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Tuesday, 01 January 2013 00:00

2012: The year in review

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coverThe Smoky Mountain News takes note this week of some of the newsmakers of 2012 by handing out our annual awards. Back issues of the newspaper never fail to reveal a variety of humdingers: the funny, the astonishing, the interesting, the dismaying. Some we’d like to forget, others we love to relive for the good laughs they bring.

For those who made the list, hats off to you for giving us something to write about this year. For those who didn’t, there’s always 2013.

 

 

‘Best in Show’ Award

Nothing spooks a group of county commissioners quite like a crowd decked out in camouflage ball caps, industrial-grade Carhartts and mud-caked boots — particularly if their pick-up trucks in the parking lot are filled with dog crates.

Meet the local hunting bloc, whose political power isn’t to be underestimated.

Jackson County commissioners had been pressured for months to do something about the incessant barking dogs that were driving neighbors to their wits end. But when county leaders even uttered the word “ordinance” to rein in the aggravation of non-stop barking, coon dog hunters quickly nipped the idea in the bud, delivering impassioned speeches about Appalachian heritage and culture being under assault from outsiders.

 

Santa Claus Award

When allegations of waste and fraud at the N.C. highway maintenance office in Haywood County brought investigators from the State Auditor’s Office knocking, Ben Williams figured he may as well level with them.

“Some people view me like Santa Claus,” Williams, the DOT maintenance supervisor in Haywood County, told them. “When people need something, I try to help them out … I’m kind-hearted.”

Especially when state credit cards were involved apparently. Investigators found DOT maintenance workers in Haywood County bought excessive quantities of tools — sometimes crossing the line from “must-have-it-for-my-job” to “that-would-look-good-on-my-garage-pegboard” category. Tools were often purchased from traveling salesmen who made regular calls to the DOT maintenance shed. Some of the tools later went missing, which DOT workers retroactively blamed on a break-in when investigators questioned why the tools weren’t in the DOT’s inventory.

The 18-month investigation, prompted by an anonymous whistleblower, also showed Haywood DOT workers were turning a blind eye to padded invoices filed by private contractors, routinely paying questionable overtime and supervising relatives. One employee moonlighted on the side for a contractor, but in her DOT day job, she awarded bids to the very contractor she worked for on the side.

Thank goodness the state was understanding. No one lost their jobs as a result, nor have charges been pressed.

 

Pinocchio Award

Just like Pinocchio’s dream of being a real boy one day, Cullowhee pines for the day when it grows up to be a real college town.

It got one step closer this year, when Jackson County voters approved countywide alcohol sales. Students no longer have to make the trek to Sylva to belly up to the bar. Restaurants and gas stations around the relatively isolated college campus can now finally sell booze.

 

Hail Mary Pass Award

U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, did not do his party any favors this year when he, at the last minute, announced that he would not run for re-election to the U.S House of Representatives.

The 11th-hour bombshell left Democrats scrambling to find a viable candidate — and they came up with none other than Shuler’s own chief of staff Hayden Rogers.

But, like so many Hail Mary Passes, Shuler’s attempt to lob the ball to Rogers failed.

Despite subscribing to the same breed of conservative “Blue Dog” Democrat beliefs and high school football draw, it wasn’t enough to win him the seat in the U.S. House in the end. Now, Republican Mark Meadows will represent Western North Carolina as one of the majority in the Republican-led House.

Shuler claimed he was stepping down to spend more time with his family — and definitely not the fact that newly drawn Congressional voting lines had shifted the predominant political affiliation and made his district decidedly harder for a Democrat to win. We're still trying to figure out how his new job as the head of Duke Energy's lobbying department in Washington will put him any closer to his family in Waynesville, however.

 

Hell or High Water Award

Marie Leatherwood isn’t easily deterred. She might look like a frail little old lady, small framed and gray haired, but those who have been privy to her impassioned and recurring diatribes against the good-old boy powers in Jackson County (her words, not ours) know better than to cross her.

Leatherwood has been a regular at Jackson County commissioners meetings during the years, rarely passing up the chance to take the podium during twice-monthly public comment periods. The allotted three minutes was never enough to get her point across, however, often forcing the county chairman to gavel her into silence — and on one occasion even being escorted away by a deputy.

Leatherwood took to a different tactic: holding up handmade poster board signs during the meeting, often positioning herself at the front of the room and facing the audience with her message of the month on display.

