Scott McLeod

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For its entire existence, this country’s leaders have wrestled with the slippery issue of power and how much is too much for government at all levels. In times like these, as tax revenues disappear while the free market struggles, the issue takes on even more significance.

So when Haywood officials said last week that their decision to privatize trash and recycling services was more about fiscal reality than philosophy of government, there was no reason to doubt them. Still, this move toward getting out of the trash business presents an interesting opportunity for a discussion about local government and its responsibilities.

Haywood commissioners made some waves last week when they voted to stop providing a service that was costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Instead of operating their own convenience centers and a “pick” line at the county-owned recycling center, commissioners voted to privatize many solid waste services. The decision will save nearly $500,000 per year. Another switch that’s liable to happen within a year — the closing of the transfer station in Clyde — could save an additional million dollars a year. A task force studying the cost of these services also says hiring a firm to manage the entire landfill would provide large cost savings.

All that sounds great from a budgetary perspective, and one would think there would be widespread praise for the savings. Unfortunately for the Haywood commissioners, that’s not what happened. As always, people’s lives are in the crosshairs when a decision of this magnitude ripples through the system.

More than 15 county employees will lose their jobs as the county shuts down a line of service that has been expanding for the last couple of decades. Leaders of the municipalities are upset and most private trash haulers don’t seem happy.

So what’s next for Haywood and other counties struggling with declining tax revenues while the cost of everything else — gas, health care, wages, to name a few — continues to rise? Perhaps the sheriff’s department or the health department will go private. Government at all levels is better off by privatizing and outsourcing services that the private sector can provide, right?

“I think it’s function-specific,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “There are things that only government can do that cannot be logically privatized: law enforcement, emergency services, education.”

Swanger’s right, but there is some irony in the fact that this move by Haywood comes at the same time the burgeoning Tea Party movement is criticizing government spending at all levels, and a local group has been riding Haywood commissioners incessantly. Let’s be clear that the hectoring by these government critics has nothing to do with the decision in Haywood. Still, there’s little doubt that the rise to power of the Tea Party is related to the economic crisis and government spending, which becomes an easy target when times are this tough. More than ever, there is a clamoring to cut costs and keep taxes low.

I’m not one of those who believe too much government is necessarily a bad thing. There are certainly inefficiencies in government regulations and bureaucracies, but the oil fouling the Gulf of Mexico right now points to real and ongoing need for oversight of certain businesses. The vital services that government provides to citizens are a reflection of our fundamental values as a society, whether it’s health care for the poor and elderly, or EPA regulators to keep an eye on industrial polluters. In many cases the only entity that can step in and provide these services is government, and that’s the way it ought to be.

The question of how far government’s hand should reach into our lives will never be settled outright. From our local courthouses and town halls to Raleigh (where a privatization of mental health care a few years ago has left us with a broken system) and up to D.C. (where many question using tax money to bail out banks and automakers), it’s a fundamental issue our founding fathers left unsettled.

These are the same philosophic issues that pitted Thomas Jefferson and his anti-government, agrarian vision against the Federalist Alexander Hamilton and his pro-business, strong central government beliefs. This was the central controversy at the time the republic was formed, and it still bedevils our government at every level.

I suspect that in the next few years we’ll see more attempts by local governments to divest or privatize services. It will be up to voters to decide whether that’s good or bad. Haywood commissioners can say this is about the budget and not philosophy, but it’s hard to see the difference from inside the voting booth.

(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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How do you kick out a member of a Native American tribe? The Eastern Band of Cherokee is about to find out, and there’s no way it’s going down without some bitterness and fighting.

The EBCI is almost finished with an audit of its enrolled members, and the Tribal Council is apparently leaning towards DNA testing to determine who is actually a member in the future.

The 1924 Baker Roll is the official document from which tribal membership is determined. Those families on that roll who meet the blood quantum level are considered members of the tribe. The enrollment audit started in 2006, and the tribal council is set to decide in June how to proceed with those whose tribal identity is being questioned.

Some are saying that new members should only be admitted after a DNA test, regardless of their family history. Others want to go further and do DNA testing on all enrolled members in order to clean up the rolls.

