Living at the top has some down sides
Living in Cashiers has certain perks: There is a beautiful lake to play on, gorgeous homes to live in and lovely vistas to enjoy. There also are nice restaurants, great gift shops and even an upscale Ingles grocery store that is the envy of residents in the much larger town of Sylva, who are afforded considerably fewer shopping selections at their smaller, scaled-down version.
But there’s a price to pay for living in Cashiers, both literally — because of high land prices — and figuratively. You’ve got to drive “off the mountain,” as the locals here say, for most shopping and to enjoy other amenities — and to work out.
Unless, that is, you’re made of sterner stuff than most. Which Rebecca Smith must certainly be — because she tries to swim for exercise three times a week (during the warmer months) in nearby Lake Glenville.
Smith, however, said she’d welcome a recreation center, and hopes Jackson County commissioners follow through on building it. Not so much for her personal use, but for the kids who live in the community, and for the younger people here in general. Friday at 1:30 p.m., the commission board will hold a meeting at the Cashiers library to discuss the possibility. Smith noted down the time and place. She’s going to try to be there.
Smith is a member of the Glenville community club, and on this day, was volunteering at the group’s thrift shop alongside N.C. 107. Her husband is currently the club’s president.
During a recent meeting, Smith said, group members were discussing how best to keep the community’s young people from leaving the area. Take her own grandchildren for example, who went to nearby Blue Ridge School but then “couldn’t wait to get out of here,” she said.
“‘What’s here for us?’ they said. And, that’s true,” Smith conceded.
There are a few options for the recreationally minded when they don’t want to hike or swim in the lake. Cashiers residents can motor over to neighboring Highlands and use the fitness center there; they can drive down to the Jackson County Recreation Center in Cullowhee. Either way, though particularly if heading to Cullowhee, they are dealing with a windy, slow, two-lane road. Depending on where a person lives in Cashiers, it can easily take 30 minutes or more to get there.
There is one more option, and oddly enough, it was exactly what Zac and Jama Koenig were, just that morning, discussing the possibility of doing. The couple was picnicking Saturday in the Village Green with their daughter, Emma, and her friend, Addie. The Village Green is a community park paid for and built by people living in this community.
Even with the park, “unless you are a member of a club, there’s nowhere to do anything,” Jama Koenig said. “There’s nowhere to go to be fit.”
The solution this couple and many other Cashiers residents are forced to settle on? Buying a small “amenities” lot in the Country Club in Sapphire Valley, down around the Jackson-Transylvania county line, so that they can use the facilities.
The fitness club at Sapphire is 3,600 square feet, offering both cardio- and weight-training equipment. There are locker rooms and saunas, and places to play golf and tennis.
Zac Koenig, who runs the family owned Koenig Homebuilders, said the amenities lots generally are priced starting at $2,500. There’s reasons they can’t be built on — no septic, things like that, but buying a lot does allow people to buy their way in to the club.
And, many Cashiers residents are doing exactly that, Jama Koenig said.
Jama and Zac Koenig (he serves on the county’s planning board) represent, in many ways, both ends of a debate that is likely to take place over building a recreation center in Cashiers. A projected $5 million project to serve a selected few in the county, yes, but in a part of the county that is among the most isolated, and which pays the bulk of Jackson’s taxes.
“Our portion of the tax base is huge,” Jana Koenig said. She has no doubt the community needs and deserves a recreation center.
Her husband, however, isn’t so sure, though he’d enjoy having a recreation center nearby.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” Zac Koenig said. “Our area does pay most of the taxes, but in the winter, there’s not many people here.”
That’s because Cashiers’ population is dominated by seasonal residency. Many houses stand vacant during cold-weather months, and the numbers of people in the community plummet.
Plans for the Cashiers Recreation Center
• Approximately 2,500 square feet in size
• Gymnasium for basketball and volleyball
• Eight-foot wide indoor running/walking track
• Fitness equipment area
• Meeting space, kitchen, storage
• Aerobics and dance areas
Source: Jackson County
Cashiers recreation center might finally become reality
Jackson County commissioners say it’s high time Cashiers gets its due: an $8 million recreation center as pay back for the disproportional share of property taxes carried by the affluent homeowners there.
Blueprints for a Cashiers recreation center have been ready to roll since 2006. Five years later, the long-promised but yet-to-be delivered recreation center has become a symbol of discontent for Cashiers residents. Cashiers residents frequently claim they are neglected for the off-the-plateau county seat of Sylva and the communities surrounding it.
“They deserve a lot more than they have gotten in the past,” said Charles Elders, a newly elected Jackson County commissioner. “They feel like they have been neglected quite a bit.”
Elders said the recreation center has floundered on the “back burner” but that is about to change.
“I feel it was time to get serious about it and get busy with it,” Elders said.
SEE ALSO: Cashiers, Glenville show their pull in the polls
The county has spent $3 million over the past five years getting the site ready, including water, sewer and grading. All that’s lacking now is construction, estimated at $5 million.
County Chairman Jack Debnam, also a newcome to the board, said it seemed like the county had lost momentum on the project.
“After this site preparation stuff, the building sort of vanished,” Debnam said. “I am not sure what happened and how we got to where we are at.”
Debnam, like Elders, cited the taxes paid by Cashiers and Glenville residents — a product of the higher-priced homes and lots in those communities — as justifying the expense.
“If anything happens as far as any kind of building project, I would like to see that be one of the projects we do,” Debnam said. “It is a project that has been promised evidently for years and other things have always pushed it back.”
But Debnam said other outlying areas of the county — such as Qualla for example — also deserve more.