Commissioners decided this was too disruptive and banned signs from being held up during the meetings, but Leatherwood protested, claiming it was a violation of free speech. Commissioners compromised by designating a wall toward the rear of the meeting room as sign territory, but not the front of the room.

 

David Farragut Award

“Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” So goes the famous line pronounced by Civil War Admiral Farragut when faced with waters laced with torpedoes as he steamed into Mobile Bay.

The Confederate Flag supporters seem to have adopted Farragut’s famous words for their own battle against Haywood County leaders. They have relentlessly attended county commissioner meetings and protested several times outside the historic courthouse — all in pursuit of wanting to fly a Confederate Battle Flag alongside the Confederate War Memorial on the lawn of the historic courthouse.

The commissioners are considering a policy that would limit what flags can be placed where on county property. The policy would prohibit the Confederate Battle Flag from being flown at all due to its historical undertone as a symbol of racism.

Proponents of flag, who claim it stands merely for Southern heritage, refuse to give up the fight, which has drawn out for months. Supporters of the flag discovered a loop hole in the county’s policy — which allows official government flags only to be flown — and have started posting the Mississippi state flag, which includes a small version of the Confederate Battle Flag in one corner.

 

Hat in Hand Award

We’ve simply lost count of how many times Haywood Community College has sheepishly approached the podium at county commissioner meetings over the past year, seeking approval to dip into the contingency budget for the creative arts building under construction. $500 here, $20,000 there.

And Haywood County commissioners — who were never fans of the building’s nearly $11 million price tag in the first place — rarely pass up an opportunity to put the screws to HCC.

While all large building projects have change orders that crop up due to unforeseen circumstances or revelations in the building process — after all, that’s what a contingency fund is for — commissioners have claimed proper diligence wasn’t taken in the building’s design and that the college didn’t provide enough oversight.

One of the change orders was because the building didn’t have enough water pressure for its sprinkler system. Another was because the door to the mechanical room wasn’t wide enough to fit necessary machinery inside.

Although the project has not eaten up all its contingency funds, it has slowly whittled away at it, and there is still more work to be done.

 

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished Award

Franklin Mayor Joe Collins was just being polite when he apologized to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians after the town sprayed the Nikwasi mound with weed killer. The ancient spiritual and cultural site, which sits on town property, was labor intensive to mow, and dousing it with weed killer was meant to clear the way for a new low-growing eco-grass to be planted instead of regular grass.

But Franklin leaders learned the hard way that weed killer and spiritual Cherokee mounds don’t mix. When the tribe called for an apology, the town board voted not to offer one, claiming they hadn’t done anything wrong, at least not intentionally. Collins, who himself is of Cherokee ancestry, apologized personally as a matter of his own convictions and regret for inadvertently offending the tribe, however.

Collins was formally censured by the town board in a 5-to-1 vote for his appalling and audacious act of apologizing. The apology, while intended only as a “personal” apology from Collins and not on behalf of the town as a whole, had been put on town letterhead, which gave the wrong impression and amounted to “a gross abuse of assumed powers,” according to the censure dished out by the board.

Alderman Bob Scott, who voted against the censure, actually asked if he could be censured along with Collins, since he thought the town should have apologized.

 

Dirty Rotten Scoundrel Award

National Park Service bureaucrats in D.C. perpetrated a serious and unforgiveable injustice to Swain County this year when they refused to turn over a $4 million installment on the long-promised $52 million cash settlement.

The federal government pledged to pay Swain County $4 million a year during the next decade — a deal intended to finally compensate the county for a road the feds flooded when Fontana Lake was built in the 1940s.

But after an initial down payment of $12.8 million in 2010, Swain hasn’t seen a penny since.

Twice the annual $4 million payment was appropriated by Congress at the behest of Congressman Heath Shuler and was included in the National Park Service budget — but both times, it failed to actually reach Swain County. In 2011, the park service dragged its feet for so long that the money got rescinded in an across-the-board clamp down on earmarks. In 2012, the appropriation was again made by Congress, but the National Park Service refused to release it, citing bureaucratic procedures and policies it claims weren’t followed properly in the budget process. The park service can’t spend the money on anything else, and instead will give it back to the federal treasury rather than turn it over to Swain County as was intended.

As for 2013? The $4 million allocation was left out — some say accidentally but left out nonetheless — of President Obama’s preliminary budget.

Swain County argues this is not an earmark or pork, but entitled compensation for loss of property at the hands of the government when Lake Fontana was built to make hydroelectric power for factories in WWII.

