Large, walk-in beer coolers are ready and waiting to be stocked at Dwight and Jamie Winchester’s Catamount Travel Center, a gas station directly across the street from the entrance to the Cherokee Indian Reservation on U.S. 441.
They’ve been there for eight years in anticipation that one day alcoholic beverages could be sold countywide in Jackson. The day of reckoning has finally come, with Jackson voters poised to decide on countywide alcohol sales in the May primary election.
And the financial stakes for the sale of alcoholic beverages by the Winchesters and others in the Gateway community along U.S. 441 just got a lot higher after Cherokee voters overwhelming decided this month to keep the reservation dry except for the casino.
Winchester’s gas station is literally the first and closest stop for potential beer buyers from Cherokee, literally a stone’s throw from the reservation boundary line.
Winchester is keenly positioned to capture the business of anyone in Cherokee looking for beer, saving them what would otherwise be 15-minute drive west to Bryson City or a bit more than that east to Sylva.
“We don’t have to have beer to be successful,” said Dwight Winchester, gesturing at his bustling store, mid-morning on a workday. “But we do, of course, want it.”
Winchester said there has been a lot of land speculation along U.S. 441 in anticipation of a “yes” vote to alcohol sales. Winchester said that he expects plenty of company in coming days, in the form of other businesses setting up to sell alcoholic beverages, if the vote indeed passes.
The Winchesters currently employee 42 people, and they expect to add two or three more workers if alcohol sales are allowed.
Winchester, though he clearly and unabashedly hopes the referendum does go through, is concerned about perceptions of his business on the nearby Cherokee Reservation when he begins selling alcoholic beverages.
“I have great respect for the folks and the pastors who feel so strongly against it,” said Winchester.
The Bryson City native added that he’s struggling with how exactly to broach the matter with those Cherokee residents who just voted “no” so clearly — more than 66 percent specifically voted against the sale of beer and wine at gas stations and grocery stores — firmly and unequivocally.
“But, the economic increase is going to outweigh any negative you can come up with,” Winchester said.
Winchester said the beer companies clearly believe the sale of alcoholic beverages will pass in Jackson County because they’ve frequently been in his store to discuss the matter. Those sellers’ guesses are as good as any: there’s barely been any discussion of the matter publicly, for or against, in Jackson County since commissioners first decided on the vote last year. That, however, certainly wasn’t the case in Cherokee.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, groups for and against the sale of alcoholic beverages on the reservation were busy mailing out flyers, putting up signs and giving speeches to bolster their cases.
A recent study by Martin and McGill found that the tribe conservatively would have received up to $3.8 million in revenue via an ABC retail store within five years. The tribe’s version of sales tax was projected to pump a total of $1.7 million into Cherokee’s general fund from the addition of alcohol sales.
Winchester’s Catamount Travel Center is a combination gas station and Huddle House. The Winchesters have an identical business in Cullowhee, too, another potential hotspot for the sale of alcoholic beverages with the captive Western Carolina University population. The Gateway business was built in 2004, the one in Cullowhee in 2001. When both were built large beer walk-in coolers were included in each.
To say they are now perfectly positioned to benefit financially from the sale of alcoholic beverages is to indulge somewhat in understatement.
If it passes, Jackson would be one of only three counties in WNC with countywide alcohol sales. Henderson County is holding a referendum on countywide alcohol in May as well.
The majority of voters in Jackson County support countywide alcohol sales, at least according to a Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/The Smoky Mountain News poll conducted to two years ago. It revealed that 56 percent of registered voters would support legalizing countywide alcohol in Jackson County compared to 39 percent who would be opposed. The poll surveyed nearly 600 registered Jackson County voters.
Jamie Winchester said she is uncertain how quickly the couple’s stores would be able to sell alcohol if the measure passes May 8. She has been undergoing a self-taught crash course in North Carolina alcohol sales to, in part, try to determine just that.
Dwight Winchester said if the vote is “no” that’s OK with the couple, too.
“We’re not going to go anywhere regardless,” he said.
Historically, ballot measures on alcohol sales in Western North Carolina have been bitterly fought affairs, with pro and con forces battling it out publicly via billboards, church pulpits and through newspaper and radio advertising.
But, that’s not been the case in Jackson County, where voters go to the polls next month to decide on whether to allow countywide alcohol sales. If the referendum passes, Jackson would be one of only three counties in Western North Carolina with countywide alcohol sales, joining Buncombe and Clay. Henderson County is also holding a referendum on the issue in May.
In Jackson County both sides — if there are actually two sides — look set to head to the polls next month with nary a shot fired for or against the important vote.
