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State of housing in Cherokee to be surveyed

A federal study researching housing conditions on Indian reservations across the U.S. will include the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

In 2009, Congress mandated that the Department of Housing and Urban Development assess housing needs among people living on reservations. The study will determine need based on demographic, social and economic conditions.

The goal is to amass “clear, credible and consistent information that can inform Congress,” according to a resolution approved by Tribal Council last week.

Although all tribes can complete surveys online, the Eastern Band is one of 40 randomly selected tribes whose enrolled members have a chance answer more in-depth household surveys. Selected participants will receive a $20 gift card for their time.

The in-person household survey will ask questions such as: how many people live in each residence; reasons multiple people are living in the same household; and what features the home includes.

Although only a handful of enrolled members of the Eastern Band will fill out in the in-person survey, researchers are collecting multiple types of information to give a more complete picture of life on reservations. They will look at readily available information such as Census data, conduct in-person and phone interviews, and involve background interviews and literature reviews.

Data collection began in January and will continue until January next year, with preliminary findings scheduled for completion in June 2014. The results will not affect how much funding individual tribes receive but could influence overall allocations for the federal Indian Housing Block Grant program.

 

Cherokee leaders call for full transcripts

In an effort to increased accuracy and transparency, meetings of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Tribal Council will now be captured with a verbatim transcript.

Council Member Tommye Saunooke presented a resolution to council last week asking that all discussion at budget and Tribal Council meetings be transcribed word for word to keep an accurate history of what happened.

“I don’t want a summary. I want verbatim,” Saunooke said.

The resolution suggested hiring a court reporter for the job.

Council Members Terri Henry, Bo Taylor and B Ensley all voiced their agreement with Saunooke. However, Ensley questioned whether the tribe needed to hire outside help.

“I agree with what Tommye is trying to do here,” Ensley said. “But I am opposed to contracting someone to do this.”

The tribe already has employees who are capable or could learn to take verbatim notes, he argued. In the end, the council unanimously voted to take verbatim notes of its meetings but to contract a current employee to transcribe them.

Council’s monthly meetings are already broadcast on the tribe’s own cable channel as well as online, and are widely viewed.

Cherokee will be the only government entity in the region that offers complete transcripts of government proceedings. Towns and counties keep minutes of meetings, which are written as summaries of what transpired and vary in how comprehensive they are.

— By Caitlin Bowling

fr bethelvillageThe story is all too familiar.

A property developer buys a large swath of land with grand plans to build high-end homes and sell them for a substantial profit. But the housing bubble bursts. The lots don’t move. The property sits empty, and eventually, the developer can’t repay the bank loan used to purchase the land. It falls into foreclosure and becomes an artifact of the U.S. real estate market crash.

An empty eyesore in Canton’s downtown could get a new lease on life.

The former Jackson’s Appliance store, at the corner of Depot and Main streets in Canton, has lived several short lives during the last several years, but owner Terry Simmons could not find a business with staying power. At one point, he even ran the building as a boarding house.

fr margiebradleyMargie Bradley has called a ramshackle shack in the hills of Cullowhee “home” for almost 60 years. The ceilings sag, the floor is made of plywood and the wind enters through the numerous cracks scattered about the windows and walls.

fr franklinaptsWhat was once a construction scene characterized by luxury, mountainside housing and second-home developments has a newcomer at the table. The latest construction project in Macon County are not mini-mansions in the highlands but a low-income apartment complex in town.

Housing developer Scott Austin did a little simple math before deciding to pursue an $8 million dollar project to build two four-story apartment complexes in Cullowhee, right on the front doorstep of Western Carolina University.

He looked at the number of dormitory beds provided by the university for student housing — about 4,000. Then he researched the number of available, quality units in the area around the university and came up with another 1,000.

Village of Forest Hills leaders are saying no thanks to a Charlotte company that wanted to build luxury student apartments on a 19.5-acre tract in the tiny town across the highway from Western Carolina University.

This does not mean that the 200-unit, $25-million development couldn’t be built elsewhere in Jackson County, just not in Forest Hills’ town limits. Planner Gerald Green said the only restrictions on developments of this type are in Cashiers, the county’s four municipalities and the U.S. 441 corridor.