 

Robert Frost Award

If Maggie Valley leaders could have their way, more casino-bound tourists would take heed of the poet’s famous line, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled …”

Once a tourism kingpin, Maggie Valley is a shadow of its former self, and put up a noble fight for the crumbs of pass-through traffic en route to Harrah’s Casino in Cherokee.

But Jackson County wanted in on the action. Also hoping to piggyback off casino traffic, it officially requested the DOT change its highway signs to point travelers along U.S. 23-74 past Sylva in place of signage directing them through Maggie on U.S. 19.

The fight was epic, protracted — and absurd. As the two communities vied over who would be anointed as the “best route to reach Cherokee,” the DOT doubled down on the analytics of each: which had higher crash rates, which was safer in snow, which was best for RVs and big-rigs, which was quicker during commute hours.

DOT proposed a compromise of putting up two signs — offering two possible routes — but safety engineers deemed that idea too confusing for motorists to process while traveling at highway speeds.

The verdict in the end? Leave well enough alone.

While the official DOT signage directs Cherokee-bound tourists the Maggie way — over a steep, narrow, twisting two-lane road — we wager far more GPS savvy travelers likely opt for the four-lane, divided high-speed highway through Jackson County.

 

Snowed Under Award

In hindsight, former N.C. Sen. John Snow didn’t stand a chance in his rematch against Republican Sen. Jim Davis — not given the blizzard of negative attack-ads blanketing the mailboxes of Western North Carolina. Snow was “snowed-under” by a kamikaze-style political campaign, fueled by big money from the Republican Party and outside conservative groups.

The litany of fliers — more than two dozen different ones and hundreds of thousands of them in total — came fast and furious in the lead up to Election Day. They lambasted Snow for everything from funding abortion, supporting gay marriage, letting rapists off death row and being thick as thieves with President Obama, although none of those claims is in fact true.

The last flurry of fliers even accused Snow of cutting education — when in fact Republican lawmakers cut education more severely during their two years in power than Democrats had before them.

Davis said the fliers were almost entirely messaged and designed by the N.C. Republican Party, although some were fueled by unregulated outside money. He said that while perceived as negative by some, they were a legitimate tool to get the message out to voters about who Snow really is.

 

Move Over, Asheville Award

While craft beer connoisseurs have dubbed Asheville “Beer City USA” for its uncanny number of microbreweries and explosion of craft beer culture, it should be noted that Waynesville technically boasts more microbreweries per capita than its hipster big city neighbor.

Going from no breweries to three in a matter of months, Waynesville welcomed Frog Level, Headwaters and Tipping Point breweries to an already stellar and continually evolving scene of food, drink and homegrown craft items. Bringing forth a need for variety, coupled with the endless ambition of folks wandering into Western North Carolina, this small town is becoming a mesmerizing mix of cosmopolitan tastes with close attention paid to the cherished roots of Southern Appalachian traditions.

 

Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too, Award

John Bardo, the former chancellor for Western Carolina University, could afford plenty of cake during the past year thanks to his comfortable $280,000 a year salary he continued to pull down after retiring.

Actually, far from a cake walk, Bardo was supposed to be buckled down on a research project in Raleigh, earning that $280,000 annual salary still being carried on WCU’s payroll.

Bardo benefited from a generous state policy for retired university chancellors, allowing them to continue to earn their full salary for an additional year to do research, in exchange for putting in another year of teaching college students in the actual classroom.

Bardo got a job as the chancellor at Wichita State University in Kansas in July, however, and thus never came back to WCU to put in his promised year of teaching students.

He did not have to pay back the hefty salary, though.

The policy was actually changed recently, making it less generous than it had been. But Bardo is entitled to the earlier, more generous version that was in force when he was hired.

 

Captain Schettino Award

It seems former Macon County Planner Derek Roland borrowed a page from the play book of Captain Francesco Schettino, who abandoned his own sinking cruise line off the coast of Italy early last year.

Roland walked away from the wreckage of floundering mountainside development regulations with Macon County to take a job as the Town Planner for Franklin instead. Unlike the Italian cruise liner accident, caused by the captain’s own mistake, Roland’s job at the helm of Macon’s planning efforts was attempting to rudder a ship that was doomed from the start.

Macon has a storied past — to put it kindly — when it comes to development regulations, zoning and land-use planning. A groundswell of support for mountainside building regulations finally reached a critical mass about three years ago, leading to a proposed slope ordinance.

The political winds shifted before the ordinance could be passed though. Both the board of county commissioners and planning board itself saw the advent of new members who were less-planning minded, if not outright anti-planning.