“I think it’s a reflection of a different era and a different time,” said the Rev. Rich Peoples of Grace Community Church in Sylva.
Peoples said he believes that “churches frankly are fairly conflicted” on the issue. Most in this day and age, the preacher said, opt to leave the decisions about whether to drink alcoholic beverages — in moderation — to individual church members. And, the same is true concerning decisions about whether to vote for alcohol sales countywide, too, Peoples said.
The majority of voters in Jackson County support countywide alcohol sales, according to a Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/The Smoky Mountain News poll conducted to two years ago. It revealed that 56 percent of registered voters would support legalizing countywide alcohol in Jackson County compared to 39 percent who would be opposed. The poll surveyed nearly 600 registered Jackson County voters.
“My guess is that people want economic development and that people are concerned that it will help businesses thrive,” said Becky Kornegay, a Jackson County resident who works in Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library.
Like Peoples, Kornegay attributed the lack of obvious opposition to “it being just a different time — surely that battle already has been fought. You can buy beer now in Sylva.”
Gibbs Knotts, interim dean of Western Carolina University’s department of political science and public affairs, also pointed to the economy as one driving force for why there seems to be little to no public opposition.
“There may be concern about the positive economic impact” of a yes vote to the alcohol referendum, Knotts said, saying the lingering recession might have created more favor for the potential boost in tax revenues that widespread alcohol sales promise.
Knotts also pointed to Clay County as a possible bellwether of change to WNC’s traditionally fierce no-alcohol stance. Clay is one of the region’s smallest and most rural counties. Residents there in 2009 voted to allow alcohol sales countywide.
There is a possible wildcard in the May primary: Amendment One is also on the ballot. Knotts said that could skew the vote one way or another, depending on which camp — pro-same sex marriages or against-same sex marriages — succeeds in galvanizing voters. That’s presuming, of course, that those in favor of same sex marriages would be more liberal and therefore would vote in favor of countywide alcohol sales.
Not everybody is pointblank in favor of countywide alcohol sales in Jackson County, however. Cullowhee business owner Robin Lang said she has heard opposition and added that she has mixed feelings about voting “yes” herself. That’s because, Lang said, she’s concerned there’s no overseeing body such as a planning board in Cullowhee to shepherd in the commercial growth that likely would follow such a vote.
While Cullowhee is not an official town, as home to WCU and the large student population, it is already Jackson County’s largest and fastest-growing community. Cullowhee grew 47 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the latest U.S. Census. Cullowhee alone accounted for almost 24 percent of Jackson County’s total population of 40,271 people, despite lacking official town status and having no tangible business district.
Former Chancellor John Bardo floated a novel idea in 2010 to try to bring alcohol to the community. Bardo approached the tiny town of Forest Hills next door to WCU and suggested it legalize alcohol sales and then annex the university and its surrounds into its town limits — possibly opening the door for bar-like establishments that seem part and parcel of a vibrant college atmosphere. That idea has dissipated with Bardo’s retirement last July and with the very real prospect of countywide sales by referendum vote.
“There are people a little afraid of the alcohol vote,” Lang said, however, counting herself among that number. “There is a bigger picture. I was originally for it, but I’m more confused now about which way to vote.”
Whittier and the Gateway area of Jackson, which serves as an entrance to the Cherokee Indian Reservation, is the other community most likely to experience growth if alcohol sales are voted in countywide. Mark Rose, owner of GSM Thrift and Gift is all for the economic boost he believes alcohol sales would bring. His business is located between two service stations; Rose said customers looking for beer are turned away every day.
“People stop here for beer and we have to send them on back up the road to Sylva,” he said. “I tell them, go to Exit 81. That man at Exit 81 must be rich. All our tax dollars go there, and we need to try to keep them here. Everybody is struggling for money.”
While Jackson County is dry, alcohol sales have been permitted in Sylva in some form since 1967. Most recently, Sylva voters approved the sale of mixed drinks in restaurants in 2006, giving it the full compliment of beer, wine and liquor sales, whether in restaurants or to take home. Dillsboro has allowed the purchase beer and wine only in restaurants since 2005.
In Cashiers, numerous loopholes in the state ABC law allow several bars and clubs there to legally sell alcoholic beverages in ostensibly “dry” Jackson County, either by qualifying as a “members-only” club or a sports club if its has an on-site golf course or tennis courts.
Whittier’s $5 million wastewater treatment plant could be facing eventual financial insolvency, saddled with too much overhead and too few customers to make operation viable.
