Arts + Entertainment

If you want to talk high school football in Swain County there’s plenty of options. But one of the most enjoyable is to head to Smith’s Dry Goods on Everett Street, a Bryson City mainstay since the mid 1970s, and a place that doesn’t just smack of local color — Smith’s Dry Goods is local color personified.

Here in the wooden-floored, unabashedly blue-collar store you’ll often find former player David Smith, sporting his trademark Swain Pride ball cap, bellied up to the welcome heat of a big woodstove. He’ll undoubtedly be talking about the latest game — or the upcoming game, or even Swain County football games played several decades ago — while customers shop for items such as work clothes and work boots.

This was a Friday, game day, in Swain County. Smith, along with everybody else in this small town, was excited. Everyone, practically, seemed intent on being at the game that night. Which in Smith’s book is exactly how it should be, and why Swain County is such a fantastic place to live if you are a local football fan. At least, this is the place to live for those fans supporting Swain County football and who bleed the school’s colors of maroon and white, of course.

“The town could just about burn down, and no one would realize it until after the game,” Smith said, only semi-jokingly.

How important is football here in Swain County, where the population stands just fewer than 14,000 residents? The Chamber of Commerce has changed the annual Christmas parade from Dec. 3 to Dec. 10 so as not to conflict with the upcoming state championship game; and here in Bryson City, even the town’s crosswalks are painted maroon and white.

 

Football unifies community

Last Friday night, the Maroon Devils — cheered on by Smith and hundreds of other screaming Swain County fans — played West Montgomery for the right to vie for a state championship. Swain County ultimately won the game in heart-stopping fashion, off the kicking foot of player Evan Sneed, who saved the day and the hopes of Swain County football fans with his 32-yard kick. There were just 33.6 seconds left in the game at the time.

It took Swain’s players most of the game to rally from a near-fatal thumping in the first quarter.

“It was 28 to nothing at the end of the first quarter. We were wondering where our team was at,” said Teddy Green, a sports photographer in Swain County who has been shooting Swain football games for 35 years.

But in an amazing turnaround, the team closed the gap 28-21 by the end of the second quarter.

“By halftime they had the Maroon Machine hitting on all pistons,” Green said. “It was wonderful. It was so exciting. I tell you the truth, it was down to the wire.”

As for Sneed’s winning kick?

“That boy is a hero,” Green said. It was the first game Swain has won via a field goal in at least 15 years.

Football serves as a unifying force that has long knitted the people of Swain County together — the game is more of a passion than a sport here. This is one of the state’s powerhouse football programs, with a total of seven state championships. The last one was in 2004. Now Swain will play for the 1-AA state championship title Saturday against Ayden-Grifton High School, located in Pitt County.

Swain is 14-1 this season, and has won the last 11 games here at home. Swain County Coach Sam Pattillo coaches the team. That Pattillo is homegrown — a former Swain County quarterback now leading the team to victories — makes this team’s run at another state championship all the more sweet in Bryson City.

That’s endeared Teresa Maynard even more tightly to the team, too, though she’s admittedly not a huge fan of the actual sport of football itself. But Swain County football? Now that’s entirely different matter. A horse of a different color — a maroon and white horse — as it were.

“I’ve known Sam all of his life,” Maynard said proudly, taking a brief break from her volunteer job at the Friends of the Library Bookstore to chat. “I keep up with Sam through the newspaper, and with what he’s doing. I would really like to see him go all of the way — we are so proud of him, and of the football team and all of their coaches.”

Maynard, a Swain County native who lived away from the area for a time, knows what a great football community exists here.

“The local people are football people,” Maynard said. “You think Swain County, you think football.”

 

Want fries with that?

If you come to Bryson City on a game day, you might want to stop at Na-Bers Drive-in along the Tuckasegee River. If it’s in the evening, you could find yourself dining with many of Swain County’s football players and cheerleaders. There’s a tradition here of eating at the six-decades old restaurant before each home game.

Eating at Na-Bers is considered good luck.

So what do the football players eat? Practically anything and everything on the menu — and plenty of it, said owner Ronnie Henderson.

“I’ve seen them eat hamburger steak, cheeseburgers, all of it,” Henderson said. “They’ll show up in a wad, three or four at a time in one car.”

These days, Na-Bers stays open only from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. There is more restaurant competition in town than in the old days, when the drive-in would serve its trademark burgers and shakes as late as 1:30 a.m. on game nights. The place would be packed with fans and players, all eager to relive the game play by play, in endless and seemingly down to the smallest detail.

“We don’t stay open like that anymore, but we’ll stay open as late as people are here,” Henderson said.

Lance Holland isn’t exactly a newcomer to Swain County, but the owner of Appalachian Mercantile on Everett Street previously lived in Graham County and his daughter went to Robbinsville High School.

The Black Knights in Graham County, even the most ardent Swain County fan might agree, have played some pretty good football of their own. Between 1969 and 1992, Robbinsville High School’s football program won 12 Class 1A state titles. Holland, a former football player in Georgia, cheered them on. These days, however, Holland has caught the fever for Swain County football.

“I certainly am pulling for them,” Holland said while finishing up a smoke outside his store.

This Swain County team, Holland added, is really a good, fun one to watch.

“If you’re still practicing on Thanksgiving, like this team was, you made it pretty far,” he said.