“People in Jackson County stay so close to their communities they don’t understand the wants and needs of the other communities is what I have found,” Debnam said.
A long and twisted road
Progress on the recreation center was stymied at several turns by a web of environmental permits. Site work hit one setback after another as the county learned of yet another regulatory hoop that had to be jumped through. There were also water and sewer lines to run, and an entrance road to build.
“Progress has been slowly plugging along but nobody has seen a building go vertical,” said Commissioner Mark Jones, who lives in Cashiers.
Trying to explain why it has taken so long has been a “nightmare,” Jones said.
“I would tell people we are going to build it and they would say, ‘Oh yeaaahhhh, suuurrre,’” Jones said.
The site lies in the headwaters of the protected Chattooga River, and thus required stricter-than-usual environmental requirements. The county had to navigate a maze of permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, the N.C. Wildlife Commission, the N.C. Division of Water Quality and the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System
At each step, costs ballooned skyward.
“We had to spend a phenomenal amount of money to meet the environmental requirements and permits,” Jones said.
The county ponied up an additional $900,000 for site work between 2006 and 2008 to comply with tougher standards on everything from wetlands to stormwater runoff. Even bringing water and sewer to the site cost more than expected.
Cost overruns did influence the project’s timeline, Jones said.
“As we were spending the extra money, we saw more and more go to site prep and less and less left for the building,” Jones said.
County Manager Chuck Wooten, who just came on board in January, said it is unlikely the former board of commissioners would have kept spending on site work if they didn’t plan to follow through with the project somewhere down the road. In 2007, commissioners took out a $2.7 million loan to cover the site work.
But the drawn-out process and lack of actual construction work left many thinking the project was never going to be completed.
“I do think the folks up there in Cashiers are confused as to why it hadn’t been taken care of,” Wooten said.
Jones said the former board of commissioners were always committed to the project — at least the majority of them were.
Former commissioner Tom Massie said publicly — during a candidate’s forum held in Cashiers no less — that he thought it was unwise to spend the money at this time given the uncertain economic conditions and school funding shortfalls that could lead to layoffs of teachers. Jones said Massie’s honesty in a roomful of Cashiers voters on the eve of the election was admirable, at least.
At the same forum, the three newly elected commissioners pledged support for the recreation center.
Making good on their promise, they asked Wooten to bring them a status report on the project and what it would take to jump start it.
The architect, Dan Duckham of Cashiers, told Wooten plans could be ready to go to bid within two months. The cost estimate stands at $5 million.
Wooten hopes it might not be that much. Builders are hungry for work given the depressed construction market, he said.
“It is a great climate for bidding,” Wooten said.
The county has enough in reserves to pay for construction without borrowing.
Jones said the county once intended to take out a loan for construction but were waiting until this year, Jones said. The county this year will finish making loan payments on the Fairview and Scotts Creek schools, freeing up the county’s debt load.
Wooten instead has recommended tapping the county’s plentiful savings, which stands at roughly $20 million. Commissioners have informally agreed.
The county built up its reserves over the past decade, growing the fund balance by $10 million in the last 11 years, Jones said.
“They were very wise in socking away a considerable amount of money,” Jones said. “You have to give credit to the former county manager and boards of commissioners.”
The recreation center will cost another $330,000 annually for staff, overhead and maintenance, Wooten estimated. Part of that would be offset by memberships.
Jones said the Cashiers recreation center will provide economic stimulus in Cashiers, both creating jobs and spurring investment. People who have bought lots but not yet built their retirement home may now decide to do so thanks to the coming amenity.
Want to go?
Jackson County commissioners will hold a work session to discuss the Cashiers Recreation Center, including a chat with the architect, at 1:30 p.m. Friday, June 3, at the Cashiers library.
Recreation rendezvous shines a light on WNC
Representatives from some of the biggest names in outdoor recreation will soon touch ground in Asheville for the 2010 Outdoor Industry Association’s Rendezvous.
Industry leaders from major brands like Patagonia, The North Face, REI, Merrell, Mountain Hardwear and many more will be flying through the Nantahala River on a whitewater rafting trip and exploring the Smokies by next week.
“The focus of the international outdoor industry will be on our region,” Sutton Bacon, CEO of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, which is hosting the conference.
Bacon and his peers say they hope the Rendezvous will encourage national and international businesses to open up shop in Western North Carolina.
“I think the WNC outdoor industry is certainly rolling out the red carpet,” Bacon said.
The major outdoor conference comes on the heels of Asheville being chosen as the site for a listening session as part of President Barack Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative earlier this year.
“It’s a validation of the kind of mountain lifestyle that Western North Carolina offers,” said Mark Singleton, executive director of Cullowhee-based American Whitewater.
Christine Fanning, executive director of the Outdoor Foundation, said the Smoky Mountains are iconic for the outdoor industry.
WNC is home to the most visited national park in the country, and two of the most heavily visited national forests in the country, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail. The region also serves as headquarters to major outfitters and outdoor retailers in the country.
“If there is a hub of outdoor recreation in the east, Asheville arguably can lay claim to it,” said Frank Hugelmeyer, president and CEO of the Outdoor Industry Association.
Boost from recession
A major focus of the OIA Rendezvous will be to gauge the direction the U.S. outdoor industry is headed.
Since outdoor recreation tends to be more affordable than the typical vacation, the recession has actually driven more Americans outside than before.
At Mast General Store in Waynesville, employee Jay Schoon said the economic downturn has indeed brought a boom in business.
We’ve been having one of the best years, if not the best year, that we’ve ever had,” said Schoon, who has worked in the WNC outdoor industry for almost 20 years.
During tough economic times, the relatively low cost of outdoor activities holds clear appeal.
