codified a subjective opinion — the opinion of planners and commissioners, one would assume — as to what was unsightly, unhealthy, or, in the words of the proposal, a “public nuisance.”

As has happened time and again in counties and towns throughout these mountains, opposition mounted as the debate took a detour from the merits of the proposal to a broad fight against the erosion of property rights. The wording of this particular proposal invited protest. “The following are hereby expressly declared to be public nuisances,” it read, and went on to say “outdoor storage of .... all-terrain vehicles, toys, bicycles, ....”

County board Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick explained that these references needed to be taken in context to public health and safety, but it didn’t matter. County commissioners and planners had no choice but to toss out the proposal. If there were supporters who thought a re-wording might make this law more palatable, they didn’t show up. From any objective measure of public opinion, the majority of Haywood citizens were against this measure, vehemently against it. And so commissioners struck it down, as they should have.

What was disappointing in this whole affair?

Well, there was the treatment of officials on the planning board and county board. Everyone has a right to get emotional in their opposition to laws they don’t support. That’s the American way, as many have said.

But to say commissioners or supporters of this ordinance aren’t adhering to the Constitution or are somehow less than patriotic is pure bluster. Trust me, there are much more stringent ordinances in many places in this country that have withstood legal challenges. Nothing at all in this proposal was unconstitutional. Bareknuckle politics are fine, but the argument should remain against the policy proposed, not the people who might feel differently about it than you.

In addition to the petty name calling and cussing, also bothersome in this debate was the way stereotypes were tossed around as if they really mean anything. Outsiders were for it, locals were against it. Rich people were for it, working class folks against it. Conservatives against it, liberals for it. This is akin to the blather from the television and radio blowhards on both the left and right who are so quick to pigeonhole those they don’t agree with and take the easy way out of a real debate on the merits of a proposal.

Of course the good part of this episode has been the real, community debate that has taken place. Many great points have been raised. It’s been a real civics lesson for the community, messy and sometimes ugly as it was.

And the continued participation in civic affairs of this new group — We the People — can only serve to bring attention to the important issues the county board, planners and municipal officials will be discussing in the near future. Too often we in the media sit in empty meeting rooms and write stories about what we think are important issues but that no one else seems to care about. This proposal shows that people do care and that they want to be engaged in the process, and that will make for good government in the long run.

That’s a pretty damn good outcome, and it’s a good bet one active citizen group will beget another that feels a little differently. Do you think, heaven forbid, that the majority of the citizenry will actually start taking an active role in shaping the affairs of the community in which they live? Wake me up, I must be dreaming.

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

Pondering the future of newspapers

Much as I dislike posing the question, here it is: can you imagine a future without newspapers? Would it be a dark day or good riddance to a biased blight upon the information landscape?

Well, if you’re reading this you’ve likely got an opinion. It means you’re a newspaper reader. It’s part of your life, something you can’t imagine living without. But it’s past time for nostalgia. That warm fuzzy about holding a newspaper in your hands as a cup of coffee tickles your nostrils won’t pay the bills for printing, for staffing, and for distribution if not enough people choose to read.

Make no mistake: newspapers are in trouble. Most have heard about the closings of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Rocky Mountain News. We know that a host of other large dailies are limping along. They’re being battered by the tidal wave that is the Internet and the unexpected and lingering depth of this recession, which is slashing advertising revenues.

So what does it all mean?

•••

If I — or anyone else — knew the future of the information and journalism industry, it would be a Bill Gates opportunity. Figuring out how to make money on gathering and packaging information in an age when most of us are completely overwhelmed with information is proving difficult.

Here’s what I do know: the traditional printed daily newspaper business model is broken. It was built on three streams of revenue: subscriptions, retail advertising, and classifieds. Well, classifieds have gone online or to all classified papers (Iwanna, in our case). Paid home delivery subscriptions have been declining for almost two decades, and it doesn’t appear much will change.

So daily papers are left to depend on two revenue streams that will continue to decline — classifieds, home delivery — and are having to rely more heavily on advertising to pay the bills. Trouble is, many businesses that used to buy those newspaper ads are looking at alternatives to the very expensive daily newspaper rates. Those alternatives include weekly newspapers like ours, television and local cable companies, radio, direct mail, and billboards.

