Arts + Entertainment

They are dubbed by some in the community as the Three Amigos: a new chancellor at Western Carolina university, David Belcher; a new president at Southwestern Community College, Donald Tomas; and a new superintendent of schools for Jackson County; Mike Murray.

Each started their respective positions July 1. Each promises new eras of leadership that connects their respective institution’s educational efforts to the overall good of the community. Each seem comfortable in, and energetic about, their roles as institutional and community leaders.

“Openness, honesty and transparency,” Tomas said during his introductory remarks at a community meeting this week. SCC, which serves residents of Jackson, Macon and Swain counties and the Cherokee Indian Reservation, is piggybacking strategic planning efforts on those of neighboring WCU.

Tomas said the Three Amigos have been meeting and discussing educational and community issues.

“This is an extremely exciting and unique opportunity,” he said.

The university, under the baton of Belcher, is holding a series of seven community meetings in the region to hear what residents have to say about the school’s future. About 45 or 50 people, many of them WCU and SCC employees, turned out for the Jackson County hearing, though far fewer than that opted to actually stand up and speak.

Those who did called on WCU and SCC to help bolster a sagging economy, but to do so while protecting the region’s natural resources and great beauty. They discussed a lack of childcare for professionals; and more specific needs, such as a request by Julie Spiro, executive director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, for WCU to again produce a regional economic report. Susie Ray, a retired WCU employee, urged the university to tap into the huge retiree population in WNC and corner a niche on “creative retirement.”

There were complaints that WCU wasn’t accessible to the community. The swimming pool, for instance, is closed to the public unless you are a student or WCU employee, forcing those who want to swim for exercise to motor over the Balsams to Waynesville. Continuing education classes are priced out of the reach of anyone except, perhaps, retired employees from WCU.

Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten, who retired from the university after 30 years service, told his former colleagues that many in the community simply don’t feel comfortable on campus. They feel uneasy and out of place. And, in turn, many of WCU’s faculty and staff choose to live somewhere other than Jackson County, with their connections to the community limited to commuting back and forth to work.

Vance Davidson, an SCC trustee, spoke similarly of the “silo” mentality that’s afflicted the various Jackson County educational institutions.

“We are a lot better together than we are apart,” Davidson said. “We have not enjoyed the best university, town, community relationships — we need to change that.”

The traditional folk ways of the Southern Appalachian Mountains will take center stage as Western Carolina University presents the 37th annual Mountain Heritage Day on Saturday, Sept. 24.

The fall festival will feature a variety of arts and crafts, music, clogging, folk arts, contests and activities that is hard to find in a one-day event, said festival coordinator Trina Royar of WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center.

All Mountain Heritage Day activities, including stage performances, will take place between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., except registration for the woodcutting contest, which starts at 9 a.m. This year’s festival will be held on fields behind the Cordelia Camp Building, in parking lots and grassy areas around the building and in the nearby Mountain Heritage Center, which is located on the ground floor of H.F. Robinson Administration Building.

Visitors will find nearly 100 booths of juried arts and crafts. Items for sale will include basketry, ceramics, fiber work, glasswork, jewelry, metalwork, paintings, pottery and woodwork.

About 25 food vendors also are signed up to participate in the festival, offering products ranging from barbecue, hamburgers and chicken-on-a-stick to fried pickles, chocolate-dipped cheesecake and Cherokee frybread.

The traditional Cherokee game of stickball has been a favorite attraction for festival visitors in recent years, and the Snowbird Stickball Team from Graham County will make its second appearance at Mountain Heritage Day to demonstrate that ancient sport at 11 a.m.

Another Native American tradition will be featured at 1 p.m., when team members will join with their female associates in playing the courtship game of “Fish.” The team also will demonstrate the use of Cherokee blowguns at 3 p.m.

Fans of traditional music and clogging should head to the two main stages, which will offer continuous free entertainment from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Balsam and Blue Ridge stages will present many types of traditional music — traditional and contemporary bluegrass to old-time, gospel and folk music.

Clogging fans will want to check out performances by the Blue Ridge Hi-Steppers, Fines Creek Flatfooters and Dixie Darlins, plus this year’s festival will present an audience participation clogging demonstration led by well-known clogging instructor Bill Nichols and his daughter, Simone Nichols Pace, at 2:45 p.m. on the Blue Ridge Stage.

Festival music won’t be limited to the two stages. Visitors will have an opportunity to see some rapid-fire picking up close and personal at the Circle Tent, which will provide a music workshop experience. An 11 a.m. fiddle circle will feature John Duncan and Summer McMahan, and a 1:30 p.m. banjo circle will show off the picking talents of Annie Fain Liden, Steve Sutton and Charles Wood.

Singers from around the region will also gather to demonstrate the sacred mountain tradition of shaped-note singing.

WCU’s museum of Appalachian culture, the Mountain Heritage Center, will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the museum also will host a free performance of The Liars Bench, a Southern Appalachian variety show, from 1:30 to 3 p.m.

For younger festival goers, the children’s tent will provide fun and educational sessions all day.

Youngsters can learn to make old-fashioned toys and take part in other heritage activities beginning at 10 a.m.

Folk art demonstrations ranging from Cherokee doll-making to sorghum molasses-making will be showcased throughout the festival from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and area residents who own vintage automobiles will be driving them to Mountain Heritage Day to show them off in the festival auto show.

Admission and parking are free, though pets are not allowed on festival grounds. Shuttles operate throughout the day, with stops at designated locations.