“When you look at hiking, all you need are a pair of shoes and a backpack,” Hugelmeyer said.
Fanning said connecting with nature can also provide physical, emotional and spiritual benefits and a healthy escape from the bad news of the day.
“People really are realizing outdoor recreation is something that can sort of disconnect you from the realities of today,” Fanning said.
Statistics also show that Americans are also opting for shorter outings. Rather than setting out for a week-long backpacking trip, they will take a day hike, mountain bike or go river rafting over the same period.
“The American is becoming a consummate sampler,” Hugelmeyer said.
Still, millions of Americans have yet to step into the great outdoors.
One point to drive across to these consumers, according to Fanning, is that reconnecting with nature doesn’t have to be an expensive or complicated affair.
“You don’t necessarily need to save up and have a once a year or once a lifetime trip to Yosemite,” Fanning said. “You can be right in your backyard.”
With the American population mostly gravitating toward cities and suburbs, Hugelmeyer said OIA hopes there will be great investment in urban parks, not just national parks.
Reaching out to youth
According to OIA, 90 percent of people who participate in outdoor activities now started between the ages of 5 and 18. Children who grew up camping, hiking and biking are more likely to continue as adults. Those who stayed inside as kids likely won’t take up backpacking as adults.
But OIA has found that there is a significant decline in the number of young people participating in outdoor activities. With more technological options for entertainment, youngsters are opting to stay inside. Kids cite lack of time, lack of interest and too much schoolwork as reasons for not getting outdoors more often.
Parents may have to shoulder much of the blame for that.
“Too many find it convenient to park a child in front of a TV set or computer screen,” Hugelmeyer said.
Melanee Lester, manager of Mast General Store in Waynesville, says that kids are often interested in the outdoors but don’t have the support of the parents.
Fanning and Hugelmeyer point out that more outdoor recreation for kids could provide tangible benefits, including better grades, closer family relationships and major health benefits. Those who appreciate the outdoors will also care about conservation and being good environmental stewards.
More outdoor activity could also curb the obesity crisis in the country.
“It’s a very small investment to head off what will be a very large medical bill later on,” Hugelmeyer said.
According to Fanning, the solution will come once parents are given the skills, information and confidence to schedule outdoor activities, and young people are empowered and inspired.
“At the end of the day, this is about parents and families taking personal responsibility to take their kids out,” Hugelmeyer said.
“For all of us who have a passion for the outdoors, we also have a responsibility to pass that passion to the next generation,” Fanning said.
By the numbers*
• 48.6 percent of Americans ages 6 and older participated in outdoor recreation.
• Americans made an estimated 11.16 billion outdoor excursions in 2008.
Spike in outdoor activities
• Hiking up by 9 percent
• Camping up by 7 percent.
• Backpacking up by 19 percent.
• Mountain biking up by 10.2 percent.
• Trail running up by 15.2 percent.
Youth less interested
• 6 percent drop in people ages 6-17 participating in outdoor recreation. This number has dropped by 16.7 percent in the previous 3 years.
Most popular activities by participation rate
1. Freshwater, saltwater and fly-fishing: 17 percent of Americans.
2. Car, backyard and RV camping: 15 percent of Americans.
3. Running, jogging and trail running: 15 percent of Americans.
4. Road biking, mountain biking and BMX: 15 percent of Americans.
5. Hiking – 12 percent of Americans.
*Statistics from the Outdoor Industry Association study conducted in 2009.
America’s Great Outdoors Initiative
Recreation, conservation and preservation-minded environmentalists from all over Western North Carolina streamed into the Ferguson Auditorium at Asheville-Buncombe Technical College for a chance to influence federal policy.
“They’re calling it a listening session,” said Abe Nail, 56, of Globe. “I can’t imagine the Bush administration doing anything like that.”
Judi Parker, 63, also of Globe –– which is tucked into the middle of the Pisgah National Forest just south of Blowing Rock –– marveled at the crowd of people swarming around her.
“I’m just glad so many people came,” she said.
Nail and Parker were two of more than 500 people who came to participate in a project inaugurated by President Barack Obama in April. Administration officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Department of Interior –– all of which have a stake in overseeing America’s public lands –– have joined together for a road show to listen to the people their policies impact.
Paul Carlson, executive director of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee based in Franklin, said the administration’s willingness to send senior officials to the listening sessions showed it was serious about supporting locally-based conservation efforts.
“Those are pretty senior guys and for them to be out there taking that kind of time to listen to us is pretty impressive,” Carlson said.
The group has toured a dozen cities already to meet with stakeholder groups and talk about how the federal government can do a better job expanding access to outdoor recreation and land conservation in everything from city parks to national forests.
Will Shafroth, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior, is one of a handful of officials who have been to every city so far. Shafroth said the trip has given him a lift during a trying period.
“It’s invigorating because with the dark cloud of the oil spill in the Gulf, which has been a real drag on our sense of what’s happening, you come into a place like this and it’s just full of energy,” Shafroth said.
The strain of the past months showed on Shafroth’s face, and during his opening remarks he managed to forget where he was, thanking the people of “Asheville, Tennessee” for the turnout.
Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy handled the slip graciously and led the audience –– which was made up of a wide range of characters from AmeriCorps volunteers to non-profit executive directors to local politicians –– in a rousing call and response that confirmed the real venue for the event.
The value of the listening session as a policy tool may not yet be determined, but its worth as a morale building exercise was evident from the start.
Tom Strickland, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, invoked the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt in his remarks and set the tone for the dialogue later in the day.
“We know now that the solutions are not going to come from Washington, if they ever did,” Strickland said.
