There’s no clear winner in a complex and multifarious new system for ranking roads projects when it comes to the ongoing debate over Sylva’s main commercial drag.

In just-release road rankings, redesigning N.C. 107 out ranked the competing proposal to build a new highway bypass around it — but just barely.

The two dueling projects — redesigning N.C. 107 versus building a bypass to divert traffic from it — ranked second and third on a wish list of road building projects for the six western-most counties, with 45 and 44 points respectively.

The near tie means controversy is bound to continue over the best way to address perceived congestion on Sylva’s thoroughfare.

The two projects are neck and neck in the ranking process, despite a strong message by local leaders that they overwhelming prefer to rework N.C. 107. A regional transportation committee comprised of leaders from the six western counties got to weigh in on the road ranking — and in doing so awarded reworking N.C. 107 the maximum number of points it could.

By contrast, the regional leaders awarded zero points to the concept of a bypass around N.C. 107.

The bypass was catapulted forward anyway, however, thanks to heavily weighted points injected into the ranking process by the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Sarah Graham, a transportation planner and community liaison for the Southwestern Planning Commission, sees the ranking process as a success for public input, even though the preference of local leaders was nearly outstripped by DOT’s own rankings.

“The conversation we have going on now is of improvements to the current road, compared to a few years ago when the conversation going on was whether or not we wanted a (bypass),” Graham said. “The community said we want to see what it would take to improve 107 before you build a new 107.”

Indeed, community input got the idea of reworking N.C. 107 put on the list in the first place, and then advanced it forward.

But, some Jackson County leaders are discouraged that their input into the ranking process, which showed a clear preference for reworking N.C. 107 over a bypass, got watered down after the state DOT was done with the list.

“It is frustrating to see that a project the county planning board and the county commissioners ranked very low to score so highly on the statewide ranking,” said Gerald Green, Jackson County planner. “It made the time the county commissioners and planning board put into reviewing the projects and ranking them seem to be wasted and it felt as though our input was given much consideration.”

 

Point jockeying

The road rankings were done under a new system launched last year that is supposed to be objective and data-driven. The DOT awards its points based on several predefined variables. The old process was considered subjective, determined in part simply by the preferences of politically appointed DOT board members.

Gov. Beverly Perdue ushered in the new system, as one of many state government reforms aimed at transparency and ending political corruption.

“It is a scientific approach that would remove so much of the politics involved in funding transportation and try to infuse the process with more science and more local input,” Graham said.

The ranking process can be a bit daunting to the novice, however.

The final list is a mish-mash of rankings by local leaders, the local DOT office and state DOT planners. Each has its own system for awarding points. Points are also weighted, so the points awarded by the state DOT office count for a greater share of the total than those awarded by local leaders.

The system is still relatively new, but local leaders on the regional transportation committee have already figured out a way to game the system and try make their points count more.

Since the DOT’s block of points are weighted more heavily, input by local leaders can only carry a project so far. The regional committee is given a block of 1,300 point to divvy up among its favorite road projects, with the caveat that it can’t award more than 100 of the points to a single project.

Last year, the regional transportation committee carefully spread their allotted bank of points among a long list of road projects, splitting hairs over how many points each project should get out of the total 1,300 they had to work with.

Their balancing act ended up being for naught once the DOT added its points to the mix, however. The preferences of local leaders were watered down once the DOT plunked its more valuable points into the mix.

So this year, the local leaders on the regional transportation task force decided to game the system. Instead of spreading their allotted points around to lots of different projects, they dedicated all their points to a handful of top projects and gave zero to the rest.

In the end, they got more bang for their points.

“They realized you have to work together to get your projects moved up the ladder,” Graham said. “They said, ‘let’s give 100 points, the most we can give, to our top projects and start pushing them up faster.’ If we are going to be given some say, we want it to mean the most.”

Graham said the transportation planning committees across the state have caught on to the strategy as well.

Convoluted? Perhaps.