 

Overwhelming community support

A bicycle shop might not seem like the place to stop and chat about local high school football. But sports are sports, after all, and football in Swain dominates everything anyway, at least during a championship drive — even conversation at the bicycle shop.

Diane Cutler, co-owner of Bryson City Bicycles, has been suitably impressed by football’s uniting power in Swain County since moving here about two-and-a-half years ago. Things were different in her previous hometown, the big city of Raleigh.

“It was hard to have that same concentration of attention there,” Cutler said. “But here, there’s an outpouring of support from the community.”

 

What else but football?

Down the road, at a new consignment shop in a new small strip mall along the river, local lawyer Elizabeth Brigham was overseeing sales. Brigham helped open the store, and agreed to cover business there on this day. She jokes about this being a “one-stop shop” where Swain County’s finest can take care of both their legal and shopping needs.

How important does she believe football is to the people of Swain County?

“Is there anything else here but football?” Brigham responds rhetorically.

Well, yes there is, of course. But not today, game day, with the team headed toward a possible eighth state championship.

Brigham’s boys didn’t play on the team, though one played a bit of league football, she said. That doesn’t prevent her from appreciating what the game does overall for this community.

“It brings the people here together,” Brigham said. “You can be of a different political mind, a different religious mind, but one thing unifies everybody in Swain County: football.”

 

Listen to the game

Swain County’s bid for its eighth state football championship takes place Saturday, Dec. 3, in Winston-Salem. A web broadcast will begin at 10:45 a.m. The pre-game show and kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. Listen to this live audio stream by going to www.ustream.tv and typing “maroon devils network” in the search box.

Sylva might hear its local AM radio station WRGC back on the air — but the company involved wants a loan of $289,000 from Jackson County’s economic development fund to make it happen.

Roy Burnette, the CEO of the hopefully formed, embryonic 540 Broadcasting Co., said that he wants the future WRGC to intensely pursue the local part of local radio. But having said that, the geographic designation of “local” for WRGC would change, Burnette said.

Burnette wants to expand the range of WRGC allowing 540 Broadcasting to reach from east of Canton in Haywood County to Topton in Swain County — if he is able to get permission from the Federal Communications Commission for the extra power. The future WRGC would broadcast at 5,000 watts. Asked to explain the expansion of the Sylva-based radio station for the not-so-technical minded potential radio listener, Burnette suggested one mentally compare the light received from a 1,000-watt light bulb to a 5,000-watt light bulb.

“We want to offer in-depth service to Jackson, Macon, Swain and Haywood,” said Burnette on his plans for extensive regional radio reach.

Burnette has been in regional radio for years, including stints in Bryson City and Sylva. Additionally, he worked as a radio instructor for Southwestern Community College.

The Sylva radio station went dead in late August, a victim of dwindling advertising revenue dollars in a hard-knock economy. WRGC was owned by Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. If no one buys it and claims the frequency within a year, the license for that frequency would be lost.

It’s the expansion possibility, which promises a wider net of potential advertisers, that’s attracting notice at the county level.

“The 5,000-watt license is the big interest since the signal area would be substantially greater than current coverage area,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.

And that, Wooten added, would “provide an opportunity to generate significantly more advertising revenue.”

Regional radio personality and Sylva resident Gary Ayers earlier had expressed interest in buying WRGC. Ayers retreated from the idea after he said local advertising interest seemed tepid.

“I talked to the owners the other day and said if this guy can make it go, then great,” Ayers said Monday. “If not, then let me know and let’s talk again.”

Art Sutton of Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. declined to comment for now on the evolving deal.

Ayers said the most important point to him is that Sylva regains a local radio station.

“We are going to put a huge focus on community-based programming,” Burnette said.

Burnette said he hopes to have WRGC on the air by Dec. 10.

 

What price local radio?

540 Broadcasting Co. submitted a request for a $289,000 loan from Jackson County. Of that, $250,000 would be used to purchase the radio license from current owner Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co., and $39,000 would be used to acquire equipment needed to install the 5,000-watt station. 540 Broadcasting would provide an additional $100,000 in working capital. Payments on the county loan would be deferred until May 2012, and then be paid over ten years (40 quarterly payments) at an interest rate of 2 percent. Jimmy Childress (WRGC’s founder) would rent 540 Broadcasting the building, equipment and property where tower is located; collateral for the loan would be the radio license and equipment.

A public hearing on the loan will be held Dec. 12 at 2 p.m. at the county’s boardroom. Commissioners are scheduled to meet that same day at 2:15 p.m. to consider the request.

Source: Jackson County

Bryson City leaders will turn to residents to help solve their own disagreements over the severity of proposed appearance standards for new development downtown.

Town leaders will host a public hearing on the ordinance, which would stipulate aesthetic standards such as architecture, building materials and landscaping, for the town. A majority of the regulations, however, apply only to the downtown area.

Bryson City does not have any guidelines for new commercial or residential buildings downtown — it’s anything goes right now. But the town began looking at adopting some standards after a building that clashed with the town’s quaint appearance served as a wake-up call.

The planning board spent three years drafting proposed regulations, but when they were presented to the town aldermen, they didn’t get a particularly warm welcome. Mayor Brad Walker believes the public does want them, however.

“There are a lot of people fighting for this,” Walker said. “I haven’t heard any negativity (about the standards) except from the board.”

The board of alderman, which have final say over whether the ordinance is passed, decided to hold a hearing to gauge public sentiment.