The potential for misery and family upheavals is just around the corner. What if someone has lived their entire life as a Cherokee and now is told, no, you don’t have enough Cherokee blood ? It seems the council has no choice but to follow through with DNA testing, but for some the results will be life changing.

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Years of column writing have taught me this — think you’ve written something enlightening that the multitudes should take to heart, and the piece is quickly forgotten; dash off a column that you’d rate as benign at best, and the phone rings off the hook and the email box gets slammed.

Last week’s piece about Haywood County’s solid waste system and proposed changes in how it operates falls somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, but comments from a couple of county commissioners do merit a mention. First, I said commissioners voted to make changes to the solid waste system. That’s a mistake. The proposed budget includes cost savings from the overhaul of the system, but the budget has not been approved yet. Nothing’s been decided for sure.

Second is the widespread use of the term “privatize.” Some are taking exception to that description. A Haywood task force has recommended changes to the solid waste system that would send some services to the private sector. The pick line that separates recyclables would simply disappear, as commissioners would outsource recycling services if the proposal were approved. A private company would also be in charge maintaining the convenience centers. At this point, the county would still be heavily involved in maintaining the transfer station and running the landfill.

Solid waste won’t be privatized entirely. Fewer county employees will be involved in solid waste disposal and recycling. The column’s premise was that these economic times are going to force many elected leaders — not just Haywood’s — to look for cost savings, and that outsourcing what were once government operations is likely to occur more rapidly until things get better.

I think that a close look at what can be outsourced is a good idea, that there is only so much government can and should do. In Haywood’s case, the overhaul of the solid waste system is a good idea with plenty of merit.

(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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“Do I want to dictate what the college does? That is not my job. As county commissioners, it is my job to ask questions.”

Haywood County Board of Commissioners Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick

The Haywood County commissioners have done their job, and now it is time to let Haywood Community College and its trustees do theirs — build a new Creative Arts Building that will educate the next generation of craft entrepreneurs in the Southern Appalachians.

The proposed new building has been scrutinized for months. County commissioners, college trustees, college administrators, and citizens have dissected the size, the energy saving measures and the cost of this building. HCC administrators, trustees and architects were asked to sharpen their pencils to reduce costs and even re-think the need for this building in light of other needs. In the end, very little changed.

The energy saving technology has been perhaps the most contentious part of this building. According to the experts we’ve spoken with, the technology works and is not experimental. The tax breaks make it a virtual no-risk investment (see story page 12), and one of the only reason there aren’t dozens of  green buildings like this going up is because the recession has sidetracked or stalled projects across the country.

Saving energy, like the simple act of consuming less of everything, is what will ensure the future economic sustainability of this country. Technology to do this will change and evolve quickly over the next few decades, but everyone is going to have to get on board. The state and federal governments are mandating it. And it’s simply the right thing to do.

This building is also critical to maintaining HCC’s prominence in the $200 million Western North Carolina craft industry. The college’s program of turning out artists who are also trained entrepreneurs is heralded as unique and among the best in the entire nation. In a place where nearly every expert agrees that small entrepreneurs are the keys to economic health, this community college program is a diamond in the rough. It won’t keep its current status — or gain an even better reputation — if we don’t invest in the program.

Although some have criticized the proposed building, it has not been widespread. In fact, it seems just the opposite. There is a lot of support among the business community and the civic leaders of Haywood for this project. The fact that voters approved the referendum in 2008 directing sales tax money to HCC was an indicator of the public support for the college. Yes, this building is expensive, but it has been vetted by HCC administrators, college trustees, the county commissioners and the public. No one has developed ways to re-design and save substantial money and still meet the college’s needs and the state mandates. The fact that you get what you pay for is sometimes just the simple, if expensive, truth.

Commissioners, on one hand, should be commended for how this process has unfolded. Coming on the heels of the debacle at Haywood Regional Medical Center, where the hands-off approach of the county was criticized, it’s easy to understand why this project has met such scrutiny. It also didn’t help that HCC President Rose Johnson’s name came up on the short list of potential new presidents at Asheville-Buncombe Technical College during the time debate about this building started.

But those arguments don’t detract from the need for this project. Voters OK’d the sales tax money and commissioners have turned the plans inside out and asked good questions, but it’s time to approve the plans and rely on college trustees and administrators to make this project successful.