For more information, call 828.227.7129 or visit



9 a.m. – Registration begins for woodcutting contest

10 a.m. – Woodcutting contest begins; festival booths open, offering arts, crafts and food; antique auto show begins; demonstrations of folk arts and skills begin; Mountain Heritage Center opens

10:30 a.m. – Exhibition of black-powder shooting and “Sacred Harp” shaped-note sing begin

11 a.m. – Exhibition of Cherokee stickball begins

11:30 a.m. – Recognition of arts and crafts awards, and food contest winners, at Balsam Stage

12:10 p.m. – Presentation of Mountain Heritage Awards, traditional attire contests for children and adults, and beard and moustache contest, all on Blue Ridge Stage

1 p.m. – Exhibition of Cherokee courtship game “Fish” begins

1:30 p.m. – “Christian Harmony” shaped-note sing begins; presentation of “The Liars Bench” show begins in the Mountain Heritage Center

2:30 p.m. – Exhibition of black-powder shooting

3 p.m. – Exhibition of Cherokee blowguns begins

4 p.m. – Mountain Heritage Center closes

5 p.m. – Festival closes



(Rodney Sutton, master of ceremonies)

10 a.m. – Hawk Tawodi Brown

10:30 a.m. – Cherokee Traditional Dance Group

10:40 a.m. – Hominy Valley Boys

11:10 a.m. – Blue Ridge Hi-Steppers (clogging)

11:30 a.m. – Recognition of arts and crafts awards, and food contest winners

11:40 a.m. – Deitz Family

12:15 p.m. – Jerry and Paul Wilson

12:55 p.m. – Spring Chickens

1:15 p.m. – Fines Creek Flatfooters (clogging)

1:40 p.m. – Queen Family

2:20 p.m. – Woolly Jumpers

3 p.m. – Heritage Alive! Mountain Youth Talent winners

3:45 p.m. – Blue Eyed Girl

4:20 p.m. – Sweet Tater Band



(10 a.m. to 4 p.m.)

“Migration of the Scotch-Irish People” – Permanent exhibit focusing on some of the first settlers to the mountains. A new exhibit update explores the tension between religion and lawbreaking as expressed by the temperance movement and moonshining.

“Qualla Arts and Crafts” – Celebrates the 65th anniversary of this craft co-op in Cherokee. This exhibit features the skill and craftsmanship of Cherokee artisans.

“The Carolina Mountains: Photography of Margaret Morley” – Sixty compelling images reveal glimpses of life in western North Carolina in the early 1900s.

“Progress of an Idea” – Permanent exhibit on the development of Western Carolina University, its local origins and evolving mission, with a special focus on music at WCU.

“Jesse Stalcup: Craftsman and Builder” – Exhibit of handcrafted furniture from the early 1900s.



(Bill Nichols, master of ceremonies)

10 a.m. – Mountain Faith

10:30 a.m. – Stoney Creek Boys

10:45 a.m. – Dixie Darlins (clogging)

11 a.m. – Whitewater Bluegrass Co.

11:45 a.m. – Anne Lough

12:10 p.m. - Presentation of Mountain Heritage Awards, traditional attire contests for children and adults, and beard and moustache contest

12:30 p.m. – Phil and Gaye Johnson

1 p.m. – Buncombe Turnpike

1:45 p.m. – Tried Stone Gospel Choir

2:15 p.m. – Stoney Creek Boys

2:30 p.m. – Blue Ridge Hi-Steppers (clogging)

2:45 p.m. – Clogging demonstration with Bill Nichols and Simone Nichols Pace

3 p.m. – Wild Hog Band

3:30 p.m. – Five O’Clock Shadows

4 p.m. – Paul’s Creek



(10 a.m. to 5 p.m.)

Curtis Allison and Dwayne Franks – horses and mules

Lori and Chuck Anderson – corn shuck crafts and broom-making

Cassie Dickson – spinning and flax culture

Nancy, John Henry and Johnnie Ruth Maney – Cherokee pottery, beadwork and doll-making

William Rogers – blacksmithing

Larry Stout – sorghum molasses-making

R.O. Wilson – logging skills

Max Woody – chair-making



(Phil Jamison, moderator for musical circles)

10 a.m. – Presentation on “Jackson County People and Places” by the Jackson County Historical Society

11 a.m. – Fiddle Circle with John Duncan and Summer McMahan

12:30 p.m. – Poetry Circle with Thomas Rain Crowe, Barbara Duncan and Brent Martin

1:30 p.m. – Banjo Circle with Annie Fain Liden, Steve Sutton and Charles Wood

3 p.m. – Ballad Circle with the Deitz Family, Gaye Johnson and Jeanette Queen Schrock



10 a.m. – Heritage toys and activities

11:40 a.m. – Jean Hayes with an introduction to bagpipes and parade

12:30 p.m. – Whitewater Bluegrass Co. presents play party games

1 p.m. – Deitz Family

1:30 p.m. – Phil and Gaye Johnson

2 p.m. – Ellie Grace

2:30 p.m. – Carol Rifkin

3 p.m. – Heritage toys and activities

Once you hit the Haywood County line after heading west on Interstate 40 out of Asheville, Western Carolina University is the acknowledged cultural focal point for all the remaining seven counties in this southwestern corner of our great state. We expect vision and smarts from university leaders, the professors and the students it graduates. We expect those same leaders to value the culture and history of this region, and to help us preserve, protect and brag about our assets.

That’s why it is refreshing to see new Chancellor David Belcher re-start a strategic planning process that he hopes will help steer the university as it deals with the new realities of state budget cuts and other financial challenges.

Many in this region take for granted the gem that we have in WCU. All it takes, though, is a roll call in our public schools and community colleges, small businesses, financial institutions, arts communities and the local governments to see the impact of this university. Its graduates are our leaders, particularly in the seven western counties. WCU and this region are inseparable.

