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Wednesday, 25 January 2006 00:00

Grassroots organizing

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By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

As residents in the Cashiers area pull together to address their community’s needs through the creation of a civic association, members of some of the region’s established grassroots groups weighed in on what makes such an organization successful.

Regardless of each organization’s location and goals, the one thing group members all agreed upon was this — in order for decision-makers to consider the group a legitimate force and in order to accomplish what members have set out to do, a grassroots group must have a clear mission that addresses a community need.

“I think it’s crucial that your goals align with reality, that is, you have goals that make sense to people, that address an obvious need, especially when there’s a sense of urgency,” said Ben Brown, chairman of Macon Tomorrow.

Macon Tomorrow grew out of the Western North Carolina Alliance, a 20-year-old grassroots environmental organization originally formed in Jackson and Macon counties to protect national forest lands from oil and gas leasing. Over the years, the group has taken on critical environmental issues such as fighting for better air quality and against clear-cutting.

Macon Tomorrow formed about four years ago from a small contingency of WNC Alliance members. Brown and a handful of others showed up at a Macon County League of Women Voters meeting to hear a presentation by then Southwestern Community College employee and land-use planning champion Stacy Guffey.

In the presentation, Guffey — now the Macon County Planner — covered Macon County’s unique position as the fastest growing county in WNC. The Macon County members of the WNC Alliance were inspired.

“We just said, look, let’s do something,” Brown said.

They collected names and got together to start having meetings. While the group has grown little from that original membership drive, it has earned legitimacy for its relentless support of planning efforts. Recently the group completed the Macon Voices project, in which 50 Macon County residents from all walks of life were interviewed on film about their opinions of long-range land-use planning and growth.

In conjunction with Macon Voices, the Little Tennessee Perspectives project collected information from the community, finding that increased regulations such as limiting slope development were important. Subsequently, Macon commissioners have passed a high-impact use ordinance, which places restrictions on projects such as sawmills and race tracks.

“I think you have to have little successes,” Brown said.

Little successes are just what helped the Fontana Lake Waste Recovery group make swimming and boating safer for lake users and less harmful to the environment in Swain County.

The FLWR group formed as an outgrowth of the Fontana Lake Users’ Association, a group akin to a community’s homeowners’ association. The group set about to reduce the amount of fecal matter released into Lake Fontana by houseboat users who would empty their septic systems into the lake.

The first meeting drew 300 to 400 participants from houseboat users to environmentalists. Organizers explained that the waste was polluting the lake and making it unhealthy for families to use.

Instead of dumping their waste into the lake, houseboat owners could instead pump their waste into floating receptacles that would in turn be pumped out and the waste carted off for disposal, FLWR members explained. The cost would be low enough and the benefits great enough that the clean-up initiative garnered tremendous support.

“It’s benefiting the people that are using it,” said David Monteith, chairman of FLWR and the Lake Users Association, as well as a Swain County commissioner.

However, getting people on board for a single project versus getting people on board for a cause has proven difficult for the Lake Users Association and its subgroups. A particular situation may garner a lot of attention and participation. When it comes to routine tasks, like lake clean-ups, however, it’s the same group of people over and over.

To bolster participation, the group partnered with the county health department, Western Carolina University, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, and the Department of Environmental and Natural Resource, among others.

“It’s made this organization a lot more successful,” Monteith said.

Buyiin from elected officials also is key to success, as they can use their contacts to help make connections and spread the word.

“One elected official can open doors that so many other people cannot,” Monteith said.

Efforts to lobby elected officials was what brought the Piegon Community Development Club together in Hawyood County. When the Haywood County School Board put the Pigeon Street School up for sale in 2001, community members called for county leaders to buy it and in turn lease it to the small African-American community it was originally built to serve. The club planned to use it as a community center.

County leaders first balked at the school board’s $325,000 price, but upon receiving a $300,000 grant to pay for a road project at Tuscola High School, the county was able to purchase the building at a slightly lower price. Pigeon Street community members lobbied the county board and in January 2002 won a lease agreement.

“We’ve been sort of going on from there,” said Lee Bouknight, the club’s treasurer.

The group provides summer activities for children in the community, and rents out the building to various groups.

“We’re just doing what we can for a community,” Bouknight said.

Bouknight said that county support for their cause was instrumental to its initial success, and now the focus is on carrying their momentum through. Late last year, one of the club’s leaders, Ed Moore, was charged with embezzling a $15,000 donation that was to be used to build a playground.

As a result, the Pigeon Community Development Club lost the $15,000 for the playground. But club members are determined not to let the incident affect their efforts long-term. Currently members are pursuing grants to expand center services, and using hard work and dedication to build the organization back up.

“You need a strong core group and the numbers will follow,” Bouknight said.

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