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Runway extension faces funding shortfall

The Macon County Airport Authority is short about $853,000 of what it needs to pay for a controversial runway extension, according to airport officials.

The total runway project, including archaeology and engineering, is expected to cost $3.5 million, according to Airport Authority member Tommy Jenkins.

Airport Authority Clerk Teresa McDowell said about $777,000 has already been spent or committed for archaeology and engineering on the project.

According to McDowell, it will cost the Airport Authority about $1.87 to million finish the runway, which means the Airport Authority is about $853,000 short of what it needs, she said.

The airport runway extension is controversial because it is proposed to go over Cherokee artifacts and burial grounds. The Airport Authority is only funding 25 percent artifact excavation, which angers the Eastern Band of Cherokee and others who say 100 percent of the artifacts should be saved to prevent their destruction.

Airport Authority Chairman Milles Gregory said the project is being funded with 80 percent federal funds, 10 percent state and 10 percent county funds.

The N.C. DOT Division of Aviation took back $550,000 from a grant last year because the money wasn’t used by the Airport Authority in time, McDowell said.

It is unclear where the money went. N.C. DOT Grants Administrator Nancy Seigler was unable to answer questions before press time on Tuesday.

The grant, which was awarded in 2004, wasn’t used in time because the project was held up by negotiations between the Airport Authority, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Federal Aviation Administration, State Historic Preservation Office and the Division of Aviation. The negotiations concerned how much excavation of Cherokee artifacts would take place at the project site, McDowell said.

The Airport Authority hopes to get the $550,000 back.

Airport Authority Chairman Gregory said he was promised by Richard Barkes, manager of Aviation System Development for the N.C. DOT Division of Aviation, that the $550,000 would be reimbursed.

McDowell said the Airport Authority has been told over the phone by the Division of Aviation that it would be reimbursed the $550,000 in the form of a new grant. But McDowell said the Airport Authority hasn’t received the grant documents yet.

Even if the Airport Authority gets the $550,000 back it will still have a shortfall of about $303,000.

McDowell said the Airport Authority is “optimistic” that more funding will become available to cover the shortfall. Gregory said he thinks the remaining shortfall can be made up with $150,000 “Vision 100” grants that the Airport Authority receives annually from N.C. DOT Division of Aviation. It is unclear if the Vision 100 money is state money or federal funds that pass through the N.C. DOT Division of Aviation.

McDowell said the $550,000 that was taken back was supposed to be used for the environmental assessment for the project. Because that money was taken back, McDowell said the Airport Authority is now using money from its construction grant on the environmental assessment.

 

County funds in play

Some have urged the county commissioners not to commit county taxpayer dollars to the project. Withholding the county match for the project could sideline it.

According to County Finance Director Evelyn Southard there is $187,000 in county funds currently budgeted for the project.

Southard did not know what year the county appropriated the money.

County Commissioner Bob Simpson has proposed pulling the county dollars from the project unless a compromise between the Airport Authority and Eastern Band is reached.

However, Simpson seems to be alone in that the other commissioners appear to favor moving forward.

Commissioner Brian McClellan told The Smoky Mountain News he doesn’t “have an opinion at this time” but “it would appear” that county dollars are not going to be pulled from the project. McClellan said there is “always a chance” funding could be pulled.

Commission Chairman Ronnie Beale said he feels that the Airport Authority has “done due diligence” in the project.

Beale said there is no doubt that the runway extension is needed to keep insurance costs down for pilots who land there. No one has said the runway extension is not needed, Beale said.

However, several people have publicly said that they don’t think a runway extension is needed.

As far as taking the county dollars from the project, Beale said that money was “appropriated a good long time ago.”

He added that the grants are a good opportunity because they only require a 10 percent county match. Anytime the county can get something done for 10 cents on the dollars it’s good, said Beale.

Artifacts endangered by airport project

When Neal Hoppe dies he wants his body cremated and his ashes spread over the Macon County Airport.

“When I die, my soul will depart my body,” said Hoppe, who manages the airport’s terminal. “I don’t want a hole dug for me.”

The Macon County Airport is the best place to scatter his ashes because, “It’s a beautiful place,” said Hoppe as he drove down the airport’s taxiway.

