Swain County has now been targeted as part of a regional effort to drum up financial support for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s steam engine dreams.

Dillsboro officials are leading the charge, already courting Jackson County to make loans or grants for the railroad, and is now asking Swain County to participate as well.

Two members of the Dillsboro town board, David Gates and Tim Parris, addressed the Swain County commissioners last week to discuss the possibility of joining forces to either loan money or pony up cash to help the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad expand its operations.

Specifically, the tourist railroad wants to transport a 1913 Swedish steam engine from Maine to Western North Carolina and build two engine turntables necessary for its operation.

“It would probably be one of only ones in America,” Gates said. The railway has applied to Jackson County for a loan, a grant or both to help make the project a reality.

Steam engines are a rarity, and their antiquity is enough to draw new visitors to the railway.

“This could change Western North Carolina,” Gates said. “It could be probably the second largest tourist attraction outside Biltmore.”

In order for the project to work, the railroad would need a turntable in Dillsboro and one in Bryson City, where the steam engine could be turned around. Currently, the tourist train based out of Bryson City simply goes in reverse when reaching the end of its trip in order to return to the depot. But steam engines cannot move in reverse like the diesel engine that currently runs on the railroad.

Each year, 180,000 people ride the privately owned Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, and the new steam engine will increase business by 15 or 20 percent, said Al Harper, owner of the railroad.

“Any steam engine will draw attention,” he said. “There just aren’t a lot of steam engines around anymore.”

And, the turntables themselves would be a big draw for visitors, especially if they include a viewing walkway where spectators can watch the engine being rotated.

The turntables as well as the creation of a walkway surrounding the mechanisms would cost about $600,000 total, plus about $450,000 to move the steam engine and railcars from Maine. It is unclear exactly how much the railroad would put up itself versus how much it is asking for.


A slice of the pie

While Swain and Jackson counties may be amenable to helping the railroad, as talks continue they may bump heads over a fairly significant detail. Both counties would like the steam engine based in their hometown as a condition of putting up money.

“I am very much in favor of the steam engine, and I’m in favor of the turntables,” said Robert White, a Swain County commissioner. “It’s unique.”

However, White would prefer that rides on the new engine originate from Bryson City.

“As far as I’m concerned, the steam engine should come out of Bryson City,” White said. “That is going to be a decision made by Mr. Harper.”

White added that the county is willing to do anything it can to help the railroad as long as it benefits Swain County.

Meanwhile, Jackson County has been clear that is wants the steam engine based out of Dillsboro for at least five years.

Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said the county would insist on that in writing as a condition in of any loan or grant the county made.

“We wanted to make sure number one that the train was going to operate mainly out of Dillsboro,” he said.

Harper said that Bryson City would remain the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad’s center of business but that Dillsboro would become the center of operations for the steam engine. This would give both towns a slice of the railway’s revenues.

Swain County commissioners suggested that a meeting between the railroad and leaders in Jackson and Swain counties to iron out the details.

“Everybody wants to see the jobs come in. Everybody wants to see the trains come in,” said David Monteith, a Swain County commissioner.

A talk will not take place for at least another few weeks because several key officials will be on vacation.

“We need a good joint cooperation,” Monteith said.

Talks between Dillsboro and the railroad were put on hold before Christmas because of a problem in Colorado, home to one of Harper’s other railroads.

Gates has spearheaded the negotiations between the Town of Dillsboro and the railroad.


Costs unknown

Harper and Dillsboro officials have tossed around various numbers for nearly a year, but it is unknown how much, if anything, Jackson County will chip in to help the railroad.

“That is kind of a wide open thing,” Gates said, declining to list a number until one is presented to the town or county in writing.

Harper said he is reviewing his original plans and looking for ways “to get the cost down.” One option would be to sell the eight passengers cars that he purchased along with the steam train and only transport the engine to Western North Carolina, he said.

“I really don’t need more rail cars,” Harper said.

Moving the steam engine train from Maine will cost about $450,000 on top of the $600,000 for turntables, but no one was willing to say how much the total project will cost.

“We don’t have a final idea of what funds are available,” Harper said.

However, Harper did say at one point he could pick up half the tab of moving the train if Jackson County paid the other half.

Meanwhile, Gates is hoping that Dillsboro to help the railroad land a grant for up to $200,000 in Golden Leaf Foundation to help pay for the turntables.

However, more details must be settled before the town can submit a funding application.

“We can’t apply for a Golden Leaf grant because we’re not ready to,” Gates said.

The town needs the support of Swain and Jackson counties as well as Bryson City if it wants to move forward with the project.


Boon town

The train used to run from Dillsboro to Bryson City and beyond, but in 2005, the railroad moved its base of operations to Bryson City.

“(In the past) There hasn’t been the cooperation with Dillsboro,” Harper said. “There were some feelings for a while that Dillsboro did not care about the railroad.”

The railroad is a boon for whichever town it originates from. People riding the train shop in the town’s stores and eat at its restaurants both before and after their ride. While those stops along the tracks such as Dillsboro also benefit, the economic ramifications are considerably less because visitors only have a 90-minute layover in the town.