But, public input actually had an influence in the state’s road project rankings, so Graham sees it as a success.

“If we had not put improvements to 107 on the list and given it 100 points, it would not have been on there at all,” Graham said.

The rankings are all well and good, but the question ultimately is which ones will get money.

“We don’t really know how much money is going to be applied,” said Joel Setzer, head of the DOT for the 10 western counties. “What everybody wants to know is what is going to get worked on. We don’t know that yet.”

Technically, building a bypass is further along in the planning process than reworking N.C. 107. The alternative of reworking N.C. 107 emerged only a few years ago, while the idea of a bypass dates back two decades and has been inching ahead, albeit slowly.

“It is already in the development stage,” Setzer said.

But, “there is very little work being done on it,” he added.

Now, it is unclear whether that work should be halted, and the money put toward reworking N.C. 107 instead.

“We can’t hopscotch around the priority list,” Setzer said. “Because of the rankings, we can’t continue to work on the planning of the 107 (bypass) without addressing this potential project to widen existing 107 because widening existing 107 ranked higher.”

 

Devil in the details

While Setzer refers to the project as “widening” 107, that’s not what local leaders who requested the project would call it. They want traffic flow improved, but in their book, that doesn’t necessarily mean a carte blanche widening.

In fact, that highlights a source of contention between the community and DOT over what exactly a “reworked” N.C. 107 would look like.

DOT did a cursory plan for reworking N.C. 107 that calls for wider lanes, more lanes, bigger intersections and medians. The new footprint would be so wide it would take out nearly every business lining the commercial thoroughfare.

Local leaders and the business community believed there had to be another option for reworking 107, however.

“They didn’t like what the DOT suggested,” Graham said. “They said we don’t want the study defined for us. We don’t like the way it was defined for us.”

So a task force of town and county leaders, along with local business owners, hopes to come up with a more tenable solution. It has been meeting for a few months.

“There wasn’t really a clear vision of what had to be done with 107,” said Chris Matheson, a Sylva town board member and business owner. “There’s a lot more to consider than how to get from the light at 107 to the high school quicker. We are finding out just how complicated it is.”

Opinions on the committee vary on the extent of the congestion — which will ultimately frame out much of a “fix” the road needs.

Randy Hooper, owner of Bryson’s Farm Supply, doesn’t think traffic is that bad judging by his own commute.

“I can leave here in the afternoon and be home in 15 minutes. Twenty years ago, I could do the same thing,” said Hooper. “It takes no longer to get back and forth to work now as it did 20 years ago.”

The goal of the task force is to speak with one voice on what the community wants a “reworked” 107 to look like.

“We need our community leaders to be backing a single vision. We hope the corridor study will create the community consensus so as we move this project up the funding ladder we can say, ‘This is our vision. Help us fund it,’” Graham said.

Setzer agreed consensus is currently lacking.

“We are polarized right now on what we think we need to do, as a community,” Setzer said.

The mental health agency Smoky Mountain Center will not be buying and moving into Waynesville’s former Department of Social Services office building after all, leaving Haywood County back at Square One trying to unload the large, dated, four-story brick complex built decades ago as a hospital.

DSS had outgrown the space and moved into new offices in a renovated Walmart earlier this year. The center expressed an interest in buying the old office building earlier this month.

The agency had weighed uprooting its headquarters from Sylva and moving to Haywood County, taking with it 60 jobs. The primary motivation was finding a larger space to house an additional 100 jobs being added in the next two years as Smoky Mountain Center gears up to oversee a larger segment of mental health services.

But, the proposal received strenuous political pushback from Jackson County and leaders in the far-western counties concerned about potential job losses in their neck of the woods.

Brian Ingraham, area director for Smoky Mountain Center, and Shelly Foreman, who oversees planning and public affairs, emphasized that the agency merely had been exploring options when considering the old hospital in Haywood as a site for their expansion and new headquarters. But when that option was taken to Smoky Mountain Center’s board of directors last week, they ruled it out — to Haywood County’s obvious chagrin.

