The Haywood Board of Commissioners agreed to put its John Hancock on a letter asking the N.C. Department of Transportation to post an additional “This way to Cherokee” sign near Dillsboro.

The letter is a classic case of turn-about being fair play. Jackson County previously touched off a firestorm when it asked for a sign in Haywood County directing Cherokee-bound travelers past their own doorstep, hoping to divert traffic from the Maggie Valley route its way.

“Traffic is the livelihood of Maggie Valley,” said Commissioner Mike Sorrells “As we all know, that particular area is struggling.”

So in a rebuttal of sorts, Haywood leaders are asking for a sign in Jackson that would direct tourists to Cherokee back through Haywood County.

Specifically, Haywood’s letter asks DOT to consider placing a sign on U.S. 441 in Dillsboro to catch travelers coming up from the Atlanta area. The new signage would inform motorists that they can also reach Cherokee by coming back through Waynesville and Maggie Valley, although it is considerably longer than simply continuing on U.S. 441 to Cherokee.

Haywood County leaders stated that they are willing to share the expense of the new sign pointing Haywood’s way.

Because DOT’s safety and travel time survey’s do not favor one route over the other, Haywood County officials say there is no reason to post alternative signage directing Cherokee traffic through Jackson County instead of Maggie Valley.

“I don’t necessarily oppose it, but it’s not necessary,” said Chairman Mark Swanger.

However, Jackson County leaders say that two-lane U.S. 19 can be treacherous for large vehicle drivers and during the winter months.

Cece Hipps, president of the Greater Haywood County Chamber of Commerce; Teresa Smith, executive director of the Maggie Valley chamber; and Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism and Development Authority have already signed the letter.

Swain County’s Board of Elections will decide this month whether it is worth several thousand dollars to operate an early voting site in Cherokee again this election year.

The three-member election board all agreed the county might not be able to afford an early voting site in Cherokee this year. However, they disagree on whether low turnout at the site during the 2010 election should be a factor in the decision.

“(Money) is really the only factor,” said Mark Tyson, a member of the three-person board and a Democrat. “I am really hoping that we are able to provide the voting site in Cherokee.”

The board of elections currently doesn’t have the money in its budget to cover the cost of an early voting site in Cherokee, but intend to ask county commissioners for an additional appropriation.

Without the additional location, Cherokee residents will again have to drive to the board of elections office in Bryson City if they want to vote early — a more than 20-minute trek. And, for those living in the far reaches of Cherokee’s Big Cove community, the trip is more like 30 to 40 minutes.

“That is a heck of a drive,” Tyson said.

Election board member Bill Dills said he is in favor of keeping the location in Cherokee as long as it is worth the cost.

“To me, the function of the Board of Elections … is to provide people the opportunity to vote, the way they want to,” he said. “What I want to see is how we can work with those people and get them to take advantage of early vote.”

The board spent about $3,500 to run the site in 2010 and only 226 people used it to vote during that election.

“When you break that down cost wise, it’s not efficient,” said Joan Weeks, director of Swain County’s Board of Elections.

Board of Elections chairman James Fisher echoed a similar sentiment, adding that there is no way to know what the turnout will be this time around.

“We are not against having (early voting) on the reservation or anywhere,” he said. But, “it’s not worthwhile if it’s not used.”

The 2010 election was the first time an early voting site was offered in Cherokee and may need more time to catch on.

Tyson and Dills said they believe more voters will turn out at the early voting site in Cherokee if it is offered again this election.

“Because it was new, a lot of people didn’t know it was there,” Tyson said, adding that the 2010 election did not include a presidential race.

States often see a spike in voter turnout during presidential election years such as this year.

“I think we would see a larger turnout from there,” Tyson said.

However, Dills said that the board did everything it could, including talking to tribal leaders and posting a notice in the tribe’s newspaper, to inform voters about the new site.

“I don’t know what else you could do to make people aware,” Dills said, adding that “a large number” still drove to Bryson City to cast their ballots early.

The cost of holding an election comes from county coffers, namely property taxes. Residents on the Cherokee reservation don’t pay property taxes in Swain County, however, so they don’t directly contributing to the expense.

But the economic benefit — from jobs to tourism — that Swain reaps from the tribe and its massive casino operation far outpaces the about $3,500 outlay the county would pay to staff an early voting site.

The election board plans to meet with Larry Blythe, vice chief for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, to ensure that the tribe indeed even wants the early voting site. In 2010, the tribe worked with the election board to provide a suitable site.

Not having a site would “put people at disadvantage,” said Principal Chief Michell Hicks.

Tribal Council member Perry Shell said that the purpose of the Board of Elections is to make it as convenient as possible to vote.

“I think it’s important that people have every opportunity to vote,” said Shell, who represents Big Cove.

Board members emphasized that discussions about this year’s early voting sites have just begun. The county has until March 1 to submit its list of early voting sites to the state. Early voting for the primary begins April 19 and ends May 5.

“We just opened initial conversations about it,” Fisher said. “A whole bunch of this scuttlebutt is much ado about nothing.”

The board decided to place a voting site in Cherokee prior to the 2010 election after an elderly Swain County resident and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians made a formal written request.

Early voting has grown steadily in popularity after the state passed a new law in 1990s mandating that the convenient ballot casting be made available to the masses. Before then, it was only an option for the elderly, disabled or those with a qualified excuse that prevented them from getting to the polls on actual Election Day.

 

Going the distance

Of course, Cherokee residents aren’t the only ones in Swain County who face a long haul into Bryson City to take advantage of early voting. People in Alarka and Nantahala have similar distances to drive.

Fisher said he would like to have early voting locations everywhere, but with everybody tightening their budgets it would not be feasible.

John Herrin, a former member of the Swain election board, pointed out that Cherokee is a population center, whereas residents in other parts of the county, despite being a good distance from Bryson City, are more dispersed.

“You have quite a few registered voters in that area,” said Herrin, who helped set up the early voting site in Cherokee in 2010.