Once Hoppe’s ashes are spread at the airport, he will join Cherokee Indians who made the Iotla Valley their resting place hundreds of years ago.

The Cherokee bodies buried at the site are now a huge source of controversy because the airport’s runway is proposed to be extended over the gravesites. The project has upset many people who think the Macon County Airport Authority and state and federal agencies are desecrating the Cherokee heritage.

The Airport Authority, however, says archaeology recovery is taking place, burial sites will not be disturbed and state and federal laws are being followed.

The runway extension seemed like a sure thing just a week ago but is now facing opposition from all fronts. Necessary federal permits are still pending for the project, the environmental assessment hasn’t been finalized, legal action from both environmentalists and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has been threatened, one county commissioner wants to withdraw local funding for the project and the Airport Authority’s argument that the project is needed for safety has had a hole shot in it.

 

Solid legal footing?

Airport Authority Attorney Joe Collins said he thinks the Airport Authority is on solid legal grounds.

Cherokee Attorney General Annette Tarnowski said there has not been any decision made by the Cherokee in terms of what, if any, legal action to take. The Tribal Council is looking at all its legal options, but Tarnowski would not elaborate.

It is a matter of great concern to the Cherokee because of the number of gravesites, she said.

The controversy has been eight years in the making and is coming to a head as archaeologists are now working on excavating the artifacts at the site to prepare to extend the 4,400-foot runway by 600 feet.

The problem is that artifacts are only being removed from 25 percent of the five-acre area that will be impacted by the project. The remaining artifacts will be left in place.

Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and a contingent of other concerned citizens are outraged that the Airport Authority, the Federal Aviation Administration and the state archaeologist would allow artifacts and human burials to be put at risk.

Those against the project, including Cherokee Principal Chief Michell Hicks, said 100 percent of the artifacts should be excavated before it is paved over. Failure to do so could erase the archaeological record. Hicks said there could be some protests coming to Franklin.

But Airport Authority Chairman Milles Gregory said it would cost $2 million to do total artifact recovery — money the Airport Authority doesn’t have. The Airport Authority has contracted with TRC Environmental of Chapel Hill for $535,000 to recover the 25 percent. Hicks said the tribe is unwilling to pay the difference to do a complete excavation, saying it is the responsibility of the county and Airport Authority to do the right thing.

The entire runway project is expected to cost around $3.5 million, according to Airport Authority member Tommy Jenkins. County officials say the project is being funded 90 percent with N.C. DOT Division of Aviation grants and a 10 percent match from the county.

 

State archaeologist endorses project

So far, four archaeologists have weighed in on the project. Two support the runway project moving forward, while the other two believe it is an abomination.

The one whose opinion matters most, however, is State Archaeologist Steve Claggett. Claggett decided how much of the site must be excavated before the runway project could move forward. He settled on 25 percent excavation, saying 100 percent is unnecessary because it wouldn’t result in learning anymore about the Cherokee. Moreover, Claggett said many of the artifacts at the site are damaged anyway from being plowed up when the land was farmed.

Claggett said the project is being done in accordance with all state and federal laws. However, some archaeologists disagree with Claggett and say 100 percent artifact recovery should occur.

An archaeological survey done on the site in 2000 indicated the presence of some 400 burials and numerous artifacts.

Claggett said the goal is to focus the artifact recovery on the areas that were identified as having the highest concentrations of materials. So even though artifact recovery is only occurring on 25 percent of the five acres, more than 25 percent of the artifacts may actually be recovered, Claggett said.

As far as the burials go, they are remaining in place at the request of the Cherokee. If remains are accidentally uncovered during work, “all work will cease within 50 feet of the remains,” according to a memorandum of agreement signed by the Airport Authority, Federal Aviation Administration, State Historic Preservation Officer Jeffrey Crow and the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The Cherokee refused to sign off on the agreement.

 

Archaeologist against project

Columbia S.C. archaeologist Michael Trinkley is appalled at the minimal artifact recovery taking place at the site. Too little work is being done considering the value and significance of the site, he said.

Trinkley is the archaeologist who performed the initial assessment in 2000 and said burials and artifacts will be destroyed. He said he thinks about 250 burials will be destroyed.