The room buzzed as Julie Judkins of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a facilitator in the morning’s youth event, offered some feedback direct from the young people to the big bosses.
“Even though we love Smoky [the Bear], maybe it’s time to get him on the iPhone,” Judkins said.
John Jarvis, head of the National Park Service, offered a succinct summation of the aim of the event in his address.
“We need your ideas so we can spread them around to other parts of the country,” Jarvis said.
The listening sessions have been organized to inform a report that will be on President Barack Obama’s desk by November 15. After the hour-long introductory session that included an eight-minute inspirational video invoking the nation’s relationship with its public lands, the participants headed to breakout sessions in classroom settings to discuss their own experiences.
The sessions were organized to record what strategies were working, what challenges organizations were facing, how the federal government could better facilitate change, and what existing tools could be used to create improvements in the system.
In a breakout session focused on outdoor recreation, participants affiliated with trail clubs, mountain biking groups, paddling groups, tourism offices and scout troops piled into a room.
Mark Singleton, executive director of Sylva-based American Whitewater, participated in the president’s kickoff conference in Washington, D.C., back in April. Two months later he was telling the facilitator that the government had to work to create better and more accessible options for recreation on public land so the younger generation would grow up with a conservation ethic.
“It’s hard to protect something if you don’t love it,” Singleton said. “There can’t be a disconnect with the younger generation.”
Eric Woolridge, the Wautauga County Tourism and Development Authority’s outdoor recreation planner, hailed the new cooperative model in Boone that uses a local tax on overnight lodging to fund outdoor recreation infrastructure projects.
Woolridge oversees an outdoor recreation infrastructure budget of $250,000 derived from proceeds of a 6 percent occupancy tax.
“The key is that we have a revenue stream, and it always stays there,” Woolridge said.
There were specific asks for cooperation from the Feds, too. A woman from North Georgia wanted to know how to get memorandums of understanding with various agencies to help her youth orienteering program.
Don Walton, a board member with the Friends of the Mountain To Sea Trail, asked that the U.S. Park Service to consider allowing more camping opportunities on land owned by the Blue Ridge Parkway.
While each set of stakeholders had their own pet issues, nearly everyone was urging the Feds to ramp up their contribution to the Land And Water Conservation Fund, which uses revenues from off-shore oil leases to benefit outdoor recreation projects across the country.
Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar authorized $38 million for state projects through the fund this year, but the administration has announced its aim to authorize the full funding level of $900 million for the LWCF by 2014.
Woolridge, Singleton and many other outdoor recreation stakeholders also waned to emphasize that their work isn’t just about playing, it’s about economic development.
“Outdoor recreation and conservation is a legitimate development strategy,” Woolridge said. “In fact, it may be the only development strategy for rural communities.”
For Shafroth, who ran a non-profit in Colorado before taking his job at the Department of Interior, the economic challenges of the moment are an ever-present reality.
“With the shortfalls with resources we have right now and the size of people’s goals… in some cases, there’s a pretty big gulf right now,” Shafroth said.
But more than just dollars and cents, the listening tour is an organizing effort, a way to get conservation-minded people in front of their government to start a long-overdue conversation.
Abe Nail said his attendance at the event wasn’t about money.
“You can’t buy conservation. Conservation is passion driven,” Nail said.
County cuts to recreation saddle towns with added costs
In the eyes of Canton’s town leaders, the status quo in recreation funding just isn’t cutting it.
For years, the town of Canton has had to maintain an aging public pool and has struggled to obtain stadium lighting to allow night games at the International Paper sports complex, which could cost as much as $400,000.
Yet since the start of the recession, the town has received not a penny from the county to support recreation. Residents from all over the county, not just within town limits, use town facilities like the pool in Canton and the recreation center in Waynesville. Yet town taxpayers are left footing much of the bill without county support.
That prompted Canton’s mayor, all four of its aldermen and its town manager to show up to the last Haywood county commissioners meeting, requesting that recreation funding not only be restored, but also that it be doled out fairly.
“We feel like we’re not getting all the funding that we’re possibly entitled to receive,” said Canton Alderman Kenneth Holland.
Until the recession struck, Haywood County annually sent $30,000 Canton’s way for recreation, while sending $70,000 to Waynesville for the same purpose.
But last year the county eliminated recreation contributions for Canton and Waynesville and has revealed no plans for restoring it.
“The needs have been great, but funds have been few,” said Canton Mayor Pat Smathers.
Canton leaders say they feel shortchanged geographically. The resolution that the Canton board formally presented alleged that there were few programs “if any” and no facilities operated by the county recreation department in Canton and the rest of eastern Haywood County.
On the other hand, the county has begun planning a $6.3 million sports complex in Jonathan Creek after already completing the first county-developed park in Allens Creek. Both projects are in western Haywood County.
Canton’s board of aldermen have requested that the county once again allocate funds to individual towns and school recreation programs, rather than to the county recreation department.
“At least on this end of the county, there’s a perception, ‘Hey, what’s the county rec department doing here?’” said Smathers.
But Claire Carleton, county recreation director, denied that there was any favoritism for the western half of Haywood.
“Each entity has got to stand up and prove their needs,” said Carleton. “No matter where they’re coming from, east, west, it doesn’t matter.”
While county commissioners were sympathetic to the Canton board’s request, they stressed that the recession has left their hands tied when it comes to appropriating funding for recreation.
As a Canton resident, Commissioner Skeeter Curtis is well aware of the town’s recreation needs, but he said the county is down to bare bones with the tough economy. Curtis also pointed out that the Town of Canton is “well-represented” on the county recreation board, which has a significant say in which projects the county moves forward with next.