Cherokee residents are less likely to come into Bryson City in the regular course of their lives, while residents from rural reaches of the county usually eventually venture to town for groceries or other business.

Although the board has heard that other residents would like additional early voting sites throughout the county, none have made a formal appeal. A community member must make a written request, and the board must vote unanimously to approve a new location.

In addition to deciding whether to keep the Cherokee early voting site, the board is also expected to receive a request for another site near Nantahala. Residents of that area travel about 21 miles, or about 30 minutes, to cast early ballots in Bryson.

Fisher pointed out that people can mail in their ballots.

The decision to add an early voting site is “based on need and funding,” he said. “If (closing the site) would completely inhibit somebody from voting, I would fund it myself.”

The reservation lies partly in both Jackson and Swain counties. Jackson County operates an early voting site in Cherokee for those who live on the Jackson-side of the reservation near the Bingo Hall at a cost of anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 depending on the hours and amount of staffing required.

 

Decision pending

The Swain Board of Elections’ next meeting is at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Board of Elections building off U.S. 19.

 

County-by-county

All counties in North Carolina are required to operate at least one early voting site, the result of a new law passed in the late 1990s aimed at making voting easier and more accessible

Most counties offered just one early voting site initially, but as early voting took off and grew in popularity, some counties have added a second or even third early voting site in response to demand. The cost ranges between $2,000 and $5,000 per site for each county.

Here’s what some counties are doing.

Swain

Swain’s main early voting site is in Bryson City. In 2010, it added a second early voting site in Cherokee at the Birdtown Community Center but is contemplating whether to do so again this year.

Macon

Macon County has a single early voting site in Franklin. However, election officials are considering adding a site in the Highlands area this year.

Haywood

Haywood’s main early voting site is in Waynesville, with a second site in Canton every two years during state and federal elections.

Jackson

Jackson County has a main early voting site in Sylva but has also run sites in Cullowhee, Cashiers, Scotts Creek and Cherokee. It has not decided where or how many sites it will open this year.

Cherokee tribal council last week decided to change the format for an upcoming vote on alcohol sales, a move that will give individual communities more autonomy on the controversial issue.

When members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians go to the polls in April, each of the six communities that make up the reservation will decided independently  whether alcohol sales are legalized in their own particular community. This means that parts of the reservation could remain dry even if other communities vote to lift the alcohol ban.

The Rev. Noah Crowe, of Snowbird, brought the idea before tribal council last month, pushing for an amendment that would offer more flexibility than an across-the-board vote that would apply throughout the reservation.

“I would just encourage all the Cherokee voters to really consider it,” Crowe said. “We know what’s best for us.”

Tribal council approved the amendment last week.

Tribal Council Member Perry Shell said the people of Birdtown he represents are in favor of having their own voice.

“They wanted to have a say … so I voted to let them have that say,” Shell said.

Michell Hicks, the principal chief of the Eastern Band, has yet to sign off on the council-approved change. However, Hicks backed the resolution at a previous tribal council meeting, saying that alcohol should not be forced on a community. Hicks has also expressed concerns over the implication of a “yes” vote that could lead to package stores selling booze making their way into every corner of the reservation.

The reservation is comprised of six communities: Birdtown, Wolftown, Big Cove, Painttown, Snowbird/Cherokee County and Yellowhill.

Crowe hails from Snowbird, a remote and isolated satellite portion of the reservation in the Graham County, has an older population and is known for being more traditional. Snowbird is the only community that voted against allowing the casino to sell alcohol in another ballot measure two years ago.

The reservation is currently dry, with the sale of beer, wine and mixed drinks outlawed, except for at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort. The outcome of the referendum would not affect alcohol sales that are already allowed in the casino or any future gambling sites, however.

Cherokee’s business community is campaigning in support of the alcohol vote, saying it will boost tourism and economic development. Their primary focus now will likely be securing support among voters in the communities that encompass the primary commercial districts. While those communities have taken on heightened importance, they no longer have to worry about more conservative and traditional voters in outlying communities tipping the scales.

Caron Swayney knew better than to torture herself, but still she occasionally found herself drawn to the trailer park where the cold, limp body of her 15-month-old niece was discovered dead in the middle of the night last January.

“I would go down there and just sit in the driveway and just look at that trailer and cry,” Swayney said. “It just seems like it is never going to end.”

The year since the death of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn has been trying and emotional for her extended Cherokee family. When Swayney participated in a ceremonial sweat lodge at the start of the new year, she had one wish.

“I asked everyone to pray for the family that this year would start off better than what it did last year and that we would get the answers we had been waiting for for a year,” said Swayney, Aubrey’s great-aunt. “We kept wondering when something was going to happen.”

Last week, something finally did.

Ladybird Powell, who was caring for Aubrey at the time of her death, was arrested on numerous charges last Friday in connection with Aubrey’s death, including second-degree murder and felony child abuse. Powell is being held on $1 million bond.

“This has been one of the hardest cases that we have had to investigate, primarily because of the age of the child. As a parent, it is hard to imagine any child being taken away at such an early age,” Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran said in a statement.

An autopsy revealed numerous recent bruises on Aubrey’s body and past evidence of a fracture. It found the nature of Aubrey’s death was consistent with hypothermia but could not conclusively determine that it was indeed the cause of death.

Family members say Ladybird’s trailer did not have heat. When Aubrey’s lifeless body was brought into the emergency room the night of her death, her core body temperature was a low 84 degrees, and she was dressed in only a T-shirt and dirty diaper.

Witnesses have said Aubrey was not properly cared for by Ladybird and that on the day of her death she had been strapped in a car seat for 12 hours and hardly fed.

Aubrey’s mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, had asked Ladybird to care for Aubrey temporarily while Jasmine served time in jail. When Jasmine got out of jail and tried to get her daughter back, Powell refused unless Jasmine paid her several thousand dollars, according to family.

Kidnapping and extortion are among the charges filed against Powell. She also faces drug charges, including possession of methamphetamines, for drugs and paraphernalia confiscated from the trailer the night of Aubrey’s death.