The sewer plant, in hindsight, was overbuilt for growth and development that failed to materialize along the U.S. 441 corridor in Jackson County that leads to Cherokee. Ten years later, the plant with a capacity to treat 200,000 gallons is handling a mere 8,000 gallons with just 36 customers.
There’s only enough money to keep operating, as-is, for two more years. Then it’s decision time for the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority. TWSA, formed to oversee water and sewer needs for Jackson County’s residents, is the reluctant manager of Whittier’s treatment plant, a role the authority inherited. Stakeholders such as Jackson County and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians also must make funding decisions when current payments and savings run dry. And, Jackson County would like to see Swain start helping out after learning that most of the customers are actually residents of that county.
“This could be a little touchy,” Joe Cline, executive director of TWSA, told Jackson commissioners recently. “But, the majority of this system lies in Swain County. And they’ve never been asked to participate.”
“Looks like we should be sending someone a bill,” Commissioner Doug Cody noted.
The plant was built with grant funding, including a nest egg to subsidize operations until the customer base grew. Jackson County and the tribe struck an agreement to pitch in during the initial start-up years.
Jackson County has kicked $300,000 into the plant. It relies on the facility to handle wastewater from nearby Smokey Mountain Elementary School.
The tribe originally bought into the plant concept, to the tune of $100,000 a year for three years, in hopes of using the facility to serve a recreation complex and golf course. Cherokee, which owes one remaining $100,000 payment, ended up taking care of its own wastewater needs from the complex and golf course, arguably getting little out of its investment but making good on its promise.
The Whittier Wastewater Treatment Plant has 25 residential and 11 commercial customers. It has added just a single three-bedroom house to the customer rolls since the plant came online just more than 10 years ago. The customers served by Whittier’s wastewater treatment plant chip-in a total of $20,000 a year to the cost of operating the plant, which comes to about $180,000 annually.
It processes so little sewer that its systems have trouble functioning at times.
“We have to haul sludge to the plant when school is out to keep it operating properly,” Cline said.
Before the sewer plant was built, projections showed 40 customers had an interest in tapping in to it. Of those, 10 or 15 weren’t close enough to tie on to the system after all. Another six or so had done something else while the plant was being built, such as put in individually owned septic systems.
“If the projections were correct, then at the end of two years, TWSA would have been able to take over and break even, debt free, with operating revenues to pay the costs of going forward. Problem is, the projections haven’t come true,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten told county commissioners recently.
Wooten emphasized that he would like to see TWSA retain its role with the plant, which is technically under the management of the Whittier Sanitary District. That group has been the target of sharp criticisms for lack of accurate recordkeeping and failures to submit timely audits to the state as required.
Still, Wooten maintained, the plant “is an asset, there’s no doubt about it. It’s just a waiting game, it’s waiting on the development. But the plant will allow the development to take place.”
As of this week, Jackson County had not officially contacted Swain County about helping to offset costs at the Whittier wastewater treatment plant.
Just more than 10 years ago, setting the table for economic growth around Whittier seemed something of a no-brainer — the casino in Cherokee was booming, and it seemed inevitable that businesses such as restaurants and hotels would clamor for space in the gateway area along the U.S. 441 corridor leading into Cherokee.
Meanwhile, residents in the unincorporated community were complaining about failing septic systems. Whittier lies along the Tuckasegee River, saddling the borders of Jackson and Swain counties. There were some reports of straight-piping sewage into the Tuckasegee River. The nearby Church of God’s Western North Carolina Assembly wanted to expand. The septic system at Smokey Mountain Elementary School, a few miles along U.S. 441 in Jackson County, no longer could serve the number of students required. And, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians was completing a recreation complex and was intent on building a golf course not far away, both eventually finished and now open. Under the guidance of the Southwestern Development Commission, these stakeholders came together and built the Whittier Wastewater Plant.
Ray Bradley Jr. is the talkative type. He’s not shy airing his opinions, whether the discussion is about Cherokee tribal politics or, as is the case now, what legalizing alcohol sales throughout Jackson County could mean along the highway leading to the reservation.
Growth, Bradley said confidently, will explode if a ballot measure next May opens the door for countywide alcohol sales in Jackson. It could bring with it major changes to the Gateway corridor — the stretch of U.S. 441 leading into the Cherokee Indian Reservation and the tourist magnet, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.
Cherokee itself is dry, except for the casino property, which serves alcohol for in-house consumption only. The closest town to Cherokee to buy a six-pack or bottle of wine is Bryson City in Swain County, roughly 10 miles away.