“If there was money, I would stand up for the people of east Haywood,” added Curtis. “But I’m on both sides of the fence now, I can see both sides.”
Meanwhile, Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick emphasized that “contrary to popular belief,” no construction work had started on the Jonathan Creek park. Kirkpatrick also pointed out that in the past, the county supplied $321,000 to help construct the sports complex in Canton. Haywood County also transported fill from the Beaverdam Industrial Park to grade the sports complex at the county’s cost.
Commissioner Bill Upton said Canton is actually in the lead when it comes to having a complete sports complex. For now, the Jonathan Creek sports complex exists only on paper.
“If they ever get their lights, they’re way ahead,” said Upton.
Bridging the divide
Canton’s town leaders claim that 65 percent of the people who use the public pool in Canton come from outside town limits. Similarly, the town of Waynesville reports that about 70 percent of people who use its recreation center do not live in town.
Though user fees generate some revenue, town property taxes play a significant role in propping up both the Waynesville recreation center and Canton’s outdoor pool. In essence, town taxpayers are subsidizing those two facilities for the entire county.
The Town of Waynesville reports that it makes $695,000 operating the recreation department, including the recreation center. In contrast, the recreation department faces $2.2 million annually in expenses, from paying off debt on the recreation center to paying regular operating expenses. It’s up to town taxpayers to help make up the difference with $1.1 million of contributions from property taxes in the 2010-2011 town budget.
For now, Waynesville residents pay the same monthly fee as county residents at the recreation center, though town leaders have toyed with the idea of charging higher fees for county residents living outside town limits in the past. The idea has proven to be a logistical challenge.
“That becomes a total nightmare when someone’s coming in to check in,” said Wells Greeley, Waynesville alderman.
The easiest way to receive support from county taxpayers who live outside town limits was to receive direct funding from the county. With the total cut in recreation funding from the Haywood county taxpayers though, towns are now left to their own devices.
“It is a challenge every year to devote the money to our recreation, but it’s a vital part of every municipality in Haywood County,” said Greeley.
Carleton said while recreation is crucial for both the mental and physical health of citizens, most government officials see recreation as a non-essential service. The county recreation department has seen major funding cuts of its own since the recession hit.
“That’s just the way it’s always been, from the national level all the way down to Haywood County,” said Carleton. “It’s a widely known fact, the first thing that’s going to be cut is recreation.”
Carleton would not say what she thought was the best way to divvy up the recreation responsibilities among county and town recreation departments. But she added that the most important points are to not duplicate services and to work together.
Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown agreed that governments philosophically shouldn’t be competing with each other.
“I hate that east-west argument,” said Brown. “I thought we had got over it ... that kind of diatribe and that kind of mentality gets you nowhere.”
However, Brown said he, too, would like to see recreation funding restored to municipalities. More than that, he would like to see the county work more closely with the towns.
“If the county wants to be in recreation, it should sit down with everyone to decide how we want to spend the citizens’ money,” said Brown. “What we need to do is sit down and discuss things, and that’s not going on now. That is the biggest problem.”
Plans in hand, but money isn’t for Haywood park
That’s approximately how much money needs to be raised before Haywood County residents can expect to see a recreation park built in Jonathan Creek.
With the recession retaining its stranglehold on the nation, county commissioners aren’t contributing a single cent to the park in this year’s proposed budget.
The project, as many already know, is years away from becoming a reality, even though the park’s design is nearly finalized.
Having a design in hand undoubtedly gives the county a leg up in securing state recreation grants, which mostly fund projects that are already underway.
But there’s one other source that could be of assistance to the many softball and baseball players itching to play at the park’s proposed four new fields.
The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority — which collects lodging tax and helps promote tourism in the county — already contributed $10,000 of the $15,000 that went into the Jonathan Creek Park design process.
Sports tournaments are known to bring out-of-town visitors not only out to the fields during the day, but also to hotels and motels after the game is through.
“Whenever you have kids in any type of competition, you have parents, grandparents, brothers, and sisters,” said Marion Hamel, TDA’s vice-chair for the Town of Maggie Valley. “I think it would just be a boon to the whole area.”
More “heads in beds” means more money for the TDA, which in turn leads to a higher advertising budget to then bring even more tourists to town. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that gets a boost from new facilities that draw tourists.
The idea is not new. TDAs or similar associations across the Southeast have utilized their funds to do more than just place ads in newspapers and magazines. On the east coast, they’ve funded boat docks. In Greensboro, they helped the International Civil Rights Center & Museum come to fruition.
The Buncombe County TDA has gone so far as to devote one percent of its lodging tax solely to brick and mortar projects that generate additional room nights.
Its beneficiaries throughout the years are many, including the Bob Moog Museum, concert venue The Orange Peel, Pack Square Park, the Buncombe County Civil War Trails, and the Bonsai Garden at the North Carolina Arboretum, to name a few.
Small in the game
For now, Haywood’s TDA is unsure that it’ll play a major role in funding the Jonathan Creek park.
“The problem is we’re going through the budget process right now, and it’s looking very, very, very slim,” Hamel said. “I would be very hesitant to say yes. If we had the funds, yes, I would support that.”
Alice Aumen, who serves as chair of the TDA, said the organization has already made unprecedented cuts due to the triple whammy of the recession, the rockslide that shut down Interstate 40 for six months and 2009’s rainy summer.
The agency’s year to date revenue is down by 8 percent, and the TDA held a special meeting last week to determine how to possibly fulfill the budget they’ve passed for this year with such a shortfall.
Members voted to close doors at the Balsam visitor center three days a week and the Canton Visitor Center altogether until the end of June, when the new 2010-2011 fiscal year begins.