The family was relieved to get word of the charges last week, particularly Aubrey’s mother, Jasmine.

“She knows it won’t bring Aubrey back, but like everybody else, she wants the people held responsible for her child’s death,” said Henrietta Littlejohn, Aubrey’s grandmother.

Cochran said that while it has taken a year to build the case, it has been a top priority of the sheriff’s department.

“There has been a great expression of concern from Aubrey’s family members, and we want everyone in Swain County to know that we have never stopped working on this case,” Cochran said, crediting the work of Detective Carolyn Posey in particular.

The family knows the charges are just the first step, however, in what could be a difficult and protracted court battle, one that will mean reliving baby Aubrey’s death over and over. Henrietta is trying to brace her daughter, Jasmine, for what’s to come.

“It could get nasty, and it could get ugly, so she is going to have to prepare herself. We all are,” said Henrietta Littlejohn.

David Wijewickrama, an attorney who has been acting as an advocate for Aubrey’s family in seeking justice, said he was pleased by the charges.

“I want to applaud the district attorney’s office for pursuing the case with diligence and not letting it slip through the cracks,” Wijewickrama said.

 

Charges expected this week in social service’s alleged cover-up

While the caretaker of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn has been charged in connection with her death last year, the case is not exactly closed.

Still pending is whether Swain County social workers will face charges for an alleged cover-up following the baby’s death. The State Bureau of Investigation conducted a 10-month probe into whether social workers falsified records in an attempt to cover up potential negligence on their part.

Aubrey’s family say they warned social workers numerous times that Aubrey was not safe in the home of Ladybird Powell. Social workers even removed other children from the home but left Aubrey there.

Charges stemming from the SBI investigation into the Department of Social Services are expected this week. See www.smokymountainnews.com for updates in the case.

A member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is suing the tribe over sewage overflows onto her property, which she says poses a health threat to her family.

Linda Lambert filed a suit against the tribe in May 2011 over alleged sewage spills from a nearby manhole and sewer pipes. In her complaint against the tribe, Lambert lists 17 specific days that she says sewage overflowed onto her property and into Adam’s Creek during the past two years.

The tribe, however, is asserting that the number of actual sewage overflows is much less. The tribe also contends the overflows were promptly dealt with.

In court documents, Lambert states that raw sewage from the tribe’s sewer treatment plant is seeping onto her land and into nearby Adam’s Creek. Such overflows forced her family to move elsewhere and prevented her from being able to fully enjoy her property, including fishing.

Lambert is seeking $60,000 in damages, including physical, mental and emotional stress. The damages are linked to claims of negligence, trespassing, nuisance, violation of her civil rights and the taking of her property without compensation.

“The fact that it’s overflowing is not in doubt,” said Mark Melrose, Lambert’s attorney with Melrose, Seago and Lay based in Sylva. “I know there are dozens of people who know about it.”

Melrose said they will know more information in the next couple of months as potential witnesses are interviewed.

In court documents, the Eastern Band states that on at least one occasion sewage has leaked into Adam’s Creek, the Oconaluftee River and onto Lambert’s land. However, the discharge was partially treated and posed no health hazard.

“There was an episode, yes,” said Chad Ray Donnahoo, an Asheville attorney hired by the ECBI for this suit. “All that was reported to the EPA.”

Donnahoo said that the tribe did its due diligence by testing any overflows to make sure the seepage was not hazardous and reporting any incidents to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The tribe is in the process of updating its dated sewage system and treatment plant. The last comprehensive upgrade was in 1997 when capacity of the plant was tripled — timed with the opening of Cherokee’s first casino and intended to handle the likely increase in volume. During the past 15 years, the casino has undergone two major expansions — including the recent $633-million enlargement. Adding additional capacity will be part of the coming upgrades, which are in the early planning stages.

The Eastern Band is questioning why Lambert waited until May 2011 to file a formal complaint.

Lambert went before tribal council a couple times before taking legal action, according to court documents.

“She has tried to seek a resolution politically,” Melrose said. “And, she didn’t get any relief.”

Tribal Council passed two resolutions — one in 2008 and another in 2010 — promising to remedy the overflow problems. However, the complaint against the tribe states that nothing has been done and sewage continues to leak onto Lambert’s land.

The tribe “negligently and intentionally” acted or did not act in a way that resulted in “the negligent and wrongful management, operation, maintenance and repair of the Tribe’s sewage collection and transmission system,” states the complaint.

The tribe is hoping to get the case dismissed on the grounds of sovereign immunity. Some government entities are immune against certain legal actions. However, if the entity obtains insurance to cover possible lawsuits, it waives its right to immunity.

“We are currently investigating with our insurance provider the coverage issues,” Donnahoo said.

Right now, it is unclear whether or not the Eastern Band’s insurance plan would cover such as case.

“Even if the tribe has the legal escape clause, (I’d hope) that they would do the right thing by tribal members,” Melrose said.

 

An aging system

Cherokee is required to make regular reports to the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates the tribe’s wastewater discharges. The tribe is also supposed to report any overflows, but it failed to do so prior to November 2010, said Stacey Bouma, an environmental engineer with the agency.

Bouma added that it is not that uncommon: many plants do not realize that they must report overflows, whether they happened on land or in water. Many only report sewage leaks into waterways.

Since November 2010, the tribe has filed 23 reports with the EPA ranging from benign clogged lines to bona fide overflows. The majority are of little consequence.

The overflow reports include a couple of incidents of pipes being harmed during construction, which resulted in release of sewage.

After receiving complaints about overflows on the reservation, the EPA conducted an investigation and found that heavy rain was responsible for a number of overflows.

“The pipes couldn’t handle capacity when it rained,” Bouma said.

While rainwater is supposed to flow through gutters and storm drains, rain water is being funneled into the sewer system in some areas of Cherokee and overwhelming the lines.

“We have had a lot of problems with infiltration,” said Larry Blythe, vice chief for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. “That pushes capacity to the limit.”

This is a common problem in towns with older sewage systems — nearby Bryson City has been plagued by this for years.