I think the university recognizes this special relationship, though some of its leaders have placed a higher value on it than others. As long as these ties remain strong and grow even deeper, both the university and the region will be better off.


Town Public Works Director Fred Baker. Town Planner Paul Benson. Planning board member Ron Reid. Concerned citizens like Bicycle Haywood’s Cecil Yount. Realtor Brian Noland.

That’s a short list of those who think the state Department of Transportation’s initial plan for Waynesville’s South Main Street does not fit what Waynesville needs. We offer our wholehearted support to those who want something better than a four-lane road with a raised median.

By the time this edition of The Smoky Mountain News hits the streets, a community brainstorming session to gather ideas for the road will be in the history books (it was held Sept. 20). But that doesn’t mean those who want something better shouldn’t continue to let those in charge know exactly how they feel.

Those who want to maintain the character of Waynesville while still allowing Wal-Marts and Best Buys are asking for a smaller road — three lanes at most — with roundabouts instead of traffic lights, bike lanes, and trees between the road and the sidewalks. This is the vision laid out in the Waynesville’s comprehensive land-use plan, and it’s one I believe a majority of citizens want.

Many of us who argue for smart growth have been in this situation too many times: disagreeing with DOT and seeking a compromise that is about more than just moving cars quickly from one spot to another. In this case Waynesville has had to spend its own money to hire a traffic consultant in hopes it can convince the state bureaucracy that it knows what is best for its own community. It’s frustrating to be in the same position again and again.

But it’s a good fight, one worth all the time and energy we can give it. When roads are done wrong — Russ Avenue in Waynesville, N.C. 107 in Sylva — the problems linger for many, many years. Getting it right on the front end is critical.


Our cover story last week on Macon County’s Phil Drake and his business success (“Seizing Opportunity,” ran at a time when there is great controversy in this country about how best to nurture the economy and shake the lingering recession.

Drake is a local example of someone taking a small family business and growing it exponentially, taking some lumps along with way but finding his way through problems. Just as important as his business success, though, is the commitment to Macon County and Western North Carolina shown by Drake, his family, and his network of businesses.

The global economy has brought riches to many people and lifted many from poverty to the middle class. At the same, however, it has robbed many communities of the ability to control their own destinies. Decisions made in boardrooms thousands of miles away take jobs from thousands, leaving families and communities to pick up the pieces.

The “buy local, shop local, do business locally” concept can only go so far, but we in this region can help lift ourselves up by pushing it to its limits. It’s easy to shop with the big boys and to buy stuff over the internet, but in most cases it doesn’t do as much to help your neighbor.

Phil Drake is proving that doing business locally when possible can lead to great successes. Whether you’re a consumer or a businessperson, there’s never been a more important time to take that lesson to heart.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

A 36-member commission charged with developing a new strategic plan for Western Carolina University is on a tight timeline: Chancellor David Belcher wants the guiding document in the board of trustees’ hands next June.

The commission, a mix of university employees, local business leaders and prominent figures in the community, held its first meeting last week. Belcher described the commission as “a unique gathering of people.” He noted the university’s last strategic plan was implemented in 2008. Belcher urged the group to focus closely on “what we are going to do; what we’re not going to do.”

“This is big picture stuff,” Belcher said. “(The plan) should be ambitious, but achievable.”

Commission member Kenny Messer, a WCU alum who serves as a business manager for Milliken and Company, a South Carolina-based textile and chemical manufacturer, said that in his opinion, financial needs and funding were going to drive the development of a strategic plan for the university.

North Carolina has cut WCU by $30 million in a three-year period. More cuts are expected as the state continues to grapple with a sour economy.

Among the group’s first tasks will be developing a “SWOT,” or a document outlining the university’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.

The last SWOT was prepared by a university strategic planning group for 2009-2010, and now is somewhat outdated, said Melissa C. Wargo, WCU assistant vice chancellor for institutional planning and effectiveness. Wargo is heading The 2020 Commission for the university.

That SWOT predated heavy state budget cuts, and the arrival of Belcher in July after longtime leader John Bardo retired. It had been stamped “Internal Use Only” and was never shared with the public, but was released to The Smoky Mountains News last week after it was requested. The document included a rather candid assessment of WCU’s weaknesses. Here’s some of the findings in the four SWOT areas.

• Strengths: student access to faculty and undergraduate research opportunities; a growing national and international reputation; a mature and experienced faculty and competitive student costs relative to other University of North Carolina schools.

• Opportunities: an increasing demand for online programs and untapped faculty expertise that could be diverted into public service.

• Threats: continuing state budget cuts loomed big, as did increased competition for students in higher education and marketplace competition for qualified staff. The university also noted accountability in the form of exit exams for students as a threat, geographic location resulting in limited social interaction for students, inadequate infrastructure and more.

• Weaknesses: A lack of administrative transparency topped the list of weaknesses. Others included non-competitive salary and recruitment practices, poor undergraduate retention and graduation rates, ineffective organization communication tools/practices, no institutional plan to address diversity concerns and issues.


Planning assumptions for the WCU strategic plan

• WCU will pursue strategically controlled enrollment growth.

• The quality of the student body will increase.

• The economic instability within the state will continue.

• The university’s role in, and focus on, Western North Carolina will remain strong while its influence grows across the state and region.

• Fundraising and alternative revenue streams will become increasingly more important.

• State funding will be tied to performance.


Community hearings for WCU strategic plan

• Sept. 21: 10:30 a.m. until noon, Macon County Public Library, Franklin.

• Sept. 26: 3 p.m. until 5 p.m., Jackson County Public Library, Sylva.

• Sept. 30: 2:30 p.m. until 5 p.m., Waynesville, place to be determined.

• Oct. 20: 1 p.m. until 5 p.m., Cherokee, place to be determined.