Alderman Jim Gribble said that the town does need some standards but described the proposed guidelines as “pretty restrictive” and “over and above what I would desire.”

Aldermen Kate Welch and Tom Reidmiller declined to comment on the standards until after the public hearing. Alderman Stephanie Treadway did not return calls for comment.

People began lobbying for some official appearance or building standards, in part, because of a tan metal structure erected on Main Street in 2006.

“We don’t have that much land anymore, and we have to take care of our land,” said Walker.

At the time, residents and business owners expressed their dislike for the building, saying it clashed with the character of Bryson City’s historic downtown.

But, landowner Tom Hurley was well within his right to build it, Walker said.

“We didn’t have any ordinances to stop that,” he said. “We decided that we didn’t want that to happen anymore.”

For a while, local shopkeepers and the Chamber of Commerce have worried that new businesses would not fall in line with the unofficial standards of the town, said Karen Proctor Wilmot, executive director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce.

“We do feel that it is important” to have standards in place, she said. “The code was kind of designed around what the town already looks like.”

The town’s Main Street is characterized by its brick façades and small local shops. Without any regulations, property owners could install large, obtrusive signs or paint their buildings neon green.

“It’s probably a good thing to have some sort of codes to regulate,” said Town Manager Larry Callicutt. The standards are “not real restrictive,” he said.

The planning board has worked on the land use regulations for about three years.

The standards are similar to those of other town’s, Walker said.

“We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

Town leaders are waiting to hear feedback from residents and business owners before making any possible changes.

“They should be the ones having most of the input,” Callicutt said, adding that there is nothing in the ordinance that would prevent the town from passing some version of it.

 

Want to weigh in?

What: Public hearing about proposed Bryson City land use standards

When: Nov. 21 at 6 p.m.

Where: Swain County administration building.

 

What the proposed standards say

Although most town leaders agree Bryson City needs guidelines to regulate the appearance of new commercial development, they cannot agree on whether the proposed standards are too strict.

Here are some highlights of the 27-page draft under consideration:

• Builders are prohibited from using synthetic stucco, preformed metal siding, vinyl siding, artificial brick and exposed or painted concrete blocks.

• At least 75 percent of a storefront’s façade should be glass windows and/or door. The windows must be at least 10 feet tall and no more than three feet above the sidewalk.

• A building’s main entrance should face the adjacent street.

• Sidewalks shall have an at least five foot “clear zone.” Light poles, bicycle parking, trash cans, plants and benches are permitted between the clear zone and the curb.

• Mobile homes or trailer parks are not permitted in the central business district, but public institutions and commercial or industrial businesses may be allowed in the area pending review by the board of alderman.

• Buildings in the central business district may have a front porch, stoop or awning with a minimum depth of eight feet, a balcony with a minimum depth of six feet or a bay window with a minimum depth of four feet.

Though perhaps it’s not exactly the moveable feast Ernest Hemingway discovered in the cafés of Paris, the ambiance of The Coffee Shop in Sylva suits local writer Dawn Gilchrist-Young just fine.

It is here, in this 84-year-old, family owned, down-home restaurant strategically positioned near Sylva’s paper plant, Jackson Paper Manufacturing, that the Swain County native writes much of her work. One short story is now garnering national attention. “The Tender Branch” is this year’s winner of the High School Teachers Writing Award from the Norman Mailer Center.

Each morning, for two or so hours, The Coffee Shop customers such as Teresa Coward would notice the slim, studious-looking woman in one of the café’s bright orange-plastic booths, drinking cups of coffee with cream. A cup of coffee costs $1.25 at The Coffee Shop, including a refill; a side of apple, cherry, coconut, lemon or chocolate pie adds $2.50 to the tab.

“It’s home here,” says Coward, nodding in ready understanding as to why a writer would choose The Coffee Shop over some of the town’s more uptown, upscale café options.  

Gilchrist-Young, caffeine satiated, would move on to write until noon at the public library. She didn’t want to command a table in the small café for too much time each day, inconveniencing owner Phyllis Gibson or waitresses such as Chessa Hoyle, livelihood-dependent on collecting the quarter and dollar tips left by appreciative, but working-class, customers.

This café is no stranger to Western North Carolina’s literati, at least the homegrown kind. Hoyle serves Sylva writer Gary Carden everyday. The late John Parris, of the “Roaming the Mountains” Asheville Citizen-Times column fame, was a regular here, too.

 

The award

These days Gilchrist-Young calls the Village of Forest Hills in Cullowhee home. She lives there with her stonemason husband, Eric. Their daughter, Aaron, is attending Warren Wilson College.

The Norman Mailer award will put this unassuming writer, who has worked as an English teacher at Swain County High School for 14 years, on stage with former President Bill Clinton, Elie Wiesel and Tina Brown, Newsweek’s editor in chief; and conceivably even Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones fame. Like Gilchrist-Young, Richards is a recipient of a Norman Mailer Center award, in his case for his recent book, Life.

Gilchrist-Young and the other Norman Mailer award winners will be at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City on Nov. 8. Additionally, she won $10,000 and a month next summer at the Norman Mailer Writers’ Colony in Provincetown, Mass.

Gilchrist-Young is a meticulous craftsperson. Her story was one of but two written a couple summers ago. Each story required two months to complete, the length basically of this schoolteacher’s annual summer break.