The proposed slope ordinance was tabled, and the planning board got a public lashing for even going there in the first place. Roland quietly exited to his new job down the street with the town of Franklin where those in the planning department wouldn’t be chastised for actually planning.

 

Hope Springs Eternal Award

Other than an early non-conference victory against Mars Hill College, the Western Carolina University Catamounts football program went winless the rest of the year.

Not only did they lose their homecoming weekend game to Georgia Southern (42-13), they once again conceded defeat to Appalachian State University at the “Battle for the Old Mountain Jug” (ASU has held the title since 2005). Add in a late season stomping by #2 nationally ranked University of Alabama (49-0) in Tuscaloosa, and you have yourself a pretty dismal season.

But all isn’t lost in Cullowhee, not with Coach Mark Speir on the prowl for better results in 2013. After going through three coaches since 2001 (previous coach Dennis Wagner complied a 8-36 record), Speir was brought on this past year to turn the tide and right the course of a ship without a rudder, or in this case, without a confident sense of self and purpose since their last winning season in 2005. On the bright side, it would take only one victory in a conference game next season to be considered an improvement.

 

Hometown Boys Done Good award

With the 2012 release of their album Papertown, Balsam Range has been rapidly spilling across the country, with accolades and award nominations racking up.

CMT Edge named the record on their list of “10 Favorite Americana Albums of 2012,” while it also landed at #2 on the PopMatters “Best of Bluegrass 2012” chart.

The train keeps rolling for Haywood County’s beloved musical sons. They’re a generous and passionate group whose talent and promise knows no bounds.

As an homage to the band, Haywood County commissioners even declared an official “Balsam Range Appreciation Day” this year.

 

Pass the Salt Award

When it comes to staying well fed, the Macon County commissioners led the pack this year. From finger food and pizzas to fortify them during regular meetings to sit-down restaurant meals with fellow boards in the county, commissioners in Macon County ate more than $10,000 worth of food on the county’s dime during three years.

Free meals used to be a standing perk for public officials — not just county commissioners but economic development commissions, county tourism boards, school boards, planning boards and the like. After all, they were in essence volunteering their time to serve on these boards and committees.

Macon County commissioners not only had food brought in for their own monthly commissioner meetings but would also invite other boards in the county to break bread over mutual discussion topics. Fat Buddies barbecue was a favorite, with commissioners hosting two eating meetings there in the month of April alone.

But most have gone on a Spartan diet as the economic times have worsened and fiscal austerity has become county watchwords.

Commissioners said sharing the same table with the planning board or school board, for example, promoted congeniality and broke the ice when hashing out potentially controversial issues.

 

Beyoncé Award

Like her hit song suggests, “If you like it, then you should’ve put a ring on it.”

During the past few months, Waynesville and Lake Junaluska leaders have used the analogy of courtship and dating as they flirt with the idea of joining in permanent matrimony. Although Waynesville and Lake Junaluska have talked on the phone, gone on dates and danced together, it’s still unclear if the relationship will end up at the state General Assembly’s altar — the final step in officially bringing Lake Junaluska into Waynesville’s town limits.

A study is now underway to examine the pros and cons of a merger, giving both a better idea of what their marriage would mean. Before the two entities decide to join hands once and for all, residents of Lake Junaluska will soon be asked in a survey to speak now or forever hold their peace.

 

Royal Flush Award

Job seekers in Western North Carolina and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians both came up winners when Harrah’s Cherokee Casino announced that it would finally have live dealers.

After years of negotiations, the tribe and North Carolina lawmakers penned an agreement allowing the tribally owned casino to offer visitors games such as roulette, poker and blackjack — no longer limited to the video and electronic-based gambling machines only.

The accord opened the door for the casino to create hundreds of additional jobs and millions in additional revenue for the tribe. In exchange for live dealers, the tribe had to share a cut of profits off the new table games with the state.

 

Oil and Water Award

Franklin town leaders were quick to endorse a new festival last year promising to flood Main Street with thousands of tourists. But then small but important details began to crystallize — like the fact the festival-goers would be riding motorcycles, there would be open beer tents on the sidewalks and a rock band stage would be set up across the street from a funeral home.

Franklin’s town board began to second guess the compatibility of the motorcycle rally with their quaint downtown and whether they really wanted that many motorcycles taking over Main Street. The town politely withdrew its invitation to the rally organizers, instead pointing them down the road to a large field on the outskirts of town and likely better suited to the kind of merry-making motorcycle festivals are known for.