“Well, it is disappointing. But I do understand the situation,” said Bill Upton, a Smoky Mountain board member and Haywood County commissioner. “They were caught between a rock and a hard place. And there will be other opportunities for Haywood County.”

Haywood still stands to gain a slice of the new jobs Smoky Mountain Center will be adding, which could now be placed in several locations across its 15-county service area, Foreman said. Haywood could end up with a majority of those new jobs, while Jackson gets to keep its existing ones, Jackson County Commissioner Jack Debnam said.

The mental health agency is poised to morph into basically a public health insurance company for anyone who receives mental health, developmental disability or substance abuse services through Medicaid.

“The situation is fluid,” Ingraham said. “We have to adapt to that and plan for the best possible outcomes that we can.”

Ronnie Beale, a Smoky Mountain board member and Macon County commissioner, said “this wasn’t the time to be buying any property.”

Beale said the board vote was not unanimous, and that a strong argument was made that Waynesville is closer to Asheville, thereby increasing the applicant pool the agency can draw from for jobs.

Beale said that he doesn’t buy arguments that it will be more difficult to recruit workers into the far western counties than into Haywood County, which is better poised to draw on the workforce pool in neighboring Asheville.

“That’s part of the stigma is that you can’t hire people out here,” Beale said. “I think we can.”

As for what to do with the old hospital in Haywood County, Haywood County Manager Marty Stamey said the county would continue its marketing efforts.

The $289,000 loan from Jackson County to the new owner of Sylva radio station WRGC has finally gotten the green light, meaning the popular local station could be back on the air early next week.

“I think everything is in place to move forward with this,” County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners earlier this week.

WRGC went dead last August, a victim of dwindling advertising dollars in a souring economy. Sylva resident Roy Burnette hoped to buy the station and get it back on the air, but lacked the money or financing to do so.

540 Broadcasting Co., the business formed by Burnette, sought an economic development loan of $289,000 from the county. The deal has been in the works for months. Although commissioners OK’d the economic development loan in theory, it got hung up on issues of collateral. It was unclear what assets Burnette would put on the table to guarantee the loan.

Proper collateral, allowing the county to recoup its money should Burnette fail to make payments, is a touchy issue. The county’s track record for economic development loans has not been great in the past — finding itself in possession of the questionable collateral from underground fiber optic lines to 500 sewing machines — and it is trying to be a tad more judicious these days, explaining the hold up on the loan.

The issue of collateralization has now been resolved, County Attorney Jay Coward assured commissioners. Burnette will put up personal real estate “worth in excess of $175,000.” Additionally, an inventory of the radio station’s equipment shows that it, too, is worth in excess of $175,000, Coward said.

Of the total $289,000 loan, Burnette needed $250,000 to purchase the actual radio license from Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. Some $39,000 was designated for acquiring the equipment needed to install the 5,000-watt station. Burnette is providing $100,000 in his own dollars for working capital.

Burnette plans to expand the radio station’s reach, previously limited to Sylva, from Canton in Haywood County to Topton in Swain County, which in theory also would expand advertising-revenue possibilities and make the station financially feasible.

The fallout from Metrostat Communication’s going belly up keeps getting more complicated, with Jackson County commissioners learning this week that an Asheville company owns some of the defunct company’s fiber optic line.

Metrostat, a high-speed Internet and phone service company in Sylva, went under late last year still owing about $500,000 in outstanding economic development loans to Jackson County and town of Sylva. The county and town took possession of the fiber optic lines and other Metrostat assets, including a tower, which had been put down as collateral. But not, as leaders thought, all of the fiber optic line.

“Things continue to just pop up,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.