Meetings also being held in Asheville, Hendersonville and Murphy.

The second-annual Rooted in the Mountains symposium at Western Carolina University will be held Thursday, Oct. 20, and Friday, Oct. 21, in the Grandroom of the A.K. Hinds University Center.

The Rooted in the Mountains event was created to raise awareness of the intersection of environmental, health and indigenous issues related to mountain destruction. This year’s program includes a 6 p.m. Thursday address by Dennis Martinez, an advocate for an indigenous perspective of ecology, and music beginning at 7:30 p.m. by Sheila Kay Adams, a longtime storyteller and performer of traditional Appalachian ballads.

Cultural historian Jeff Biggers will start Friday’s session with a 9 a.m. keynote address. Biggers, a coal miner’s grandson and outspoken critic of mountaintop removal in Appalachia, is the author of nonfiction works “Reckoning at Eagle Creek,” “The United States of Appalachia” and “In the Sierra Madre.” The symposium also includes a Thursday reception, Friday lunch, academic presentations and a facilitated discussion.

Reduced-rate hotel rooms at the Sylva Inn and the Holiday Inn Express in Dillsboro and an early registration fee of $75 are available through Sunday, Sept. 25. After that, the symposium registration fee rises to $125. The symposium is free to WCU students. The Biggers address, part of WCU’s Art and Cultural Events Series, is free to all.

Lisa Lefler, the event’s organizer, said the Rooted in the Mountains symposium is for individuals interested in Native American studies, health and environmental issues.

“Those who are interested in how the continued destruction of mountain landscapes affect us should attend, as well as those who would like to learn more about the intersection of Native ways of understanding with these issues,” said Lefler, an anthropologist and director of WCU’s Culturally Based Native Health Programs. “This event is for all who are rooted in the mountains and value our common ground.”

Lefler organized the inaugural event in honor of her mother, the late Jean Nations Lefler, and her uncle, the late Dale Nations. The siblings were “saddened in their last years about what they perceived as destruction to the mountains,” Lefler said. Though only a year old, Rooted in the Mountains is quickly evolving, and three other institutions – Berea College, Appalachian State University and Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee – have expressed interest in alternately hosting it.

Lefler also organized an August event on the WCU campus intended to help sharpen the symposium’s focus. A panel of Native elders visited WCU to participate in dialogues on “Native science,” which respects the natural laws of interdependence, or phrased alternatively, a universal law of interconnectedness. Panel members encouraged those in attendance to shed their personal and career identities and their “tacit infrastructures” – beliefs so ingrained we unconsciously base our paradigms on them without questioning why – so they could examine the connection between health and the environment in new ways.

To register for the Rooted in the Mountains symposium, go online to or call 828.227.7397. For additional information about Rooted in the Mountains, contact Lefler at 828.227.2164 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or contact Pamela Duncan in the WCU Department of English at 828.227.3926 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Western Carolina University, eager to broadcast Catamount sports and other school-based programming to a larger audience than it can currently reach, is fighting The Canary Coalition for rights to a new FM radio station.

The station could reach up to three states once on the air, depending on which Jackson County mountaintop the transmitter is located, according to regional radio experts.

WCU’s current radio station, WWCU 90.5 FM, on a good day is heard roughly from Sylva to parts of Buncombe County. The signal is spotty at best, however.

WWCU 90.5 FM currently reaches about 43,627 people. Meanwhile, 73,800 people potentially could hear the new FM radio station, according to Federal Communications Commission filings.

Asheville-based public radio station WCQS, the Cherokee Boys & Girls Club and a nonprofit Christian foundation based in Georgia also applied for the new frequency.

While the FCC tentatively awarded air rights for the new full-powered FM radio frequency to The Canary Coalition, a small grassroots environmental organization headquartered in Sylva, WCU is not going down without a fight.

WCU has hired the private Raleigh law firm Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey and Leonard, whose specialties include telecommunications and media law, to persuade the FCC to give it the license instead of The Canary Coalition.

The Canary Coalition has a staff of one, Executive Director Avram Friedman, and is using the legal services of an attorney in California to fend off WCU’s bid for the radio station. The attorney is helping the nonprofit for a reduced rate, Friedman said.

Larry Nestler, chairman of The Canary Coalition’s board, questioned why WCU would choose to pick this fight during such tough budgetary times. The state cut the university’s budget this year by 13.5 percent.

“And here is Western hiring a big-time law firm out of Raleigh using taxpayer money,” Nestler said. “It seems a little much.”

WCU has paid the Raleigh lawyers $21,752.34 so far in legal fees, according to the university.


WCU tightlipped on legal battle

The university issued a terse statement when queried about its bid for the radio station, saying through spokesman Bill Studenc that: “Because the application is still pending with the FCC, the university is unable to comment on the status of the application, or any specifics about the application, until that process has moved forward to completion.”

The Smoky Mountain News then filed several requests for information from WCU under the state’s public records law. WCU complied with most of the requests, but has yet to produce emails, as also requested under the state law, to-and-from various university leaders regarding the radio station.

WCU’s legal battle against The Canary Coalition originated under former Chancellor John Bardo, who retired this summer from the university’s top post. It isn’t clear whether new Chancellor David Belcher will embrace his predecessor’s fight.

Records reveal that WCU is fighting The Canary Coalition on every front that it can, challenging a variety of claims in the environmental group’s FCC application, and even arguing about whether The Canary Coalition is locally based as claimed.

The FCC used a point system to award licenses, with applicants given a set number of points if they met certain criteria. The Canary Coalition received five points (three for being local and two for diversity), WCU just three (localism only).

In its petition to overturn the FCC’s ruling that tentatively favors The Canary Coalition, WCU countered that the nonprofit is not a local entity — rather, that people think of it as an Asheville-based group, though it indeed leases office space in Sylva.