 

Get Out of Jail Free Award

Ten suspected illegal immigrants who were arrested at a traffic checkpoint in Jackson County last spring got an early Christmas present when federal immigration officials decided not to deport them.

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has been more liberal with who it does and does not deport nowadays, choosing to focus on illegal immigrants who are also considered violent criminals rather than those with no rap sheet or only minor offense such as driving without a license.

An attorney with the N.C. Immigrant Right’s Project successfully argued that the nature of the men’s arrests was murky at best — the traffic checkpoint was set-up at a time and place where undocumented workers are known to travel, and thus seemed specifically aimed at targeting them, which isn’t considered kosher for traffic checkpoints run by local law enforcement.

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office had brought in federal immigration officials to help with the checkpoint, fueling speculation about whether the sheriff’s office racially profiled those stopped at the checkpoint.

 

Don’t Bite the Hand That Feeds You Award

No, this isn’t about the immigration arguments that have permeated politics during the last couple of years. It’s about birds.

Lake Junaluska officials announced that the popular pastime of feeding bread to the ducks and geese who call the lake home is no longer permitted. The growing number of ducks and geese have become too invasive, and their excessive excrement, aggressive behavior — including occasional nipping of the generous feeders — and year-round nesting were causing too many problems.

Children and parents gave a collective outcry at the news, recalling generations of fond memories and family traditions of feeding the ducks.

Lake Junaluska leaders, however, said stopping feedings is the only way to control the exploding waterfowl population and its ill side-effects.

 

Orphan Annie Award

While this award could go to Maggie Valley as a whole, which perpetually clings to the belief the “sun will come up tomorrow” despite its tourist economy being in the dumps, this award is specifically intended for the Maggie Valley ABC Board.

The town’s ABC operation lost money almost every year since it opened a second liquor store. The second store sited in Dellwood was aimed at stealing business from Waynesville’s ABC store, but the additional sales it brought in wasn’t enough to offset the additional overhead.

The Maggie ABC board considered closing one of the stores, but now it is pointing to the latest numbers — which show the town’s ABC operation as a whole is breaking — as evidence a turnaround could be in sight, and has opted to hang in there to see if brighter days are ahead.

 

Red-Headed Stepchild Award

Wanted: a buyer with extra millions to spend renovating a decrepit, old, out-dated, run-down, poorly maintained, hulking, four-story, abandoned brick office building with a limited number of viable uses.

For some reason, Haywood County just hasn’t found any takers yet for the former hospital in Waynesville, which most recently housed the department of social services, before it moved out for newer, bigger digs.

The old hospital, as it’s known, was eyed for low-income housing for the elderly, but that plan fell through. Then, the regional mental health agency Smoky Mountain Center briefly considered it, but that never came to fruition either.

Haywood County is spending $50,000 a year on maintenance and heating for the empty building. Hoping to scare up some action, the county is partnering with the town of Waynesville, the Haywood Advancement Foundation and UNC’s School of Government to do a feasibility study pinpointing possible purposes for the building.

 

KO Award

Video gambling machines have become the Doctor Who of North Carolina — never dying, simply regenerating and taking on a different form. Their latest incarnation (and dare we say last?) was finally knocked out.

Compared to a cat-and-mouse-game or game of “Whack A Mole,” attempts by the state legislature to outlaw video gambling was continually skirted by the industry, which had an uncanny knack for splitting hairs to come up with something slightly different, yet legal.

The latest version was dubbed “sweepstakes” games, but for all the world looked and felt like video-based gambling.

The N.C. General Assembly has the last laugh — at least for now — after the state Supreme Court upheld a ban on the controversial gambling mechanisms.

Starting Jan. 3, law enforcement has the official go-ahead to shut down any video sweepstakes operations still open.

However, the state has been through this before. Are the video sweepstakes machines, in all forms, finally dead or, like the Doctor, will they regenerate into a new form?

 

We’ve All Been There Award

We have all made decisions that, when thinking back, were admittedly not the best choices. But, let’s not talk about those. We’re trying to forget.

Instead, let’s feel bad for the poor man who spent hours trolling the isles at Wally World with his family on Grey Thursday — that’s the new catch phrase to describe Thanksgiving Day bargain shopping as opposed to traditional Black Friday — only to walk out with three stuffed, mechanical, barking dogs. He was later found having drinks at the bar. (Let’s all offer up a collective “It’s OK, man” and sympathetic pat on the back.)