It turns out ERC Broadband, a nonprofit, owns 12 of the 48 strands making up some of Metrostat’s fiber optic lines in Sylva along U.S. 23 and N.C. 107. ERC bought some of Metrostat’s fiber lines in 2006 for $147,000. ERC Broadband was a grant-funded initiative dating to the late 1990s to run a high-speed Internet backbone through rural mountain counties. ERC acted as Metrostat’s provider to link its own fiber lines to the greater Internet world, Wooten explained.

Jackson County and Sylva initially wanted to simply sell the entire system, fiber optic cable, the tower and other Metrostat equipment, to a single buyer at the highest price possible. Problem is, no buyers emerged — Frontier Communications Co. said it wasn’t interested, and then BalsamWest FiberNET made an offer then withdrew the proposal.

The only possibility left was Cashiers Chalet Inn owner George Ware, who wanted only the tower on Kings Mountain, which once beamed out high-speed wireless Internet service, so that he could provide Internet to his guests. But, the county doesn’t want to sell Metrostat’s system piecemeal.

So the county and town have been left searching for Plan B. Use Metrostat’s assets as the base to provide all of Jackson County with wireless Internet service. The dream includes linking the various emergency towers across the county to provide this blanket coverage.

The county manager said that means there could be an advantage to ERC Broadband’s sudden appearance in the what-to-do-with-Mestrostat game: the focus of the nonprofit is to further economic development in Western North Carolina, which could fit like a hand in Jackson County’s wireless Internet glove.

ERC Broadband could bring the technical expertise to the table Jackson County needs to try and use Metrostat’s infrastructure to provide countywide wireless Internet, Wooten said. A meeting between county officials and company representatives is scheduled for Friday.

“I’m not sure we’ll ever get our money back, but we may end up with something that is an asset to this community,” Wooten said.

Jackson County’s planning board will continue weighing proposed changes to open-space regulations for a few more weeks before passing them on to commissioners for their thumbs up or thumbs down.

Jackson County is one of the few mountain counties with an open space rule, which requires developers to set aside a portion of new subdivisions as green space, natural areas and recreation. The open space rule has been in place for four years, but is being revisited for possible changes.

The planning board recently held a public hearing on the proposed changes. Members chose to hold off on a final decision about passing their recommendations along to county commissioners, who would have final say.

Planning Board Chairman Zachary Koenig and other board members, in delaying a vote, agreed they wanted time to consider what speakers had discussed and asked during the hearing.

The main concern expressed? Fear that the changes would hurt groundwater recharge. When the original open space rule was ushered in four years ago, along with a host of other steep slope and development regulations, groundwater recharge was central to the debate. Open space allowed rain water falling on the mountains to soak back into the soil and recharge the groundwater so many rely on for wells.

Some who spoke at the public hearing feared weaker open space requirements would negate what the previous board tried to accomplish.

Board members denied diluting the rules, however, saying they in fact consider the issue so critical they removed it from the open-space regulations to ensure separate consideration of the matter during the next few months. Multi-family and commercial development also will be addressed in these future groundwater recharge standards. The current open space standards address single-family residential development.

“That will be our next task as a board,” Koenig promised speakers. “We think highly enough of water recharge to put together an entirely new ordinance.”

A couple of speakers seemed unpersuaded by the planning board’s decision.

“I must say I’m a little taken aback at the idea of erosion, water recharge have essentially been pulled out of the open space” discussion, said former developer John Beckman, who works as a farmer these days in Jackson County. “How can you not discuss hydrology, and the impacts that would have on the environment? It is not like open space is totally distinct and different from water-related issues.”

Roger Clapp, executive director of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River, noted “on balance” the proposed changes “appears as a net positive for developers and a notable benefit for the environment and the future homeowners in news developments.”

Clapp did urge the planning board to set the document aside for a bit, as it did, though he requested “the issue of recharge … be addressed.”

The conservationist argued that the document turned the universally accepted definition of open space “on its ear. It never means built-up recreational areas such as tennis and basketball courts and golf courses, in my experiences.”

