Swain jail may finally see return of federal prisoners to help offset costs

In rare good news for Swain County’s jail, a new agreement will soon usher federal prisoners into the often half-empty facility.

Sheriff Curtis Cochran has worked for months to secure an official deal with the U.S. Marshals Service, which will pave the way for the return of federal prisoners and score the county $55 per prisoner per day.

“We’re thrilled to have this agreement with the Marshal Service and look forward to working with them,” said Curtis.

For now, it’s hard to say how many federal prisoners will be filing into Swain’s jail. The new deal falls short of a contract, so the marshals aren’t obligated to send any prisoners, and the jail is not required to set aside a certain number of beds for them. Such contracts only go to jails with federal money invested.

Swain’s new $10 million jail, which opened in December 2008, is more than four times larger than what the county needs to house its own inmates. County leaders hoped to house overflow inmates from other counties, but those counties were simultaneously building new jails of their own.

The county recently learned its last and best customer, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is moving forward with plans for a jail of its own as well.

This flurry of jail building in the region has posed yet another problem for Swain — other new jails are stealing away a share of the federal prisoners up for grabs.

“Lucky for us, we had a lot of jails that were newly constructed,” said Lee Banks, supervisor of the U.S. Marshals office in Asheville. “When they came on line, we were quick to provide them with prisoners that we’ve had, Cherokee County in particular.”

Fortunately for Swain, though, a federal courthouse is located in Bryson City near the jail.

“It’s what, a mile away from where we’re at,” said Cochran. “If they’re going to utilize this courthouse, it would be more feasible for them to house their inmates here.”

Swain routinely housed federal prisoners until four years ago, when the Marshals Service pulled out due to safety concerns. The old jail was plagued by temperamental locks and lacked a fire sprinkler system. Back then, the daily rate for federal prisoners was only $30 per person.

Although the new jail opened 14 months ago, it has taken time to reconnect with the federal marshal service.

Banks said he hasn’t sent federal prisoners Swain’s way since the new jail opened more than a year ago simply because there have been less prisoners.

Swain’s jail is currently housing a lone federal prisoner, who’s been there since October.

“Now we’ve got plenty of jails on line, I have fewer prisoners,” said Banks. “I’m not complaining — it’s just that our prisoner population has been low recently.”

At this point, it’s difficult for Banks to pinpoint how many federal prisoners will soon be occupying Swain’s jail.

“We’re using multiple jails in multiple areas of the state,” said Banks. “So it’s hard for me to predict how many prisoners we’ll have in the future.”

Cochran estimates that he would have 21 beds available for federal prisoners, 16 male and five female, but that number is flexible, he said.

As of last week, Swain County had 40 inmates in its 109-bed jail, including 18 from Cherokee and one federal prisoner.

A time for healing

The signing of a cash settlement deal for Swain County last week was a heartbreaking end to a lifelong struggle for many.

For decades, road supporters held on to hope — hope that the government would honor the promise it made in the midst of a wide-scale evacuation to make way for the creation of Lake Fontana in the 1940s. The lake flooded the only road that led to their former communities, but they believed one day it would be rebuilt, allowing them to visit their former home sites and family cemeteries inside the Smokies.

To some descendents of those who lived along what is now called the North Shore, the road symbolized a connection to their past, a sense of place and a link to their heritage. The loss of the road is profound.

Charlene Blankenship, a road supporter, said family members have promised each other on their deathbeds they would never stop fighting for a road to their old cemeteries.

Linda Hogue, a leader behind the fight, said she will have more time on her hands now. She’ll spend it in her garden, with family and being more active in church, she said. But she also plans to turn her energy toward this year’s county commissioner elections, working to unseat those who voted for the cash settlement.

On the eve of a vote by county commissioners to accept the cash settlement and give up the county’s claim to a road, descendents of the North Shore community held a teary prayer meeting. A few dozen turned out to witness the vote the next day as well as the ceremony on Saturday, but most stayed home because they could not bear to watch, said Blankenship.

