Three complementary actions taken by the Haywood County Board of County Commissioners Nov. 20 show that despite changing conditions in the economic development landscape, Haywood County is serious about moving forward with business attraction, expansion and retention.

haywoodAfter three elk were shot on the Ross dairy farm in Jonathan Creek for eating winter wheat, a follow-up visit from wildlife officials revealed the remains of a fourth elk as well.

fr waterJoyce Porter had just finished cleaning her house in Jonathan Creek and was planning to hop in the shower, but when she turned on the faucet, no water came out.

The cause of a fish kill on an isolated stretch of Jonathan Creek in Maggie Valley last Saturday is eluding environmental agencies and will likely remain a mystery.

A number of trout, from fingerlings to foot-long fish, turned up dead on Jonathan Creek near the confluence with Evans Cove branch in the middle of Maggie Valley.

The exact number has not been confirmed.

“I have estimates that are all over the place,” said Roger Edwards, regional supervisor of the surface water quality branch of the state Division of Water Quality.

The dead fish floating in the water were so visible it even triggered 911 calls.

Jonathan Creek is a source of drinking water for customers of the Maggie Valley Sanitary District. But whatever caused the fish kill did not jeopardize the public water source, according to Neil Carpenter, director of the Maggie water agency. Both water intakes are safely a mile and half upstream from the site of the dead fish.

“As a precaution, we sent our crews to both areas and walked the stream looking. We went a half mile above each intake and walked the stream banks and saw nothing,” Carpenter said.

While Division of Water Quality was alerted when dead fish started turning up Saturday afternoon, no one with the agency made an appearance until Monday. The nearly 48-hour lag time means anything in the water that may have contributed to the fish kill was long gone downstream. But for good measure, field teams took water samples to test things like pH and oxygen levels anyway. They did not do any biological sampling to see what kind of aquatic critters were present.

The tissue of the dead fish is not likely to unlock any secrets. For toxins to show up in tissue, fish would have to be exposed to it over a prolonged period, Edwards said.

In this case, Edwards believes there was an “isolated incident” that caused the fish kill, since the dead fish showed up during a finite window of time and a fairly short stretch of the creek.

Fish kills during summer, and especially during a summer drought, can occur when low creek levels combine with high temperatures to deplete oxygen in the water. But Edwards has ruled out that cause in this case. He doesn’t think it was sediment plume either, as that would have been visible and easy to trace to its source by eyewitnesses.

Like many of the stakeholders in the argument, county commission chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick wishes the county could build enough fields for both sports. He played baseball in college, and his daughter is currently a soccer player.

But if he has to pick, Kirkpatrick believes the baseball and softball community is next in line for an upgrade, citing the county’s recreation master plan showing a greater deficit of softball fields than soccer fields.

The county’s Allens Creek park — constructed nine years ago — elicited a similar debate between soccer and softball. Ultimately, it was designed as purely a soccer park since the need for soccer fields was greater at the time. It has three playing areas, although none are regulation size required for hosting tournaments.

Baseball/softball advocates argue it is their turn now. The county doesn’t operate any baseball or softball fields. Instead teams rely on private fields, town fields and school fields available for teams.

“The main thing that I see is the lack of county-owned baseball fields, but that’s why I also support a multi-use field out there,” said Kirkpatrick, who is also a member of the recreation board. “It’s just hard to get a full-sized soccer field or a full-sized baseball field in the mountains.”

Kenny Mull, assistant commissioner of Mountaineer Little League, is in the same boat as Kirkpatrick, having also been parent of soccer players. But he says the opportunity of having a county-owned baseball/softball facility has been a long time coming.

“I don’t have anything against soccer, but I’ve been with the Little League for 35 years,” Mull said. “It is our time, I think.”

For nearly the entire existence of Mountaineer Little League’s boy’s baseball and girls’ softball programs, games and tournaments have been hosted on fields owned by private civic organizations like the Elks and the American Legion.