“It’s never happened before,” Aumen said. “We certainly hope it doesn’t happen again.”
Aumen would not comment on whether the TDA would fund construction on the Jonathan Creek Park, adding though that there had been no discussion yet on the subject.
According to Aumen, that decision would depend on how members see TDA’s role in the community.
“Some people perceive that TDA is really a promotional agency, as opposed to getting into product development,” said Aumen.
Ken Stahl, chair of the TDA’s finance committee, said the agency must above all determine how to maximize the impact of each tourism dollar it receives.
The TDA decided to help jumpstart the Jonathan Creek Park project with funding because of its potential to bring overnight visitors to the area for years to come, Stahl said.
“Maybe it was important for us to contribute to the front-end of this thing,” Stahl said. “Our thoughts were to help this project along, thinking it would help in the long run.”
Though the Haywood TDA has widened its scope, it hasn’t totally lost focus on its core principles of marketing and promoting the area.
Other than the sports complex in Jonathan Creek, the only other capital project the TDA has contributed to is the Maggie Valley’s festival grounds, which received $115,000 for lighting and other electrical needs.
According to the American Planning Association, however, sports tournaments generally create a greater economic impact for local communities than special events and festivals. Most non-major festivals overwhelmingly attract locals rather than faraway visitors.
Steve Fritts, vice president of Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon — the design firm leading the project at Jonathan Creek — is currently working on a project in Indiana, where the convention and visitors bureau is funding 100 percent of an $18 million sports complex.
Chattanooga, Tenn., spent $10 million on a new eight-field softball complex that’s estimated to bring an economic impact of $25.9 million between 2008 and 2013, according to Fritts. From 1992 to 2006, the city documented more than $50 million in economic impact from softball tournaments alone, Fritts said.
Meanwhile, Rock Hill, S.C., reports that holding about 35 sports tournaments each year adds $5 million of direct economic impact to its room tax each year. That tax money had paid most of the bills on a new soccer field and tennis center in town.
Though the impacts can be enormous in certain cases, Haywood County still faces a crunch in figuring out how to fund its own $6.3 million sports complex. The answer can’t fully lie with the TDA.
“There is obviously a limit to how much we can do that we can do,” Stahl said. “This is really a county project. They’re the ones that bought the property, and they’re the ones that are going to develop it.”
Haywood’s TDA typically has a total budget of $1 million, while similar organizations in Asheville and Cherokee can spend $1.5 million or more out of their multimillion dollar budget each year.
“We’re small in the game of TDAs,” Stahl said.
Haywood Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said that with the county’s own tight budget, the recreation department will have to start applying for state grants, hoping for the best.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re not in a financial position to move forward with the construction,” said Kirkpatrick.
On the bright side, having a design in place will still move Haywood up on the queue for receiving state funding.
“Without a site master plan, you can’t get anywhere,” said Claire Carleton, recreation director for the county. “This is the most important initial step.”
The park’s many offerings
After receiving ample input from vocal citizens, the Haywood County Recreation Board has selected a master site plan for the Jonathan Creek sports complex.
The park will include a 225-foot baseball field, a 200-foot baseball field, and two 300-foot softball/baseball fields that would accommodate men’s softball tournaments, as well as a two-story scorer’s tower with concessions and restrooms.
The plan also calls for an Astroturf multipurpose field, a small soccer field, tennis courts, playground, horseshoe pits, picnic sites, batting cage, a handicapped fishing pier, and a walking trail alongside the creek.
The plan awaits final approval by the Haywood County commissioners.
Grant propels Waynesville skate park, but the price tag is still daunting
Ten-year-old Waynesville resident Zeb Powell has exclusive, 24-7 access to a skate park in town — it’s in his driveway.
Powell got hold of a half-pipe, rails and multiple ramps when the indoor BP Skate Park closed down last fall. But as it turns out, having a park to yourself isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
“He loves doing it with other people,” said his mother, Val Powell. “By himself, it’s just not as much fun.”
Zeb is one of many skateboarders in Waynesville waiting for the long-promised public skate park on Vance Street, near the Waynesville Recreation Center.
For now, skaters still have to deal with a town ban on skateboards on sidewalks and most town streets. Violators face a $50 fine and the possibility of having their boards confiscated.
The proposed fenced-in outdoor park will cost somewhere between $275,000 to $325,000 to construct. So far, the town has lined up $120,000 to devote to the project.
Included in that total is a $60,000 state Parks and Recreation Trust Fund grant Waynesville recently received, plus a $20,000 grant from the Waynesville Kiwanis Club. The rest comes from town funds.
With the idea of a skate park stalled for more than a decade, the state grant eluded the town when it first applied in 2009. To boost its chances of winning the coveted grant in the next cycle, the town dipped into its own coffers to fund a design plan for the park — hoping to prove it was dedicated to the idea. The plan worked.
Waynesville hired California firm Spohn Ranch Skateparks to lead the project earlier this year. In March, the firm held a public input meeting with local skaters to help shape the look of the park. The firm will present three potential designs at an online meeting next week.
Recreation Director Rhett Langston says he sees a parallel between skate parks and golf courses. Each should have its own unique character and offer different elements from those facilities nearby. With skate parks relatively close in Asheville and Hendersonville, Waynesville’s recreation department wants to offer something else with its park.
“We want ours to be as nice but also different,” Langston said. “So all skaters can go from one location to another.”
Right now, Waynesville parent Joe Moore said he’ll be thrilled to see any kind of skate park.
“I wish there was more money to make it happen immediately,” Moore said. “The wheels of bureaucracy always move too slow.”