A few smuggled protest signs written in black marker on hot pink poster board into the ceremony, folded up inside their jackets or purses, and unveiled them during the myriad speeches. Luke Hyde, a leader of the cash settlement movement who presided over the ceremony, asked the protestors to put their signs away.

“There will be a time and place for protests, but it is not now,” Hyde said to the crowd.

But they continued to display them. One member stood up with her back to the stage, facing the large auditorium, in a silent protest. Many wore black armbands.

Until the bitter end

When commissioners convened the day before the ceremony to vote on whether to accept the cash settlement, David Monteith, the lone commissioner opposed to the vote, stood to deliver lengthy remarks. He challenged and begged the rest of the board not to go forward with the vote.

Monteith repeated his long-standing request that the county conduct a vote to gauge public opinion. He asked if he could be put on the agenda for three minutes during the ceremony to represent the other side of the issue. He also asked to open the meeting to public comment before the commissioners voted.

He put numerous such requests in the form of motions, but none got a second from another commissioner.

Monteith said the county has a legal and binding contract from the government promising to rebuild the road, and it should stand strong rather than be sold out for a cash settlement.

“We’ve had a legal binding contract for 66 years and where has that gotten us?” Commissioner Steve Moon asked. “Do you believe they would ever build the road, David?”

“As God is my witness, yes sir, I think the road would be built if we would stand our ground,” Monteith said. “We’ve been 66 years without a road. I would rather spend another 66 fighting.”

“How long would you be willing to wait?” Moon asked.

“If they brought $52 million in with a wheelbarrow right now, I would still be opposed to it,” Monteith answered.

But Commission Chairman Glenn Jones said accepting the cash settlement was the right decision for the future.

“We need to move on. We don’t need to look at the past. We need to vote on the future for this county,” Jones said.

Carter Petty, the director of Mountain Discovery Charter School, took his class on a fieldtrip to the county commissioners meeting Friday to witness the historic event.

“I want these guys to experience it,” Petty said, as they waited for the meeting to start. “It is a tremendously emotional issue.”

A win for all

Claude Douthit, a leader among the cash settlement supporters, spent 35 years trying to convince people to set their emotions aside and look at the issue rationally. The road would never be built, so the county should try to get something instead of nothing, said Douthit, who in the mid-1970s became one of the early crafters behind the idea of a cash settlement.

“There has been a division in Swain County here for years over this and it needs to be brought to an end so the people of Swain County can get back on track trying their best to cooperate with each other instead of fight with each other,” Douthit said.

Douthit’s son, Jonathan, hopes the next generation will grow up without the division that has burdened the county in the past.

“This is right up there with the Civil War with dividing families,” Jonathan said.

Jonathan said he doesn’t see his side as the winner and the other side as the losers.

“They didn’t lose. We all won,” Jonathan said.

The cash settlement, once it reaches $52 million, could reap more than $3 million a year in interest — nearly a quarter of Swain’s entire budget right now.

“I see the availability for a better quality of life for a lot of people,” Jonathan said. “I think it will be a boon to Swain County and some might not realize it now, but they will see how much vision has been shown by doing this for the future.”

As for Douthit, there were times he thought his dream would never come to fruition, or that he wouldn’t live long enough to see it. An organization formed to advanced the cash settlement, known as the Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County, has met monthly for 10 years, right up until last week.

“Why did I keep on? That’s the only thing I know, I reckon,” said Douthit.

Suddenly finding a lot more time on his hands is perhaps the one thing he has in common with road supporters.

Cash settlement here at last

Swain County officially signed a cash settlement with the federal government in a moving and historic ceremony Saturday, ending a bitter decades-long dispute over the North Shore Road.

Swain will received $52 million from the government, and in exchange will drop its claims to a 30-mile road the government flooded 66 years ago and never rebuilt.

“It has taken Swain County 67 years to reach this point today,” said County Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones. “The journey has not been easy folks.”

Congressman Heath Shuler, a Swain County native and football star, received three separate standing ovations during the ceremony for his critical work to bring the settlement to fruition.