The result has been that Mull and other Little League administrators have had to undertake field maintenance on their own, adding a huge amount of cost and labor to the league’s operations.

“It’s really something we need badly and we’ve never had the opportunity to get,” Mull said. “We’ve never even had the chance to push for it until now.”

What Mull is pushing for is a county-owned and maintained tournament caliber baseball/softball complex for the more than 500 boys and girls ages 8 to 16 in the Mountaineer Little League system.

The plan they favor calls for a “wagon wheel” four-plex field setup that would accommodate the new Little League field specifications. As the game has developed, the regulation distance for fences has been moved from the old distance of 200 feet to 225 feet.

Mull said a “wagon wheel” field setup at Jonathan Creek could allow the Little League to hold regional tournaments with four games going simultaneously. The facility could also be a home for adult softball tournaments, though softball fields require 300-foot fences.

“If you had a field like that, you could host Little League tournaments and traveling tournaments any weekend you wanted to,” Mull said.

Mull explained that the Mountaineer Little League currently hosts tournaments among a variety of locations, making it hard for out-of-town visitors to enjoy the experience because they are rushing from one site to another.

He sees the potential for a centralized tournament complex as a revenue boost for the county.

“It’s a great moneymaker for the county, because it brings people into the hotels and restaurants and everything,” Mull said. “It’d be a really good thing. I hope it works out.”

Lee Starnes, past president of Mountaineer Little League, has attended the planning meetings and looked at the proposals. For Starnes, the proposed baseball/softball complex would provide much-needed practice space and solve a longstanding problem.

“Because of our location in the mountains, we simply don’t have the available space and what is available is expensive,” Starnes said.

Like Kirkpatrick, Starnes said he wished the county could build both tournament soccer and softball facilities, but he knows the county budget won’t allow it.

“I’m in for all of it,” Starnes said. “It’s for the kids, and whatever we can do for the kids is great.”

The case for soccer

Soccer coach Nathan Trout recalled, with a tinge of jealousy, the four “unbelievable” sports parks in his Florida hometown, including six soccer fields.

“It’s almost embarrassing for the community to not have nice facilities for their kids,” said Trout. “I’m just surprised that there’s not a piece of land where they can build it all.”

Trout said he doesn’t understand why the county can’t accommodate athletes from multiple sports in one convenient location.

Trout, who coaches a traveling girls’ team for Carolina Mountain Soccer Club, says he’s had trouble convincing other teams to come to Haywood County.

“Here, we’re so limited,” said Trout. “Obviously, baseball is facing the same problem.”

Currently, the county has no regulation-size soccer fields, and the facilities that are around are either not well-maintained or not publicly available after hours. None of them are striped for soccer, according to soccer coach Geoff Chitea.

Not infrequently, slack mowing schedules allow grass to grow too high for play, while fields remain wet long after rainfall.

Some field owners bar access after hours due to potential liability issues, and others drag the goals off the field to specifically discourage soccer games after hours.

“They don’t want the grass messed up,” said Chitea, who likened playing soccer without goals to playing basketball without a backboard.

Both Trout and Chitea argue that developing soccer fields at the Jonathan Creek Park would benefit more people than the community realizes.

Trout estimates that 600 kids play soccer in Haywood County alone, while Chitea emphasized that adults like to play casual games all throughout the year. On most evenings and weekends, about 15 to 20 people regularly show up to play pick-up games of soccer.

“We’ve had nights during the summer where our numbers swell up to 30 people,” said Chitea.

While football and baseball enthusiasts pack up whenever their season ends, Chitea says there’s really no such thing as a soccer season.

“You see soccer players out on those fields all year long whenever the weather’s nice,” said Chitea.

Trout and Chitea said they are disappointed with the three options presented by the recreation board at the last meeting.

“Obviously, soccer really took a backstage to baseball/softball,” said Chitea. “They all look like we built a baseball facility, not a community park.”