Perhaps most significantly, WCU has called into question the financial solvency of The Canary Coalition. The group, WCU’s high-powered legal team says, doesn’t have the money to back the dream of a radio station with regional reach.

The Canary Coalition indeed might have trouble proving it has the financial ability to get a radio station up and running. Friedman estimates it will cost about $50,000 to get on the air, for equipment, staff and so on. The FCC wants those awarded a frequency to have enough money in the bank to construct and operate a radio station for three months.

In a filing with the FCC, The Canary Coalition pointed to a bank balance on Feb. 5 of $43,945.97 as evidence that it can build and operate a radio station.

That just doesn’t cut it, WCU responded in a follow-up filing. A more complete financial picture of The Canary Coalition, not a one-day snapshot, doesn’t bode well for the group’s ability to pay for a radio station, WCU claimed. The Canary Coalition is attempting “to elevate the significance of that one-day balance determinatively above the significance of three years’ worth of public IRS filings … that show Canary’s downward-trending revenues and dire financial health,” WCU wrote to the FCC.

When Friedman put out a fundraising call to help get the radio station up and running in an email newsletter to Canary Coalition members and supporters last week, WCU jumped on it as more evidence the environmental organization doesn’t have start-up costs required by the FCC. WCU filed a supplemental petition late last week, citing the newsletter, that indicates Friedman is soliciting money now from group members for the project.

“This admission by Canary conclusively demonstrates not only that Canary lacks the funds to construct and operate the proposed station for three months without revenue but also that Canary recognizes that it lacks the funds. This admission is fatal to Canary’s financial certification and qualification,” the university’s lawyers maintained.

WCU’s lawyers also pointed out that The Canary Coalition originally estimated costs for the radio station at just more than $39,000, but now is seeking $50,000. Regardless of which amount is correct, WCU’s Raleigh law firm stated, a radio station “is clearly beyond (The Canary Coalition’s) financial ability to build and operate.”


Why WCU wants it

If WCU is able to overturn The Canary Coalition’s rights to the new FM station, plans call for the university to continue serving the area with its current “unique, locally originated programming,” plus to turn the station into “the flagship station in the WCU Catamount Sports Network, airing live college athletics of substantial importance to the local community.”

“Through the airing of its non-commercial educational program service, (WCU) brings thousands of hours of unique radio broadcast programming — including educational and curriculum-related programming — to its service area every year, and … seeks to further its educational mission by expanding its ability to provide such programming to the residents of Western North Carolina.”


Facts about WCU's current radio station

How old is the radio station at WCU?

In 1948, WCCA 550 AM signed on as a radio station from the lower floor of the Joyner building. In 1949, the call letters were changed to WWOO. In 1972, WWOO changed its call letters to WCAT. In 1977, WCAT 550 AM went off the air and WWCU 90.5 FM went on the air.

What’s the coverage area?

Roughly, from west of Sylva to the west side of Asheville, though the terrain of the mountains makes the coverage sporadic in places. The station transmitter is located on Cutoff Mountain near Balsam Gap.

How is it subsidized, to the tune of what each year?  

The radio station receives two funding allocations each year for operational expenses.  The station receives $15,000 from the provost’s office and $27,500 in education and technology funds.

Does the radio station make any money?

The radio station is licensed as a noncommercial educational station and as such does not sell commercial advertising.

Is it student run?

WWCU operates with a student general manager and student program coordinator under the supervision of a faculty advisor. The student general manager and program coordinator work with a volunteer staff of students, staff, and faculty.

What is the programming?

Classic rock, plus weather, WCU sports programs, and some Native American-geared programming.

Source: WCU

A maze of pores and rock fractures in the Appalachian Mountains make it one of the most complex hydrological systems on the planet. More than half the population here relies on groundwater, but the fundamental question of how many wells the landscape can support remains a mystery.

It’s Dave Kinner’s favorite question for new geology students: how porous is the ground underfoot?

“Feel’s solid doesn’t it?” Kinner asked, stomping his foot up and down, making a flat, muffled thud as it hit the earth.

But in fact, 30 to 40 percent of what’s down there is water, seeping, trickling and percolating through the soil and rock layers — and hopefully, if we’re lucky, making its way to the tens of thousands of drinking wells that pepper the mountainsides of Western North Carolina.

“If we are going to be building more houses in this area, is there enough water for everybody?” asked Kinner, assistant geology professor at Western Carolina University. “At what point would they run out of water? That data is not really out there.”

WCU has emerged as ground zero in the field of groundwater research. An outdoor lab on a mostly wooded tract at the edge of campus sports a cluster of well heads poking up here and there, and in one spot, a tangle of wires sticking out of the soil and a rain gauge mounted on a stick.

While unassuming — particularly since most of the apparatus lies underground — the research is plowing new ground in the field of hydrogeology.

“We have some of the most complex rock types anywhere in the world,” said Brett Laverty, a hydrogeologist with the N.C. Division of Water Quality in Asheville. “We know very little about how groundwater moves in this area.”

And, as a result, very little about the carrying capacity for an increasing number of wells being drilled into the mountainsides.

Several summers over the past decade have brought drought conditions to Western North Carolina. Springs that flowed for generations suddenly dried up. Wells that had worked fine before suffered from low flows. New homeowners had to go deeper than ever before to find water.

Kinner hopes the research at WCU will figure out how much rain is actually making it through the top few feet of soil and into the underground aquifer.

Right now, the rate of groundwater “recharge” is a mystery, Kinner said. How quickly groundwater is replenished, compared to how quickly it is being used, is the fundamental question.

“Will it run out before it can recharge?” Kinner said.