“When you were up here playing football for the Maroon Devils, who would have ever thought you would be the missing piece of this puzzle?” Jones said.

Shuler fought tirelessly to win political support in Washington, including within the White House, for a settlement and to secure the first round of appropriations.

“It is not just about the money. It is letting go of something in the past that has divided us,” said Shuler, who choked up during one part of his speech. “I think maybe that’s why God has put me here, to bring a divided community back together.”

Under the cash settlement, Swain will get $12.8 million now and the rest in increments over the next 10 years. The amount of the settlement is based on the value of the road at the time it was flooded, plus interest.

“What we have tried to do in this whole issue is get an injustice for Swain County done and over with,” said Claude Douthit, a father of the cash settlement movement, following the ceremony. “I have tried and tried and tired for all of these years to bring people on board and educate them. It has taken me a long time to ever get the stars right so to speak. It finally came about.”

Luke Hyde, an attorney and leader of the cash settlement movement, led an invocation at the beginning of the ceremony, which was held at Swain County High School.

“Bless what the public officials will do here today and go with us into the future so we can do a better job for our children and our children’s children,” Hyde said.

The money from the settlement will be placed in a protected trust fund. The county will get the annual interest, which will amount to more than $3 million a year once the full settlement is received.

Jones referenced the motto on a sign outside the high school where the ceremony was held, declaring “Our best and then some.”

“We want to put this note in our kids’ pockets and say ‘We have given you our best and then some,’” Jones said. “Some way or another every citizen in Swain County will benefit from this cash settlement. I can see great things to come.”


The signing

The Secretary of the Department of Interior Ken Salazar was scheduled to appear and sign the settlement in person. But as a major snowstorm barreled down on Washington, D.C., late last week, Shuler and his staffers rapidly concocted a contingency plan.

The document required four signatures, one from each of the original signers to a 1943 agreement promising to rebuild the road. Shuler dispatched his aide Ryan Fitzpatrick on Thursday to collect the signatures ahead of time and deliver them to Swain County in time for the ceremony. After getting Salazar’s signature in D.C., Fitzpatrick promptly flew out to Raleigh and met with Gov. Beverly Perdue. He was scheduled to fly out from there to Knoxville on Friday to collect a signature from the Tennessee Valley Authority, but impending winter weather in the mountains led him to change his plans and fly on to Knoxville that night, and finally on to Swain County by car on Friday.

At each stop, he took a celebratory photo of the document with his cell phone and sent the picture back to Shuler. The documents never left his side during the two-day journey.

“I had them either on my lap or in the passenger seat right beside me,” Fitzpatrick said.

The final two signatures — that of Swain County Commissioner Glenn Jones and Congressman Shuler as a witness — were saved for Saturday’s ceremony.

Salazar sent written remarks, delivered by Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson.

“It is not often one can end a 70-year old controversy with the stroke of a pen,” Salazar wrote.

The settlement was good news to environmentalists, who have spent decades fighting the road through a large, remote territory of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“I was afraid I would die before I got it done,” said Ted Snyder, a Sierra Club activist who has been part of the fight since the 1960s. “It is an enormous win.”

Two wide-open seats will define Swain race


The Swain County board has four commissioner seats and one chairman. All five seats are up for election every four years. A party primary in May will narrow down the field of candidates on the ticket to four Democrats and four Republicans for commissioner, and one from each party for chairman.

There will be at least two new faces on the Swain County Board of Commissioners following the 2010 elections.

Chairman Glenn Jones and Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay will not run again after each served eight years on the board.

“We need some good people to step up and fill that void,” said Commissioner Steve Moon, who will run for re-election.

Commissioner Philip Carson will run for chairman instead of commissioner this election, but that will merely leave his commissioner seat wide open along with Lindsay’s — still resulting in at least two new faces on the board.

Lindsay consistently ranked first or second in vote totals in past elections. But she said the last four years have “been very stressful to say the least.”

The Swain County board has been dogged by persistent critics on several issues. A handful of activists have served in a watchdog role that at times has been quite zealous. They tape county commission meetings, make frequent public records requests and regularly speak out during the public comment period at commissioner meetings.