(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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In this business of covering the news, we often bear witness as apathy wins the day. Citizens sit back and let elected leaders, powerful corporations or a boisterous minority get their way without putting up a fight.

That’s why the conclusion to the Duke-Kituwah standoff is so refreshing. It’s not so important that one side lost and the other won — although the decision to move the electrical substation does stand as a victory for opponents. But it was the effort by the citizens group and their zeal that should be remembered and emulated.

The electrical substation was slated to be built within sight of Kituwah, the location of the mother town of the Cherokee that is considered a sacred site by the tribe. As soon as plans became public, members of the tribe and nearby citizens raised a storm of protest. They began lobbying Cherokee tribal officials and Swain County officials to stop the utility’s plans.

As the controversy swirled, Duke held to its opinion that the entire project was necessary in order to benefit the tribe. The irony here was hard to miss — the substation would benefit Harrah’s expansion and thereby tribal coffers that rely on the casino, but would mar a sacred site central to the identity of the tribe.

Chief Michell Hicks and tribal officials took a firm stand. Early in the controversy Hicks had this to say of the proposed substation site and Duke’s communications with the tribe.

“The bottom line is it’s a disrespect to our tribe and a disrespect to the people of Swain County,” said Hicks.

As Duke relented, tribal cultural preservation officer Russ Townsend said it could set an important precedent.

“I hope it’s an example to other agencies that we deal with that our concerns are legitimate and there are often alternatives to finish a project without undermining our cultural concerns,” said Townsend.

But it’s Natalie Smith and the Citizens to Protect Kituwah Valley who deserve the most praise. The dedicated group lobbied tribal council and Swain commissioners while mobilizing a statewide media campaign. They refused to give up and from a very early stage and took the moral high road, a position that in most cases will win the day. It’s a lesson in grassroots organizing that hopefully will inspire others to stand up and fight when the time comes.

(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..)

Comment

A meeting that could lead to a completely new personality for the Cullowhee area will be finished by the time this hits the presses, but I’m hoping that the meeting gives fresh momentum to efforts to transform the Western Carolina University community.

A meeting was held last night (Aug. 3) between the Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor (CuRvE) and the leaders and citizens of the town of Forest Hills. The Cullowhee group presented a formal proposal to Forest Hills to annex a portion of the community near the college. The move would effectively create a college town, putting portions of the Cullowhee community into the Forest Hills town limits. The move could pave the way for alcohol sales in bars and restaurants, and would offer strong land-use planning and access to state and federal grant money.

Such a move would be a stretch for both Forest Hills and the university community. Forest Hills has only 347 registered voters and was created as an enclave from the university. It is a haven where residents try to keep out some of the problems associated with college students, like loud parties and single-family residences crowded with 10 students and 10 cars parked in the street and yard.

Annexing around the university would give Forest Hills control of its destiny. It could create commercial and residential areas, working with the university as it plans for growth and change. There are lots of examples — Chapel Hill (UNC), Boone (ASU) and Greenville (ECU) — of small North Carolina towns working hand-in-hand with the local universities to create unique, livable and cool college towns. This is an opportunity to start down a similar path.

For many WCU professors and administrators, creating a lively business district around the college has been a long-time dream. Brian Railsback, an English professor and head of the Honors College, said he envisions old Cullowhee with new businesses and walkways and paths along the Tuckasegee River. Almost everyone who has ever spent time at WCU has had similar thoughts, imagining what old Cullowhee could be with some fresh investment and new businesses.

There is apparently a lot of support from the university for incorporating areas around WCU. The college town feel would certainly help attract students and professors, along with giving Jackson County and Forest Hills new sources of sales tax money.

In the end, this is really about fulfilling potential that has languished for decades. Forest Hills, WCU and the larger Cullowhee community are great places just as they are. But they could be much, much more. Here’s hoping this new dialogue opens some doors that have been shut for way too long.

Comment

The federal government, the nation’s largest land manager, has a responsibility ... to help develop a conservation agenda worthy of the 21st century. We must look to the private sector and nonprofit organizations, as well as towns, cities, and states, and the people who live and work in them, to identify the places that mean the most to Americans, and leverage the support of the federal government to help these community-driven efforts to succeed. Through these partnerships, we will work to connect these outdoor spaces to each other, and to reconnect Americans to them.