Jackson County’s alcohol vote could change that, making alcohol available at the reservation’s doorstep, capturing not only the demand for alcohol by local Cherokee people but the tourist market as well.
County commissioner Charles Elders, who owns and runs a gas station on U.S. 74 a couple of miles from the turnoff to Cherokee, also believes the legal sales of alcohol could spur growth in that area. He said he personally wouldn’t sell beer, but that won’t be his decision to make — Elders, at 68, is preparing to turn the business over to his son, Dewayne.
If alcohol became readily available at Cherokee’s doorstep, Bradley thinks that would bring development on par with Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Elders isn’t so sure of that, though he does endorse growth as a virtual inevitability if alcohol sales are voted in.
Bradley’s theory might seem a leap when compared with the sprinkle of businesses lining the corridor today: a few gas stations, a dollar store, thrift shops and several older motels, some of them now vacant. In Bradley’s book, rapid growth would be a good thing, bringing money, jobs and prosperity for many people now suffering without. This economic trifecta, he’s sure, simply awaits legalized alcohol sales. Bradley’s family runs a business along the four-lane highway, the Nu2U consignment shop.
“The Bible thumpers and the bootleggers won’t like it,” Bradley predicted. “But there’s no reason this gap shouldn’t look just like Gatlinburg within five years.”
Noel Blakely, owner of the Old Mill General Store and Craft Shop along the corridor, is more tempered in his view of alcohol.
The price of property on the highway in to Cherokee has increased lately, and Blakely thinks the prospect of legal alcohol sales could further that trend. It could bring a few nice restaurants and generally improve the caliber of businesses along the highway.
But Blakely believes the damage of making alcohol more accessible in Cherokee would far outweigh the benefits.
“I’m against alcohol,” said Blakely, a member of the tribe. He voted against bringing it to the casino, and if he decides to vote in the ballot measure next May, he would vote ‘no.’
Locals would no longer have to make the trek to Bryson City for alcoholic beverages, and that could fuel drinking problems on the reservation. Blakely said.
“I am a businessman and I would like to see that money stay in our community, but I see the damage it does,” Blakely said. “Jackson County is not going to pick up the tab for alcoholism.”
Bradley however, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is hopeful legalized alcohol sales just outside the reservation in Jackson County would force the tribe to follow suit. If voters in Jackson say ‘yes’ to countywide alcohol sales, dry Cherokee will have a tough choice to make: watch Jackson County rake in new business on the reservation’s very doorstep or take a cut by legalizing alcohol sales in Cherokee, too.
Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t believe anything done by political outliers will move the reservation toward making “forced” decisions.
“Fortunately or unfortunately,” Pegg said, “nothing too much ‘forces’ Cherokee to do anything — over the years, Cherokee has done what it thinks is best for Cherokee. But if you can get alcohol on both sides but you can’t get it in the middle, while it won’t force anything, it might strengthen the argument for it here.”
Alcohol long has been a contentious issue in Cherokee. But two years ago voters approved the idea of selling it at the casino by a surprisingly large majority, 59 to 41 percent.
Last November, Jackson County residents voted in a new majority onto their board of commissioners. Headed by Chairman Jack Debnam, a political maverick and real estate man who doesn’t actually drink himself but has advocated for residents’ right to decide, the conservative-weighted board has signaled its intent to move forward with an alcohol referendum vote.
County Manager Chuck Wooten said that the wording of the ballot measure might be ready for review by commissioners at their meeting on Monday (Oct. 17). Debnam had asked Wooten and County Attorney Jay Coward to work on the document.
Wooten also believes that legalized alcohol sales would fuel business growth, particularly in Cullowhee with its Western Carolina University-student population. The same potential may hold true in the area of Jackson County outside Cherokee that some so strongly believe is an economic tinderbox waiting for just the right match to strike.
Jackson leaders saw the area primed for growth long before the prospect of countywide alcohol sales.
There is water and sewer in the area already, and a newly built sewage plant in Whittier with the capacity to treat 200,000 gallons of wastewater a day. Although for now, it serves only a handful of customers.
The former board of commissioners, anticipating growth from the advent of water and sewer, even created a land-use plan to regulate the commercial development they thought would surely spring up eventually — no one wanted another U.S. 107 in Jackson County, that overbuilt, congested strip marking the southern end of downtown Sylva.
But the predicted growth never materialized. At least, it hasn’t yet.
Oxford Hardware Store is busy. As the nearest place for the community’s residents to find nails, tools and some household goods, this store has long served as the ‘town’s’ heart.