“It is really hard to do things for the county and concentrate like you would like to when there is always opposition regardless of what decision you make,” Lindsay said. “So I felt like it was time to hang it up.”

Lindsay said, however, that she is very concerned about the needs of the county and wishes the next board well.

Jones chose not to run again because that was always his plan.

“I always said I was going to run for two terms and would step down after that regardless and give the ball to someone else,” Jones said.

As chairman Jones has advanced several projects in the county, including a new jail, expanded recreation facilities, a new senior center, and buying property for a new middle school. He is poised to accomplish one of the biggest goals of his tenure just in time: a cash settlement for the North Shore Road, which incidentally was the biggest source of contention among the critics.

Carson said he is running for chairman to help the county maintain continuity during a critical economic time.

“For a brand new person, it would take several months to bring them up to date on exactly what has been going on,” Carson said.

In Swain County, the elected chairman takes an active role in running county operations alongside the county manager, far more than in most counties.

“I had the time to do it. I am by there every day. I am not in every meeting, but I at least know what is going on,” Jones said.

While Carson could parlay his past four years as a commissioner into the greater responsibilities that come with chairman, it’s not to say he will be without challengers. There are a few rumors running through the mill, but none confirmed as of press time.

Commissioner David Monteith said he is running again but did not specify what seat on the board he will run for.

One candidate who performed very well four years ago, missing election by just a few votes, is Ben Bushyhead, a Swain resident and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Bushyhead will not be running again this time, however. He is now retired and enjoys the flexibility to pay frequent visits to grandchildren out of state.

Carson is looking forward to the next four years being better than the last.

“A lot of the projects we wanted to see done had to be put on back burner until the economy improves,” Carson said. “This past year has been sort of difficult.”

Chinese teacher adapts and thrives in Swain County

After making the journey to Western North Carolina from China, Niu Jun discovered Bryson City was nothing like she imagined.

Driving through the town of about 1,300, a confused Niu Jun asked, “Bryson City? Where’s the city?”

Niu Jun, 33, hails from Harbin, a city in northeast China, where about 10 million people reside.

Niu Jun and Swain County found one another through an extremely selective program funded by the State Department.

The Teachers of Critical Languages program matches schools with teachers of Chinese and Arabic. Of 120 applicants, Niu Jun is one of only 15 Chinese teachers placed nationwide this school year.

Niu Jun has won five national awards for English, as well as several National Excellent Mentor Awards.

“She is definitely the best of the best,” said Terri Caron, Niu Jun’s mentor teacher.

Niu Jun currently teaches Chinese to 22 students at Swain County High School. Up until now, these students had two options: take Spanish at the school or learn another language online.

Caron said it was vital that students have opportunities to learn other languages, especially Chinese.

“More people speak Chinese in the world than English,” said Caron. “Our kids need this opportunity to be globally competitive.”

But Swain County high school students don’t need to venture far to use their newly attained language skills. Caron said speaking Chinese can be a benefit right here in WNC.

“The [Cherokee] casino would hire and pay a good deal of money to those who could speak fluent Mandarin,” Caron said.

About one in five North Carolina jobs rely on international trade, according to research done by the school.

While students find the language challenging, some are excited to continue learning with advanced classes.

So far, Niu Jun has taught students how to count from 1 to 100, write many Chinese characters, and learn colors, names of family members, and how to introduce themselves and other people.

She’s even taught them how to order food from a Chinese menu. Niu Jun recently took the students on a field trip to Yummi Yummi, a Chinese restaurant in Bryson City. She played waitress and took the students’ orders in Chinese. Students went so far as to use chopsticks to eat their food.

They’ve come a long way from their first class when they learned how to say their names in Chinese. Niu Jun made name plates for each student that displayed their Chinese name and zodiac sign.

While students are most interested in learning about Chinese culture, much of their time is devoted to picking up a complex language.

Niu Jun said there’s a lot of memorization and rules involved, especially when it comes to writing Chinese characters.