“The Tender Branch” delivers on the tenderness promised in the title. But the story is equally rich in the horrors attendant for women immersed in domestic violence. That violence is presented here simply as True Fact: the story seems to say, ‘You see, this is how many women live, but that is not the whole of them.’

Gilchrist-Young’s story is set in Haywood County: Canton, to be exact.

“My grandma was mean, but I’m not mean like her, just vengeful like her, vengeful like a cat you’ve left locked in the house all day and thinking everything is fine until you come home and there’s a pile of shit right on your pillow,” her character says in a moment of raw self description.

 

Giving back

Gilchrist-Young writes only in the summer. The remainder of her time is spent — and this is not purple prose, not hyperbole, but simple conveyance of more True Fact — giving of her talents and herself to the kids attending Swain County High School. She was once given a year’s sabbatical from Swain to teach at Western Carolina University, a 12-month gift, she says, from then Swain Principal Janet Clapsaddle and the local school board. They wanted this talented woman to find herself, to assess whether she’d be happiest teaching at the university level, or returning once again to Swain’s classrooms.

Gilchrist-Young opted for the latter, deciding that the high school needed her, the college did not; she notes this must mean she needs to be needed.

So Gilchrist-Young, each school day, walks into Swain County High School. And by her simple presence demonstrates that a homebred girl, who would marry at 18 and who was raised in a singlewide trailer in the Euchella community with four brothers and sisters by working-class parents, Wretha and Robert Gilchrist, is at the same time a sophisticated, highly educated woman. Her resume includes Columbia University and an MFA from Warren Wilson. And, of course, and maybe this is the most important True Fact about Gilchrist-Young, is a living, breathing, in-the-flesh writer the kids can talk to each day.

One’s upbringing is a part, not the whole; it is through parts, however, that we create a whole — that is Gilchrist-Young’s message to her students and one seemingly delivered through her writings.

“This is a Southern Appalachian woman,” Gilchrist-Young says of herself, an exclamation point on a conversation that includes discussions about stereotyping of mountain people, the suffocation of being dubbed a “regional” writer, and the equally True Fact that Swain County and other local school systems were (often but not always perhaps for everyone) truly wonderful places for aspiring writers, artists and musicians to find themselves growing up.

 

A work ethic

Finding the energy to both teach high school English and write is clearly a family hand-me-down, “the Gilchrist work ethic” personified, as husband Eric Young describes it.

Her father, now in his mid-70s, gets up at 4 a.m. and does masonry until his body gives out, sometime in the afternoon or evening.

“If he doesn’t work, he doesn’t feel like he’s living,” Gilchrist-Young says.

Her mother stayed home with the children, three girls and two boys, plus worked some in local factories and in the school’s cafeteria.

When the couple built a room onto their trailer, her father added bookshelves on either side of the fireplace. He and wife Wretha ordered a set of “The World’s 100 Greatest Classics” to fill the shelves. This was, for the most part, a family of readers.

“We were surrounded by these great writers,” Gilchrist-Young says. “Dostoevsky, Austen.”

The young girl would select books based on her attraction to the titles. “The Scarlet Pimpernel” she found offensive; “Sense and Sensibility,” on the other hand, had an attractive alliteration, and she discovered through that simple siren song the world of Jane Austen.

Her father, a Zane Grey zealot, passed his love for Grey’s Westerns and adventure stories on to his daughter, and “Riders of the Purple Sage” would become, as would her mother’s Ellery Queen mysteries, future literary touchstones.   

There were nightly Bible readings. The sonorous prose of the King James version of the Bible became yet another touchstone for Gilchrist-Young. It would influence her writing ear as it has so many others. More deeply imbedded than even her parent’s love for literature — and the Bible, which in that household was not literature but True Fact — was the Gilchrist code, which goes something like this:

“There is an authority that is higher than law, and a goodness that is more important than anything else.”

Less than two weeks after the Bryson City Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to fire Fire Chief Joey Hughes, state officials searched his home as part of an ongoing investigation into whether he misdirected funds.

Investigators with the North Carolina Department of Insurance and State Bureau of Investigation seized paperwork, two computers and a collection of checks, stamps and envelopes from the Hughes’ home on Hyatt Creek Road in Bryson City earlier this month.

The town has since named a new fire chief, Brent Arvey.

Hughes is under investigation for misusing money donated to the fire department’s fundraising arm. Suspicion around Hughes’ actions arose after he repeatedly ignored requests from town officials to see the financial records after being tipped off to problems by a whistleblower within the department.

Records reveal that:

• Money collected during fundraising drives went unaccounted for and otherwise disappeared from the books.

• The fundraising arm did not have a board of directors. A sham board existed only on paper.

• Hughes singly acted as treasurer of the fundraising accounts and denied repeated requests from volunteer firemen during the years to share financial information.

The following is an account, taken from three search warrants, of the town’s mounting suspicions and the subsequent investigation into Hughes’ off-the-books accounts.

May 14

Town officials were tipped off by a whistleblower that Hughes might be misappropriating donations to the fire department. A former volunteer firefighter, Mitch Cooper, who had left the fire department in June 2010, came forward with concerns and was interviewed by Assistant Police Chief Greg Jones.

“Cooper stated concerns that donated funds, as well as other monies obtained by the fire department were not being maintained, accounted for, or properly used as intended,” according to a sworn statement from Jones.

The former fireman also said monthly financial reports were not being given to members of the fire department, as required, and the documents were not available upon request either.