Overflows as a result of rain flooding the sewer system are luckily diluted, since the sewage is mixed with rainfall or melting snow.

In addition to reporting any water contamination, the treatment plant is required to tell the EPA if anything is coming out of a manhole connected to the sewer system.

The investigation also identified a manhole near Adams Creek as “a problem area,” Bouma said.

When a pump malfunctions or a leak in a sewage line occurs, the tribe reports it to the EPA, Blythe said. Many of the pipes that carry raw and treated sewage to and from the plant are old, and the tribe is working to replace them, he said.

The Eastern Band is planning to upgrade its sewer system and wastewater treatment plant, replacing old equipment and increasing its capacity. Blythe said the tribe is still working through estimates of what exactly the improvements will consist and how much they would cost.

He declined to address any legal issue regarding the wastewater treatment plant.

The treatment plant was first built in 1984 and was could process 0.9 million gallons of sewage each day. In 1997, however, the plant was updated and its capacity more than tripled. It is now permitted to treat up to 3 million gallons each day.

Maggie Valley has been rallying allies in its fight to save a small but perhaps precious sliver of its struggling tourism trade: pass-thru business from travelers en route to Cherokee.

A highway sign currently proclaims Maggie Valley as the proper way to reach Cherokee for tourists coming from Interstate 40. But Maggie could be stripped of this coveted status.

A new sign has been proposed that would lay-out two possible routes to Cherokee: one through Maggie Valley and one that continues through Jackson County.

The Maggie route is shorter distance-wise, but follows a narrow, two-lane winding road over Soco Gap. The route through Jackson County is longer, but sticks to a four-lane divided highway.

Maggie leaders perceive any change in the signage as a threat, potentially diverting tourist traffic away from their doorstep and into the welcoming arms of Jackson County instead.

Maggie Valley Mayor Ron Desimone said directional signs shouldn’t be hijacked as a tool to promote one town at the expense of another.

The push for new signage came from Jackson County leaders and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. As a result, the N.C. Department of Transportation has been studying the issue for several weeks, comparing traffic counts, drive time, crash statistics and scouting the roadside for where a new sign could go.

While tourists’ wallets are clearly an undercurrent in the tug-of-war over the Cherokee sign, DOT maintains that won’t influence its decision.

“Economic development is not going to be a factor,” said Cece Hipps, president of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce. “It doesn’t carry any weight to say it would hurt economic development in our county if they changed the route. Their number one is safety.”

As a result both sides have resorted to arguing their route is the safest or most direct.

But clearly that is not what drove Jackson County to try to wrest the Cherokee sign away from Maggie Valley in the first place, Maggie Valley Town Manager Tim Barth said.

“They said it has nothing to do with business, but it has everything to do with business,” Barth said.

“I’m sure their motive is the same as ours,” agreed Ron Leatherwood, chairman of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce.

 

Much ado about nothing

Just how much Maggie stands to lose if the sign is changed is anyone’s guess, but to the struggling mom-and-pop motels and diners lining Maggie’s main drag, losing even one room night or one table is one too much in this economy.

Thus, Maggie pledged earlier this month not to give up without a fight, and since then has sprung into action.

A meeting of key players in Haywood County’s business and tourism sectors, along with town leaders from Waynesville and Maggie, held a strategy meeting Monday to craft their own lobbying campaign.

The attention the debate has garnered had some in the room scratching their head over how much difference it will really make.

“I don’t think anyone is going to see a blip in their business one way or the other,” Leatherwood said. “I see it as much ado about nothing. But there are 10 of us in here having a meeting about it so it must be something.”

Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown also questioned whether directional signs really influence the route travelers take.

“If you want to go to Cherokee, you already know how you are going to Cherokee,” Brown said.

Waynesville was put in the middle of the debate early on. Technically, Waynesville stands to gain by a new sign. Right now, Cherokee-bound travelers who take the Maggie highway exit never make it to Waynesville’s doorstep. Jackson County leaders assumed that Waynesville would like the idea of a new sign, encouraging Cherokee visitors to instead stay on the highway and giving Waynesville a shot at capturing some of the traffic.

But Waynesville, it appears, has put its allegiance with Maggie Valley as a fellow Haywood County town first. Rather than join sides with Jackson, Waynesville has sided with Maggie Valley.

Brown isn’t sure how much tourism business Waynesville would really pick up from pass-thru traffic heading for Cherokee, except for gas stations right near the highway exits.

“I think the gain for Waynesville would minimal, but it could hurt Maggie,” Brown said. “I am not going to stick them when they’ve got problems.”

While it’s easy to ascribe an ulterior motive to Jackson County’s posturing, Haywood’s leaders were puzzled why the tribe has weighed in.

“That’s what I want to know — what’s it in for them?” DeSimone asked.

While U.S. 19 slides undramatically into the backside of the reservation with little in the way of an official welcome, Cherokee sees U.S. 441 as more of a bona fide gateway to the reservation, passing by the doorstep of its signature golf course and bringing tourists in closer proximity to the heart of downtown Cherokee — before eventually arriving face to face with the towering casino entrance. For tourists who come over Soco Gap on U.S. 19, their first view of the casino is its parking deck.

Both the tribe and Harrah’s direct travelers to come in on U.S. 441 — and specifically advise travelers not to take U.S. 19 — in their tourism literature and web sites.

“They are already doing everything they can to drive traffic that route,” Hipps said referring to U.S. 441.

Only about 3,500 vehicles a day on average make the climb over Soco Gap, but it fluctuates widely given the seasonal nature of tourism in Maggie and Cherokee.

“That number can be pretty high in the summer and pretty low in the winter,” said Reuben Moore, technical services engineer for the DOT regional office in Sylva.

Meanwhile, about 15,000 vehicles a day frequent U.S. 441 near the Cherokee exit.

 

A new sign

The cost of a new sign would be about $100,000 minimum — and perhaps double that depending on how much information it attempts to convey about the two dueling routes.

It’s unclear whether those requesting the new sign could be made to pay for some portion of it.