“You have to memorize the sequences ... not like a drawing,” Niu Jun said.

Pronunciation, or pinyin, is also challenging, as each word can be pronounced in at least four different ways. For example, “ma” can mean mother, linen, a horse, or a curse depending on how one says it.

With about 11 students in each class, Niu Jun has plenty of chances to correct pronunciation.

“We can do a lot of face-to-face practice,” Niu Jun said.

That is not the case at the school in China where Niu Jun has taught English for 11 years. With about 11,000 students attending, classes there have 60 to 70 students on average.

A disciplinarian would join the sole teacher in each class to keep students listening and in line.

But those students have been learning English ever since elementary school, while Swain County high schoolers have never before encountered Chinese.

Settling in and stepping out

Cultural exchange is a two-way street with Niu Jun. As her students, friends and host family find out more about life in China, Niu Jun is soaking up American culture.

She’s driving around town in a Cadillac SUV, donated for the year by Mountain Ford. The windy, rural roads are a far cry from the urban streets she’s accustomed to navigating in Harbin, which is known in China as the Ice City due to its famous ice sculptures.

If the tables were turned, Niu Jun’s mentor teacher Caron isn’t sure she would be hitting the roads in China, after visiting Beijing with three other Swain administrators a few months ago.

“There’s a lot of people there,” said Caron. “I would not want to drive on their streets.”

Niu Jun has not turned away from adventure since arriving in Swain County in August. She’s gone rafting, hiking, kayaking and most recently — belly dancing.

“She really is stepping out,” said Julie Thorner, who is hosting Niu Jun. “She’ll try pretty much everything.”

Thorner complimented Niu Jun for being so good-humored even when she’s out of her element.

“She handles it with perfect grace and poise,” said Thorner, who jumped at the chance to host Niu Jun as soon as she found out about the high school’s plans.

Thorner can not only speak Chinese, but she lived in China about 25 years ago through one of the first study abroad programs in China.

Thorner was hoping to score some home cooked Chinese meals after Niu Jun arrived, but there was one major obstacle. Niu Jun had never stepped into a kitchen. Living in an urban environment meant Niu Jun spent most of her time eating out. Thorner has changed that, though. She’s shown Niu Jun the ropes, and Niu Jun now cooks several times a week.

Niu Jun is so proud about cooking meals for herself that she’s posed for pictures in the kitchen to send to her family back home.

Niu Jun’s kept in constant contact with her husband and family, with video chats every single day. Sometimes, she leaves the webcam on even as she watches TV to create the effect of having her family with her in the same room.

Meanwhile, Thorner recalls talking to her parents only once or twice during her entire trip to China.

Niu Jun has triggered flashbacks for Thorner.

Every time Niu Jun comes across a new word or phrase, she takes out a notebook, writes down the meaning and pronounces it over and over.

“Just like I did,” said Thorner.

China was a different place then. Hardly anybody owned a car, there were no refrigerators or stoves, and everyone wore Mao suits and referred to each other as “comrade.”

A change in the word’s meaning show that times have certainly changed since then. Young people use “comrade” now as slang for a homosexual.

Still, Niu Jun is amazed that Thorner remembers Chinese at all. She often tells Thorner it’s time to see China in its more modern form.

Thorner hopes to do just that in 2012, along with her two sons, Tyler and Timmy. Thorner’s boys are already getting a head start with Chinese lessons from Niu Jun.

“I want my kids to be exposed to multiple languages and cultures,” said Thorner.

During a recent power outage brought on by a snowy weekend, the four lit up candles and lanterns, and sat around a big fire. They sang songs, in Chinese and English. Thorner sang the only Chinese song she knew: the national anthem.

Each new moment seems to bring another opportunity to learn for Niu Jun and those she interacts with.

Niu Jun’s American experience has already extended beyond Bryson City. She has taken advantage of holidays to travel to Miami, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas and San Francisco. She hopes to visit New York, Toronto and Niagara Falls during spring break.

When she goes back home, she’ll bring a wealth of knowledge to her students in China about American life.