Jones then followed up with the former fire department treasurer Teddy Petersen, who said he stopped handling the finances after Hughes transferred all the funds to a different bank. During that time, Hughes and local town officials had a dispute over how the fire department was run.

According to state law, all funds given to the fire department, including donations and money from fundraisers, are supposed to be kept by the town. However, Hughes refused to provide the town with the department’s financial records, according to Jones’ statement.

June 9

Town Attorney Fred Moody submitted a written request to Hughes asking him to provide the town Board of Aldermen with seven years of financial records from the Bryson City Fire Department and its local relief fund, the fundraising arm for the fire department. Donations were funneled into one of two accounts: “Friends of Firemen” or “Bryson City Volunteer Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary.”

June 13

Hughes replied to the town, saying the fire department had not had a bank account since Jan. 1, 2000. His letter conflicted with reports filed with the N.C. Fireman’s Association over the past decade, which listed Hughes as the treasurer. The reports stated that donations to the local relief fund were invested in a money market account, although failed to list an account number.

July 15

Bryson City Mayor Brad Walker asked Police Chief Rick Tabor to look into the Bryson City Volunteer Fire Department’s accounts. Walker said citizen had inquired about the run down fire department and their donations.

August 19

Police seized bank records, including statements, signature cards and canceled checks, associated with the accounts “Friends of Firemen” and “Ladies Auxiliary.”

During his investigation, Jones found several checks written to the fire department had been deposited into these bank accounts without the town’s knowledge or proper accounting.

“This account is being used to secret fire department funds from the eyes of the Town Alderman and or the public,” Jones reported.

Jones also found that only Cylena Hughes, the fire chief’s wife, was able to access the “Ladies Auxiliary” account. Wendy Peterson, Heather Wiggins, Cylena or Hughes could sign for a separate “Friends of the Firemen” account that had recently existed at United Community Bank.

September 23

The town board unanimously votes to fire Hughes.

September 26

The district attorney’s office asked the State Bureau of Investigation to assist in the investigation.

September 29

As part of the investigation, Tom Ammons, an official with the State Bureau of Investigation, interviewed current and former Bryson City volunteer firemen.

Wayne Henry Dover, a volunteer firefighter for 17 years, told Ammons that after he was named to the department’s executive board in 2010, other firemen approached him with questions about financial records and where the department’s money was spent. When Dover brought their questions to the Hughes, he was told that everything was under control and he did not need to see the records.

About one year ago, Hughes informed the board that both of the accounts were closed. Then, in August when Dover asked to review the bank statements, Hughes gave the department’s executive board handwritten notes about the accounts.

Dover also stated that Hughes lied when he said the department had only raised $600 during Fireman’s Day in October 2010.

David Zalva, a member of the department since 2008, helped count the funds raised on Fireman’s Day. The fire department had collected about $4,800, said Zalva in an interview with Ammons.

According to Ammons’ statement, Cooper also inquired about the department’s finances and received only fabricated pieces of paper stating what was spent and how much money was left, according to his interview.

Most of the firemen interviewed said they did not know the Bryson City Fire Department had a relief fund.

However, Douglas Woodard, a volunteer firefighter since 1998, said Hughes led a strike over the account eight or nine years ago.

As of 2002, Hughes was listed as treasurer of the Relief Fund Board, according to annual reports filed with the State Fireman’s Association. Charles Killebrew was listed as chairman of the board.

Killebrew told Chet Effler, an investigator with the State Department of Insurance, that Hughes asked him to serve on the board. Killebrew stated that he never attended any meetings for the board, however, nor saw any annual reports or ever acted as chairman.

“Before the strike, bank statements could be seen, and Ed Watson was the treasurer,” according to Ammons’ statement. “After the strike, account information was never submitted to the membership for review. There was no treasurer.”

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park might finally get a place to store its sizeable cache of historical artifacts, but it almost certainly won’t be in Swain County.

Earlier this year, when the park broke the news about what it’s calling a curatorial collections facility to be built in Townsend, Tenn., Swain County residents were unimpressed.

They packed a Swain County commissioners meeting to vent their spleen, asking why such a trove of historical treasures weren’t going to be located in the county that claims the lion’s share of the parkland.

“Was any consideration given to the fact that Swain County gave more land and our people were given more broken promises than any other county in the park?” Linda Hogue wondered rhetorically. She and others asked commissioners to pitch Swain County as a better location for the place. They pointed out that Swain residents, when displaced by the park’s creation, donated many of the artifacts that would be housed in such a facility and wanted them to be housed locally rather than in Tennessee.

“I’m weary and I’m sure you are, too, of singing a same song, different verse. I’m asking you to go to bat for us. We have land right here close to Bryson City for such a facility,” said Hogue.

Park brass, however, have said that a venue change is unlikely, especially since Swain County already has the park’s only cultural museum at the newly christened Oconaluftee Visitors’ Center at the Smokies’ main North Carolina entrance outside Cherokee.

That, said Swain County Manager Kevin King, is a misconception that has been circling around the project since its announcement. And indeed, many who voiced opposition to a Tennessee location cited the economic benefits of having an added visitor attraction in the county.

But even if the center were located in Swain County, the artifacts in question wouldn’t be set up for public viewing anyway, said Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson in a letter to commissioners.

“What is proposed is a storage facility not a museum,” said Ditmanson, in the letter.