“We need something to get ‘em to stop here,” said Tim Parris, an alderman from Dillsboro.

When the railroad shifted its headquarters to Bryson City, Dillsboro suffered as tourism declined. The steam engine would bring those visitors back to Dillsboro.

The town indirectly lost about 44 jobs as a result of the move, Gates said.

The railroad has said it will hire 15 people to run its operations out of Dillsboro, but the return could create more jobs at local shops and restaurants, Gates said.

After years of talk and little action, Swain County is moving forward with a long-held dream to turn its iconic, domed courthouse into a cultural history museum and visitors center.

The architectural centerpiece of town, the old courthouse has been mostly empty for three decades since court functions moved out in the 1929s, aside from housing a senior center that has since relocated.

“We’ve had this vision for a long time,” said Ken Mills, executive director of economic development.

The county has seriously discussed such a transformation since 2009, though the idea was tossed around for years prior to that. In that time, Mills has not heard a derogatory comment about the county’s plans.

“We have never had anyone say it was a bad project, a useless project,” Mills said.

The cost of renovations is estimated at $750,000. But, by using some of its own building and maintenance employees to do some of the work, the county hopes to reduce the overall price tag, Mills said.

The county has taken out a $600,000 loan for the project. Another $100,000 is being kicked in by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, which will run a bookstore in the museum. The non-profit functions as a support arm for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, operating bookstores inside the park selling everything from guidebooks and maps to souvenirs.

The Swain County Chamber of Commerce will move at least part of its visitor center operations into the old courthouse. The chamber is not sure yet how much of its operations will move into the refinished courthouse, said Karen Wilmot, executive director of the Swain County chamber.

“We support this project. We very much look forward to this building being renovated,” she added.

Employees from the chamber and the Great Smoky Mountains Association will help man the center.

Several years ago, the county undertook a three-year planning process to identify what stories should be highlighted in such a museum. In addition to the natural and cultural heritage of Swain County, the museum will include the history of the national park, a major drawing card for tourists traveling to the region.

“The park’s history is our history,” Mills said.

The county has also reached out to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to see if they would be interested in being included in the museum exhibits.

The old building, located at the corner of Everett and Main streets, will also offer people access to public restrooms, which could provide crucial for downtown event attendees throughout the year.


The blueprints

Most of the estimated project cost will pay for renovating the second floor, which needs considerably more attention than the first floor.

The entrance level was redone in the 1980s and features up-to-date fixtures and molding. One of the few original parts of the building, which was erected in the 1920s, is its outward appearance.

“We’re not really sure how much we will be able to restore,” Mills said. “But, most of the things we have saved we’re going to try to keep and somehow put back in here.”

For example, the county saved the original seating from the upstairs courtroom but was unable to restore stamped tiles that decorated the ceiling.

In simply preparing for the renovation, county workers have uncovered several hidden elements of the old courthouse. At some point in its long history, the county decided to drop the ceiling level in the courtroom, concealing a number of small windows at the top of the walls.

In the past, unfortunate souls who found themselves face-to-face with the county judge could look up, through a window in the ceiling to a still functioning bell that crowns the old courthouse. Somewhere along the way, however, the windowpanes were painted white, depriving people of the view.

The main visible changes to the first floor will include new furniture and a long wooden counter where someone will greet and aid visitors, and vignettes painted on the walls, similar to those at the new Great Smoky Mountains National Park Oconaluftee Visitors Center at the park entrance outside Cherokee.

The upstairs portion, which will serve as the museum, is quite a different story. With some missing windows, no ceiling beyond wooden beams and a concrete floor that failed the pounds-per-square-inch test, the second floor will need the most renovation.

“We are going to end up redoing this whole upstairs,” Mills said.

The upper level once served as the courtroom and could in the future include artifacts such as the shell of a log cabin, showing how the people of Swain County once lived.

Several county residents have already offered to display their family artifacts in the museum.

Once construction begins, the renovations will take two years.

“We are hoping to get started soon,” Mills said.

Mills said the new visitor center and museum will hopefully draw more people, or rather potential customers, to the town.

In addition to renovating the building, the county plans to construct a parking lot behind the building that could be accessed via Main Street. Currently, the gravel-covered lot sits empty.

Mills said he did not know how much the lot would cost, but it has not been figured into the estimated renovation costs.

The county is also looking into put a small park next to the lot, where people can just sit or have lunch.

“We are hoping to have nice green space out there,” Mills said.

Bryson City Fire Department failed its state mandated insurance inspection last week for failing to respond to false alarms.

The department would often be en route to a call when firefighters heard from 9-1-1 dispatchers that it was actually a false alarm. The dispatcher would cancel the call, and the volunteer firefighters would go back home. It is unknown how many instances there were. It only takes two so-called “non-responses” to fail the inspection, and after that the state quits counting, said Marni Schribman, a public information officer with the N.C. Department of Insurance, in an email.

The state requires fire departments to respond to the scene, even in the case of a false alarm, to verify it is indeed false. The inspector met with the local dispatch supervisor and informed them of the rule, Schribman said. The dispatch supervisor said they will now notify the fire department if a call is a false alarm but will not cancel the fire department’s response, she said.