“I think it’s terribly disrespectful,” Trinkley said.

If it is not stopped, one of the more important archaeological sites in the state will be destroyed, he said. The burials will be destroyed when soil is removed, when equipment bogs down, when soil compacts and when fill is brought in, Trinkley said.

But Airport Authority Chairman Gregory said the earth will not be cut into during the project, meaning the burials will not be destroyed.

The burials could have been removed from harms way using appropriate techniques, such as hiring Cherokee elders and a shaman for reburials, said Trinkley.

But this did not occur because the Airport Authority never made any effort to reach a compromise with the Cherokee, he said. The Airport Authority denies this, saying it tried for eight years to work out an agreement with the Cherokee to no avail. Furthermore, the Cherokee specifically requested that the burials be left in place.

Trinkley said that the Airport Authority attempted to hide the project from the public rather than discuss it.

The manner in which the project has been handled is “corrupted,” he said.

As for other archaeologists in the mix, Russ Townsend, an archaeologist for the tribe, is opposed, while the archaeologist who landed the half million contract to do the partial excavation work is in support of it.

 

FAA has final say

The FAA is the ultimate authority on the project, said Claggett. The main law that had to be followed in regards to the archaeology at the site was Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.

According to Claggett, the law does not specify a “magic number” when it comes to how many artifacts have to be removed from a site.

Advisory Council on Historic Preservation spokesman Bill Milhans in Washington agreed that all the law requires is for the impact on archaeological sites to be considered. He said how much artifact recovery takes place depends on the significance of the site.

In this case, FAA consulted with the State Historic Preservation Office and decided 25 percent artifact recovery would be sufficient. Milhans said ACHP agreed that 25 percent artifact recovery is in accordance with Section 106.

 

Environmental Assessment questioned

An environmental assessment done by the project engineer WK Dickson of Charlotte states that the project will have “no significant impact” on the environment, artifacts or burials at the site.

The consultant’s findings were adopted as the official stance of the N.C. Division of Aviation, which holds the purse strings to the federal grant money paying for the runway expansion.

The state agency ruled that the project is in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act and will not “significantly affect the quality of the human or natural environment.” The public can make comments on the environmental assessment and dispute the finding of no significant impact to the State Environmental Review Clearinghouse until March 17.

Trinkley complained that there isn’t even a copy of the document to review locally, making it difficult for people to comment on something they don’t have access to. Trinkley wondered if that is illegal.

Further, Trinkley questioned the legality of the Airport Authority moving forward with artifact recovery prior to the environmental assessment going through the public comment period. Trinkley has submitted a letter to the State Environmental Review Clearing House disputing the finding of no significant impact.

 

Lawsuit threatened

Macon County resident Lamar Marshall said the environmental assessment is flawed and plans to sue on the grounds of violations of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. He said the environmental assessment is flawed because it contains out-of-date information that does not take into account species that have been listed as endangered in the past 10 years.

The Airport Authority failed to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in regards to endangered species, said Marshall.

“The current EA is a cheap and erroneous shortcut that failed to disclose the cumulative impacts of serious environmental issues...,” said Marshall.

The Airport Authority also needs a water quality permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to proceed. Lori Beckwith, a biologist with the Corps in Asheville, said the Airport Authority submitted an incomplete permit application. Once the Corps gets a complete permit it will be open for public comment for 30 days, she said.

 

What is the need?

Gregory and other Airport Authority members have stressed that the project is needed to make the runway safer. Gregory has repeatedly noted that a husband and wife died in an airplane crash at the airport in 1995 because the runway was too short. Gregory said a life is more important than artifacts.

But Macon County resident Michael Wyrick said the report from the National Transportation Safety Board indicates that the runway length had nothing to do with the crash.

The cause of the crash was determined to be a “the pilot’s failure to maintain flying speed resulting in an aerodynamic stall. A factor was sun glare,” the NTSB report states.

“From this we can see the aircraft never made contact with the runway and therefore the extra 600 feet of runway would not have helped,” Wyrick said.

And he said the plane that crashed was certified to operate on a 2,000-foot runway, so Macon’s 4,400-foot runway should have been ample.