The changes include continuing to allow certain “hardscaping,” such as tennis courts, sidewalks and swimming pools, to count as open space in efforts to gain recreational space for the county’s residents, as the current ordinance does.

County Planner Gerald Green disagreed with Clapp, saying that including recreational space as “open space” is standard in planning circles. Planning board members also defended the use of recreational space.

Commissioner Doug Cody and Chairman Jack Debnam both attended the hearing. Cody said he hopes that residents “don’t have preconceived notions about what these revisiting of the ordinances are … I’m bothered that people think we are trying to destroy something. We’re not. We are trying to reach a balance.”

 

Other changes include:

• Currently, for subdivisions of eight or more lots, 25 percent of land must be placed in open space. Conservation design subdivisions open-space requirement would go to 20 percent open space of the land area. Green said that remains higher than in other counties. Twenty-five percent, he said before the hearing, in his opinion “increases the costs of homes for people who work and want to live here and does not effectively address the goals that have been identified by the county, which include promoting sustainable development.”

• Developers can opt now to pay a fee in lieu of providing open space. This fee would go to the Jackson County Recreation and Parks Department to help fund activities and spaces for residents. Developers also could offer other land for open space.

 

Groundwater recharge

Recharge is the process by which groundwater is replenished, and a recharge area is where water from precipitation moves downward to an aquifer. Groundwater is recharged naturally by rain and snow and by creeks, rivers and lakes. Recharge can be hampered by construction or other human activities such as logging.

Prospects that Rover might one day find himself banned from attending events and festivals in traditionally pooch-friendly Sylva has left some dog owners here feeling like they are on the end of an increasingly short leash.

Town commissioners recently considered following Waynesville’s lead and prohibiting canines, even when controlled on leashes, from street festivals and town-sponsored functions.

Commissioner Harold Hensley emphasized on Tuesday “I am not a dog hater,” but said that he’s heard a rising tide of complaints from citizens and from law enforcement officers about dog-people interactions at town events and festivals.

“There was a man, he spread out on the ground for a picnic, and a big dog came up and helped himself to a piece of chicken off that man’s plate,” said Hensley, adding that more and more towns are moving to prevent those and more serious sorts of interactions.

Sylva leaders ultimately decided to postpone the discussion for now because one of the town’s most storied events, Greening Up the Mountains, is just around the corner, said Paige Roberson, head of the Downtown Sylva Association.

Greening Up, Sylva’s annual celebration of the arrival of spring when thousands converge on downtown for the biggest street festival of the year, takes place April 28.

The dog-ban issue hasn’t gone away, however, it simply has been postponed for additional debate until a later time. This frustrates dog owners in Sylva, who’ve been free to come and go with their animals as long as they abide by the town’s leash laws and clean up behind their animals when necessary.

“It kind of bugs me when people throw up blocks to bringing all God’s critters together,” said Annie Harlow, who is active in ARF, Jackson County’s humane society.

Harlow’s dog, P-Nut, is a rescue animal. Harlow said she hopes to bring P-Nut to Greening Up to help further socialize the terrier-mix dog.

Harlow emphasized that she’s in favor of some animal-oriented regulations, such as spay and neuter laws and animal-protection acts.

“But, we need to look at why we’re regulating and what it is accomplishing,” she said.

 

Eye-to-eye

Waynesville long has banned dogs, even when on leashes, from downtown street festivals. That town’s ordinance dates to 2002.

“We’ve had situations over time with dogs being eye to eye with babies and strollers, and situations when folks have almost tripped over dogs’ leashes,” said Buffy Phillips, executive director of the Downtown Waynesville Association.

Phillips said the ordinance seemed particularly critical because the sidewalks in Waynesville are narrower than in many other Western North Carolina towns. This placed dogs and people in uncomfortably close proximity, she said.

The decade-old ordinance places dog bans on Waynesville’s parades, four festivals, a block party and street dances. Signs are stuck in sidewalk flower planters on the approach to Main Street announcing the law to festival-goers.