And, of course, the Internet.

•••

What about papers like ours?

I tell many people that, unfortunately for dailies across the country, we are part of their problem. Free distribution weeklies with unique content like ours, Mountain Xpress in Asheville, the Independent in the Triangle, and the Rhinoceros Times in the Triad are chipping away at the advertising revenues the big dailies used to monopolize.

But we are also suffering during this recession. We depend solely on advertising revenue, and that has declined steeply. We are being forced to invent new products to help advertisers, take on smaller jobs, and generally morph into a broader media and publishing company that has a newspaper as its flagship.

•••

For our business, local advertising is the key. Another question, then, is how will the local businesses get their information out to readers?

Google is spending millions trying to figure that out, but many businesses tell us that print advertising in a local newspaper is still their best source for getting customers in the door. As the web becomes bogged down with information — search “smoky mountains” on Google and 2.4 million entries come up, while “smoky mountain real estate” will get you 163,000 entries — many advertisers who go solely to web are finding it a “needle in the haystack” gamble.

In the future, that haystack is just going to get astronomically larger. As blogging and social networking spiral out of control, navigating the web gets unwieldy.

So local papers still have a future, and that is what many analysts are now saying. Our news and our advertising still are unique and original, stuff that in many cases won’t be found anywhere else — at least for now.

•••

Everyone who goes online for news or turns on the televisions for news still depends primarily on newspapers. The most popular Internet news sites are papers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The Huffington Post and the Drudge Report pick through newspaper sites, as do Rush Limbaugh, Anderson Cooper and the writers for Jay Leno and David Letterman. They put their own spin and their own reporting into it, but almost all the stories originated with newspaper journalists.

Local television news depends on a region’s newspapers for their stories. I can’t tell you how often we’ve watched WLOS reporters hit the newsstand at our office early Wednesday morning, only to see one or more of the stories show up on the news later that day. CNN has a staff of probably a dozen reporters in Washington, while the Washington Post has several hundred.

Make no mistake, those in power — whether that is in government, business, politics or wherever — will be much more insulated from public scrutiny when all the newspapers in this country are gone. No one consistently does the type of reporting we do every single day.

•••

But what about the stories, the information we provide? How can we continue investing in those type stories as information seekers migrate toward the web?

Well, several efforts are being tried. One of the most original is for local papers to all adopt the National Public Radio format and register as nonprofit organizations. Revenues would not be taxable, and donations would be tax-deductible.

A few days ago Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Maryland, introduced into Congress the Newspaper Revitalization Act, which would allow newspapers to operate as nonprofits for educational purposes. Cardin argues that since newspapers are doing so badly, the government would not lose any revenue. He says the bill is aimed at local papers, not chains or conglomerates.

Another model is to begin charging for the online news. Many papers adopted this model, then switched to free access. Now many are switching back, putting a value on their news.

Could we get, say, $45 a year for people to access all our news and advertising?

Or, could we use another business model known as micro-payments, where a program is set up to charge someone’s credit card 5 cents for every story accessed on a Web site?

•••

Or will newspapers simply go away at some point in the future?

In researching this article I came across this nugget: “Print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting, from flooding the zone — covering every angle of a huge story — to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case. This coverage creates benefits even for people who aren’t newspaper readers, because the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers. The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; ‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!’ has never been much of a business model. So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?”

This particular writer, Clay Shirky, threw up his hands, admitting he did not know who would perform that function or how society would find a way to benefit from the work now done only by newspapers. His conclusion is that society needs good journalism, not newspapers, per se.

It’s safe to say we’re living in an information revolution. To the victor goes the spoils.

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

A tax break for one business is not a plan

Before Haywood County commissioners approve a request to cut property taxes on a business that plans to build an $8 million solar farm near Canton, they need to get serious about developing a long-term green collar industry incentive package. One break for one company seems more like a handout, which in this day every other company could find fault with.

On the surface the request seems almost inconsequential given the relatively small amount of money involved, about $32,000 over five years. In this economy, however, many will be watching the commissioners very closely. A whole lot of local, long-time businesses are struggling to keep people employed while paying their taxes in full.