The question attracted the interest of the National Science Foundation, which recently made a $200,000 grant to fund the ongoing project at WCU.

Luckily, recharge in the Appalachian mountains is rather quick, compared to underground aquifers in the Southwest that took thousands of years to accumulate but are being used up in a matter of decades.

But even in this temperate rainforest of the Smokies, groundwater isn’t an unlimited resource, and there are lots of variables at play that Kinner and his geology students are probing.

On steep slopes, rain tends to run off instead of soaking in.

Torrential downpours likewise run off instead of soaking in. And if the topsoil is hard and dry, absorption is even more subpar.

Unfortunately, few rains this past summer were the good slow soakers needed for recharge, according to the technical instruments monitored by Kinner and his students.

Rain gauges record both the amount of rain and how fast it comes down. Meanwhile, moisture sensors at various depths and a smattering of nearby test wells record how deep the rain is penetrating and whether it is actually reaching the groundwater table.

Kinner and his students will soon add their very own rain maker to the mix. A rainfall simulator, a homemade contraption sporting a shower head on a giant tripod hooked to a 200-gallon tank, can be maneuvered into place to test absorption on varying slopes and varying types of “rain.”


Below the surface

Mountain aquifers are defined by fractures, akin to ant tunnels in the rocks, ranging from visible veins to microscopic cracks.

How many — and how big they are — make or break a well.

“It is all about fractures. The more fractures you have in the bedrock intersecting a well, the more fractures you will find conveying that water,” Laverty said.

But the maze of fractures below the ground are completely random.

“A well driller who pulls up in your yard can’t say ‘I think the northeast corner will have more fractures than the southeast corner,’” Laverty said.

In the old days, a bucket lowered by a rope into a hand-dug well seemed to serve the early settlers fine. But that would hardly suffice today, not only because a shallow well like that is susceptible to contamination, but the water table at such shallow depths doesn’t have the volume or reliability modern households demand.

Wells drilled today are like a giant tube-shaped colander. The water seeps through tiny holes to fill the shaft. If the shaft doesn’t cross paths with the fractures and veins that carry water underground, however, it won’t fill up.

When that happens, drillers may turn to hydrofracking, which forces fractures in the rock to split open larger and pull more water into the well. This doesn’t always bode well for flow of other wells nearby, which can possible lose some of their pressure.

While WCU’s groundwater research will go a long way toward answering fundamental questions about how fractured rock aquifers behave in the mountains, it won’t tell us definitively, in each and every case, how many wells are too many. The geology is so site specific, that no single model that could be applied to all of Western North Carolina.

“The aquifers here are very dissected, and the fractures control everything here,” Laverty said.

But, if baseline data existed, carrying capacity could be calculated for a particular mountainsides.

“If you do have a subdivision in a particular watershed, you can start looking at that question,” Laverty said.

In Jackson County, groundwater recharge took a lead role in the debate over development regulations four years ago. The rules imposed a sliding scale for the size of house lots: the steeper the slope, the larger the lots have to be. The reasoning: on steep slopes, more surface area is needed to achieve adequate groundwater recharge, according to county planners at the time.

Unfortunately, climate change doesn’t bode well for groundwater recharge.

“One of the larger questions in terms of recharge is, as our climate changes, it will become drier overall and the rain we do have will be more intense,” Kinner said.

Laverty also believes the changing weather patterns of global climate change is bad news for groundwater recharge in the mountains.

“In the past we had rainfall that is spread out, good soaking rains, but now we are going to be seeing more heavy rains that come like a monsoon,” Laverty said.

Laverty said there’s a lot riding on groundwater aquifers in the mountains — around 50 percent of the population here has wells.

“If we have summers with prolonged droughts, a lot of communities could be in trouble. If your well runs dry where do you go?” Laverty said.

There are steps developers can take to help homeowners down the road capture rain and channel it into the ground rather than allowing it to run off. Things like rain gardens and bioswails collect rainfall and give it a chance to soak it before running down the mountain, Laverty said.

“If you want your little subdivision to survive and have enough water for everybody, that is something you need to take a look at,” Laverty said.


Amassing data, nurturing geologists

Kinner, along with Mark Lord, head of the WCU geology department, recently received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to support their research.

All together, there are 40 wells of varying depth scattered across three plots on the WCU campus.

The wells were drilled last year courtesy of the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which is intensely interested in how mountain aquifers work.

The research also aims to understand how shallow groundwater moves laterally through the soil near creeks. Creeks, in essence, are an above ground manifestation of ground water. Creeks are far from static systems, coursing downhill irrespective of the subterranean groundwater around them.

In fact, groundwater not only moves through the soil into creekbed, but in some cases seeps back out of the creeks into the surrounding soil.

This transport of shallow water across soils is being monitored at many of WCU’s test well sites.

There’s another element to the groundwater research that has nothing to do with water, aquifers or hydrology. The geology professors are studying whether undergraduate research approached as a class helps students learn.

WCU has always been big on research. It is actually a requirement of all geology majors.

“The idea is students learn best if they are actually doing things,” Kinner said.

In the past, students undertook an individual research project for a semester, usually in their senior year. This project will engage students from intro to upper level courses, up and down the geology curriculum, allowing the professors to plug different classes in to the long-range research project.

“The grant will allow us to ask the question, ‘How do students at all levels of the geology curriculum benefit from research-based learning?’” Kinner said.

Research fellows will be hired to mentor students engaged in the project. But the applied science will serve a greater good as well.

“We are basically growing more geologists and hydrologists in this area to look at these questions,” Kinner said.

Aside from the occasional “welcome WCU students” signs, there isn’t much visible evidence in Sylva that signals more than 7,000 students have flooded this community for the start of school.