An attempt to provide babysitting services for people’s puppies petered out almost as soon as it began. Haywood Animal Welfare Association offered dog sitting at a festival the first year the ordinance was passed, fearing owners would leave their pets in potentially lethal hot cars while partaking in the street festivities. But, finding volunteers proved difficult, and people just weren’t comfortable leaving their animals with strangers, Phillips said.

Dogs receive their dues and welcomes at Waynesville’s annual Dog Walk, she said, an event sponsored by Sarge’s Animal Rescue Foundation designed to highlight animal adoption efforts.

Dogs being brought to events and festivals in Franklin and posing hazards to others simply hasn’t been an issue to date in that town, said Franklin Planner Mike Grubbermann. For whatever reason, bringing dogs out into Franklin isn’t a particularly popular pastime, he said.

Pat Thomas, who lives in Sylva and is co-owner of City Lights Café on East Jackson Street, said that she’d be extremely disappointed and even shocked if dogs were banned at Sylva-based events and festivals.

The restaurant has a “pet friendly” patio so that people’s pets can be with there while their owners’ dine.

“In this day and age where pets are considered a part of the family, I cannot imagine not being able to bring my pet dog to an outdoor festival,” Thomas said. “Many visitors that come to this area vacation with their pets. I feel the demographic we are speaking of, in the majority, are responsible pet owners, whether they are visiting, or they reside here. I can definitely say that if I knew an area wasn’t pet friendly, I’d be reluctant to vacation there and would also not suggest the area to any friends.”

Thanks to work obligations that have put me in Franklin several days at a time these last few weeks, I've had the opportunity in recent days to run, walk and stagger along that town's greenway.

I know I've plucked on this harp, honked this horn and beat on this drum a few times before, but I'd like to replay an oh-so-familiar tune again: greenways are cool. Greenways are great. Greenways, in fact, are just about the best legacy I can imagine elected officials creating to mark their times served in office.

I write this in the fervent hope that Jackson County will continue in its pursuit of something similar to what Macon County has created. Because if any community could use a greenway, it would be this one: I live just outside Sylva, and I'm here to tell you that this is a hard place to walk and run safely about. Or at least, to do that anywhere enjoyable — running beside the four-lane highway in the bike lanes is not my idea, or many other people's idea, of particularly enjoyable.

Swain County, my home turf, is unusually blessed in that the community has easy access to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Go out to Deep Creek any morning and you'll find scores of local residents walking the 4.2-mile roundtrip loop. Those more intrepid souls easily can add harder terrain and distance — Indian Creek Falls, Noland Creek and more. When the lake is down, many residents opt to take their walks and runs along Fontana.

What Swain County lacks is an indoor recreation center. But that's a column for another day.

Haywood County has Lake Junaluska, a great gift to those in the community looking for somewhere safe and scenic to walk and run. Back when I worked everyday in Waynesville, I'd spend early morning hours working out at Lake Junaluska, adding distance and variety by trotting along the roads winding about within the Methodist community.

Sylva is much harder than these other communities for those seeking a place to exercise outside.

Occasionally I simply run and walk the roads in the community where I live. But one gets bored, or I get bored, with doing the same workout day in and day out.

There is a trail around Southwestern Community College. And though I appreciate its existence and on occasion avail myself of that trail, frankly SCC's path would challenge a mountain goat. Some days I'm just not up to that level of workout.

When there's time I drive to the end of Locust Creek Road, navigate through the trash pile at the bottom, and run those rough roads and paths for an hour or so. That's fairly enjoyable, but I do feel odd when I round turns and come face to face with pickup trucks and ATVs with local guys four-wheeling away the day. We just wave and go our respective ways, but I worry I'm in their way and that my presence adds a potential safety issue to their traditional mud-flinging fun.

Western Carolina University, I should certainly mention, is working on a five-mile long multi-use trail.