When asked to comment on the crash report’s assertion that the accident was not a result of the runway being too short, Gregory said he had no comment.

Wyrick said he has been a licensed pilot of the past 28 years and was in management at the Asheville airport for 15 years, and he doesn’t think the runway extension is necessary.

He said if there were a lot of large companies wanting to fly in and out of the airport it might be necessary, but that is not the case. He added that the last accident that occurred at the airport was eight years ago.

 

Voicing opposition

About 10 residents vented their opposition to the project at the Macon County commissioners meeting on Monday (March 9).

The residents said it is disrespectful to the Cherokee to destroy artifacts and burial grounds.

The commissioners took no action on the comments.

Some residents said if it were a white graveyard it would be looked at differently.

The county’s real strength is in its cultural heritage and it should be protected, the residents said.

Resident Kathleen Walker questioned whether a runway extension is necessary. She said rushing to meet a grant deadline is no reason to extend the runway.

Other residents said an extended runway will decrease the quality of life for the area by bringing in more and larger airplane traffic.

The Airport Authority has stressed that the Macon County Airport will never be used for commercial flights. Gregory has said that once the runway is extended to 5,000 feet it won’t have to be extended again.

Resident Norma Ivey said there is a petition circulating with 84 signatures already against the project. And resident Susan Ervin said Macon County has always worked hard to protect its heritage and should do the same in this case.

Tribal Historic Preservation Office archaeologist Russell Townsend told the commissioners he wants to seek a compromise with the Airport Authority. Townsend said he did not have a specific compromise in mind.

 

‘No room for compromise’

Gregory told the commissioners there is no room for compromise. Gregory said he thinks his board has done everything it can to accommodate the Cherokee.

The project can’t be delayed because the grant money could be lost, said Gregory.

Commissioner Bob Simpson asked Gregory how long the Authority has before it loses the money, but Gregory didn’t know.

Simpson said he supports pulling the county’s 10 percent match from the project if 100 percent artifact recovery isn’t done. But he does not know if the money can be pulled because it was committed years ago.

However, Commissioner Jim Davis said he is “comfortable” with 25 percent artifact recovery.

Commissioner Bobby Kuppers said he thinks more information needs to be exchanged.

Townsend said it doesn’t appear to him that the county commissioners are going to step in and try to change anything.

 

Economic impact

The Macon County Airport brings in about $7.9 million annually, according to a N.C. DOT Division of Aviation study from 2006.

Airport Fixed Base Operator Neal Hoppe said if the runway were extended more businesses may come in. Macon EDC Chairman Mark West supports the project for its economic development potential.

A longer runway would make insurance on airplanes more affordable, said Hoppe.

Caterpillar does not fly into the Macon County Airport because the runway isn’t long enough, Hoppe said. Caterpillar said it was not taking a position on the issue of whether the runway should be lengthened and offered no further comment.

At 4,400 feet, Macon’s airport is longer than Jackson County’s, which is only 3,200 feet. But it is shorter than the Andrews/Murphy Airport has a 5,500-foot runway where some planes would rather fly into, said Hoppe.

There are about 30 planes registered at the Macon County Airport, said Hoppe.

Hoppe balks when people say that taxpayer money is being spent on a “rich man’s playground.”

The airport is an “economic stimulus” to the county, bringing in people who purchase things here, said Hoppe. Many who fly here have second homes in Highlands, he noted.

John Makinson has a two-seater Cessna at the airport and said the runway length is fine for a plane his size, but he said corporate jets and cargo planes need more runway.

Whether the runway extension is actually needed depends on the type of growth Macon County has, said Makinson.

Airport runway battle heats up in Macon: Cherokee fight to save artifacts from destruction

Emotions are sizzling over a plan to extend the Macon County Airport runway over Cherokee burial grounds and artifacts.

At an Airport Authority meeting last week in Franklin resident Selma Sparks said it is disrespectful to the Cherokee.

Airport board member Harold Corbin balked at that statement, saying the Cherokee didn’t make a big deal about artifacts when the casino was being built. Corbin added that there are artifacts all over Macon County and that just as many can be found on his farm as at the airport site.