Chitea says the multipurpose field seems more like an afterthought, with restrooms situated much closer to the baseball fields in all three options. Kids who play anything other than baseball or softball will face a much longer trek to the bathrooms.

Chitea says he does appreciate the walking trails at the park, and hopes that the multipurpose field will at least be Astroturf to allow for soccer play year-round.

Meanwhile, Trout would like to see the Haywood County community readjust its focus. Citizens placed too much stress on the park’s ability to drive revenue at the first public meeting, Trout said.

Rather than chasing athletes from other towns, the county’s primary concern should be taking care of the youth at home.

“I think there’s too much focus on worrying about tournaments and driving revenue, rather than taking care of the kids and the community that presently play here,” said Trout.

It’s not often that soccer players go head-to-head with softball and baseball athletes.

But whenever Haywood County decides to build a new recreation park, they may do just that.

A competitive spirit creeps from the field into public meetings, as athletes from the same sport band together to make the case for a facility that will best meet their needs.

In recent years, the debate has fostered a rivalry between soccer lovers and those passionate about baseball and softball. Now that the county has begun design work on a new park in Jonathan Creek, the same dialogue has resurfaced.

Of course, the county recreation board would love to satisfy athletes from all sports with pristine new fields, but lack of available funding demands tough choices.

So far, Haywood’s recreation board has collected ample citizen input to assist them in the decision-making process. The board has put out two online surveys and held two public meetings. An impressive crowd of almost 60 people piled in to have their say at both meetings.

For this round, the baseball/softball folks have earned a clear upper hand, despite soccer players’ success in skewing the online survey results toward developing a soccer field.

The county recreation board has opted for a mix of uses at the Jonathan Creek park with a heavy emphasis on baseball and softball. The three potential design concepts presented at the last public meeting each include four baseball fields and one “multipurpose” field.

Two sets of plans for the park have emerged as frontrunners. One plan entails four softball fields and a large multipurpose artificial turf field that could be adapted as a full-size soccer field. The other also has four softball fields clustered centrally as a single complex, but leaves less space for the multi-use field, which is smaller.

The board’s decision was heavily guided by a recreation master plan developed by the county in 2007. The plan demonstrates a clear need for more facilities for all three sports, but a greater deficit of softball and baseball fields than for soccer.

“The master plan is just clear cut, right there,” said Claire Carleton, Haywood County recreation director. “Since we don’t have any baseball/softball fields, that’s where the most urgent needs lies.”

According to the study, the county needs seven more baseball fields and seven softball fields by 2027. In comparison, there will be a deficit of only two soccer fields and two multipurpose fields that same year.

On the other hand, soccer fields are cheaper to develop than baseball and softball fields. Building a soccer field with a goal on each end is a less complicated proposition than developing baseball and softball fields with dugouts, fencing and score boxes.

On Tuesday, April 6, the recreation board will consider which of the three plans to adopt. Each side continues to make their case, and one thing is clear: the debate is far from over in Haywood County.

Developing a moneymaker

Money is not trailing far behind sports in the minds of citizens enthused by the new park.

Residents overwhelmingly favor developing a sports park that produces revenue by ushering traveling teams to the region’s hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

Investing in a high-quality sports complex does have potential to bring serious cash flow into the county, according to Steve Fritts, landscape architect with Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon.

His firm, which is designing the Jonathan Creek Park, recently completed a tournament-size softball complex in Chattanooga. On its opening weekend, 250 teams descended on the town to utilize the $11 million, eight-field complex.

Meanwhile, the vision for a park in Jonathan Creek is currently limited to 22 acres of space. Fritts has recommended expanding the park to at least 40 acres in the future.

A dearth of funding is the major obstacle in creating a larger park, however. Haywood County commissioners have already dropped $1 million to purchase the park property, while the Town of Maggie Valley also chipped in $115,000 toward the property purchase.

In addition, the recreation board has found it difficult to commit the entire park to just one sport. It turned down the firm’s proposal for developing five baseball fields — even though that would likely prove more lucrative in attracting tournaments.