FLS Solar Energy is planning what is billed as the largest solar farm in the Southeast on an old landfill in Canton. It will install 3,200 solar panels on seven acres that will produce enough electricity to power 1,200 homes. The company has signed a 20-year agreement to sell the electricity to Progress Energy. The utility giant must, under state law, start producing an increasing percentage of its power from green sources.

The announcement late last year that Haywood would be chosen for the solar farm was met with near universal excitement. Although the project won’t produce any long-term jobs, it is being hailed as a coup for Haywood County and Western North Carolina. Row upon row of solar panels will track the sun from an old landfill, proving that this region cares about energy production and global warming, perhaps providing some intangible benefits when it comes to business recruitment. It’s difficult to gauge the economic development benefit of having the largest solar farm in the Southeast (though it’s likely a larger facility somewhere won’t be far behind), but most believe that benefit is more symbolic than tangible.

FLS, for its part, is asking for help to make it through its first five years in opration. The $32,000 it wants Haywood County to forgive amounts to 80 percent of its business property taxes for the first five years it is in operation.

But here’s the rub: even though the request has the endorsement of the county Economic Development Commission, it doesn’t meet existing criteria for the tax break. Specifically, to get the 80 percent tax break the county’s guidelines say the project needs to create 100 jobs and have an investment of at least $10 million. This project is expected to employ 12 as it’s built and no one after it is up and running, and it already qualifies for the federal government’s 30 percent solar energy tax break.

Projects like this are appealing for many reasons, one of which is the “coolness” factor. That line of thinking says if you support green projects, you are cool and everyone will want to join in. But that’s a weak foundation for county policy.

If Haywood wants to become an epicenter of green energy and environmentalism, giving a one-time handout to a solar farm won’t get it there. Instead, county leaders need to develop an array of tax breaks, grants and incentives for new businesses engaged in green technology and for existing businesses that become energy efficient and recycle. In this case the fact that old landfill property is being used is probably more significant than the solar energy aspect of the project.

The green initiative being led by Haywood Community College President Rose Johnson and flourishing under the auspices of HCC and the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce should be encouraged and embraced. The county’s effort to get methane energy from the old landfill is also worth touting. The role of the Commission for a Clean County should be expanded and officially endorsed by the county.

Yes, Haywood County could benefit immensely by becoming a leader in all things green, and businesses and people in the mountains have been embracing this philosophy for decades. But there is a competition out there. Local governments across the nation are also trying to grab this mantle. Haywood needs a long-term plan and a real investment to get there. Helping this company might be symbolic of where the county wants to go, but approving this tax break isn’t really all that progressive. In fact it is simply applying an old-style economic development model to a new industry.

We wish FLS great success, and solar energy is a crucial component for meeting future energy needs. From Haywood County’s perspective, however, approving this tax break at this time is like putting the cart before the proverbial horse.

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

Special moments, a spoonful at a time

You hear it often, mostly from those of us who are guilty. I’m talking about making a promise of spending “quality time” with someone we care about, a precious and valuable experience in these hurried and harried times.

And a few weeks ago I was going to do just that. I planned for dinner and a football game night with my son, Liam. Just us at the house, a huge pizza, him slurping cold milk out of a frosty beer mug and me filling my glass with something a little tastier. He’s 10, and at this age a passion for sports has become something we share. In a household where the only men are the bookends — I’m the oldest and he’s the youngest, with a wife and two daughters in between — we seldom get several hours to do indulge our passion.

On this night, I hatched a plan for the girls to do a movie in Asheville. They took the bait, and we looked forward to the game. An hour or two prior, though, he found a better offer.

“Dad, can I spend the night with Jack and Mason?” he asked after spending the afternoon playing hard with his buddies.

That’s how quick a plan for that elusive “quality time” can disappear. That game and our pre-game dinner had been the most looked-forward-to event on my calendar that week. But that’s also why I’ve learned over the years that the search for that special time — more times than not — is a recipe for disappointment. You can’t run through the week and neglect a son or a wife in hopes that some hyped-up special event will make up for what you’ve just sprinted past. Doesn’t work that way.

I should have known this. It’s a mantra I preached over the years — only in a different set of circumstances — as I became accustomed to driving my daughters to swim practice at 5 a.m. three or four mornings a week. Friends and family would hear about the early morning practices and tell me how bad I had it, how crazy I was for letting my girls get that caught up in swimming.