In the winter, older men like to gather picturesquely around the woodstove toward the back of the store. Even on a warm fall day such as this one, a number of the community’s residents still make their way inside.
Kandace Powers was among them. She stopped to pick up a few items and share whatever community news might be on tap. Powers believes legalizing the sale of alcoholic beverages in Jackson County would be fine, “if nothing else, to help commerce,” she said. “It might help the economy.”
And, it might just help Whittier rebound a bit, too, she said. The one-time booming town, since turned sleepy hamlet, straddles the county lines of Swain and Jackson, several miles past the highway exit leading to Cherokee.
Whittier, incorporated in 1907 and unincorporated in the late 1930s, could once boast of large sawmills and even, according to local historian Gloria Noland, the largest department store west of Asheville.
The railroad fueled growth in Whittier. And the community, she said, has experienced sales of alcohol before — a beer joint and dance hall were located upstairs from one the store’s in Whittier, the two-story brick building where you first turn into the community after leaving the highway.
“Whittier, then, was truly looking forward to becoming a big city,” Noland said.
But the town fell on hard times with a timber-harvest decline, the Great Depression, and, perhaps, the final indignity of the devastating flood of 1940, she said. That was when the Tuckasegee River raged across Jackson County, changing the landscapes permanently in riverside communities such as Cullowhee and Whittier.
Today, there is little more here than a bunch of old houses, the Oxford hardware store, a post office, a community building and Noland’s thrift store. Housed inside is her “micro Whittier museum” and a model replica of 1900 Whittier, a reminder of better times and when the town attracted droves of tourists and shoppers.
One of three board members overseeing the Whittier Sanitary District resigned this month, saying he could not “in good faith” continue to serve with a group not in compliance with state law.
“In addition, refusing to file the necessary Internal Revenue Service forms to declare wages and benefits taken from the citizens of Whittier is wrong,” John Boaze, the board member, wrote in his resignation letter.
Boaze has persistently carried on a one-man crusade to force the Whittier Sanitary District board to adhere to the same rules governing other public boards, which he says they’ve openly flouted. Open meetings, audits, public records — rules like that.
To date, those with authority to intervene haven’t seemed to be listening.
That situation, however, might have shifted, at least marginally, in the wake of Boaze’s resignation.
The N.C. Department of the Treasurer, in an earlier response to Boaze’s complaints, sent the Whittier Sanitary District a strongly worded letter advising it to comply with state accounting practices. Last week, the Treasurer’s Department confirmed it’s monitoring the situation.
“If it is determined that the district is not consistently making an effort to follow sound accounting practices or general statutes, division staff do have authority to control the financial operations of the district,” said Heather Strickland, deputy director of communications.
Jackson Manager Ken Westmoreland said he had consulted with Kevin King, his counterpart in Swain County, to see what — if anything — needed to take place.
“The Whittier Water and Sewer District is an independent legal entity and if organizational change is to come about, it will have to be from state pressure in some form,” Westmoreland said.
Boaze likely encountered entrenched bureaucratic hesitancy for this reason: it’s all so danged confusing, and very few Whittier residents actually rely on the system — particularly when compared to the inordinately large number of governmental entities playing starring roles in the small, unincorporated community’s serial water-and-sewer drama.
Once someone pulls the first thread on this ball of twine, no telling what might come unwound.
The Whittier Sanitary District doesn’t oversee sewer needs in the Whittier community – the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority (TWASA), which operates in Jackson County, controls that service for Whittier.
The Whittier community encompasses land in both Jackson and Swain counties, meaning county commission boards in both have a hand in the district.
Though the Whittier Sanitary District doesn’t have anything to do with the day-to-day duties of handling the community’s sewer needs, the district does have responsibility for drumming-up customers for a new wastewater treatment plant, built to the tune of about $5 million. The board, to date, has failed to attract customers. The plant, which has the capacity to treat 200,000 gallons of wastewater a day, currently serves 12 customers.
TWASA, forced kicking and screaming a few years ago to take control of the wastewater treatment plant, isn’t happy. When extra money being chipped in by Jackson County and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians dries up, it appears the plant will be a massive drain on TWASA. Something akin to a fiscal sewer, as it were.
Jackson County is on its final year of a three-year agreement to provide $100,000 annually to TWASA. This $300,000 is on top of an initial $750,000 investment.
TWASA has encountered difficulty wresting the same amount in promised dollars out of the tribe, which has cited a different budget cycle than everyone else, among other reasons for the missing contributions. The check has been in the mail for about two years, with the first $100,000 payment promised to arrive any day. The tribe, like Jackson County, already paid about $750,000 to help build the plant.