Maggie leaders expressed frustration that DOT is trying to fix what ain’t broke, but N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, pointed out that this landed in DOT’s lap.

“DOT didn’t invite this. They don’t want it,” said Rapp, who represents Haywood County in Raleigh. Jackson County and the tribe forced the issue with their requests to DOT.

“They have a responsibility to respond to that. They can’t just blow it off,” Rapp said. “I think they are trying to find a compromise that will satisfy everyone.”

But Moore, the DOT’s staffer who came up with the alternative sign, doesn’t like to call it a compromise. That would imply DOT’s goal is to satisfy the whims and wishes of dueling tourism interests.

Rather, DOT is merely acknowledging that there are in fact two ways to Cherokee.

“I hesitate to even call it a compromise, so much as from my point of view a position that correctly communicates the travel options,” Moore said.

The new sign would list each route followed by driving distances: 35 miles through Jackson County and 24 miles through Maggie.

But the sign wouldn’t stop there. A series of footnotes and disclaimers would caution drivers that U.S. 19 through Maggie has “six miles of steep winding road” and is “not recommended for large vehicles.”

There’s plenty of additional factors drivers might like to consider, however. Elderly drivers whose hand-eye coordination and reaction time isn’t as keen as it once was might prefer sticking to the four-lane highway. For any cell-phone addicted drivers out there, it’s worth noting the route over Soco Gap has a whopping three-mile dead zone with no reception. But if you’re craving boiled peanuts or in the market for pottery, the roadside stands of Soco are a must.

But alas, when it comes to additional footnotes, there just isn’t room on the sign as it is. Besides, the DOT won’t get into judgment calls like this and instead is sticking to the empirical data — which route is most direct and which is safest.

U.S. 19 through Maggie wins for being the most direct route, hands down.

“It is a beeline. A curvy, windy beeline maybe, but it is the shortest distance,” Moore said.

So which route is safer? The crash rate — which in simple terms is the ratio of wrecks to the total number of vehicles — is 10 percent higher for the Maggie route.

But Desimone said the crash rate difference is negligible.

“We are really splitting hairs here to get to the safest route,” Desimone said. “There is no compelling reason to change that sign.”

However, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians continues to express concerns about wrecks on the narrow, two-lane mountain road, Moore said, especially when it comes to large vehicles, like campers, RVs and motorcoaches.

Moore said he plans to study a breakdown of wrecks in more detail, particularly the large-vehicles that seem to be a source of greater concern.

While each side in the case clamors to pull off the best lobbying campaign, Moore said that won’t factor into their decision, nor will who carries the most political weight.

“Absolutely not,” Moore said of directional signs. “That is a DOT responsibility.”

 

The great Cherokee sign debate

Haywood and Jackson counties are butting heads over the privilege of being the preferred route to Cherokee — a tagline that carries with it a shot at enticing Cherokee-bound travelers to drop a little change on their way by.

With 3.5 million visitors a year, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort is the largest single tourist attraction in the state. Couple that with hundreds of thousands of additional tourists coming to Cherokee as a cultural destination or jumping off point for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — and it’s easy to see why neighboring communities would be fighting over what at first glance seems like little more than crumbs. All those crumbs can add up.

 

Turn-about is fair play

No longer resigned to playing defense, Haywood County’s leaders decided to mount their own push for a second sign to Cherokee — one that would be placed in Jackson County letting tourists know they can get to Cherokee by coming through Waynesville and Maggie.

To cater to travelers from the Atlanta region, Haywood wants a highway sign on U.S. 441 near Dillsboro letting travelers know they can get to Cherokee by coming up and around through Haywood County — even if it is a far more circuitous route.

Ron Leatherwood, chairman of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce said if Jackson is asking for a second sign in Haywood, Haywood can ask for a second sign in Jackson.

“We should ask DOT to do the same study. If they are doing it for one, they should do it for us,” Leatherwood said.

The DOT will soon be getting formal letters signed by the county tourism board, the Haywood County Chamber, the Maggie Chamber, the towns of Maggie and Waynesville, the county’s economic development commission and perhaps the county commissioners asking the route through Maggie remain on directional signs for Cherokee. They hope their letters will counter the letters DOT has already received from Jackson County and the tribe.

Cherokee is on a mission to remodel the look of its business district, in the hope that an infusion of native-themed architecture can give new life to its outdated commercial appearance.

“We want it to be pleasing to the eye of the visitor,” said Jason Lambert, the tribe’s economic development director. “We want it to be an area that is a point of pride for the local community and reflects who we are.”

A plan to makeover its tourist appeal has been in the works for 10 years. While some businesses have embraced the idea and jumped on board with Cherokee’s new look, challenges remain. Cherokee is struggling to persuade some building owners and businesses to take on the expense of remodeling because of complex landownership issues and difficulties quantifying the changes’ effects. As a result, pockets of out-dated, run-down facades can still be found along the downtown strip.

The tribe hoped that business owners would see the appearance changes and think, “‘If I don’t improve, then I’m not keeping up,’” said Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Hicks admitted to being “frustrated with some of the downtown.”

“We don’t keep updated enough when it comes to businesses,” he said.

 

Leaving a legacy

Nonetheless, steady progress has been made to improve the appeal of downtown since the tribe first adopted a master plan dating to 2001, which laid out a uniform appearance for buildings throughout the central business district. The guidelines focused on drawing attention to the town’s natural surroundings and Cherokee architecture by incorporating river walks, heavy timbers, native stone work, earth tones and green, metal roofing and Cherokee lettering.

The development of river walks and greenways particularly are aimed at getting visitors to linger in the area.

“We’re a fast moving society; we’re a fast food society. And so, if we can slow people down and get them out, then that’s accomplished our aim,” Lambert said. “The thought process there is of course that the longer people stay the more likely they are to engage in commerce and spend money.”

Although the recommendations were not mandatory, Cherokee tribal leaders hoped business owners would make the appearance changes on their own.

However, from 2001 to 2006, “Not much was done,” Lambert said. “So the tribe tried to put the first foot forward.”