I would shake my head and tell them they were wrong. Those five minutes around the house before the sun rose and those 15 minutes in the car became a precious commodity. Some mornings there would hardly be a word as we listened to NPR or the girls just dozed. Others we would have conversations about everything from the news on the radio to boys to school to how they should treat their little brother to some crazy family story about one of my brothers or one of Lori’s sisters. Those 20 minutes added up to hundreds of hours spent together, forging ties that will never be broken.

But my oldest has had her license for half a year now. I’m not needed as the chauffeur for the early morning swim practices. That lesson about time had been replaced with me looking forward to that special Saturday night with Liam. Yeah, I was disappointed when he picked his friends over me, but just like that, he reminded me of a lesson I had too quickly forgotten.

Saturday is errand day for us, as it is for many families. This particular morning — prior to the big game — the plans included a trip to the dump, to the dreaded Super Wal-Mart, to the shoe store, over to Ingles and back to the house. The idea was to rush and get the chores done and get things in motion for the night.

And so we were off. The trash takes twice as long with my son helping, but he’s learning how to break down the cardboard and how to get it in the green trailer properly. That’s his job, and so we muddle through it. At Wally World we tried to get in and out fast, but he wanted to trade in a Christmas gift card for a toy, and so we were there quite a while as he figured out which toy gun was the best. Shoe shopping was taxing, but we finally got just what he needed. And so it went. Suffice it to say the errands took longer than I’d hoped.

On Sunday, after the football game disappointment, Lori and I went to the lake for a walk, and Liam wanted to come along. As we walked, he became a Star Wars clone warrior, protecting our perimeter, running, rolling, flipping, hiding and shooting. All around the lake we went, rubber bullets flying, us getting dirty looks from those who think kids and toy guns are a bad mix. You can tell when children are just having fun in their escape mode, when the game becomes reality and to hell with what most of us consider the real world. He was in that zone.

On the way home he was was tired. He sat quietly in the back before telling us that Saturday morning had been one of the best he could remember. It was fun doing all that stuff together with dad, he says.

And so it was, and out the window once again went the pompous idea that anyone can really measure out planned teaspoons of quality time, like there’s a recipe that adds meaning to time spent together. It comes when you least expect it, amid all those hurried and harried moments we call life.

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

This time, WCU passes academic integrity test

This time, WCU passes academic integrity test

If you want a messy issue with lots of overtones, then let’s talk about academic integrity and the role of corporations on college campuses. It’s a big ol’ Pandora’s box, already open and opinions on the fly everywhere.

Last week our cover story focused on banking giant BB&T’s recent donation to WCU. It seems BB&T’s CEO is a huge Ayn Rand fan. Rand is a philosopher and novelist who emigrated to the U.S. from Russia in 1925 when the Bolsheviks and their rabid, violent form of communism had taken over that country.

Her book, Atlas Shrugged, espouses unfettered capitalism, small government and taking actions mainly for self-interest (let me admit not having read any of Ayn Rand’s books, but I have done some studying of her writings over the last several weeks).

But the big debate here is not over the philosophy of Rand and the thoughts she espouses. It’s about academic freedom and this mountain university that people in this region hold near and dear to their collective hearts.

The million-dollar gift came with a few stipulations. The new Distinguished Professorship of Capitalism at WCU would work closely with the Ayn Rand Institute and “have a reasonable understanding and positive attitude toward Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism.” The agreement with the bank also required that Atlas Shrugged be required reading in at least one course and that a free copy of the book be distributed to juniors.

This is what drew the ire of some faculty. Philosophy professor Daryl Hale was among those who criticized the university’s partnership with BB&T, and he became a spokesperson for other disgruntled faculty. “The idea that any donor could have conditions that effectively dictate specific textbooks or course content is something touchy to a lot of folks,” said Hale.

According to WCU officials, the faculty concerns led to the creation of a committee to study the agreement. If the new professor was required to have a “positive attitude” toward Rand, how could they be expected to be critical of someone who is considered a fairly controversial philosopher? And what would that mean in the long run, for a public university to require a professor to have a particular view of any controversial thinker?

The faculty concerns led to some backpedaling by university administrators. No book will be required reading simply due to the donation, and the new language in the agreement with BB&T does not mention the Ayn Rand Institute. In other words, the most controversial aspects of the agreement were removed.