Developer Shannon King told The Smoky Mountain News late last week that if Forest Hills said no, she would look elsewhere in the area for a suitable site. King needed Forest Hills’ to grant an exemption from the community’s zoning laws for the development to move forward there.

Before settling on the Forest Hills site, Monarch Ventures had scouted the vacant hotel — locally dubbed the ‘ghostel’ — on the main commercial drag of N.C. 107 in Sylva. This was intended to be a Clarion Inn, the town’s first name-brand hotel, but the developers ran out of money and abandoned the project, which was foreclosed on by the bank that held the construction loan. Michelle Masta of Skyros Investments is marketing the unfinished hotel shell, and she confirmed Monarch Venture’s prior interest. The hotel is mired in litigation from a contractor who wasn’t paid in full; it can’t be sold until the legal issues are resolved.

Forest Hills council members, meeting Friday in a more than five-hour visioning session, agreed that this type of student development is at odds with their vision of tranquil life in the village.

The community incorporated in 1997 expressly to keep students out. This included zoning out the possibility of large student complexes, and setting restrictions on the number of students living together in a rental house. That stance has clearly softened during the intervening years for this set of council members, at least. They noted that 50 to 75 students currently do live in Forest Hills (many in a motel there) and are part of that community. But a huge development, as proposed by Monarch Ventures, seemed more than Forest Hills leaders were willing to embrace.

“It’s not that we are anti-student because we are against a complex,” Council Member Suzanne Stone said. “Saying ‘no’ to Monarch would not mean saying ‘no’ to WCU.”

A recent survey sent to Forest Hills residents recorded little support for the development. Out of 59 responses, 38 noted they “strongly disagree” with such a development, eight disagreed, six had no opinion, two agreed and five “strongly agree.”

 

Track record

Additionally, Forest Hills council members cited concerns about the background — or lack of background — of the company involved, Monarch Ventures.

North Carolina incorporation records show that Monarch Ventures came into existence just 13 months ago, in September 2010; and that it has no record as a company building these types of student-based developments. This raised questions about how Monarch Ventures had presented itself to Forest Hills leaders — as a veteran student-housing development company.

The company might be new, but King, the woman who owns and launched Monarch Ventures, in fact does have an extensive, national background of building private student housing. King, until less than a year ago, was executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Campus Crest Communities, a company also based in Charlotte. Campus Crest developed and owns 32 student-housing complexes nationwide.

The company is the subject of myriad complaints regarding its housing. Additionally, a federal lawsuit filed in Mecklenburg County by a former employee accused Campus Crest of having a sexually hostile and demeaning work environment.

According to court documents, company officers directed top employees to “hire predominantly young, white women to available positions at the company’s various residential rental properties.”

Council Member Clark Corwin showed fellow board members a copy of a newspaper article that quoted from the lawsuit. King, according to court papers, is alleged to have said: “We have Southern investors; they do not like for us to hire blacks.”

“I can’t imagine that in this day and age,” Mayor Jim Wallace said in response.

“I don’t think they need anymore time at our meetings — we’re done,” Stone said.

After some discussion about how best to pull the plug on King’s development plans for Forest Hills, Council Member Gene Tweedy said: “Just tell her, ‘The community is not interested.’”

Problems with Campus Crest buildings, called “The Grove” at the company’s multitude of student housing complexes across the nation, include reports that students trying to move in were told they couldn’t because the apartments weren’t finished on schedule.

An “anti-Grove” group is active on Facebook, primarily populated by disgruntled student renters.

Asheville has a “The Grove” complex on Bulldog Drive, near UNC-Asheville, owned by Campus Crest.

“Student complaints from these complexes are the same across the country,” wrote Peggy Loonan, who is leading an effort to prevent Campus Crest from building in Fort Collins, Colo., in a Feb. 11 guest article for the Northern Colorado Business Report. “Students, not professional leasing agents, manage onsite leasing offices. Maintenance is slow to respond if at all; appliances don’t work; apartments aren’t cleaned between tenancies and mattresses are soiled. Move-in dates on signed leases are pushed back because construction isn’t complete. Students describe hearing other tenants having sex. Students turn off heat to stay within their allotted utility amount and report being denied copies of utility bills.”