As a model of Cherokee’s “new look,” the tribe decided to renovate a few buildings of its own in the downtown district that are leased to businesses. The tribe spent $4 million revamping the collection of storefronts known as the horseshoe, a price tag that included the river walk behind the buildings among other improvements.

Meanwhile, the tribe also set up a fund to offer loans with 1 percent interest rates to businesses interested in refurbishing their look.

“The tribe said we will do ours and make low-interest loans available to the other business owners,” Lambert said.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has also paid for other, less-apparent appearance alterations. The utility lines through the main thoroughfare in Cherokee were moved underground, new streetlights were added and more than 20 painted bear statues decorate the town.

“I think actually we’ve made a lot of progress,” Hicks said.

However, he would like to see more changes during the next three or four years.

“We definitely have a lot more work to do, especially with our signage,” said Hicks, who views the improvements as part of his legacy as chief.

After redoing the downtown area, Cherokee leaders decided to extend the new look beyond the central business district to other commercial areas.

The focus is now on the business strip just past the Cherokee Indian Fairgrounds on U.S. 441, which will soon see culturally themed streetlights, underground utilities, new and wider sidewalks, crosswalks stamped with cultural symbols, improved landscaping and signage, and the addition of benches, bike racks and recycling bins.

The tribe has received money from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation to fund its downtown improvements over the years.

Last fall, the tribe got a $1.8 million grant from the foundation to fund appearance improvements on the new stretch of U.S. 441.

Previously, the foundation gave $2.5 million for downtown improvements — about $1.3 million to remodel buildings in the horseshoe and the $1 million for the low-interest business loans.

The preservation foundation has been “a very integral part” of completing phases of the project, Hicks said. The foundation makes annual grants using a cut of casino proceeds.

 

Embracing cultural themes

Tribal Grounds coffee shop is one of about eight businesses that moved into the remodeled horseshoe in Cherokee’s downtown.

The coffee shop moved from its old location across from the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and began leasing one of the storefronts that were remodeled by the tribe.

“It also works perfect for our purpose,” said Emily Gisler, a manager at Tribal Grounds.

“People seem to like it,” added Jennifer Welch, also a manager at Tribal Grounds.

The push for a more uniform storefront appearance is part of the tribe’s effort to make the Cherokee reservation a destination rather than a one-day excursion.

However, some would rather keep their “unique fronts,” Gisler said. And although the newer look gels more with the Cherokee culture, “a lot of tourists like to see things they are familiar with,” she said.

Some businesses are already housed in buildings that fall in line with the tribe’s appearance recommendations, including the use of wood, earth tones and metal roofing.

“I take care of my own store just to keep my customers,” said Tim Marks, owner of Ravenhawk Gifts and Collectibles.

“It’s worth it to us to hear people come in and tell us the store looks nice,” chimed in his wife, Lorie Marks.

Other Cherokee business owners chose not to change or felt the help came too late.

“We just chose not to,” said Maureen Denman, who has run Heavenly Fudge Shoppe in Cherokee with her husband for 35 years. “I don’t have extra money to do that.”

The couple already has a loan on its business and didn’t need another. They would have considered taking such a deal if it had come sooner.

The tribe is about “20 years too late,” Denman said.

Only 10 businesses accepted low-interest loans from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for building and façade improvements.

The tribe set aside $1 million for the loan program — equaling out to about $100,000 per business. The $1 million pool of funds is now dried up, Lambert said.

“Difference of opinion or lack of interest” has caused some businesses or landowners to forego the redesign, he said. But, the biggest challenge is landownership.

“A lot of the struggle comes from the complicated landownership issues,” Lambert said.

Some building owners do not want to renovate and the business owners who rent their store space do not want to sink money into a place they do not own.

The tribe is currently looking into ways it could quantify the effects of the appearance improvements and show that business has increased at stores with the more culturally focused façades. One option is to look at the tribal levy, Cherokee’s version of a sales tax.

Cherokee has seen a “slight increase” in levy revenue during the past few years, Hicks said.

Although the tribe can’t show a direct correlation between the appearance changes and the number of visitors to Cherokee, the tribe can at least say whether it is seeing more or fewer visitors each year.

“It is difficult to quantify the impact,” Lambert said.

 

Tribe hopes to diversify attractions

Along with remaking Cherokee’s downtown image, the tribe has launched an aggressive campaign to bring new amenities and attractions in hopes of increasing tourism traffic.

The tribe has already built a new movie theater, skate park and greenway system, and is looking for more ways to sell the reservation as a family vacation destination, such as a water park.

“The water park idea is not off the table,” Chief Michell Hicks said. “It’s the price tag.”

Constructing such a park would be a multi-million dollar project. The casino is a big draw for the 21 and up crowd, but the reservation wants make Cherokee more appealing to families.

Another idea is to build a children’s discovery center where kids could learn about the Cherokee culture and Western North Carolina, Hicks said.

There is also a push to recruit new retail offerings.

“It’s time to start looking at boutique shops,” said Hicks, citing Mast General Store as a prime example of the type of shops he would like to see in Cherokee.

The changes have all been aimed at reminding visitors that there is more to the reservation than the casino.

“We know that the casino is our main attraction, but we want people to know that there is still Cherokee here,” said Jason Lambert, the tribe’s economic development director.

A few business owners said that the casino actually hurts their stores.

Harrah’s Casino pulls visitors’ money away from local businesses, said Maureen Denman, who runs Heavenly Fudge Shoppe in Cherokee. Some people gamble their funds away and have no money to spare at Cherokee’s other establishments.

Part of the future improvements will include drawing events to the downtown area, reconfiguring its parking and generating foot traffic. However, creating foot traffic is pretty much impossible without sidewalks.

Currently, the main business district considered “downtown Cherokee” doesn’t have cohesive sidewalks for strolling. The tribe must decide whether to sacrifice a single row of parking in front of stores to build a continuous sidewalk that runs through downtown Cherokee.

Lambert said the tribe has not decided yet, but will have to address the topic of downtown parking first. There is not enough parking in downtown Cherokee, he said, and the tribe will consider alternative parking solutions such as a park-and-ride depot or a parking garage.