The town isn’t awash in purple, the school’s official color. You won’t see many images of catamounts, the university’s mascot, splashed about.

But despite the lack of an obvious welcome mat, the influx of students is a critical cog in Jackson County’s economic engine — and merchants and elected leaders here know that.

But it’s not always about the direct exchange of dollars. The economic ties between the university and community are often subtler than that.

At Rick’s Full Service Car Wash, Manager Mark Harwood relies on students for a workforce. And, as a general rule, he said, the students are simply stellar in that role.

“They do a great job for us,” he said, gesturing toward the car washers busy cleaning out a line of cars. “I love having them.”

Without WCU’s students, Harwood said he’d be hard pressed to find the dozen or so workers he needs to keep the 15-year business running. Students don’t usually have enough extra cash to get their cars cleaned here, he said, but they are vital to the car wash’s economic wellbeing nonetheless.

“With the economy the way it is, we are a bit of a luxury item,” he said.

At Super Wal-Mart in Sylva, displays cater to students and parents to shop for go-back-to-college items. That money returns to the community in the form of retail taxes.

“It’s a really big deal,” said Jackson County Commissioner Charles Elders of the economic ties between this county and the university.

Elders owns a gasoline station on U.S. 441 between Sylva and Whittier. Students headed west, or commuting in from outlying communities, help make up his business clientele, too — though gamblers headed to the Cherokee casino are even more important on a day-to-day basis, Elders said.

But at the Exxon service station on N.C. 107 in Sylva, students make up most of the business, and on this day WCU student and worker Samantha Talbert is rushing to keep up. It’s 9:30 a.m., and she oversees both the main cash register and drive-thru area.

Even at this early hour, people are driving though picking up six-packs of beer. It’s a Saturday, and people are eager to start their day of fun.

“It’s mostly locals during the day, and college kids at night,” Talbert said between customers.

Talbert eats at local restaurants and shops at local stores. Though she’s more frugal than many — she prefers to make her own meals most days, for health and economic reasons — Talbert still, like other WCU students, helps bolster Jackson County’s economy.

Western Carolina University is facing, at best, an austere financial year.

Chancellor David Belcher, in his first address to faculty and staff, was blunt about the financial difficulties facing the university. He warned his new employees that all spending would be scrutinized, and said they must fully and satisfactorily justify any new programs and course offerings, particularly electives.

The state, when all was said and done, cut WCU’s overall budget by 13.4 percent. While university leaders were prepared for an economic wallop, they were caught off guard by the sudden yanking of another $2 million they’d planned on. This happened when the state didn’t let universities use money left over from the previous budget year. The plan had been to use this carry-forward funding, as had been a usual financial practice at WCU, to help cover ongoing expenses, Belcher said.

Combine the $2 million with the other state cuts, and WCU found itself with a total $4.85 million overall deficit.  

“We cannot run a university this way,” the new chancellor said, explaining that the university’s top officials balanced the budget by whittling away at expenses. This included money set aside to maintain WCU’s information-technology infrastructure.

“Send your most positive thoughts to our IT system,” Belcher told his employees. “It cannot malfunction this year.”

Many in the crowd chuckled — and it really was a crowd, so many faculty and staff showed up for what is generally a beginning-of-the-year formality a balcony was opened in the fine and performing arts center’s auditorium to handle overflow. Belcher added in a serious tone: “No, I’m really not kidding.”

“The budget situation remains uncertain,” he said. “But I assure you that we will make it through these tough financial times.”

Belcher emphasized the need to raise enrollment numbers — which leads to increased state money and tuition money — but doing so while not lowering the caliber of students the university accepts. Additionally, with the state now heavily emphasizing retention and graduation rates, a shift in emphasis must take place, he said.

“Improving our retention rate is everybody’s responsibility,” he said.

But Belcher told faculty he wanted to shed his “reactionay mantle” that defined his first two months on the job. He planned now to throw himself headlong into crafting a new strategic plan for the university. The chancellor urged faculty and staff to join him in taking ownership of WCU.

“The strategic planning process is an opportunity to identify what we will pursue and what we will not pursue,” Belcher said. “In light of the current conditions, we cannot be all things to all people. Everything cannot and will not be a priority.”

The strategic planning process will be led by a steering committee called the 2020 Commission, and will include participation from various stakeholders on campus, such as faculty, staff and students. And, he said, from the external community – alumni, donors, and business and community leaders.

The target is to have a plan ready for presentation to the Board of Trustees at its June meeting 10 months from now.

“Achievement of such a plan will require rejection of myopia and commitment to the good of the whole,” Belcher said. “We will be guided by our commitment to student success – the success of every student. And we will retain that value that has defined us for years, an external focus and external engagement.”

Belcher announced the formation of the Chancellor’s Leadership Council, a group composed of about 40 campus leaders from the faculty, staff, student body and administration.

He also unveiled a more inclusive budgeting process designed to provide additional input into decision-making and enhance transparency. That process will include an annual budget hearing that will involve the newly formed leadership council. Belcher also asked Faculty Senate and Staff Senate to consider the creation of a joint budget and planning committee to ensure that faculty and staff concerns are integrally involved in the budget process.

Between the two of them, daughter Alison “Ali” Howie is clearly holding up better than her mother, Paula Dennis.

“I’m an emotional wreck,” Dennis openly admits after queuing up her vehicle in front of Scotts Dorm. Her husband, Howie’s stepfather, pulls up behind her — Dennis laughs a bit when it’s gently pointed out that her daughter has supplies enough to sustain her through a doctorate degree, not just a single year of college.

Bottled water. Shampoo. Sheets and blankets. Laundry detergent. Snacks. Cleaning items. Clothing. Books. Pens and paper.