Moore wholly supports the project, though, and is happy the park will have no entry fee. He says he’s not worried about the park being unsupervised by town staff.
“Most parents are not going to drop off their 7- to 12-year-old to skateboard and run errands,” said Moore.
Though Moore originally preferred an indoor park, he would now love to see an outdoor facility with a roof overhead to protect skaters like his son Dylan from wet and snowy weather. He also suggests wooden ramps rather than those made of concrete.
“Skateboarders like to see things change,” said Moore. “Concrete, once it’s poured, it’s always going to stay the same.”
Most skaters who attended the first public meeting supported a hybrid of a bowl and a street park with ramps, rails, stairs and more, Langston said.
Langston, who has been instrumental in moving the skate park forward, was himself a skater in his youth. But that was before the rise of skate parks nationwide.
“We would just fly down the hill in our neighborhood,” said Langston. “We just made do with what we had.”
The Waynesville Recreation Department is selling bricks with personalized messages for a walkway leading up to the park. So far, skaters have raised about $3,000.
The case for ball and bat
Like many of the stakeholders in the argument, county commission chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick wishes the county could build enough fields for both sports. He played baseball in college, and his daughter is currently a soccer player.
But if he has to pick, Kirkpatrick believes the baseball and softball community is next in line for an upgrade, citing the county’s recreation master plan showing a greater deficit of softball fields than soccer fields.
The county’s Allens Creek park — constructed nine years ago — elicited a similar debate between soccer and softball. Ultimately, it was designed as purely a soccer park since the need for soccer fields was greater at the time. It has three playing areas, although none are regulation size required for hosting tournaments.
Baseball/softball advocates argue it is their turn now. The county doesn’t operate any baseball or softball fields. Instead teams rely on private fields, town fields and school fields available for teams.
“The main thing that I see is the lack of county-owned baseball fields, but that’s why I also support a multi-use field out there,” said Kirkpatrick, who is also a member of the recreation board. “It’s just hard to get a full-sized soccer field or a full-sized baseball field in the mountains.”
Kenny Mull, assistant commissioner of Mountaineer Little League, is in the same boat as Kirkpatrick, having also been parent of soccer players. But he says the opportunity of having a county-owned baseball/softball facility has been a long time coming.
“I don’t have anything against soccer, but I’ve been with the Little League for 35 years,” Mull said. “It is our time, I think.”
For nearly the entire existence of Mountaineer Little League’s boy’s baseball and girls’ softball programs, games and tournaments have been hosted on fields owned by private civic organizations like the Elks and the American Legion.
The result has been that Mull and other Little League administrators have had to undertake field maintenance on their own, adding a huge amount of cost and labor to the league’s operations.
“It’s really something we need badly and we’ve never had the opportunity to get,” Mull said. “We’ve never even had the chance to push for it until now.”
What Mull is pushing for is a county-owned and maintained tournament caliber baseball/softball complex for the more than 500 boys and girls ages 8 to 16 in the Mountaineer Little League system.
The plan they favor calls for a “wagon wheel” four-plex field setup that would accommodate the new Little League field specifications. As the game has developed, the regulation distance for fences has been moved from the old distance of 200 feet to 225 feet.
Mull said a “wagon wheel” field setup at Jonathan Creek could allow the Little League to hold regional tournaments with four games going simultaneously. The facility could also be a home for adult softball tournaments, though softball fields require 300-foot fences.
“If you had a field like that, you could host Little League tournaments and traveling tournaments any weekend you wanted to,” Mull said.
Mull explained that the Mountaineer Little League currently hosts tournaments among a variety of locations, making it hard for out-of-town visitors to enjoy the experience because they are rushing from one site to another.
He sees the potential for a centralized tournament complex as a revenue boost for the county.
“It’s a great moneymaker for the county, because it brings people into the hotels and restaurants and everything,” Mull said. “It’d be a really good thing. I hope it works out.”
Lee Starnes, past president of Mountaineer Little League, has attended the planning meetings and looked at the proposals. For Starnes, the proposed baseball/softball complex would provide much-needed practice space and solve a longstanding problem.
“Because of our location in the mountains, we simply don’t have the available space and what is available is expensive,” Starnes said.
Like Kirkpatrick, Starnes said he wished the county could build both tournament soccer and softball facilities, but he knows the county budget won’t allow it.
“I’m in for all of it,” Starnes said. “It’s for the kids, and whatever we can do for the kids is great.”
The case for soccer
Soccer coach Nathan Trout recalled, with a tinge of jealousy, the four “unbelievable” sports parks in his Florida hometown, including six soccer fields.
“It’s almost embarrassing for the community to not have nice facilities for their kids,” said Trout. “I’m just surprised that there’s not a piece of land where they can build it all.”
Trout said he doesn’t understand why the county can’t accommodate athletes from multiple sports in one convenient location.
Trout, who coaches a traveling girls’ team for Carolina Mountain Soccer Club, says he’s had trouble convincing other teams to come to Haywood County.
“Here, we’re so limited,” said Trout. “Obviously, baseball is facing the same problem.”
Currently, the county has no regulation-size soccer fields, and the facilities that are around are either not well-maintained or not publicly available after hours. None of them are striped for soccer, according to soccer coach Geoff Chitea.
Not infrequently, slack mowing schedules allow grass to grow too high for play, while fields remain wet long after rainfall.
Some field owners bar access after hours due to potential liability issues, and others drag the goals off the field to specifically discourage soccer games after hours.
“They don’t want the grass messed up,” said Chitea, who likened playing soccer without goals to playing basketball without a backboard.
Both Trout and Chitea argue that developing soccer fields at the Jonathan Creek Park would benefit more people than the community realizes.