Just because the tribe has shifted its focus does not mean that it will still pushing for renovations to store facades and may offer another round of financial incentives to help.

“We still want to revitalize the downtown,” he said.

Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians might have the chance to decide whether they want alcohol in their individual communities this spring, but Tribal Council is still trying to decide if and how it would include the option on the alcohol referendum.

Tribal council approved a referendum in the fall that will give members of the Eastern Band the chance to vote on whether alcohol sales should be legalized on the reservation. Currently, the reservation is dry with the exception of the casino.

The Rev. Noah Crowe from Snowbird appealed to Tribal Council last week, asserting that individual communities should have the option of banning or permitting alcohol sales. This means that parts of the reservation could remain dry even if other communities vote to lift the alcohol ban.

“The issue of alcohol in our community as tribal members has been very powerful — and not in a positive way,” Crowe said. “I think a question like this gives power back to the community.”

Principal Chief Michell Hicks appeared at the tribal council meeting and backed the resolution brought forward by Crowe.

“I appreciate Mr. Crowe coming in. I know this has always been an emotional issue,” said Hicks. “I think that our communities are different in their makeup. An issue of this magnitude should not be forced on a community.”

Hicks has previously expressed concerns over alcohol sales being allowed in every corner of the reservation. Should the ballot measure be passed as currently written, convenience stores selling booze could potentially crop up anywhere.

The reservation is comprised of six communities: Birdtown, Wolftown, Big Cove, Painttown, Snowbird/Cherokee County and Yellowhill.

Snowbird, a remote and isolated portion of the reservation in the rugged mountains of Graham County, has an older population and is known for being more traditional. Snowbird is the only community that voted against allowing the casino to sell alcohol in another ballot measure two years ago.

No matter what, members of the Eastern Band will vote on some form of the referendum on April 15.

Massaging the verbiage

Although the council seemed amenable to the idea, legal conundrums continued to crop up.

“There are some significant issues,” said Tribal Attorney General Annette Tarnawsky. “Right now the way that this reads, you would have a problem in Painttown.”

The casino is located in Painttown, and the current wording of Crowe’s amendment would make alcohol sales in the casino illegal should the community vote down the alcohol referendum.

“I just want to make sure there is an informed decision,” Tarnawsky said. “There are a lot of things we need to look at.”

The reservation-wide ban has prevented businesses from coming to the reservation. Some restaurants have chosen to skip over Cherokee and open chains elsewhere.

“That has definitely been an issue in the past,” Hicks said.

Tribal Council chose to table Crowe’s proposal until its Feb. meeting in order to give the attorney general’s office more time to tweak its language and to avoid a rushed decision.

“I don’t want to see it fall through the cracks,” Crowe said.

A couple of council members indicated that they thought their constituents would approve of adding Crowe’s question to the referendum.

“My community strongly wants a say,” said Perry Shell, a tribal council member from Big Cove.

Diamond Brown, a tribal council member from Snowbird, said that he believes residents of his community would like to have the option as well.

“If I were to get out and do a survey with the Snowbirders, the Snowbirders would be against it,” Brown said.

And, for his community, voting down alcohol would not affect businesses. Residents of Snowbird must already travel to Robbinsville or other nearby towns to shop.

“We don’t have a town; we don’t even have our own post office,” Brown said. “We don’t even have convenience stores.”

 

The count down

On April 15, members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will go to the polls to decide whether to legalize alcohol sales on the reservation. The three-part ballot will allow voters to approve all, none, or one or two of the following:

• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.

• To permit the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks only in restaurants licensed by the Eastern Band.

• To permit the sale of beer and wine only in grocery stores and convenience stores licensed by the Eastern Band.

If Rev. Noah Crowe’s proposal is approved, tribal members would also be able to chose whether or not they want alcohol sold in their community. This means that parts of the reservation could remain dry even if other communities vote to lift the alcohol ban.

The option may give the referendum a better chance of actually passing. The Eastern Band has shot down similar measures in the past and even stopped before a vote could take place. Many Cherokee are strong Christians and the tribe has a long history of alcoholism and diabetes, making some inclined to oppose alcohol.

The road less traveled

The question ‘which way to Cherokee?’ continues bedeviling the state transportation department, which has been caught in a tug-of-war between Jackson County and Maggie Valley over who deserves a sign pointing the “right” way to Cherokee.

Maggie Valley currently holds title to the sole directional sign pointing motorists to Cherokee via U.S. 19 and over Soco Gap — and would like to keep it that way.

“We are all for helping promote Jackson County, but not at the expense of Maggie Valley,” said Maggie Valley Mayor Ron DeSimone.

The N.C. Department of Transportation is “leaning toward” posting a sign indicating that there are in fact two routes to Cherokee — one through Maggie and one that continues on past Sylva.

But by posting another sign, the department of transportation would “take away from one and give to another,” said Alderman Mike Matthews. “There has not been enough information to say you should go this way versus this way.”

Jackson County officials, meanwhile, have lobbied for the second sign, pointing out that the four-lane highway going past Sylva is actually safer and more user friendly than the route through Maggie. The tribe has expressed a desire for a second sign.

“They feel like the two-lane road over Soco is hazardous,” said Reuben Moore, a DOT official who works in the regional office in Sylva.

But DeSimone questioned Jackson’s true motive.

“Obviously, Jackson County did not bring this up because they were concerned for public welfare,” DeSimone said.

Maggie Valley could win out, however, as the DOT has yet to find a place to put the new sign and has not settled on concise wording.

 

Safety and travel time

Moore updated the Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen on the status of the sign issue at a town meeting last week.

If the DOT decides to allow a new sign, it would be placed by May before the beginning of the tourist season.

But, posting a new sign faces several obstacles, including where to place it.

“It takes about a mile of signage to properly sign an exit,” Moore said. But the roadside leading up to the Maggie exit is already cluttered with signage.

DOT has not settled on the appearance of the sign. It cannot simply put two dueling arrows on a sign pointing this way or that way to Cherokee.