— from President Barack Obama’s memorandum establishing the Great Outdoors Initiative


It’s not often that we find something good for both the soul and the pocketbook. Then again, there are not many places like the mountains of Western North Carolina.

The listening session in Asheville last week that was part of America’s Great Outdoors Initiative should, perhaps, give rise to a dose of optimism about the future of this region. And in a summer where the economic downturn has remained stubbornly entrenched and the BP oil spill has changed our understanding of what an economic disaster can be, we can use a little good news.

This newspaper has devoted lots of coverage to the Obama administration’s Great Outdoors Initiative. American Whitewater Executive Director Mark Singleton, who lives in Jackson County, has been involved in the outdoor recreation industry for a couple of decades. He was invited to Washington, D.C., in April to the kick off ceremonies for the initiative. Singleton and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee’s Vice Chairman Ken Murphy have written informative columns on our editorial pages about the initiative. The listening session in Asheville was the subject of a long story in last week’s paper.

It’s difficult to know yet — with all the other problems leaders in Washington are grappling with — whether this initiative will bear fruit. But we are at least getting a chance to send the message to Washington that investing in wilderness areas is important on many levels.

All of us are nurtured by our connection to the outdoors and to wild places. For those who don’t often get the chance to escape, I would challenge them to take a two-hour hike, a ride down one of our rives in canoe or a raft, or simply to drive up on the Parkway and stop for 30 minutes at an overlook. It just works wonder for de-cluttering, unplugging and reconnecting.

For those in this region who don’t regularly get outdoors, there’s another reason to support this effort that we hope will lead to larger investments in protecting natural areas: the outdoors and the outdoors recreation industry are the bedrock of our economy in the mountains.

The Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are the two most-visited units in the park system. In 2009, the Parkway had 16 million visitors and the GSMNP recorded 9.5 million visitors. This does not include the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests, which are among the nation’s most visited national forests. These millions of visitors are the foundation of our tourism industry, and they come back year after year. Just about every business and government unit in these mountains are dependent on the money they spend while here.

So a renewed effort to conserve more places and to enhance the recreational opportunities in our parks and national forests will mean good things for this region and its people. Whether a hunter or a kayaker, a camper or a motorcycist, lend your support to this initiative. All of us in WNC stand to benefit.

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

Comment

We in the news business provide historians with some of the crucial data necessary to write the story of any particular point in time. Reporters gather facts and opinions that are snapshots of how people feel, and then we make every effort to put that information into perspective so that it’s meaningful and useful to readers. At its best, good journalism can help people make informed decisions.

Years from now, those who look back at the summer of 2010 will no doubt write about the BP oil disaster, the lingering international economic crisis, and Barack Obama’s withering public support. Perhaps those digging into what was happening in our little corner of the world might look at the results of the recent Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll results that have been published in this newspaper and online (www.smokymountainnews.com, “WNC Public Opinion Poll”) during the last couple of weeks.

The project, which we’re calling “Creating a Regional Policy Dialogue,” is the first of its kind in Western North Carolina. WCU professors Chris Cooper and Gibbs Knotts saw a dearth of hard data about how residents of this area felt about important political issues. They approached us about partnering to gather that information and then publishing the results. The poll called nearly 600 registered voters in Jackson County, and it was conducted by Public Policy Polling out of Raleigh. Public Policy Polling has earned a reputation as one of the most reputable polling agencies in the Southeast.

Some quickly write off polling data, and that’s not surprising given the sheer volume of such information on a national basis. But what’s unique — and extremely interesting — about this PPI/SMN poll is its subject matter. We now have a baseline of information about how Jackson County residents feel about certain political issues during June of 2010. That information is interesting in and of itself, as the stories on our website attest.

But perhaps more intriguing will be to update this information in six months or a year to see how the onslaught of media we are all exposed to can change opinions. Maybe we’ll find that the barrage of information doesn’t necessarily lead to quickly changing public opinion.

The demographics of Western North Carolina are unique. The traditional, conservative mountain residents are now intermingling with new faces from all over the country. Anecdotally, we know this is a place that values tradition and attracts alternative lifestyle advocates. It’s a dynamic populace that — along with the mesmerizing draw of the mountains — has made this area one of the most popular places in the country to live.