His experience teaches us all an important lesson: avoid Black Friday at all costs. Opt for Small Business Saturday or Cyber Monday. Those days will never leave you alone, holding three stuffed, mechanical, barking dogs.

 

Watch Your Back Award

Maggie Valley leaders and residents are split into two camps when it comes to police presence — those who find the patrol cars comforting and those who wish they would back off.

But, this award is not for any of them. It’s for the police department, which just by the skin of its teeth survived budget cuts this year. In a last-minute decision, the Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen chose not to slice the department’s budget as drastically as planned — the only cuts made would delay the routine replacement of older patrol cars but not impact operations — much to the delight of some.

A few of the alderman asked police earlier this year to tone down their patrol of Soco Road, the main drag where all the restaurants and bars are located, because, they said, too much police presence could be bad for business.

The staffing of Maggie’s police force for a town its size was also questioned. The town board considered cutting its budget, until police department supporters showed up in force at a public hearing. The department remains safe — for now.

 

Hercules Award

There is absolutely no doubt that Rob Kelly deserves Western North Carolina’s hero of the year award. Kelly’s story captivated everyone, as did the photos of him rescuing kayaker Sue Martin from drowning on the Upper Nantahala.

Avid and experienced paddlers rejoiced this year when the first of the whitewaters releases from the Nantahala Dam were unleashed into the upper reaches of the Nantahala River, creating a day of steep yet uncharted creek boating for kayakers.

Although Martin was no novice kayaker, accidents happen. And, thank God, Kelly was there. When Martin became trapped by a log and was pulled underwater, Kelly, who was driving a bus of paddlers up to put-in points, noticed her trapped kayak, pulled over and made a quick decision to jump in the river and help her, despite putting himself at risk.

Martin was underwater for several minutes, and wasn’t breathing when Kelly reached her. He performed rescue breathing in the water, and with help from others along the shoreline, was able to pull Martin to safety, where rescue breathing was continued until medics arrived. She survived without any lasting repercussions.

 

Moral Compass Award

Earlier this spring, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians had a chance to approve the sale of alcohol reservation-wide. (The sale of alcohol is banned except at the casino.) But, morals won out in the end, and Cherokee remains dry.

Churches and some businesses lobbied for months, asking people to vote “no” on the alcohol referendum and “yes” for families. Leaders of the anti-alcohol movement told stories of alcohol’s ill-effects, from domestic violence to joblessness to health problems. They accused supporters of reservation-wide alcohol of putting economic interests — alcohol would presumably bring more tourists — ahead of what’s best for local people.

In the end, it seems that most enrolled members agreed with that sentiment. The referendum was struck down with about 60 percent of people voting “no.”

On the flip side, however, alcohol is now at Cherokee’s doorstep anyway. Jackson County voters last year approved countywide alcohol sales allowing beer, wine and liquor to be sold countywide, including right up to the line of the Cherokee Reservation. The Catamount Travel Center a stone’s throw from the reservation has seen a huge boom in business from Cherokee ever since it started selling beer and wine. Anyone looking for a bottle of Merlot or a 12-pack of beer need only drive a couple of minutes from downtown Cherokee and across the line into Jackson County to get it.

 

Git-R-Done Award

Swain County showed it’s a county of action this year. Rather than resting on its laurels, county leaders were quick to forge a deal with the private Great Smoky Mountain Railroad to get a steam engine in operation on its scenic rail line.

The railroad had been in talks with Jackson County about a similar funding plan, but Jackson leaders were more hesitant to ink a deal offering up monetary incentives to the business — not to mention stymied by an internal tug-of-war dragging on more than a year and a half over whether to hike its tourism tax rate to fund initiatives like the steam train.

Swain, in the meantime, proposed a tourism tax increase, promptly passed it and offered a deal to the train — all in less than nine months.

The steam engine is expected to draw thousands more tourists to the tiny town of Bryson City each year, meaning more people eating at its restaurant and shopping in its stores. Swain County has also locked the railroad into a deal that would ensure that the steam engine operates runs for at least 15 years.

However, there are some concerns about the county dishing out tourism tax dollars to a private business and whether it will get enough bang for its buck. Hopefully, Swain County made a good deal.

 

On Second Thought Award

The newly elected majority to the Maggie Valley Board of Alderman said they wanted to make changes in the valley, to get rid of the old way of doing business. But, town leaders couldn’t even get some of their own changes right.

The board voted to waive sewer hook-up fees for existing businesses wanting to expand, hoping to prompt growth in the valley, but ended up creating more problems than solutions.

One business owner who already paid the requisite sewer fee

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