“I have a lot to share with my students and other colleagues,” said Niu Jun. “I can show a lot of pictures...[and] videotape some of the lessons.”

Niu Jun said it was hard to pinpoint what her favorite part about America is, but she finally settled on one.

“I like American people best,” said Niu Jun. “People here are very, very nice.”

Swain plods toward fund balance recovery

Despite cutting corners across the board, Swain County still isn’t sure it has achieved a healthy level of savings.

Nevertheless, County Manager Kevin King is guessing the county will pull out of its financial crisis by early spring.

“That’s not saying we’re out of the woods yet,” said King.

In 2009, the Local Government Commission identified Swain as one of only a few counties in the state to have “serious financial and budgetary problems” and recommended that the county develop a financial plan of attack to submit to the commission.

There is no specific timeline for progress, as long as the county is consistently taking positive steps, according to the LGC.

For now, Swain is required to send monthly financial statements to the state commission. The state sees no need for a higher level of oversight at this point, according to a spokesperson for the Local Government Commission.

“They’re not even communicating with us,” said King. “If they foresee a problem, they’ll give us a call.”

The county is in the process of plugging a $1 million shortfall to meet the state’s mandate of an 8 percent fund balance, akin to the county’s savings account. At 8 percent, the county would have enough cash on hand to cover one month of operating expenses.

Since Swain falls below that benchmark, the N.C. Department of Revenue began overseeing the county’s budget and will continue to do so until the situation is corrected.

The LGC’s recommendations only become mandatory if the county repeatedly violates a statute or is in danger of defaulting on a loan.


Shifting the blame

King and Finance Officer Vida Cody said it is difficult to determine whether the county would meet the 8 percent benchmark until the end of the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

“We have a small finance department,” said King. “Most of our time is just making sure all the bills are paid, all the money is collected.”

Part of the uncertainty also results from a complication that has delayed counties from receiving revenues from sales tax, King said.

After sales tax increased by 1 percent in September, scores of merchants incorrectly filled out tax forms. The state Department of Revenue rejected 15 percent of the receipts.

While that is corrected, Swain and other counties will just have to wait for an inflow of sales tax revenues from September and October.

In mid-December, the state informed Swain County that it would not be reimbursing the county for taking on the child support enforcement program until after July.

That program was handed to the county as part of an unfunded mandate in 2009.

Also in 2010, counties will have to contribute 1.35 percent more to the North Carolina retirement system. This translates to an additional $75,000 coming out of Swain’s budget.

The county also faced more than the estimated $20,000 in expenses to repair a sinkhole that cropped up near its jail at the end of 2009. The hole is now stabilized, though more gravel was necessary than originally estimated.

“There should be no more expenses,” said King.

Swain County is working with the original contractor to determine the cause of the slide. The county will pursue reimbursement from the contractor if it is determined there was a problem with the initial work, according to King.


Details of a financial disaster

As of June 30, 2009, the county had a fund balance of 6.67 percent, compared the state’s recommended minimum of 8 percent.

According to the LGC, the average fund balance available for comparably sized counties was 20.16 percent.

In June 2008, Swain was close to that figure, with 18.62 percent of its budget in cash reserves.

While every county faced severe budget shortfalls during the recession, most began trimming costs in fall of 2008. Swain County waited until the summer of 2009 — more than a year into the recession. By the time Swain was tackling its problem, most other counties in the region had already improved their situation.

In 2008, only four counties in the state dipped below the 8 percent benchmark. The LGC was aware that these counties were struggling, whereas Swain did not notify the commission that they might not meet the benchmark last year.

Swain’s cost-cutting measures so far have included laying off 8 full-time positions and reducing all salaries by 2 percent. Swain continues to hire on an as-needed basis, leaving positions not related to public safety empty.

County employees have taken five days in furloughs so far, as part of the pay cut.

Swain also expects $157,000 from the Tennessee Valley Authority, which will begin payments this month, King said.

County employees have begun using purchase orders before buying supplies with county money. LGC and Swain County’s auditor both recommended improving control over purchases made by county departments.