Resident Alex Hawkins, who said he lives “at the end of the runway,” also disagreed with the project, saying it is unnecessary to extend the runway for economic development because there is no industry coming here.

An archaeological assessment commissioned by the Airport Authority in preparation for the runway expansion called the site one of the more significant archaeological areas in the state.

But Airport Authority Attorney Joe Collins said that is an opinion, and the airport board doesn’t think the site is as significant as the archaeologist said it was. There are an estimated 300 to 400 Cherokee burials at the site, according to the assessment.

At the request of the Eastern Band, none of the burials will be removed. Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks said someone’s final resting place should not be tampered with. The question is what to do with the other artifacts littering the site.

The Airport Authority has agreed to excavate 25 percent of the artifacts from the project site, but the tribe wants 100 percent of the artifacts removed. Otherwise those artifacts could be destroyed, and with them clues to early life.

Airport Authority Chairman Milles Gregory said 100 percent of the artifacts cannot be removed because it would cost too much.

The Airport Authority has contracted with TRC Environmental of Chapel Hill to recover the artifacts for $535,000.

The 4,400-foot runway will be extended by 600 feet. The Macon County Airport Authority claims the extension is necessary to make the runway safer.

Gregory said a husband and wife died in an airplane crash at the airport about 10 years ago because the runway wasn’t long enough for them to land safely.

“Which is more valuable, an artifact or a life?” Gregory asked.

Economic development is not the driving factor behind the runway extension, but is a side benefit, said Gregory.

Hicks questions whether the runway extension is actually needed.

“I believe the case has not been made that the airport expansion is necessary or even feasible,” the chief said in a statement.

Project engineer Eric Rysdon with WK Dickson of Charlotte said he hopes construction on the extended runway can begin this summer.

 

Fight could move to county commissioners

While the Macon County Airport Authority isn’t budging for now, county commissioners may have some say in how the project moves forward. The runway expansion will be funded partially with county tax dollars.

The entire project cost with archaeology included is expected to be around $3.3 million — with 90 percent of the funding coming from the N.C DOT Division of Aviation, and 10 percent from a county match.

Gregory said the county committed the match money years ago.

Commissioner Bob Simpson agreed the match money has already been committed but said those funds could possibly be taken away from the project.

Gregory said he doesn’t know how it would affect the project to lose the county’s match.

Simpson doesn’t necessarily advocate taking away the funds but said he would like to see a compromise worked out with Cherokee.

Two ideas Simpson has are to have Cherokee fund 100 percent of the artifact recovery. But Hicks said he opposes that idea, saying it is up to the county to cover the archaeology costs.

“It’s not EBCI’s responsibility,” said Hicks. “They need to do the right thing. Whether it’s the county or the Airport Authority.”

Another idea Simpson has is for Cherokee to make an economic investment in Macon County by marking the significant archaeological sites and making them a tourist attraction. In exchange, the county would not proceed with the runway extension.

Simpson said it is important that something is decided quickly because the Airport Authority is in danger of losing the grants if it doesn’t use them soon.

Commission Chairman Ronnie Beale and Commissioner Brian McClellan said they could not comment on the project until they have all the facts.

The Airport Authority is presenting the project to county commissioners at the March 9 commission meeting.

New polling place to end Cherokee voters’ commute to Bryson

People in Cherokee will no longer have to drive or hitch rides into Bryson City to cast ballots during early voting.

The Swain County Board of Elections recently agreed to establish an early voting site in Cherokee, a move that will likely increase voter participation.

A 92-year-old woman from the Big Cove community in Cherokee came to the board of elections and asked it to set up an early voting site on tribal land. Otherwise, Cherokee voters had to travel as many as 40 miles roundtrip to cast their ballots in Bryson City.

“It was placing undue hardship on the voter,” said John Herrin, a member of the Swain Board of Elections.

When it comes to elections for tribal offices like chief, Cherokee runs its own elections. But for state and national elections, Cherokee voters cast ballots under the auspice of either Swain or Jackson counties, depending on which side of the reservation they live on. Jackson already had a polling site set up for Cherokee voters.

“Jackson County residents basically could go a couple miles from their home, while Swain County residents had a 20-mile drive,” Herrin said.