King, contacted late last week, was eager to distance herself from Campus Crest and its work record.

“Quite frankly, that’s why I’m no longer with Campus Crest,” she said.

King said that Monarch Ventures is committed to building near Western Carolina University.

“We absolutely want to be in the Western community,” she said.

A Charlotte company wants to invest $25 million in a 400-person housing development for Western Carolina University students who are looking for the finer things in life.

Monarch Ventures has asked the Village of Forest Hills, a tiny incorporated community next to WCU, to allow it to use what’s known as the 19.5-acre Valhalla tract. Monarch Ventures wants to buy the tract, located on North Country Club Drive, from owner Catamount Hollow LLC.

Town leaders are expected to discuss the request, and residents’ reactions that were gathered via a community survey, on Friday during a board retreat.

Shannon King of Monarch Ventures said this would be a “premier” student housing complex, offering amenities that aren’t currently available, including a clubhouse, pool, tanning beds, exercise programs and more.

“There’s a need for quality housing at Western Carolina University,” King said. “And this could be a recruitment and retention tool for the university.”

WCU has experienced significant growth in the past decade. Spokesman Bill Studenc said as the university continues growing enrollment — a stated goal of new Chancellor David Belcher, who has noted state funding is tied to those numbers — there is a corresponding need to house those students.

“I know that right now we are at capacity,” Studenc said.

King has assured Village leaders that Monarch Ventures is “sensitive to concerns about noise and traffic,” and would provide “on-site, 24-7 management for safety.” The group also offers programs for students living with the complex. King said rental rates would be comparable to residential dorm rates at WCU.

Monarch Ventures has just broken ground on a similar project at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C.

Kolleen Begley, who lives in Forest Hills and serves as the community’s finance officer, welcomes the prospect of upscale housing in the small residential village.

“Not everyone in the Village thinks students are a nuisance,” Begley said. “The Village is a municipality, not a retirement community. I have more faith in our young adults attending college than what has been depicted at monthly meetings from the only people who have time to attend. I support the university we chose to move across from. WCU is vital to our local economy. So are jobs and tax money.”

Forest Hills incorporated in 1997 for one primary purpose: keeping student housing out. The 350 to 400 people living in the Village of Forest Hills were clear at that time on not wanting students taking over their community.

The newly sworn town board’s first act after the referendum to incorporate passed? Adopting a building moratorium on everything but single-family, site-built, residential houses with at least 2,000 feet of heated space. The board was confident there weren’t many students who could afford that kind of housing.

King said ideally construction would start in November, but that she believes Monarch Ventures — if town leaders give the OK — would start phasing-in the project beginning next year.

Mark Teague, zoning administrator for Forest Hills, said that the development group would need a use permit and perhaps a variance from the town.

“They’ve got their ducks in a row,” he said, “and I think this is the No. 1 spot where they want to do it.”

The second-home economy has fueled far more than construction and real estate jobs over the past decade.

“If it’s someone’s second or third home, they aren’t bringing anything with them,” said Doug Worrell, the president of High Country Furniture in Waynesville. “They aren’t moving their furniture.”

As a new economy emerged to support the second-home movement, furniture stores have proliferated throughout the region.

Worrell saw a customer last week who bought a home at Bear Lake Preserve in Jackson County and wanted it furnished by Friday. On the other end of the spectrum, a couple who hadn’t yet closed on their lot, let alone started building, were already browsing for their dream furniture.

A brand-new house also calls for art and décor. Enter the many galleries and boutiques filling downtown store fronts through the region.

“What impact does the second home market have on Main Street? Major,” said John Keith, owner of Twigs and Leaves gallery in downtown Waynesville.

Many second-home owners make a hobby out of decorating their new mountain abodes, and Twigs and Leaves had the sales to prove it. But as second-home construction slowed over the past three years, so did the purchase of artwork, Keith said.