“They’re doing better, much better,” Cody said. “By the end of the fiscal year, we should have met every one of the recommendations of the auditors.”

Safeguarding the settlement

A cash settlement with the federal government in lieu of the long-promised North Shore Road will reap annual dividends for Swain County for years to come.

The county will put the money in a lockbox and only use the interest each year. In fact, the county couldn’t tap the principal even if it wanted to without permission from a two-thirds majority of all county voters.

Last year, the county created a trust fund to safeguard the pending windfall with the North Carolina State Treasurer. The state will remit interest off the account to Swain County, but the principal cannot be touched unless supported by a supermajority of registered voters in Swain County.

“Since by law only the interest income can be spent, the county will have a source of income forever. Therefore every citizen of Swain County will benefit,” Douthit said.

The government will pay $4 million into the account immediately. The remaining $8.8 million will be released 120 days after a final settlement figure is agreed on.

The state’s investment vehicle has performed well. It reaped an average 6.2 percent interest over the past five years, according to the N.C. State Treasurer.

Interest on the $12.8 million would be close to $800,000 annually, based on the average interest rate of the past five years.

Shuler scores millions for Swain in North Shore Road debate

Claude Douthit has spent half his life fighting the federal government over the North Shore Road.

The decades-old debate dates back to the 1940s, when the federal government flooded a road outside Bryson City with the construction of Lake Fontana. The government promised to rebuild it but never did. While Swain gave up its quest for the long-promised road and agreed to take a cash settlement instead, the government had been dragging its feet lately on that as well.

Douthit, 81, began to wonder whether he would live long enough to see the cash settlement come to fruition or whether his decades of work would go to waste. He occasionally wanted to give up.

“I felt like it many times. I felt like it was so futile,” Douthit said. “[But] I just kept working on it. I am very pleased that a 66-year injustice to Swain County has finally been resolved.”

So when word trickled down that Congress would finally be passing an earmark with Swain County’s name on it, an afternoon in front of CSPAN seemed like a small price to pay. Douthit camped out in front of his television through hours of Congressional drudgery last Wednesday to witness an otherwise anti-climactic vote by the House on the defense spending bill. Tucked deep in that bill was a Christmas present to Swain County: $12.8 million secured by Congressman Heath Shuler toward repairing a decades-old broken promise.

“After 66 years I’d say it is history in the making to get something instead of nothing,” Douthit said. “I wanted to see it. After working on this issue for 40 years, it was time to get something, time for me to see some results.”

County Commission Chairman Glenn Jones said the news was heartwarming after such a long struggle.

“The people of Swain County can now share this settlement,” Jones said.

Douthit credits Shuler for getting the appropriation.

“I think he has done a good job. He has finally got them to realize they owe Swain County,” Douthit said.

While others before him failed, Shuler was keenly positioned to bring the long-standing issue to a close. For starters, he grew up in Swain County, and to him, the debate was more than just political posturing.

“To grow up in that community and see how that road has divided families and divided the community, when there is an opportunity to settle something that has lingered for that many decades, to put it to rest, I hope we can bring the community back together,” Shuler said.

Shuler said his heart goes out to those with deep feelings on both sides in the debate, but his position for a settlement has been driven by the need for closure.

Shuler’s politics may have given him leverage in winning the earmark. As a Blue Dog Democrat — part of a coalition of conservative Democrats — he has angered the Democratic majority for voting against them on key legislation but also staked out his position as a swing voter for the party, potentially making it easier to curry favors.

“I’m glad Heath had a enough clout to get what we got right now,” Jones said.

The quest for a cash settlement has been vehemently opposed by those who would rather see the flooded road rebuilt as originally promised. Road supporters have fought equally long and equally hard.

But the environmental resistance to building a 30-mile road through a remote section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — not to mention a price tag of $600 million — led many to realize rebuilding the road would never happen and that a cash settlement in lieu of the road was Swain’s best chance at putting the issue to bed.

The National Park Service formally spoke out against the road in 2007. Now, with the cash settlement cemented in a Congressional act, it becomes virtually impossible to roll back. Douthit said it is time for warring sides to move on.