Recreation Director Claire Carleton said the board shied away from narrowing the scope of the park to ensure that the community facility offers something for everyone.

The three concepts the board chose included not only baseball/softball fields and a multipurpose field, but also a playground, an accessible fishing pier, a greenway trail, a water play area, a loop trail with fitness stations, and picnic shelters.

While a larger park would improve prospects of hosting tournaments, Carleton is pleased with the progress on the park as is.

“This is an excellent start for the county,” said Carleton.

Despite a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, April 6, the board may not vote on adopting a specific plan just yet. County Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick, who sits on the recreation board, pointed out that the reality of a new recreation facility is still a long way away.

“The fact of the matter is this is a plan to utilize that property but not necessarily the exact plan that will be used at the time of construction,” Kirkpatrick said.

Haywood County residents have another chance to steer plans for a park in Jonathan Creek at a public meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 25.

The meeting will be held at the County Office building on Russ Avenue past K-Mart, formerly known as the MARC building.

The design firm will present up to three conceptual master plans for the park, based on input from the first public meeting held March 4 and an online survey.

The first meeting drew a crowd of about 45 people, with most people supporting baseball/softball fields, a soccer field, or fitness trails at the park.

Residents also favored developing a handicapped fishing facility, batting cages, and a fit course. They hoped to see the park maximize revenue potential and gear recreation to locals.

Meanwhile, soccer fans mobilized support to dominate an online survey posted online from March 5 to 22. About 75 people completed the survey, with 21 respondents advocating for soccer fields and opposing baseball/softball fields.

Claire Carleton, Haywood’s recreation director, said the public meeting was civil even though attendees had clashing interests there as well.

“It’s not a conflict,” said Carleton, “Everyone is going after their passion, whether it be baseball or softball.”

Many who completed the online survey said they liked the idea of mixing different uses, though they did not provide a clear direction for what should be included in that mix.

Haywood County commissioners purchased the 22-acre property for $1 million in 2007. In February, they hired the design firm of Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon Inc. to develop a master plan.

Each of the workshops will build on the information gathered from the previous meeting. After receiving input at Thursday’s public meeting, the firm will develop a draft master plan and determine costs.

A third and final public workshop will be held on Tuesday, April 27, at Maggie Valley Town Hall.

The firm hopes to present the final master plan to the county board of commissioners on Monday, May 17.

For more information, contact Haywood County Recreation and Parks at 828.452.6789.

Haywood County commissioners decided Monday to move forward with the design phase for a proposed public park and sports field in Jonathan Creek.

The county’s Recreation and Parks Department is accepting conceptual proposals from local consultants until Dec. 30.

Though the public park is a recreational priority, the recession has pushed the project to the backburner.

“This has always been one of our front projects,” said Claire Carleton, recreation director for Haywood. “But [we realize] that this is not the time to ask for additional county funding.”

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick is looking forward to making progress on the park.

“We really need to proceed with a plan if we’re going to do anything with this in the future,” said Kirkpatrick. “The property is just sitting there.”

The 2007 comprehensive master plan calls for lighted baseball/softball fields, picnic facilities, creek access, a multipurpose field and sustainable design concepts at the new park.

The planning and design stage, which will include public input, is expected to take four to six months.

As of now, about $15,250 has been set aside for the planning process. Most will be funded with tourism revenue, with about $10,000 coming from lodging taxes collected in Maggie Valley and Waynesville.

Much public money has already been invested in the proposed park since 2007.

The county dropped $1 million on the 22-acre parcel in the midst of a heated bidding war that year. Soon after the county successfully bought the property, it became entangled in a lawsuit with a farmer who argued the property owner, Lucius Jones, had promised the land would be signed over to him upon Jones’ death.

The county did not settle the case until November 2008, and since then it has been leasing the property to the very same farmer.