Trout estimates that 600 kids play soccer in Haywood County alone, while Chitea emphasized that adults like to play casual games all throughout the year. On most evenings and weekends, about 15 to 20 people regularly show up to play pick-up games of soccer.
“We’ve had nights during the summer where our numbers swell up to 30 people,” said Chitea.
While football and baseball enthusiasts pack up whenever their season ends, Chitea says there’s really no such thing as a soccer season.
“You see soccer players out on those fields all year long whenever the weather’s nice,” said Chitea.
Trout and Chitea said they are disappointed with the three options presented by the recreation board at the last meeting.
“Obviously, soccer really took a backstage to baseball/softball,” said Chitea. “They all look like we built a baseball facility, not a community park.”
Chitea says the multipurpose field seems more like an afterthought, with restrooms situated much closer to the baseball fields in all three options. Kids who play anything other than baseball or softball will face a much longer trek to the bathrooms.
Chitea says he does appreciate the walking trails at the park, and hopes that the multipurpose field will at least be Astroturf to allow for soccer play year-round.
Meanwhile, Trout would like to see the Haywood County community readjust its focus. Citizens placed too much stress on the park’s ability to drive revenue at the first public meeting, Trout said.
Rather than chasing athletes from other towns, the county’s primary concern should be taking care of the youth at home.
“I think there’s too much focus on worrying about tournaments and driving revenue, rather than taking care of the kids and the community that presently play here,” said Trout.
A tale of two sports at new Jonathan Creek Park
It’s not often that soccer players go head-to-head with softball and baseball athletes.
But whenever Haywood County decides to build a new recreation park, they may do just that.
A competitive spirit creeps from the field into public meetings, as athletes from the same sport band together to make the case for a facility that will best meet their needs.
In recent years, the debate has fostered a rivalry between soccer lovers and those passionate about baseball and softball. Now that the county has begun design work on a new park in Jonathan Creek, the same dialogue has resurfaced.
Of course, the county recreation board would love to satisfy athletes from all sports with pristine new fields, but lack of available funding demands tough choices.
So far, Haywood’s recreation board has collected ample citizen input to assist them in the decision-making process. The board has put out two online surveys and held two public meetings. An impressive crowd of almost 60 people piled in to have their say at both meetings.
For this round, the baseball/softball folks have earned a clear upper hand, despite soccer players’ success in skewing the online survey results toward developing a soccer field.
The county recreation board has opted for a mix of uses at the Jonathan Creek park with a heavy emphasis on baseball and softball. The three potential design concepts presented at the last public meeting each include four baseball fields and one “multipurpose” field.
Two sets of plans for the park have emerged as frontrunners. One plan entails four softball fields and a large multipurpose artificial turf field that could be adapted as a full-size soccer field. The other also has four softball fields clustered centrally as a single complex, but leaves less space for the multi-use field, which is smaller.
The board’s decision was heavily guided by a recreation master plan developed by the county in 2007. The plan demonstrates a clear need for more facilities for all three sports, but a greater deficit of softball and baseball fields than for soccer.
“The master plan is just clear cut, right there,” said Claire Carleton, Haywood County recreation director. “Since we don’t have any baseball/softball fields, that’s where the most urgent needs lies.”
According to the study, the county needs seven more baseball fields and seven softball fields by 2027. In comparison, there will be a deficit of only two soccer fields and two multipurpose fields that same year.
On the other hand, soccer fields are cheaper to develop than baseball and softball fields. Building a soccer field with a goal on each end is a less complicated proposition than developing baseball and softball fields with dugouts, fencing and score boxes.
On Tuesday, April 6, the recreation board will consider which of the three plans to adopt. Each side continues to make their case, and one thing is clear: the debate is far from over in Haywood County.
Developing a moneymaker
Money is not trailing far behind sports in the minds of citizens enthused by the new park.
Residents overwhelmingly favor developing a sports park that produces revenue by ushering traveling teams to the region’s hotels, restaurants and other businesses.
Investing in a high-quality sports complex does have potential to bring serious cash flow into the county, according to Steve Fritts, landscape architect with Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon.
His firm, which is designing the Jonathan Creek Park, recently completed a tournament-size softball complex in Chattanooga. On its opening weekend, 250 teams descended on the town to utilize the $11 million, eight-field complex.
Meanwhile, the vision for a park in Jonathan Creek is currently limited to 22 acres of space. Fritts has recommended expanding the park to at least 40 acres in the future.
A dearth of funding is the major obstacle in creating a larger park, however. Haywood County commissioners have already dropped $1 million to purchase the park property, while the Town of Maggie Valley also chipped in $115,000 toward the property purchase.
In addition, the recreation board has found it difficult to commit the entire park to just one sport. It turned down the firm’s proposal for developing five baseball fields — even though that would likely prove more lucrative in attracting tournaments.
Recreation Director Claire Carleton said the board shied away from narrowing the scope of the park to ensure that the community facility offers something for everyone.
The three concepts the board chose included not only baseball/softball fields and a multipurpose field, but also a playground, an accessible fishing pier, a greenway trail, a water play area, a loop trail with fitness stations, and picnic shelters.
While a larger park would improve prospects of hosting tournaments, Carleton is pleased with the progress on the park as is.
“This is an excellent start for the county,” said Carleton.
Despite a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, April 6, the board may not vote on adopting a specific plan just yet. County Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick, who sits on the recreation board, pointed out that the reality of a new recreation facility is still a long way away.
“The fact of the matter is this is a plan to utilize that property but not necessarily the exact plan that will be used at the time of construction,” Kirkpatrick said.