Currently, the Native American spear points, logging equipment, farm implements, period clothes, weaving looms, moonshine stills and various other relics from the area’s pre-park days are scattered around. Most live in a hard-to-reach facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The new facility would bring them together and provide a safer home that would keep them in better shape for longer, and avoid paying rent on a place to house them in off-site.

The real reason the storage house is staying in Tennessee, however, is financial. The park is partnering with four other national parks in that state to split the costs and the space, and a donation of 1.6 acres has already been made for the facility’s footprint. Plus, money was allocated in 2009 and 2010 to build a facility in Tennessee.

“This would be really convenient for us to be able to operate and manage and work with the other parks,” said Nancy Gray, a spokesperson from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s public affairs arm. “It would benefit everybody to get all of the artifacts into a central location.”

King agreed, saying that if and when Swain County gets a museum up and running in the historic courthouse — as is on the long-term to-do list for the county — getting some items on loan from the park would be a lot easier, were they in one locale.

Still, said Hogue, having the county’s historical assets in Tennessee is a travesty in the first place.

“A facility of this type would mean so much more to our people than just a building with old things cataloged in it,” said Hogue. “I have talked with many elderly Swain County citizens and they relayed to me that they had donated items to the park with the assurance that they would remain in Swain County.”

The park is still awaiting federal funds for construction, and it was missed out in this year’s allocation. So central storage is still a good few years away. But when it comes, Swain County probably won’t be its final destination.

Bryson City has a new fire chief, after a police investigation spurred the ouster of long-term fire chief Joey Hughes last month.

Brent Arvey has been named as the new department head, replacing Erwin Winchester, the Swain County fire marshal who stepped in to temporarily fill the post after Hughes was fired.

Arvey is an 11-year veteran of the Bryson City Fire Department and rises to the top position from the post of 1st assistant chief, the second in command.

Though the department now has a leader at its helm, the controversy surrounding it has not subsided.

The Bryson City Police Department began an investigation into the firehouse and its finances in August, and preliminary results led the town board to fire Hughes as they continued to sort out the details.

The probe has now been turned over to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, which will work with the district attorney’s office in the county to see if charges need to be filed.

“Due to the number of questions that were found, that’s why the SBI was called in to do this,” said Assistant Police Chief Greg Jones, who has led the investigation. “I thought we had enough discrepancies to call the district attorney and bring in the SBI.”

Not only was the investigation uncovering more questions, it was also becoming too unwieldy for Jones and the small, seven-member police department to manage on its own, while trying to simultaneously juggle regular patrols as well.

The only documents currently filed in the case are two search warrants for the fire department’s Friends of the Firemen and Ladies’ Auxiliary bank accounts. Though it would seem likely that these two accounts would take charitable donations on behalf of the department, neither is legally equipped to do so, lacking a 501-c3 designation that allows tax-deductible charitable donations.

It’s unclear what, exactly, is in the accounts and who controls them. As a town fire department, all money that comes in — even fundraiser returns and charitable donations — are supposed to come to the town for audit and allocation. But these two accounts, said Town Manager Larry Callicutt, have never been controlled by the town.

The battle between fire department and town did not start with this investigation. In June of last year, the town board voted to take a GMC Yukon away from the department, citing allegations that it was being put to improper, non-department use.

Then-chief Hughes maintained that he’d never been approached by the board concerning the truck, and said to the board and on the fire department’s Facebook page that it was used as a first responder vehicle.

Later in the year, a firefighter told the Smoky Mountain Times that he resigned his post in protest of the way the department’s finances were handled.

The county also got into a spat with the fire department over what it was paying for fire services.

Last week, the firehouse on Main Street was shuttered while local and state investigators inventoried and audited the equipment there. With that phase finished, the inquiry by the SBI continues, with no word yet on whether charges are forthcoming.

Food stamps and food pantry vouchers are finding their way into the farmers markets in Jackson and Swain counties, putting local produce into hands of the needy who are often quick to cut healthy, but more expensive, fresh fruits and veggies from their diets and budgets.

The Bryson City Food Pantry is in its second year of a program called Farm to Family, handing out $5 vouchers to the weekly Swain County Farmers Market. The initiative started with a surplus of funds that the food pantry needed to spend.

Because the pantry’s premises are pretty tight, it had never been able to offer produce before. There was no refrigeration for it.

So when the idea was floated that the money be put toward the farmers market, it seemed perfect.

“I mean, we could have given them vouchers to go to the grocery store and find produce,” said Renee Mulligan, who helped start the program, “but we wanted to support the local farmers.”

Mulligan now works for Cherokee Choices, a health program with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, but she used to be a cooperative extension agent, where she helped get the idea going.

For families who visit the food pantry, what they’re getting is dry or canned goods and many can’t afford to buy fresh produce.

“For health and disease prevention, it’s extremely important, but it’s also a matter of access in rural areas,” said Mulligan. “It’s important for them to have access to fruits and vegetables in a way that’s convenient.”

With that in mind, the food pantry gives out the vouchers on Friday, the same morning that the farmers market is open just down the street next to the old courthouse.

There, under a smattering of canopies, farmers and crafters set up to peddle their products each Friday in season.

Don and Belinda Carringer said that they’ve been pretty pleased with the new customers they’ve gotten through the program. They sell produce at markets in both Swain and Macon counties.

“We love the program because it’s great for us and it’s great for them, they get fresh produce,” said Don Carringer.