Additionally, the Church of God added $500,000. Located near Whittier, the Church of God sports its own mini-version of the Methodist’s Lake Junaluska Assembly in Haywood County.
TWASA Executive Director Joe Cline says his board will decide at the beginning of the coming year whether to keep on keeping on when it comes to the wastewater plant. It might well decide, No thanks. In that case, who will operate it?
Back to the Whittier Sanitary District board, and the reason it exists. The district’s board is tasked with overseeing the water system serving the Whittier community. There are about 100 customers relying on that system.
But, of course, it isn’t that simple. The Whittier Sanitary District board doesn’t actually maintain or operate the water system, either — that’s done by the Eastern Band, which has tracts of tribal land in and about the Whittier community. No one knows how much longer Eastern Band leaders will want to continue this task, which aids not only its neighbors but also those tribal members who live in the area.
Add one more item: Cline is on record saying TWASA does not want Whittier’s water system. The wastewater treatment plant is providing enough headaches, thank you very much.
Back about a decade ago, setting the table for economic growth around Whittier seemed something of a no-brainer — the casino in Cherokee was booming, and it seemed inevitable that businesses such as restaurants and hotels would clamor for space in the gateway area along the U.S. 441 corridor.
Meanwhile, residents in the unincorporated community were complaining about failing septic systems. Whittier lies along the Tuckasegee River, saddling the borders of Jackson and Swain counties. There were some reports of straight-piping sewage into the river.
The nearby Church of God’s Western North Carolina Assembly wanted to expand. The septic system at Smokey Mountain Elementary School, a few miles along U.S. 441 in Jackson County, no longer could serve the number of students required. And the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians was completing a recreation complex and was intent on building a golf course not far away.
Ten years and some $5 million later, a wastewater treatment plant now serves all those needy entities.
Blame the economy, the parties involved certainly do; but the bottom line?
• Assessments about growth turned out to be wrong, at least to date. There are just 14 customers being served by a plant with annual operating costs of roughly $180,000 a year. The plant is capable of treating 200,000 gallons of wastewater a day — and the treatment facility was built with future expansion in mind.
• Jackson County residents continue to kick in $100,000 a year to subsidize the system. The county agreed to help pay for the system for three years, and has one more year to go.
• The Eastern Band also made the same deal, but the tribe — citing an unfinalized budget, and a different fiscal-year budget than other local governments, among other reasons — hasn’t yet made a payment. It is now $200,000 behind on its $300,000 pledge. The first $100,000 of the tribe’s commitment is in their current 2010-11 budget, which began Oct. 1. A payment is expected soon, Vice Chief Larry Blythe has assured parties involved.
• The Whittier Sanitary District, a three-member board that continues to oversee water for the community and is tasked with getting more customers for the wastewater treatment plant, instead hasn’t even met basic requirements the state sets for governing boards.
A letter last month to the district from the Department of State Treasurer complained that no budget has been adopted, the district operated at a net loss with actual expenses exceeding budgeted amount, board members were reportedly receiving utility services free of charge, an audit hadn’t been done as required, and the financial officer wasn’t bonded as the law stipulated. The district has since cut out the perks for board members but is still working at coming into compliance on the other matters.
All of this has created a hardship for the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority (TWASA), which became the reluctant manager of Whittier’s sewer system. TWASA was formed to oversee water and sewer needs for Jackson County’s residents, with the idea that one large entity would do a better job than the county and towns (there are four in Jackson) working alone could.
“It’s at the point we will have to decide whether to keep operating the plant, or turn it over to the Whittier Sanitary District,” said Joe Cline, executive director of TWASA.
That decision, he said, will be made around the beginning of the new year.
When the subsidies from the county and tribe dry up, the 14 current customers won’t be enough to cover the system’s costs.
Bill Gibson, executive director of the Southwestern Development Commission, a regional council for the state’s seven westernmost counties, is a dealmaker. And he was the man who helped put together the money needed to make the wastewater treatment plant a reality.
This was a complicated project, one of the most intricate deals Gibson has been involved in since taking the lead role for the commission in 1976. There were numerous private and public parties involved. Millions of dollars were needed.
Land, owned by the Jackson County Economic Development Commission, was available in an industrial park in Whittier. And in 2001, the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center agreed to give the project a $3 million grant.
Getting the necessary permits to build took two years. Among the delays — an archaeological site and the need to tunnel pipe under the Tuckasegee River.