A site for the new polling location has yet to be chosen. The site will only be open during early voting. On Election Day, Cherokee voters will still have to leave the reservation to vote in the Whittier precinct.

Herrin hopes the establishment of an early voting site on the reservation will encourage better voter turnout.

Cherokee voters already showed good turnout in the last election, with 70 percent casting a ballot, according to Board of Elections Director Joan Weeks. But while 25 percent of all registered Swain County voters cast early ballots, only 17 percent of Cherokee did so — a discrepancy likely linked to the distance of the nearest early voting site.

The early voting polling site might also increase participation in local off-year elections, such as county commissioner races, which Cherokee voters previously haven’t turned out for in high numbers.

“Typically, you see a lot of participation from the Reservation on presidential and senatorial elections, and not nearly as much during off years for local county government,” said Herrin. “We might see a lot more, considering they don’t have to be inconvenienced as much as in the past. We can’t just go out there and beat on their doors and beg them, but we can definitely make it as easy as possible to vote,” Herrin said.

Pop Music Icon Chubby checker swings through Cherokee Feb. 28

By Christi Marsico • Staff Writer

Chubby Checker clears his throat and states with pomp, “I plan on tearing the place up and taking no prisoners in Cherokee.”

Leaving New York City on his tour bus, the Checkerlicious Express, Checker said he was extremely excited about traveling to North Carolina to perform in concert at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino on Saturday, Feb. 28.

“My whole life is a holiday,” Checker told The Smoky Mountain News during a telephone interview. “The biggest event in the music industry and the number one song on the planet is coming to Cherokee and it’s going to blow the house down.”

 

Chubby before the Checker

Checker was born Ernest Evans on Oct. 3, 1941, in Spring Gulley, S.C., and remembers his childhood fondly.

“All good stuff happened in South Carolina. I had to do hard work and we lived on a farm where I had to clean pens,” Checker said.

When Checker was 7 he moved with his family to South Philadelphia. His mother took him to see the child piano prodigy Sugar Child Robinson and the famous country singer Ernest Tubb. The showbiz bug had bitten Checker. At the age of 11, he joined a street corner harmony group.

Early musical influences that made on impression on Checker were Perry Como, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.

During his high school years, Checker played the piano and began making a name for himself with vocal impressions.

He had an after-school job at Fresh Farm Poultry and the Produce Market, where he would sing and crack jokes. His boss, Tony A., was the one who gave him the nickname “Chubby.”

Henry Colt, the storeowner of Fresh Farm Poultry soon caught sight and sound of Checker and began showing him off to his customers through the store’s loudspeaker.

It wasn’t long before Colt arranged for Checker to meet with Dick Clark. Clark was impressed with young vocalist, and in 1959 Checker recorded his first hit with the Christmas single, “The Class.”

Upon being asked what his name was by Clark’s wife, Bobbie, Checker replied “Chubby.” Clark’s wife came up with “Checker,” which was a play on Fats Domino, who Checker had imitated earlier.

 

The big break and beyond

Checker’s big break came that same year as he appeared on the popular TV show “American Bandstand.”

Hank Ballard and the Midnighters didn’t show up for an appearance on the show, and Clark asked Checker to cover the group’s hit “The Twist.” The song became a Number One hit and the dance craze took hold of America.

The dance encouraged boys and girls to jive separately from each other, changing the teen beat with rippling effects for the future.

“I gave them something they can use 24/7,” Checker said. “When I hear the music of today, I hear the influences of yesterday.”

Launching into the 60s, “The Twist” found a resurgence in the “Peppermint Twist,” “Twist and Shout,” and “Twistin’ the Night Away.”

With each new song came new dance moves such as “The Jerk,” “The Hully Gully,” “The Boogaloo,” and “The Hucklebuck.”

Checker had hit after hit, and in 1961 he recorded “Pony Time,” which went to Number One and stayed there for 16 weeks. Checker took time to star in the films, “Don’t Knock The Twist” and “Twist Around The Clock.”

Making record industry history in 1961, Checker’s original hit “The Twist” re-entered the charts, and by 1962 the song was at Number One again. No other song before or since has accomplished that achievement.

“The Twist” spent a total of nine months on the charts.