Keep in mind that volunteers are needed to help with trail construction there this spring and summer and with ongoing maintenance. To that end there's a trail-building workshop on campus Saturday, March 24. The workshop includes a required classroom session in The Cats Den in Brown Hall from 9 a.m. until noon led by a trail care crew from the International Mountain Bicycling Association, plus lunch and afternoon work on the trails. The training will prepare volunteers to build that five-mile trail at WCU for walkers, hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers this spring and summer.

I am concerned about mixing all users together. I used to run regularly at the region's most famous mountain bike destination, Tsali Recreation Area on the Swain-Graham county lines, which has four trails. The trails are open to hikers, bikers and riders on horseback, but on a strictly enforced rotating schedule. I would never have run on a trail with the mountain bikers on a heavy-use day — it would have been dangerous for them and me.

That said, I'm happy to see any trails being built in the area, and I'm sure WCU will work out any kinks in usage as problems, if any, play out.

But what I really hope is that Jackson County moves forward with acquiring the land needed to build a true greenway system. This community, of all of the communities in this region, could truly use one.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

A new strategic plan for Western Carolina University that will guide the institution's overall direction for the coming decade will be unveiled at a public forum next month.

WCU Chancellor David Belcher appointed a 36-member committee last fall to develop the plan. The group has regularly met since and is made up of representatives from within the university community and from the broader region. The planning process has included additional university and community members on various subcommittees.

The university's last strategic plan was implemented in 2008. This was prior to the economic downturn and before the state made massive cuts to its budget.

Belcher told members of WCU's board of trustees last week that he intends to bring them the plan for review in June.

But the public will get a first crack at the plan in a forum on Tuesday, April 17.

"We'll put the final draft of the plan out for consumption and invite final feedback from all quarters," said Melissa Wargo, an assistant vice chancellor in institutional research and effective planning who has led the strategic planning process.

Wargo said the planning group developed six strategic directions. These were:

• Fulfilling the educational needs of the state and region.

• Enriching the total student experience.

• Enhancing community partnerships.

• Investing in faculty and staff.

• Investing in core resources.

• Garnering support for this vision.

"These are the things that guide and inspire us, and as an institution in general," she said to the board of trustees.

Among the ideas for enhancing community partnerships is to assist in community revitalization efforts, identify and assist in economic development activities, and support local governments and schools.

"One of the things we heard strongly from the community ... was that we need to do a better job of enhancing our community partnership," Wargo said.

Paige Roberson is a member of that subcommittee. She works in planning for Jackson County and on downtown and economic development issues for Sylva. Roberson said the vision and desires of WCU to be inclusive are still much stronger than the reality. Roberson, a WCU graduate, said that she was the only Sylva community member on that community subcommittee. The others, she said, were affiliated with WCU.

"I am glad to see efforts taking place," Roberson said. "I did appreciate the interest and that they included me in it. But they need more people from the community involved if they really want community involvement."

Wargo said that one major difficulty for members of the community wanting to interact with WCU is an inability to easily communicate with the university.

"They often don't know what's going on here on campus," she said, suggesting that there might be a need for a single office with an executive level position "to support and coordinate community partnerships."

Also important, she said, is that WCU recognize and understand that "we are an arts and cultural resource for this region, and that we need to deliver on that promise."


Assumptions for WCU's strategic plan

• WCU will pursue strategically controlled enrollment growth.

• The quality of the student body will increase.

• The economic instability within the state will continue.

• The university's role in, and focus on, Western North Carolina will remain strong while its influence grows across the state and region.

• Fundraising and alternative revenue streams will become more important.

• State funding will be tied to performance.

The mental health agency Smoky Mountain Center is considering moving its headquarters from Sylva to Waynesville, taking with it some 60 jobs and the prospect of dozens more as the agency expands during the coming two years.

The prospect pleases Haywood County but disappoints Jackson County.

"It would be a huge economic development boost for the county from the influx of new jobs," Haywood County Manager Marty Stamey said. "We are looking for a win-win situation for the county."