During this time, prices on building supplies went up. The grant wasn’t large enough to cover the bids coming in. More money was sought and received from Jackson County, the Eastern Band and the Church of God. Total, Jackson and the Eastern Band invested about $750,000 each into the project. The Church of God, about $500,000. The N.C. Rural Economic Development Center added $200,000 more to its original grant amount, Gibson said.
For Jackson County’s part, Manager Kenneth Westmoreland said, the elementary school’s failing septic system presented a problem that had to be solved. Gibson estimated it would have taken more than a $1 million for the county to buy land and put in a new septic field and sewer system.
“Even with a new septic field, you are buying time, but it would eventually fail, too,” he said.
Though additional money was made available, some things had to be cut to make the sewage treatment plant a go.
“Some of the reason we don’t have the customers we thought is that we had to cut out some lines,” Gibson said.
The initial estimates were for 40 customers to tap in. Of those, 10 or 15 weren’t close enough to tie on to the system after all. Another six or so, Gibson said, had done something else while the plant was being built, such as put in their own septic systems.
Westmoreland recently noted the Whittier Sanitary District hasn’t been very aggressive in recruiting new customers.
There are a lot of ‘ifs’ before the building of a wastewater treatment plant in Whittier can be deemed a failure or success. If the economy rebounds, if investors see a reason to build on U.S. 441, if residents in Whittier tap in to the system, the plant will serve the purpose intended. Everything is in place for that to happen — in addition to sewer lines, there is also water, natural gas and high-speed fiber optic.
But 14 customers? That won’t turn the system into what was envisioned: self sustainable and justifiable.
The chairman of a board overseeing the water needs of just more than 100 residents in the Whittier community said people there will keep receiving the service, and that state concerns about the group’s operations are being addressed.
Whittier Sanitary District at this point contracts out sewer services to the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority. It still directly oversees the community’s water supply.
The Department of State Treasurer, in a Sept. 8 letter, warned the district “has serious financial problems which the governing board must address immediately.”
State concerns included: No budget has been adopted, the district operated at a net loss with actual expenses exceeding budgeted expenses, board members were reportedly receiving utility services free of charge as a perk, an audit hadn’t been performed as required by state law and the financial officer wasn’t bonded as the law stipulated.
Mitchell Jenkins, chairman of the three-member board, said the Whittier Sewer District does now have a budget, and that it will be adopted at next month’s meeting. Members are “not now” receiving free utilities, and the group was late getting an auditor because they were shopping around for someone affordable, he said.
Water customers, who pay $17.50 monthly to residential water service and $20 monthly for a business, don’t need to worry, the board chairman said, describing Whittier Sanitary District as “a good working system.”
Jackson County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland said he was aware of the state letter to the Whittier Sanitary District, but described the county’s role as “nebulous.”
Whittier is located in both Jackson and Swain counties. The sanitary district’s three-member board has oversight. Board members are elected, but two resigned in the past year.
Jackson County commissioners appointed John Boaze, one of those members, recently to fill one of the vacancies. He has been a sharp critic of how things are — or are not — being managed.
“I’m just hoping we can start complying with the laws of North Carolina,” Boaze said, adding that board members planned to go through the letter “point by point” during its Oct. 7 meeting.
“We need a reliable water system in this area,” he said. “That’s my main concern.”
There are also potential problems looming for the sewer-system side of the enterprise. Just 14 customers have signed on to receive sewer services through the Whittier Sewer District, managed by Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority. But, the system was intended to become self-sustaining, and shows few signs as yet of achieving that goal.
“Whittier Sewer District has not been very aggressive about soliciting customers,” Westmoreland said.
During the past three weeks, tomato farmers in the Thomas Valley near Whittier have been unable at times to run drip irrigation equipment to counter drought conditions because sediment in the Tuckasegee River was clogging their pumps.
“With the 90-degree days, it’s really critical that these farms get drip irrigation,” said William Shelton, who runs a vegetable farm in Thomas Valley. “That river’s our lifeblood when it comes to these crops. Particularly during drought.”
Tomatoes are 85 percent water. When the plants are overstressed, they will actually take water back from the fruit, ruining the crop.
Kent Cochran, who farms 20 acres of tomatoes just up the road from Shelton, doesn’t understand how the river can be full of mud when there is no rain.
“When it rains, there’s going to be mud for a day or two but that’s not really an issue,” Cochran said. “We’ve been needing the water bad these past three weeks, and sometimes we go over there and it’s clear, and other days it’s mud.”
Robbie Shelton, the Jackson County erosion control officer, has been equally perplexed. Shelton’s job includes monitoring construction sites that could dump sediment into the river.