The vouchers are only good for fruits and vegetables, not fish, meat or other market wares like crafts.

Carringer said his patrons with vouchers seemed happy to be able to get their farm-fresh produce, and Belinda said that she often provides recipes to voucher customers, giving them ideas on using what they’ve just bought.

That’s another problem that’s plaguing the country’s low-income families.

“People who aren’t used to having those kinds of things in their diets might not know what to do with those or how to prepare them,” said Amy Grimes, executive director of the Community Table in Sylva.

Her organization has a garden worked by volunteers who give a third of its bounty to the Community Table, which shares the yields with clients who come to them in need of food.

Now, they’re also taking donations from the Jackson County Farmers Market, where vendors can deposit their unsold produce that might otherwise be on the compost pile at the end of a selling day.

The Community Table is working the fresh food into the hot meals it serves, as well as packing it in the boxes sent home with locals strapped for food.

Grimes said she’s seen an increase in interest from her clients in the produce, and in learning how to prepare and serve it.

She hopes that by next year, she’ll have classes running to teach those skills.

Whether it was on the old-school food pyramid or its more modern, streamlined offspring the food plate, we’ve learned since childhood that fruits and veggies are foundational for a healthy diet.

The plates of the needy, however, are far less likely to play host to leafy greens and other garden bounty.

Earlier this year, the USDA released a study that proved what community workers like Grimes have seen firsthand: the closer a family comes to the poverty line, the less they spend on fruit and vegetables.

Americans who make 300 percent more than the federal poverty level — that’s around $66,000 for a family of four — will spend about 50 percent more on fresh produce than families at or just above the poverty line.

“It’s stuff that’s pretty expensive to buy in the store,” said Grimes. “I mean, avocados are two for $5 now.”

Besides what it’s sending to the Community Table, the Jackson County Farmers Market is also opening another option to people who perhaps couldn’t ordinarily afford its local, organic fare.

After a multi-year effort, the Jackson market will soon be able to accept food stamps. An EBT machine, which reads the electronic debit cards issued to food stamp recipients, will be set-up at the market.

“It’ll provide an avenue for people who need it to be able to purchase fruits and vegetables that are fresh and local,” said Jenny McPherson, who manages the Jackson County Farmers Market.

In Swain County, the voucher program is proving to be a win-win for all parties, said Christy Bredenkamp, the extension horticulture agent who is running it in partnership with the food pantry.

“We’re worried about food security in Swain County and really in Western North Carolina. There’s a lot of people who are really struggling financially and the quality of their food is really not as good, so this is a way for them to get fresh produce that’s more healthy for them,” said Bredenkamp. “And the vendors like it because it’s extra income for them, and they’re tapping in to customers they wouldn’t otherwise do.”

In just the first year, they handed out nearly 600 vouchers, and 73 percent were actually used. Similar, federally funded farmers market programs only had a redemption rate of around 60 percent, said Mulligan, who considers the program a success.

In its second year now, organizers hope it will continue to support local growers, who took home an extra $2,150 last year from the vouchers. They’re currently looking for other sources of funding to keep the program going in the future.

There are a lot of things associated with the words “high school football.” Three-a-days. Pep rallies. Weight rooms. The quarterback sneak.

Summer reading club isn’t usually one of them.

Coach Sam Pattillo, however, would beg to differ. He is the head football coach at Swain County High School, and every one of his players has been in a summer reading group for the last three years.

He’s not just going along with a program that someone else came up with, either. The reading was his idea, and he’s the one pushing it with his players.

“It’s building that relationship with our teachers and [the] expectation that academics is first, athletics is below that,” said Pattillo. He wears a lot of other hats at the small school, but he’s known first, at school and in the larger community, as the football coach, and a good one. The students respect him and that’s helped in getting them on board with the unorthodox program.

“Males tend to process things differently, and we tend not to take the time to read like we should,” said Pattillo. “We started it in order to put a focus on literacy and to establish some value for reading. It’s all before school starts, and basically a part of that too is to get them started thinking about school, being together as a team going through this process.”

In the summer before practices begin, the players are given books and Kindle e-readers to get a jump on the material.

The coaches read the books with the boys, and they get helmet stickers for doing well in the program, just as they would for making crucial plays or excelling in practice.

On the reading end of the program is Dawn Gilchrist-Young, the head of Swain High’s English department.

She’s in charge of the books, the post-reading questions players answer and the discussion groups they have after.

The success of the program, she said, is somewhat hard to gauge. One of the defining characteristics of a high school is that the population is different every year. So with new kids always moving in and out, pinning down how much good extra summer reading is doing is a bit tough.

But the message the program sends, she said, is a success in itself.

“Since football gives Swain County something to kind of hang its hat on, having the football team do a summer reading program tells the whole county about what we’re doing here,” said Gilchrist-Young.

The idea being that if Swain is a football county, it’s significant to have the football team saying it’s a reading county, too.

“What you’re saying is academics are important and it’s what will see you through.”

Both coach and teacher say they’ve seen a positive response from the players, even if some are reluctant at first. And, Pattillo points out, this is not what’s normally on the menu for high school football practice.

“It actually is a paradigm change, because it’s not all football,” he said.

“It’s a big deal to ask a kid who is not necessarily interested in taking AP [advanced placement] classes to do summer reading,” adds Gilchrist-Young.