Our hope — that is, The Smoky Mountain News and the WCU Public Policy Institute — is that we can continue to accumulate polling data unique to our region that provides insight into what people are thinking and why. Anytime you can get voters to think about and discuss important issues, it will hopefully lead to better decision making by leaders. That’s a good enough reason in itself to try to continue and build on this regional project to assess the feelings of residents west of Buncombe.

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

Comment

Tourism leaders in the mountains agree they’ve got to re-invent their marketing tactics over the next decade to stay competitive. Apparently, there are a multitude of opinions on how to do that.

When we ran a story in last week’s issue called “Tracking WNC’s tourists,” (http://www.smokymountainnews.com/issues/06_10/06_30_10/fr_visiting_smokies.html), we heard lots of different ideas on who is coming to the mountains and what they want to do. After reading that story and looking back through our archives at other tourism-related stories we’ve done over the years, two points stood out. One, dependable market research on WNC’s tourism trends simply does not exist; two, a new brand of active, older visitor who wants a full slate of nonstop activity is replacing the tourist of decades past who came for relaxation.

The second point may be the most relevant. In year’s past, tourism officials here touted the middle-aged, working families with young children who would spend long weekends in small hotels, visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a day of hiking and a picnic, then go back to their hotel. The next day a visit to Ghost Town might highlight the day, perhaps with dinner out afterward.

Of course, the affluent country club set and the second-homeowners were mixed in, but marketing to those segments was pretty straightforward.

But those days are long gone. I happen to know about this first because I’m one of those new families. With three kids of different ages in tow and my own interest in biking, hiking, rafting, etc., my family packs a full day in during our vacations. I’m 50, and I still relish a 15-mile mountain bike ride, perhaps a hike after lunch, then dinner out. I’m also looking for cultural attractions to provide my children — and myself — with any kind of educational experience that’s available. When we travel with our kids, we go from the time we get up until it’s bedtime.

In an age when most of us lead sedentary work lives, relaxation means getting out and doing stuff. It’s both cathartic and energizing to stay on the move during vacations.

This kind of tourist is also trying to get their kids interested in the outdoors and activities. They are looking for a few days away from television, video games, and the organized sports activities that run their daily lives and that leave many children completely ignorant of nature.

I think keeping these families coming to the mountains won’t be that difficult, it’s just going to take more sophisticated targeting of “micro” groups. A good example is what Julie Spiro and the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Association has done with its fly-fishing map to Jackson County. They went after a specific sector of the travel market, and their investment in this map has led to free publicity from articles that have appeared in a host of publications.

That kind of effort to appeal to different groups —skiers, whitewater enthusiasts, railroad buffs, golfers, bikers, motorcyclists, anglers or hikers — is probably what is changing the most. Those folks are getting their information in lots of different places. It is going to take a constantly evolving marketing approach that encompasses a variety of media.

The reason no one has the answers is that there is no one right answer. In the old days, it was a print and television advertising campaign that changed little from year to year. That just won’t work anymore.

The shortage of marketing research about Western North Carolina is a much more vexing problem. I’ve been covering tourism here for almost 20 years, and have been hearing the same refrain: tourism leaders need data, but no one has found the money or a way to obtain it. A few studies have been done, but the information is quickly outdated and only useful to particular groups.

The money is the big issue. Investing in research takes away from the budget to actually do marketing. Any tourism entity that takes this approach is in danger, in the short term, of losing market share to those who are still spending all their money on advertising.

There is really only one way to get this information: it has to be a regional effort funded by some entity like AdvantageWest. If tourism is our biggest industry, it seems money spent grading industrial sites or affixing tax breaks to large businesses might be better invested in an ongoing market research program to help tourism leaders keep their eye on the ball.

I’m not talking about a one-time effort, but an ongoing market research program to determine who our customers are. It will take hundreds of thousand of dollars, but it might be the best money ever spent.

Accomplishing this will take a united effort from tourism leaders. This won’t be a panacea that will make all of the tourism industry’s troubles go away. No, it’s about gathering useful information so we can at least stay in the game in this fast-changing economy.

(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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