Checker tried his hand at other musical genres including folk, country and reggae, and he admits that he is his own worst critic.

Being in the music business since the age of 18, Checker said if he had pursued another career he would have “built skyscrapers and been a landlord.”

 

Snack Attack

Almost a decade ago, Checker branched out into the snack food business honoring 40 years of “The Twist” with Chocolate Checker Bars, beef jerky, hot dogs, steaks, and popcorn, including Girl of the World Water which he dedicated to his wife.

“From candy bars to hotdogs, every time you pick up a Chubby Checker snack you’ll know about our history and how we affected lives,” Checker said.

With plans of a Chubby Checker Smokehouse in the works for the end of the year, Checker keeps cruising his Checkerlicious Express with inventive ways to twist again.

For more information on Checker or his snacks visit www.chubbychecker.com.

WCU Cherokee studies professor wins Oklahoma book award

Robert Conley, the Sequoyah Distinguished Professor of Cherokee Studies at Western Carolina University, is winner of the 2009 Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award presented by the Oklahoma Center for the Book.

An enrolled member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, Conley is a noted scholar and prolific author, with poems, short stories, articles and 80 books of fiction and nonfiction to his credit.

The Oklahoma Center for the Book, a state affiliate of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, encourages interest in books and reading. Named for the center’s first president, the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award is given annually and honors Oklahomans who have contributed to the state’s literary heritage. Past winners include Joy Harjo, S.E. Hinton, N. Scott Momaday and Tony Hillerman.

For more information about the Cherokee studies program at Western Carolina University, call 828.227.2306.

Community lobbies DOT to save a piece of history

Citizens in the Oak Grove community of Macon County hope to save a bridge from demolition by the Department of Transportation.

Located off N.C 28, the one-lane McCoy bridge over the Little Tennessee River is not only a community icon but part of the cultural heritage of the area, says Doug Woodward of Oak Grove, who has joined his neighbors in a campaign to get the bridge refurbished rather than replaced.

DOT met with the community last week and agreed to look into the costs of repairing the bridge rather than tearing it down and replacing it, but the state maintains that the old bridge is rife with problems.

 

DOT finds fault with bridge

DOT officials say the structure needs to be replaced because it is dangerous and not up to state standards. Plans call for replacing it in 2013. But DOT has agreed to consider rehabilitating the bridge, and will report back to the community with a follow-up meeting in about a year.

“We’re going to go back and take a deeper look at rehabilitation to see if something is economically feasible,” said Chris Lee, DOT bridge maintenance engineer.

“It has been deteriorating for years,” said Charles McConnell, DOT transportation supervisor.

The bridge’s legal load limit is 40,000 pounds, when state standards say it should be 90,000 pounds. McConnell said a small loaded dump truck could not go over the bridge.

The bridge is also narrow at just 10 feet and 8 inches wide, making it difficult for school buses to cross.

“It has quite a few issues,” McConnell said.

Lee noted that the bridge is one lane, so motorists have to take turns with vehicles coming from the other direction.

The bridge also has “foundation issues” from the timber pilings, Lee said.

The bridge is a “fracture critical structure,” meaning that if one piece fell off the entire bridge could collapse, Lee said.

He said the bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed was also a fracture critical structure.

Ultrasonic testing has taken place on the bridge, indicating that “the bridge is about finished with its life,” Lee said.

The state doesn’t have a cost estimate on the rehab.

“It’s very easy for an overloaded vehicle to go over it tomorrow and the whole thing to fall in the river,” Lee said. “Then we’ve got big problems.”

 

Heritage at stake

McConnell sad the bridge isn’t historical since it was just built in 1960. Woodward said the community believes the bridge dates back to 1946.

The unique truss architecture of the bridge is rare these days, and it should be preserved, Woodward said.

“These bridges are disappearing,” Woodward said.

The bridge suits the beautiful rural setting, where whitetail deer are a common sight.

“It’s at an end of the county where there’s a lot of untouched history,” Woodward said.

The area has been spared of the development that has ransacked other areas in the mountains, making a trip to Cowee like stepping back in time, Woodward added.

The historic bridge belongs in the area rich with other historic sites including Cherokee mounds and the Cowee-West’s Mill Historic District, Woodward said.