While Keith has no doubt the second-home market will return — few places can beat WNC as a destination for retiring boomers — some galleries have been unable to wait out the downturn. Just last month, Echo Gallery in the upscale Biltmore Village closed down.

No one knows the importance of the second-home economy more than Danny Wingate, the vice president of Haywood Builders in Waynesville.

Haywood Builders nearly tripled its sales over the first half of the decade, peaking at $30 million in sales in 2006. The robust growth was fueled almost entirely by the second-home market, Wingate said.

“Our business was made up primarily of high-end second homes,” Wingate said.

The large number of gated communities popping up in Jackson County spurred Haywood Builders to open a Design Center in downtown Sylva, where people building homes could pick interior features from kitchen cabinets to bathroom lighting.

“It was a platform for us to access the Jackson County market, particularly for cabinetry,” Wingate said. It was a savvy move: Wingate recalled one homeowner who spent $140,000 on cabinets alone.

But that has all changed now.

“We are off substantially,” Wingate said of sales today compared to that boom period.

Last year, sales had dropped to $12 million, a precipitous decline from the peak of $30 million in 2006.

Wingate has a bird’s eye view of the construction industry, with builders constantly funneling through his store, where both prices and customer service beat out his big-box competitors. Contractors who were once among his top 10 biggest clients are now struggling to find work.

“Even our big boys are out of work,” Wingate said.

 

Time for reflection

The slump in second home growth isn’t all bad, according to Ken Brown, Chairman of the Tuckasegee Community Alliance in Jackson County.

Brown questioned whether the growth rates of the past decade are sustainable. Jackson County saw the largest population growth of any county in WNC among year-round residents, as well the biggest increase in home construction, much of it in the second home market, according to the census.

“It is hard to gauge what kind of an impact that had when you have that many folks building second homes,” Brown said. “It is kind of unprecedented in my time.”

The economic downturn has been like a pressure relief valve on a boiler.

“I think we need to assess just what kind of development we want,” Brown said. “You wonder if that trend could happen again if the economy does pick up. It would put a tremendous amount of pressure on the county.”

Now is not the time for counties to let down their guard on mountainside development or roll back ordinances regulating slope construction, he said. Jackson County passed some of the region’s most progressive and restrictive development regulations four years ago — largely in response to the unparalleled building boom. But that could change given a slate of new commissioners elected last fall.

“We felt like they may try to weaken or water down the ordinances,” Brown said.

So Brown and like-minded citizens in Jackson County have formed a grassroots task force to keep an eye on any moves by the newly elected board of commissioners to undo construction regulations, Brown said.

Brent Martin, who lives in Macon County and works for The Wilderness Society in Sylva, said the face of the mountains could change dramatically if the second-home dynamic continues on its current trajectory.

“It will be very interesting to see what this place turns into in another 30 or 40 years,” Martin said.

“I don’t know how we would handle it. The current downturn is allowing us to catch our breath and step back and figure out how to address the next wave of it — because it is certainly coming.”

Haywood County’s seniors are one step closer to having more affordable housing options.

County commissioners last week agreed to sell the old hospital to Fitch Development Company for $1.275 million. They will then undertake the mammoth task of turning the old four-story brick hospital into one-and-two bedroom apartments for senior citizens who need affordable housing.

The number of units isn’t finalized, but County Manager Marty Stamey has said that current plans call for 53 units.

The building currently serves as offices for the Department of Social Services and central offices for Haywood County Schools, which are moving out.

County Attorney Chip Killian said that, after interviews and negotiations with Fitch, he’s confident that they’re the right firm for the complex job, which will require jumps through a number of funding and regulatory hoops. To make the project economically feasible, Fitch needs to land housing tax credits, a small county loan and national historic designation.

“These things are very complicated,” said Killian. “I think everybody feels real good about Fitch Development Company in that they’re very motivated and competent to do this kind of project.”

The hospital is a historic entity that holds a place in state history as North Carolina’s first county hospital.

Killian told commissioners that, with their approval, the purchase price is set but closing won’t take place before March 2012.

The Smoky Mountain Center, which occupies a building at the rear of the site, will remain.

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