By now, they’re accustomed to what’s coming in July. The second year of the program, the chosen book — Friday Night Lights — was requested by a few players who said they’d like to read it.

While the immediate goal of the program was to get books into the hands and minds of more students, the end game is a broader, more macro approach.

What’s the final goal, asks Gilchrist-Young?

“That all of our students go to Ivy League schools and then come back and commit themselves to the betterment of Swain County,” she said, smiling. “Or another ideal would be that they read to their children, love the tradition, have a kid on their lap at night, reading a book.”

That long game is an approach being taken by not just one teacher and one coach, but by the school system as a whole.

That’s where Steve Claxton comes in. As the community schools coordinator, one of the things in his charge is promoting reading in schools.

“We thought, ‘Well, how early can we start?’” said Claxton. The answer:  “Well, when they’re born.”

The school system partnered with Harris Regional Hospital in Sylva, where most Swain County families go to have their babies. Now, every Swain County child born in that hospital goes out into the world with a book.

The system is using the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, a program founded by the buxom country beauty to increase childhood literacy.

Through the program, the brand new babies leave the hospital with their own copy of children’s classic The Little Engine That Could, and they’re then mailed a book a month for the first four years of their life.

By the time they get to kindergarten, Swain County’s 2030 graduating class will all have a personal library that’s 60 books strong.

For kids who were born a little too early to catch that train from birth, the school system went into preschools around the county and offered the program to families.

This year, it cost a little more than they anticipated, around $8,000.

“We have 467 preschoolers in our county, and they [the program organizers] said to expect about 50 in the first year,” said Claxton. But they had 277 sign up. “We’re already halfway through our entire preschool population.”

They also bring high school students into preschool classes as readers, promoting literacy in students on both ends of the educational spectrum.

In addition to building libraries for preschoolers, the school system is giving parents the tools to know what to do with them.

They’ve produced two brochures — one for supermarkets and one for hiking trips — that teach parents how to make reading a part of both situations with their little ones. They’re also working with families who might not be able to read to their children, to foster early reading skills and help parents’ reading abilities, too.

“We have parents in this county who are illiterate. They can’t read to their kids. So we work with our siblings,” said Claxton. “They can take a book home that’s age appropriate for their siblings so they can read to them at night. That’s helping both kids.”

Most of these programs have only been going for a few years, but with the aggressive stance the schools are taking on reading, Claxton, Gilchrist-Young and Pattillo are hoping they’ll prove their value in the smarter more literate kids walking out the school’s doors. The programs are designed not only to get kids reading today, but to imbue them with a love of reading for years to come.

Swain County should finally have a budget by early August, nearly six weeks after the start of the new fiscal year.

Commissioners passed an interim budget to keep the county running over the summer, one of only two counties in the state that didn’t pass a full budget by the July 1 deadline.

That, said County Manager Kevin King, was because he was waiting on the state to adjust what the county is due under a new formula for Medicaid reimbursement. The formula was tweaked recently, and the state and county had to work through exactly how much Swain should get.

After the adjustments, which should be in by mid-August, King expects the county to get a few hundred thousand extra dollars.

Because the deficit would be too great to make up out of the county’s savings, King said he was forced either to wait and hope for the Medicaid money or propose county layoffs or a tax hike.

He chose to wait.

With the numbers now in, commissioners this week got their first look at the proposed 2011-12 budget, which will take effect in September.  

If commissioners approve the budget on August 8, the county will have $14.9 million to work with, up $2.5 million from last year’s budget.

The increase is going to two building projects on the county’s to-do list this year: new classrooms at West Elementary School and the construction of the Swain County Business Education and Training Center on Buckner Branch.

The property tax rate will stay the same, despite the additional spending. The school project is being paid for out of a capital reserve fund where savings had been set aside for school construction.

The training center, a joint effort by Southwestern Community College, the Fontana Regional Library, Swain County Schools and the county, is being underwritten by a $1.1 million grant from Duke Energy.

The elementary school upgrade is coming from a capital reserve fund set aside for school improvements suggested by a committee last year.

Otherwise, the budget is nearly identical to last year’s numbers, but the county will have to take a $158,000 dip into its fund balance to come out with a balanced budget.

That, said King, is because the county has suddenly lost around $300,000 in revenue it has counted on for years from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

As a government entity, TVA doesn’t pay property taxes, but does make “payments in lieu of taxes” for Fontana Dam and its generators. A new formula for the payments has drastically reduced what Swain historically got and diverted the money to Graham County instead.

That’s affected their fund balance too. The county was chastised in 2009 by the Local Government Commission for letting the fund balance, essentially the county’s savings account, dip too low. State law mandates that the account be at a minimum of 8 percent of the county’s annual budget, equivalent to one month’s expenses.

“Last year it was at about 13 percent,” said King. “But we’ve had decreases in our TVA [revenue], so it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of about 10 percent.”

He said he’s not yet certain of the exact numbers, since he is expecting some payments to the county’s accounts soon that will change the account’s balance.

The bottom line, though, is that revenues are down. And unless expenditures start dropping with them, the county must keep returning to the prospect of raiding its savings.

Currently, Swain is taking Graham County to court over the lost TVA monies. King said they hope to have their money back within a year. But Graham has filed a suit of its own, so the legal entanglements might not be so easy to sort out.

The proposed budget will be available at the Swain County Administration Building until Aug. 8, when commissioners will host a budget hearing and then vote on the document.

Page 26 of 47

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