A Tennessee man claims he was defrauded of $328,000 by the players behind Cataloochee Wilderness Resorts, a planned mega development in Haywood County that is in the preliminary conceptual stages.

Plans for Cataloochee Wilderness Resorts call for a 4,500-acre development in Jonathan Creek. Five years into the project, however, the developers still do not own any land.

They have neither secured financing for the project nor lease agreements from retailers to occupy a massive shopping center. The project remains controversial due to its scale. Locals have expressed skepticism about it ever coming to fruition.

The lawsuit alleges that Dean Moses, a consultant for the project, got an investor to put up money for down payments on land but then diverted the money to other uses, including the personal gain of Moses and his wife, who live in Clyde. It’s not the first time Moses has courted investors for a speculative development in Haywood County. (see “Lawsuit echoes of past business dealings.”)

John Thornton, a developer from Chattanooga, is suing Moses for fraud, conspiracy, and breach of contract for diverting money earmarked for property purchases to other uses.

Thornton was courted by Moses to invest in the project in 2005. He was first introduced to Moses by a Knoxville attorney, Robert Worthington. Worthington was aiding Moses in the pursuit of Cataloochee Resorts and encouraged Thornton to invest in the project. After their introduction, Thornton met with Moses several times in Knoxville to structure the terms of a joint venture agreement.

The two forged a partnership, creating a corporate vehicle to acquire land for the development. Thornton put up $328,000 to be used for down payments on land, stipulating in the joint venture agreement that if the land deals didn’t go through, Thornton would get his money back, according to Thornton’s suit. The money was held in escrow by a title insurance agency, Investors Title.

After putting up the money, Thornton was told in 2005 that the purchase of property was “imminent.”

“Moses continually represented to Thornton that property was being acquired, that loans were being arranged, that contractors were being contacted, that the projects were moving along,” the suit alleges. But nearly a year later, land had still not been purchased.

In June and July of 2006, Moses arranged two separate transfers of Thornton’s money out of escrow and into a new account.

Moses failed to tell Thornton about the transfers, according to the lawsuit. When Thornton learned of the money transfer, Moses refused to tell Thornton how his money had been used, the suit alleges.

Thornton’s money was transferred into an account held by an entity called Cataloochee Companies. The original entity created by Thornton and Moses had been called Cataloochee Corporation.

Thornton claims the creation of a new entity constitutes another violation of the joint venture agreement. To protect his financial stake, Thornton had stipulated that no additional shares could be awarded that would dilute his 50 percent stake in the development, according to the suit. Moses denies agreeing to such a stipulation.

Along with the $328,000 earmarked for land purchases, Thornton loaned another $275,000 to cover operating expenses for the project. The expenditure of those funds are not contested in the lawsuit.

Arms length

Frank Wood, president of Cataloochee Companies, the entity currently pursuing the development, distanced himself from the lawsuit and from Moses.

“We have absolutely nothing to do with that,” Wood said. “I am not a party to it and absolutely don’t care about it.”

Wood said that Moses is “strictly a consultant” on the project.

In his lawsuit, Thornton objects to the characterization of Moses as merely a consultant, as he considers Moses a major player.

Meanwhile, Moses referred to himself as a “manager” of Cataloochee with the “authority to conduct, manage, and control the affairs and business of the company,” according to Moses’s response to the lawsuit. He also described himself as the primary agent for negotiating deals with property owners, arranging leases with retailers, and securing financing.

Wood said that the company Thornton originally invested in is no longer the developer of Cataloochee Resorts.

“That’s an entity that died,” Wood said.

However, Moses’s response to the suit described Cataloochee Companies as the successor to the original entity created by himself and Thornton, Cataloochee Corporation.

Moses responds

In response to the lawsuit, Moses claims that Thornton isn’t entitled to get his money back because the property deals are still pending. Just because the deals haven’t taken place doesn’t mean they fell through; therefore, there is no reason to refund the money.