“Swain County citizens will no longer be divided over this issue and can press ahead toward a brighter future for every resident of the county,” Douthit said.

More to come

While the appropriation falls short of the $52 million Swain hoped to get from a cash settlement, it’s an important milestone.

“Before this, they never had made a commitment,” Jones said. “To me, that shows that they realize they do owe Swain County something.”

The settlement amount of $52 million is based on the value of the road at the time it was flooded plus interest and inflation. The $12.8 million has been coined a “down payment” on a total sum to come.

“The congressman has said this is a down payment. He is not giving up,” Jones said.

Negotiations between Swain County and the federal government over the dollar amount of a cash settlement have been stalled for a year and a half but may finally be on track again.

Shuler said attorneys on both sides are drawing up the draft language for a settlement agreement “as we speak.”

“I certainly hope in the next 30 to 60 days we get something that is concrete,” Shuler said.

As for the amount, no one is saying how much Swain compromised on the sum of $52 million.

“I feel like we will get something we can be very proud of,” Shuler said.

Shuler said he will fight for another round of appropriations next year.

Campaign reminds shoppers to spend where they live

When store owners pack up their holiday decorations next month, there’s one thing Karen Wilmot hopes they will leave up — a sign that reminds residents to shop local.

As director of Swain County’s Chamber of Commerce, Wilmot handed out 100 free signs to local businesses a week before Thanksgiving. In large red print, the signs say “Shop Local,” with “Make a difference in your community” underneath. Wilmot said it was the perfect time to encourage local shopping.

“With the holiday time upon us, everyone always thinks, ‘Let’s shop out of town, let’s go to the mall, let’s go somewhere and wait for that early bird 5 a.m. special,’” said Wilmot. “I thought ‘Why not roll it out when people are in the mood to shop?’”

But that doesn’t mean the local shops stop needing local customers after the holiday season ends.

“This isn’t just something that we want to stress during the holidays, but every day,” said Wilmot.

According to Wilmot, many business owners were pleased with the initiative, and some have reported that it has helped sales increase incrementally.

Wilmot said though there hasn’t been explosive growth in sales, the shop local campaign, like many other grassroots efforts, will slowly catch on.

The chamber has also launched the 3/50 project, which encourages all citizens to spend a total of $50 a month at three local businesses they couldn’t live without.

In Wilmot’s view, anyone who values the community should support its businesses. The difference between supporting a chain or a local business could come down to a mother or father losing a job, Wilmot added.

“One person shopping at one store could make that difference,” said Wilmot.

Swain settles lawsuit over sewer line cost overruns

Swain County commissioners have settled a ten-month long lawsuit with Buckeye Construction for $30,000, far less than the $127,000 originally demanded.

“I think the county came out a winner on this, even though it cost us,” said Commissioner Glenn Jones.

McGill Associates, an Asheville-based engineering firm that designed the construction project in question, will pick up $15,000 of the cost, while the county will cover the remaining $15,000.

The lawsuit centered around a sewer project in the Franklin Grove community. When Buckeye encountered more water underground than expected, the company decided to widen the ditches and add more stone and gravel to better support the pipes.

While the change added significant cost to the project, Buckeye did not first get a change order to formalize the cost overruns. Buckeye sued the county in February, after Swain refused to pay the additional costs.

Swain County filed a motion to dismiss the case based on jurisdiction but that motion was dismissed. The county immediately appealed the decision in June. Recently, Swain recently received a settlement offer from Buckeye. During a closed session at a county meeting Monday, Swain commissioners agreed to settle the case.

Buckeye began work on the Franklin Grove sewer project in August 2007. Plans for the project called for a minimum amount of stone to be used around the pipes.

“That part was done to specification,” said Danny Bridges, principal for McGill’s Asheville office.

But McGill never came to an agreement with Buckeye over the actual quantity of stone that was used in the project, according to Bridges. Bridges said the contractor had multiple options for dealing with the situation and chose to put stone in the trench prior to giving a price.

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