It is anything but for Jackson County, however, which stands to lose a stable of white-collar jobs.

"This is a lose-lose for Jackson County," said Jackson Manager Chuck Wooten, terming it a potentially substantial blow to the local economy.

"People will shop where they work, get gasoline where they work," said Wooten in calculating the costs.

Smoky Mountain Center has expressed interest in the former Department of Social Services building in Waynesville. DSS outgrew the space and moved into new offices in a renovated Walmart earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Smoky Mountain Center has been on the hunt for new office space to house its growing mental health operation, which covers a 15-county area. The agency has not made a final decision, something that would fall to its board of directors. The board is meeting Thursday night and will discuss the options but may or may not vote.

"We are looking at a whole facilities development plan," said Shelly Foreman, who oversees planning and public affairs for Smoky Mountain Center.

Waynesville's old hospital is a mammoth brick building that occupies an entire block, with 125 rooms and 50,000 square feet of space. Haywood County's Department of Social Services moved out in January. A plan to convert the former hospital to low-income senior housing fell through last month, leaving the large, aging brick building in danger of standing permanently vacant unless another taker came along.

Stamey said he hopes that the building suits Smoky Mountain Center's needs.

Wooten said county officials are disappointed Smoky Mountain Center didn't contact it about the possible move sooner.

"We would have liked to know about this decision before the decision was made," Wooten said.

Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, said he felt Smoky Mountain Center had been less than honest and forthcoming in its dealings with the county.

"They didn't even give us a chance to talk about it," Debnam said. "They pretty much just told us it is a done deal."

While Jackson County officials believe the move is impending, Foreman said that is not the case.

"There is no decision until the board decides," said Foreman. The board includes local government officials and representatives from the 15-county area.

Foreman said several options are on the table as Smoky Mountain Center looks for new space to expand. The agency will add up to 100 jobs during the next couple of years as it begins to oversee a larger segment of mental health services.

Smoky Mountain Center will likely be adding some jobs at all three offices in its 15-county service area, which reaches as far as Boone and Lenoir. But, it is looking for a central office building where the bulk of new jobs would be based.

Smoky Mountain Center leases its current office building in Sylva. Stamey said the county has not received a formal offer from Smoky Mountain Center.

"Smoky still has to decide exactly what they want to do," Stamey said.

One reason cited for the possible move is that Waynesville is closer to Asheville, increasing the applicant pool the agency can draw from for jobs. The agency believes it will be challenging to recruit the positions it needs from Jackson County's workforce alone.

Debnam said he found that suggestion ludicrous on the face of it: Jackson County is home to Western Carolina University, the Southwestern Development Commission and Southwestern Community College and MedWest-Harris Hospital and functions as one of the region's local government hubs.

Smoky Mountain Center acts as a local management entity that oversees state funded mental health, intellectual and developmental disability, and substance abuse services. Starting this year, in addition to managing state funds, Smoky will be responsible for managing Medicaid funds for all behavioral health services in its area.

"For our 15-county area, we will become like the public health insurance company for anyone who receives mental health, developmental disability or substance abuse services through Medicaid," Foreman said.

— Writer Becky Johnson contributed to this story 

Joe Cline, executive director of the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority, has suddenly voluntarily resigned without publicly specifying why.

TWSA board Chairman Randall Turpin said Cline tendered his resignation during a closed session. Turpin is temporarily overseeing the agency until a replacement is hired.

Efforts to reach Cline for comment were unsuccessful. Chairman Jack Debnam and other county leaders said they did not know why Cline had resigned, with Debnam describing those involved as “tight-lipped.”

County Manager Chuck Wooten told Jackson County commissioners this week that the TWSA board would be advertising for a replacement in trade magazines and similar outlets.

“They want to get someone on board as soon as possible,” Wooten said.

TWSA was created in 1992 when the Jackson County and the towns of Dillsboro, Sylva and Webster consolidated their water and wastewater utilities.

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