The argument over the non-responses seems to be a matter of paperwork, however.

If at least four firefighters do not report to the scene when a fire alarm is triggered, the call must be classified as a non-response. In some cases, a single firefighter may continue to the scene, but if the required four do not, it gets logged as non-response.

Fire departments are required to submit all their calls to the N.C. Department of Insurance. There is nowhere in the filings for the fire department to indicate if a firefighter confirmed a false alarm call, said David Breedlove, coordinator of Swain County 9-1-1.

Dispatch is working on how it logs calls to make records more comprehensive, Breedlove said.

Swain County’s three volunteer fire departments receive about 20 false alarm calls each year, he said. Most of the false alarm calls come from non-residential buildings, and a worker is usually present to confirm over the phone to the dispatcher that there is indeed no fire.

The Bryson City Fire Department has now been placed on a 12-month probation and must not report any non-responses during that time.

“If they continue to have non-responses on a regular basis, then they could lose the current insurance rating,” Schribman said.

The probation will not affect their current rating or insurance rates for homeowners in their coverage area. The fire department has a good rating, Schribman said.

The state insurance department must inspect fire departments at least every five years, and a low rating could cause the price of homeowner’s insurance to rise.

The Cashiers Glenville Fire Department in neighboring Jackson County only receives two or three false alarms each year.

“We don’t have a whole lot,” said Corey Middleton, chief of the department.

Often times, false alarms are triggered by strong winds or thunderstorms, Middleton said. When the department learns that the alarm is false, whoever is closest to the scene continues to the address to confirm the false alarm, he said.

Swain County High School’s football players and coaches on Monday were in a different sort of huddle than usual. Instead of planning the next play, they were picking out a design for their championship rings following Saturday’s 20-14 win over Ayden-Grifton.

They also were trying to absorb certain key facts, such as emerging from a hard-fought football season as the state’s 1-AA champions. And becoming the only Swain County team ever to win more than 15 games in a season.

That’s saying a lot — this is Swain County’s eighth state football championship title, though it represents the school’s first since 2004.

Player Lee Pattillo and Quarterback Colby Hyatt — Hyatt was named the game’s most valuable player for rushing 70 yards and passing for 48 more — looked a bit like deer in headlights. They admitted feeling sort of like deer in headlights, too.

“It’s awesome, unbelievable,” said Pattillo, whose father is head coach Sam Pattillo. Lee Pattillo led the team in tackles this year.

After helping to pick out the ring design, the football players returned to classes. Though it’s doubtful they were able to focus much on this day — or any of their excited classmates, for that matter — on assigned school material.


Opportunity called, Swain answered

Coach Pattillo is a soft-spoken, seemingly unassuming man. He’s answered a lot of questions lately about Swain football, and patiently answers each reporter’s version no matter how repetitive they must, by now, truly seem.

What does a state championship mean to you, the team, the school, the community?

“It’s a big accomplishment,” Pattillo said. “… winning a championship is something special.”

What was different about this team; did luck play a part?

“I don’t believe in luck,” Pattillo said in reply. “I believe in opportunities.”

And, he added, in hard work, talent and commitment, both on the field and in the classroom.

“If we’d not won, we would have been disappointed, but we still would have done our very best,” Pattillo said. “And I think that’s all you can do.”

Many at this school, at least the guys working here, seem to have played high school football. Swain County High School Principal Mike Treadway, a broad-shouldered, burly man whose physical presence dominates his small administrative office, played on Swain’s 1985 state championship football team.

Though Treadway clearly relishes the team’s accomplishment, he said that the real goal here is achievement in the classroom and in other areas of life. And that goes for all of the various students who attend Swain County High School, no matter whether it’s playing in the band, hitting volleyballs over a net, or even catching touchdowns on the field in pursuit of a state championship.

“We’ve only had one fellow leave and make money off football,” Treadway said pointedly.

That would be U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, a standout football player at Swain County High School and, later, at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville before turning pro with the Washington Redskins.


Ties that bind

If there’s been one anchor to give weight to the Swain County football program through each of the school’s eight state titles, it’s Offensive Line Coach and Assistant Principal Billy Jenkins. The players and coaches were crowded into his office selecting the ring design.

Jenkins played on a state football championship team in Robbinsville. He has coached for 32 years in Swain County, making him an integral part of every state football championship the school has won: 1979, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990, 2001, 2004 and 2011. Jenkins just participated in his final game, however, he’ll retire at the end of the school year.

“It’s just time,” he said in explanation.

The ties that bind this school and team are incredible. Jenkins started his job at Swain County in the spring of 1979 when Coach Pattillo was a quarterback for the Swain team, leading them to the school’s first state championship that year. Jenkins has now helped coach Pattillo’s son, Lee, to the school’s most current championship, and coached Principal Treadway to the one won in 1985.

Jenkins is no less thrilled with, or jaded by, this eighth championship.

“It doesn’t get old at all,” he said. “They’re all great. And, as a coach, you want these kids to win one, because it’s something that you never forget, playing on a state championship team.”

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.

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