“That is strictly against policy,” Moore said.

The DOT has discussed making a sign with the words Cherokee spanning the top half of the sign and the mileage for both routes below it: U.S. 74 at 37 miles and U.S. 19 at 24 miles.

Although the route through Maggie is shorter distance-wise, a study by the DOT showed that travel time was essentially the same — about 35 minutes — no matter which road was taken.

“We found that the travel time was very nearly the same,” Moore said.

Initially, Moore wanted the sign to specify that the travel time was about the same no matter which route is taken, but DOT vetoed the idea because traffic or accidents could delay travel along one of the roads.

The department only test-drove the routes three times during the late fall and winter. The times do not account for increased traffic during the summer and early fall months when tourists flood the area. Get stuck behind a slow moving Winnebago, and the trip through Soco Gap could be a grueling one.

The review of both routes showed that the crash rate on U.S. 19 is 10 percent higher.

Alderman Mike Matthews said that the two roads are incomparable when it comes to wrecks because U.S. 19 runs through a town where cars are often slowing down or speeding up and pulling in or out of parking lots. The U.S. 441 route, however, is a four-lane divided highway.

“I don’t even see how that could be compared,” Matthews said.

Maggie Valley officials said they want “overwhelming, definitive information” showing that the road through Jackson County is safer.

Does DOT consider U.S. 19 to be safe, Matthews asked?

“Absolutely,” Moore responded.

Aldermen Saralyn Price asked Moore pointblank which road would he take if it was snowing and he was in Lake Junaluska.

“I wouldn’t be out,” Moore said.

The Board of Aldermen argued that the DOT has not provided any information that would validate a decision to post a new directional sign.

“I have not heard anything definite about (U.S. 441) being safer,” DeSimone said.

 

Capturing tourism dollars

Maggie Valley and Jackson County each hope to attract a portion of the 3.5 million people who visit the casino in Cherokee each year.

The idea that Maggie Valley will lose business should an alternative route be posted “presupposes that people are going to do what the signs tell them to do,” Moore said.

Jackson County commissioners haven’t been shy about their desires to funnel tourism traffic through that county. Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten and the five county commissioners expressed surprise last week that their request for a sign had triggered uproars in Maggie Valley.

As they hammered out possible designs for a new welcome sign at the county line, Commissioner Doug Cody joked that they should add to Jackson County’s fantasy sign: “This is the best route to Cherokee.”

A decision will be made based on safety and the speed of traffic, assured Moore, not based on which route is more scenic or needs more business.

According to Jackson County Travel and Tourism, visitors have said that they prefer to take U.S. 441 to Cherokee. But, Moore said he can’t confirm whether that is true.

Lloyd Arneach likes to make people cry.

“That means they understand the stories I am telling,” said Arneach, a 68-year-old storyteller from Cherokee. “A superb storyteller in one program can make you laugh, make you think and move you to tears.”

Arneach’s story starts in the 1970s in Georgia with a request from his children’s babysitter. She could not find any books about American Indians to present to an area Girl Scout Troop and so asked Arneach to speak to them.

At the time, he worked as a computer programmer, and when he arrived at the meeting, he sat casually in his three-piece suit as the girls anxiously awaited the appearance of a real-life Indian in full regalia.

“When I started talking to them, their jaws dropped,” Arneach said.

That first appearance turned into a second Girl Scout gig, until Arneach eventually found himself telling stories at Georgia Tech, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian.

“It’s been incredible all the places storytelling has taken me,” he said.

One such place was the Festival of Fires, an all-Indian event during the Olympics in Atlanta where he met record-breaking Olympian Billy Mills, the only American ever to win a gold medal in the 10,000-meter run.

“Billy Mills to me is what an Olympic champs should be,” Arneach said, calling him a gracious individual.

People seem willing to hand parts of their lives to Arneach, who preserves each memory.

A friend dressed in traditional Indian garb once told Arneach about speaking at a large event in Washington when a woman approached, asking who his people were and asking to take his picture. Come to find out, the woman was former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

“It’s amazing the people who have sat and shared stories with me,” he said. “I feel very blessed the stories that have come to me.”

Arneach continued working as a computer programmer but told stories part-time. However, he eventually realized that most of his vacation time was spent guest-speaking at various festivals and events.

In 1993, Arneach, who had left Cherokee when he was 21, moved back to the reservation and became a full-time storyteller.

 

An Emotional Journey

There are several key components to the perfect storytelling experience.

“The sitting has to be correct,” Arneach said. “The audience has to be right.”

The venue must be silent, without the possibility of outside noise to detract from the performance, and the audience must be engaged. With these elements intact, Arneach need only gauge the crowd with one or two starter tales and then decide which narratives will receive the best response — should he stick to more lighthearted fare or is the audience emotionally ready to follow him into a more serious story.

“I never have a schedule when I go in story telling,” he said.

People are encouraged to relay the stories Arneach tells. Anecdotes are meant to be passed on, not hoarded in one’s memory, said Arneach, who is afraid that the art of storytelling will die with the older generations.

He tells a mixture of cultural and personal stories. Arneach chuckled as he recalled a visit to a 7-Eleven gas station. He had stopped at the convenience store earlier in the day.

He returned a second time, and the men working there asked his ethnicity. When they heard he was Native American, the men excitedly exclaimed ‘Wow, two in one day,’ not realizing that Arneach was the Native American from earlier.

His favorite story to tell, however, is Chief Joseph and the flight of the Nez Perce.

After attempting to resist efforts by U.S. soldiers to forcibly remove the tribe from its native lands in the 1800s, the band of Nez Perce fled to safety in Canada.

“I do not understand why that story affects me more than most,” Arneach said.

He requires about an hour to tell the story, but once he’s done, he cannot tell anymore.

“I am emotionally wiped out — both emotionally and physically,” Arneach said.

 

Hear him for yourself

Who: Lloyd Arneach

Where: Haywood County Public Library in Waynesville

When: 3 p.m., Jan. 16

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