It’s move-in day for freshman at Western Carolina University, and Howie is one of 1,450 freshmen and first-year students enrolled for classes. The cars and trucks, and yes even a few U-hauls, stretch in lines as far as the eye can see.

“We’ve been planning and buying for the past three weeks. Well, really, all summer,” Dennis says.

Howie, a self-described “very independent, very organized” 18-year-old from the Mount Pleasant area, hands off a tidily labeled box to a man in shorts with a baseball cap turned around on his head. There’s a lot of help on freshman move-in day at WCU. Professors and staff have turned out in force to ensure their new charges enjoy these first moments on campus.

“You earn brownie points for the labels,” the man says pleasantly. Howie just nods in brief acknowledgement, not yet realizing that this extra pair of arms belongs to WCU’s new chancellor, David Belcher.

SEE ALSO: Faculty packs overflow balcony to hear new chancellor’s opening address

Howie, if she’s nervous, isn’t showing it. She’s got one thing on her mind: maintaining at least a 3.6 grade point average as a nursing major. And that’s one of the main reasons this academically minded young woman chose WCU — because when you get right down to it, there’s not many distractions to be found.

There’s no college scene — nothing close to the much-ballyhooed Athens, Ga., or iconic Chapel Hill — not even a Boone-for-Appalachian State type college town.

In fact, there’s no town at all in Cullowhee, unless you count the handful of businesses that make up the “Catwalk” near the center of campus — a few restaurants, a bank and a laundromat. Or on old Cullowhee road, a tattoo parlor, a hair salon, and a car body shop.

This isolation suits Howie just fine.

“I can drive to Asheville if I really want all that,” she says. “That’s part of the reason I like it.”


Numbers alone no longer count

The University of North Carolina system is changing how universities are allotted money. It’s no longer just about sheer enrollment numbers — more students equal more dollars, so round ‘em up, cowboy. Instead, in the name of accountability, the state is increasingly eyeing retention and graduation rates.

The graduation rate is the percentage of people actually graduating from college. The retention rate, on the other hand, is something that reflects the student body’s overall interest in what’s being offered by the college — the number of students who start at that school who go on to the next year, or years, at the same college.

The student retention rate at Western Carolina University stands at 74 percent, with Belcher recently noting the school needs to pay particular attention to the freshmen-to-sophomore retention rate.

The graduation rate at WCU is low, at an estimated 28 percent in 2010 for fourth-year students, at 46.8 percent for fifth-year students, and 51.6 percent for sixth-year students.

Former Chancellor John Bardo, who retired this summer, often blamed retention and graduation problems, in part at least, on the lack of a college town here at Cullowhee. There’s simply nothing to keep students on campus or coming back each year, according to this theory. In the absence of a college town, Bardo suggested the university build one itself. He forged a vision in his final year for a “town center” built on campus and then leased to restaurants, shops and the like. His plan included a strategy for legalizing alcohol sales for the new “town center,” another aspect of student life now lacking.

As Bardo maintained, the lack of a hip college scene might well feed into university’s graduation shortcomings. But it’s equally clear from incoming freshman that WCU also attracts many students — such as Howie — because of the rural, intimate, anti-urban feel of the campus.

The town center plans have gone on hiatus with the arrival of a new chancellor. And, given the possibility of Jackson County voters next May legalizing countywide alcohol sales — which would suddenly make Cullowhee an attractive market for new restaurants and bars — the very need for a university-driven “town center” might prove unnecessary.

“I like that it isn’t too big,” says Hannah Wallis-Johnson, an incoming freshman from Asheville who is following her mother, Sharon Wallis, to WCU as a student.

Sharon Wallis commutes to WCU in pursuit of a pre-nursing degree; she persuaded her daughter to give this Jackson County university a hard look.

SEE ALSO: Students — and their wallets — return to Jackson County

Wallis-Johnson did just that, and to her surprise (who really wants one’s mother to be proven right, after all), found she loved it: few distractions to disrupt academics, and just an hour’s drive from all the fun in her hometown. That means she can actually drive home for dinner with family, or to entertainment with friends in Asheville, whenever she wants.

“Here, you have to make an actual decision to go out,” Wallis-Johnson says, citing what some might view as void as, instead, a positive.


First-day jitters

Across the hall, Allison Cathey of Haywood County chose WCU for similar reasons. Familiarity with the mountains, in her case, too, didn’t breed contempt — she loves them, and says she never plans to leave them.

Cathey graduated from Haywood Community College, and is excited about this nearby transfer to WCU. She shakes her head when talking about WCU skeptics, those who maintain the school should offer its students a full plate of fun to go with an academic diet.

“The people who say there’s nothing to do in Cullowhee — well, that’s silly,” Cathey says. “I don’t think a town center is really necessary.”

Mother Doris Cathey adds that while she wouldn’t have attempted to influence her daughter’s college choice, WCU is, in fact, the only university her daughter applied to attend.

“This is where she wanted to go,” she says.

“This is where I want to be,” Allison Cathey emphasizes.

On the next floor up in Scotts Dorm, Bryce Hedrick looks and acts nervous. He openly admits to a full-blown case of the jitters — Hedrick, from Thomasville, worries about doing well in his classes.

His mother, Shannon Hedrick, says this is the first time her son has really been away from home.

“This is a big deal,” she says, adding that she’s happy with her son’s decision to attend WCU.

“I like the fact that they seem so focused on the education of the kids,” Shannon Hedrick says.

Her son, like the other freshmen, is enthusiastic about WCU. Many of his friends went to East Carolina University, but Bryce Hedrick says he welcomes the relative isolation of his new home.

“I just really felt like I could focus better here,” he says in explanation.

Page 26 of 40

This Must Be the Place

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