At one point, Cataloochee developers had property options on just a few tracts. But those have since expired.

Moses claims that Thornton understood the speculative nature of his investment.

“Thornton was aware that Cataloochee owned no real estate and has no assets other than a business plan and the development plan,” Moses’ reply to the lawsuit states. Thornton “was fully aware of the status, nature, and risks associated with the proposed development.”

Further, Moses points out that Thornton’s loans were to be repaid out of excess funds available — of which there aren’t any.

Moses claims he didn’t need Thornton’s permission nor was it necessary to notify him if his money was transferred out of escrow into another account. He states that the funds were used appropriately “to pay debts and obligations of Cataloochee.”

“Moses denies any fraud or deceit in connection with such transfer,” Moses stated in his reply to the suit.

Moses points out the money in escrow was not actually Thornton’s, but belonged to Cataloochee and had merely been placed in escrow to facilitate property deals. Thornton’s original loan was funneled through Cataloochee on its way to escrow, so when it was no longer needed in escrow, it was appropriate to transfer it back to Cataloochee rather than back to Thornton.

Moses has countersued Thornton for breach of contract. Moses alleges Thornton hamstrung the project by failing to put up more money. Thornton also refused to use his personal credit to help guarantee loans or to help raise additional capital, Moses complained.

Moses described Thornton as “unavailable” and “uncooperative” in advancing the project.

“Moses was left with the task of running the day-to-day operations, as well as arranging for and obtaining loan commitments and all other tasks involved in trying to advance the project’s development,” Moses wrote in his countersuit.

Moses also sued Thornton for defamation for a comment made to the Knoxville newspaper about the suit.

Personal gain?

Thornton is also suing Moses’s wife, Colleen. The suit alleges that Colleen withdrew $52,000 of Thornton’s money from the Cataloochee account and deposited it into a personal savings account in her name at a Blue Ridge Savings Bank.

Colleen was listed as a signatory on the Cataloochee account in Knoxville. Thornton discovered that Colleen was writing checks out of the account and depositing them into her personal bank account, thanks to bank records obtained through his lawsuit.

“Substantial other funds were removed from such account for the personal living expenses of Colleen Moses and Dean Moses,” the lawsuit alleges.

Bankruptcy in the midst

Meanwhile, another player in the Cataloochee Wilderness Resorts development has filed for bankruptcy in Knoxville. Robert Worthington, the Knoxville attorney who introduced Thornton to Moses, has accumulated more than $75,000 in credit card debt and a $240,000 bank loan tied to Moses and Cataloochee Companies, according to bankruptcy filings.

Worthington listed more than $75,000 in debt on six credit cards that he claims were jointly used by Moses, who is listed as a co-debtor for the six cards. Worthington is disputing debt on those cards, with a citation in the filing that they were “used by Cataloochee.”

Moses is also listed as a co-debtor on a $240,000 loan from BB&T. Worthington used his name to guarantee the loan for Cataloochee Corporation.

Fraud lawsuit echoes of past business dealings

Does the name Dean Moses, the subject of a financial fraud lawsuit by an investor in Cataloochee Wilderness Resorts, ring a bell?

It should. Moses was the figurehead behind a string of failed business proposals for the closed-down Dayco factory in Waynesville — a saga that spanned several years and eventually ended in bankruptcy court.

Moses and his business partners created one company after another with plans to develop the dormant industrial site. They solicited capital from private investors and lending institutions, racking up debts on company credit cards in the meantime.

When one company hit a financial dead-end, it was dissolved and a new one created.

The third company in the chain actually landed in bankruptcy court. Undeterred, Moses and his partners created yet a fourth company touting an all-too-familiar development plan. They hoped to leave their debt behind in bankruptcy court while walking away with the property intact and trying again under a new entity.

The bankruptcy court balked and instead ended the cycle by foreclosing on the property. The Dayco site eventually became the property of the Haywood Advancement Corporation and is now a shopping center anchored by Super Wal-Mart.

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