Colleges and universities are facing new funding challenges, and it’s certainly not unusual for businesses and individuals to offer scholarships or to set up endowed professorships. A business major who succeeded is certainly within his right to set up a grant that pays for a low-income student to study abroad. A really wealthy alumni may set up a professorship in special education because he or she suffered from some learning disability. These are accepted forms of philanthropy.

But dictating curriculum is completely over that line. WCU needs to invite corporate support without selling its soul. In this case, the modified agreement seems to accomplish that. But there will be continued pressures to bow to corporate influence, and it is this long-term issue that trustees and administrators — as well as faculty and student leaders — need to remain vigilant about.

(Scott McLeod is the editor and publisher of The Smoky Mountain News. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Here’s to a swift kick to the trash heap for 2008

The new years toasts are over, and we’re a week into 2009. If hindsight is 20-20, then it’s time to feel pretty confident inpassing judgment on 2008 — it sucked.

Ever want to just drop kick a time span into oblivion? In more ways than can be said here, that’s how I feel about a lot of last year. Nothing’s all bad, but the balance sheet for 2008 ends up on the negative side. Good riddance.

And this is coming from someone who considers himself an optimist, one who can find the jewel in an avalanche of slime. In this job we often have to wallow in the mud with the power-mongers and the self-righteous, the pitiful and the abused, but we do it in hopes of making things better. So instead of letting bad news drag me down, typically it’s a springboard to look at what could be or how good I’ve got it.

But many times during the last year, that was hard to do.

Of course there is the bad economic conditions that waddled into our lives in 2008 and just sat there, a huge gorilla with its arms folded and a nasty snarl on its face, squatting there in the middle of the room and refusing to leave. It’s been tough. In our business we’ve had to cut people’s hours, have layoffs, and hold the line on all spending. And there may be more to come. We’ll see how the winter shapes up.

Every business owner has a similar story. No one is happy with sales and profits (or should I say losses), and everyone is getting a little desperate. When business is bad and salaries are cut or workers are let go, lives are screwed up. These are scary times.

And if the recession wasn’t enough to scare the bejeesus out of you, what about the newspaper industry in general? This business is changing so fast it’s hard to keep up, and a good part of that change is eliminating resources going into the gathering of news. All across the country, newspapers are cutting back. We who believe in the value of professional reporting to analyze and interpret the news are, I’m afraid, fast becoming relics. Our industry is changing, but no one can see where the future lies. That uncertainty is unsettling.

On top of that, we’ve had too many health issues here at our business. People I care about are dealing with tough stuff themselves or problems afflicting loved ones, and of course it affects their work. How can it not? And how, as a boss, can you not feel sympathy toward their plight? Never mind that it happens when you’re trying to squeeze blood from a turnip, so that these personal problems run up against bad times on the business side.

There was also my own private nightmare in 2008. My mother-in-law battled through a tough summer with a major illness, and then my mother became unexpectedly ill and fought like hell for almost three months before passing away. Losing a mother you’re close to — besides having to dealing with the grief — is like cutting the last tether holding you to the life raft, and suddenly you’re out there in the middle of the ocean on your own emotionally. No matter your age, it just takes time to regain your balance.

A friend of nearly 30 years also lost his mom this year. He’s one of those guys who makes proclamations that stick in your head, a blue-collar philosopher who thinks hard about life. I got him on the phone when he was driving back from visiting family after she died, and he had been on the highway alone for more than 10 hours. “No one said the journey was going to be easy, that it wasn’t going to get rough at times,” he said. “You just got to keep moving.”

And so we do, keep putting one foot in front of the other, get out of bed, get dressed, get the kids to school, go to work, go through the routines of our life. The little things will lift you up, the unexpected silly email from the co-worker, the stories about my wife’s students, the declarations of omnipotence from my 10-year-old during breakfast, the angst of my 13-year-old, the sunny smile of my 16-year-old who is too wrapped up worrying about school and sports but who just can’t help being a ray of sunshine in whatever room she’s in.

I can’t stand whiners. They get under my skin real fast. If you feel the same, you’ve probably read enough of this. Too much damn grousing. Time to move on, one foot in front of the other, heading forward. Here’s to 2009.

(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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