The bridge is located near old Cherokee settlements, including Burningtown, said Cowee resident Lamar Marshall, who also wants the bridge to stay.

Replacing the bridge would cost an estimated $3.5 million to $4.5 million, Woodward said.

“We’re saying (DOT) is dismissing rehab too quickly,” Woodward said, adding he would like to see the cost estimate on refurbishing it.

Woodward, a retired engineer, says rehab is viable.

He added that no one’s ever been hurt as a result of the bridge’s age, and few vehicles drive on it.

Cherokee covers lunch for its own

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has recently begun funding the school lunches for enrolled members of the tribe who attend school off the Qualla Boundary.

The tribe has funded the lunches of those who attend school on the reservation for years and decided it should do the same for the others. Cherokee students who attend school in Swain, Jackson, Haywood and Graham counties — either because they live in those communities or commute off the reservation for school by choice — now have their lunches paid for by the tribe.

Haywood County Schools Associate Superintendent Dr. Bill Nolte said he thinks it’s “very honorable” for the tribe to pay for the lunches and breakfasts. The tribe only pays for those who do not already receive free lunch through the federal government as a low income student.

The tribe began the program in most counties last spring, but Haywood County is just getting going with it because of the paperwork required, including identifying enrolled members.

The tribe simply reimburses the schools for the lunches. For instance, the tribe has paid Jackson County $23,858 so far this year for the lunches. There are 333 Cherokee students in the Jackson County school system, but 119 get free lunch already through the federal government, while the others are covered by the tribe.

Haywood County Schools Child Nutrition Director Sandy Brooks said she thinks all students should have their school lunches funded by the government, adding that students don’t pay for books or bus rides so why should they pay for lunch.

If student lunches were free it would be less hassle to run the school cafeteria because there would be less paperwork, Brooks said. Some urban school districts, from D.C. to Denver, have launched free breakfast as an incentive to get students to school on time every day, and found that it is working.

Director of the Cherokee Youth and Adult Education Program Pam Straughan said the Tribal Council passed a resolution last year to pay for students’ lunches off the reservation after parents from Graham County complained that their children had to pay for lunches while enrolled members who went to school on the reservation did not.

Casino job losses first since Cherokee opening

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino is cutting 100 jobs because of the national economic downturn.

The cuts represent about 5 percent of the casino’s approximately 1,800 employees. Harrah’s hopes to achieve the workforce reduction voluntarily, with the offer of a severance package spurring people to step up. But it will force layoffs if enough volunteers don’t materialize.

Darold Londo, general manager of the casino, said the softening economy with no apparent turnaround in sight has forced the casino’s hand.

“We continue to see fewer customers as they, like all consumers, are being prudent and cautious with their discretionary incomes,” Londo said. The casino’s gaming revenue has declined 4.4 percent over the past year.

This is the first time Harrah’s Cherokee has had to lay off employees in its 11-year history, Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise Chairwoman Norma Moss noted. Moss said the employees are being offered a “fair and lucrative” severance package.

Employees were notified of the cuts Monday and told to come forward by Jan. 19 if they want to be part of the voluntary layoffs. The casino hopes the cuts will be made by the end of the month.

All of the casino’s profits are given to the Cherokee government. For the first time since the casino opened, that amount has gone down. In the 2007 fiscal year ending in September, $253 million was given to the tribe, compared to only $244 million for 2008, Moss said. Moss said the casino is trying to manage its operating costs to minimize the impact on the money distributed to the tribe.

Half of the profits go for tribal programs and the other half is distributed to the tribe’s approximately 13,500 members in the form of “per-capita” checks twice a year.

A $633 million expansion under way at the casino will not be impacted by the economic problems, Moss said.

“It will continue,” Moss said.

The expansion includes doubling the restaurants, hotel rooms, seating in the showroom and the gaming space, Moss said. The expansion will continue because the casino secured good financing and construction costs are affordable because of the lack of other construction work, Moss said.

Moss said the casino is excited about the expansion because when the economy rebounds Harrah’s Cherokee will be ahead of the competition.

Londo said as the economy improves he hopes that many employees can be rehired, and as phases of the expansion are completed additional employees will be needed.

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