Last week, Robbie Shelton traveled up and down the river in search of an answer to the farmers’ questions. The focus of his investigation was Duke Energy’s efforts to restore the streambed above and below the former site of the Dillsboro Dam.
Shelton took pictures during the first week of July that showed the river was clear above the dam and increasingly turbid below.
“The Tuck upstream of the dam is clear. It’s downstream that it’s muddy,” Shelton said.
Shelton said during the drought, the river was increasingly muddy as it moved downstream towards Barker’s Creek.
“The closer you get to Thomas Valley the dingier it gets,” Shelton said. “It’s a progression. I’ve tried to find a source, and there’s not been one that’s been found.”
Nate Darnell, who works an 8-acre tomato field in Thomas Valley as part of his North Face Farm, has tried to bring some levity to an otherwise worrisome situation.
“As a farmer, I have to deal with a lot of runoff regulations, and it strikes me as ironic that the upstream runoff from development is causing us the problems now,” Darnell said
The restoration of the stream bank at the former Dillsboro Dam site is monitored daily by personnel from Duke Energy in accordance with the Clean Water Act and overseen by the N.C. Division of Water Quality.
Duke has been monitoring turbidity below its work zone. It has not exceeded state standards. In fact it has been well below them, according to Duke spokesperson Jason Walls.
“The turbidity and the sediment in the river are coming in from other places,” Walls said. “We feel confident that our operations aren’t increasing the levels of sediment.”
If the dam site isn’t causing the sediment, then what is?
That’s the question Cochran and Darnell are asking. Darnell has observed that on dry days the river gets turbid in the middle of the day.
“It was coming on down here about midday, anywhere between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.,” Darnell said. “I really can’t give you a good reason, but I could speculate.”
So far this summer, Darnell estimates he has lost between one and three tomatoes from each of his plants. By the end of the season, those losses could add up to $25,000 in lost crops.
Darnell said farmers are constantly dealing with loss, whether from drought or insects or crows, but having the cause be the river that is the valley’s lifeblood is mystifying.
“The river’s not always going to be clear, but we really shouldn’t have to fight it during drought,” Darnell said.
By Josh Mitchell • Staff Writer
J.R. vanLienden grew up in a frame shop and used to promise himself he would never get into the field of photography.
Now he has purchased the old Whittier elementary school built in 1936 to operate as a retreat for photographers from around the country to learn about photography.
Vanlienden, clad in workshop overalls, speaks very fast and said his attention deficit disorder doesn’t allow him to have a favorite photographic subject.
After taking family portraits on the beach for 15 years in Sarasota, Fla., vanLienden decided it was time to try photography in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Located at the base of Smoky Mountains National Park and in the rustic railroad town of Whittier, the school is an ideal setting for photographers to get away from it all and improve their craft.
Workshop attendees spend part of their time getting hands on instruction from professional photographers and can also take off on their own to explore the nationalpark and take some pictures.
The school, Smoky Mountain Learning Center, hosts different workshops, ranging from three to five days, put on by him and other professional photographers. The goal is for the school to be the new “photography mecca” in the mountains.
It will become the largest photo gallery in the region, he said. The school offers a feeling of learning while being able to enjoy the surrounding mountains, he added. With full production and framing facilities the school provides a romantic setting to learn photography. The long hallways are lined with large photographs taken by vanLienden, and the former classrooms provide learning spaces.
The stage of the school’s auditorium is filled with pictures vanLienden has taken.
He has taken some stunning shots of the Smoky Mountains, including waterfalls and streams.
Nature photography is not all he does though. He does a lot of portraits, and particularly has a passion for pictures of babies and their mothers.
One eye-catching picture was of a large nude African American man with his baby sitting down on his back.
While he was in Florida he made a living taking pictures of families on the beach but said he had to give that up because his four children were growing up on him too fast.
So he decided he would move the family to the Smoky Mountains region. Gatlinburg was the first idea, but he couldn’t find the land he needed to open his studio.
On the way back home to Florida he picked up a real estate magazine and saw that the school and five acres were for sale for $500,000.
His wife didn’t think it was such a good idea after seeing the condition of the school, but vanLienden convinced her that it could be fixed up.
Now that the school has been rehabbed, the next step is to expand the photography school. Plans are in the works to bring 25 to 50 cabins to the property that workshop attendees can stay in them.
He also plans to open a daycare in a section of the school. And in the future there may be workshops for subjects other than photography including cooking, woodworking and arts, he said.
By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer
Students at Smokey Mountain Elementary and Cherokee Indian Reservation schools will be learning an important lesson about land development.