The economy be damned — the burgeoning restaurant scene in Sylva continues to boom, with four eating establishments in this town of just more than 2,400 people expanding, changing hands or soon opening their doors.
“A hard economic time is really the best time to start a business,” said Bernadette Peters, a marketing specialist out of the Atlanta area who’s backing that statement with the re-launch and re-invention of City Lights Café.
Peters and the other restaurant owners have different ideas about how best to thrive in these challenging times: a focus on trendy foods in one restaurant, down-home comfort foods in another. But these restaurateurs have traits in common, too. Out-of-the-box thinking, for one, and a business eye for the many young professionals and older baby boomers now calling Jackson County home.
Recently released 2010 census data shows Jackson County experienced a 21-percent growth rate over the past decade, a population expansion from 33,273 in 2000 to 40,271 today, anchored by the presence of Western Carolina University. Nowhere is that growth more evident than in Sylva and its increasingly lively downtown scene.
This restaurant first opened in 2001, and is located in a farmhouse just off busy N.C. 107. Haley Milner and Tori Walters have purchased Soul Infusion Tea House and Bistro on N.C. 107 from Jason and Karin Kimenker. Milner was with Annie’s Naturally Bakery for six years, and has extensive experience working in a variety of Georgia restaurants.
“I’ve always liked Soul Infusion a lot,” Milner said, “and Karin and Jason are good friends. I always wanted to run a restaurant, and the opportunity came up.”
The good soups, wraps and other fare at Soul Infusion that helped build the restaurant’s steady clientele will continue, but a few changes are coming, too: Walters’ family has made a tomato-based barbecue for years that will be featured at the restaurant, plus the couple soon hopes to feature a chalkboard menu ranging from seafood to vegetarian specialties. Also on tap, an outdoor covered stage for local bands.
A celebration/grand opening of Soul Infusion takes place April 9, beginning at 11 a.m.
John Bubacz of Signature Brew Coffee Company, later this month will open a breakfast/lunch café in a small, one-story building across Main Street from the coffee shop.
Bubacz has a history of opening popular eating/coffee-house establishments in Jackson County. This will be at least his fifth, though in a way it’s simply the reinvention of the Underground, Bubacz’s former place on Mill Street (locally called Backstreet) that segued into Signature Brew Coffee Company on Main Street. What didn’t make the address change were the wraps, burritos, sandwiches, salads, juices and smoothies that were once the mainstay at the Underground. That’s where the Breakfast Café comes in — customers will be able to pick up their favorites there, made from local and organic ingredients, from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. The new café will be in a former ice-cream shop.
Peters worked at Bryson City's Cork and Bean (a wine bar and coffee house) a couple of years ago in Swain County. Now she’s in Sylva, intent on bringing City Lights Café back to life.
At one time, Joyce Moore, founder of City Lights Bookstore and City Lights Café, ran both establishments successfully on East Jackson Street. She got out of the café business, and retired a year ago from the bookstore after selling it to Chris Wilcox. Moore still owns the two-story building, and in conversations with her, Peters said she soon realized her vision of the café was the same as Moore’s for the original City Lights Cafe.
“I love to create things where community comes together,” Peters said. “This space is perfect. I’m going back to the roots of (City Lights), and marrying the great concepts that Spring Street had.”
Spring Street Café, owned and operated by Emily Elders, closed last fall after about a year in business. Spring Street featured higher-end dining than Peters envisioned — she’s focused on healthy, tasty and quick.
She’s also in the market for employees. Qualifications are simple: “People who like people and like being around food.”
Plans are to open April 4.
In the most innovative category we have Half Past, “home cooking to go … on the go.” Set to open, the owners hope, by the end of this month on N.C. 107 directly across the highway from Soul Infusion. Ernie Sipler has years of experience working as a chef for hotels in the Poconos. He and his wife Joan have lived in the Caney Fork community for 11 years.
Here’s how Half Past will work: You are driving home on N.C. 107 after a grueling, unappreciated day of labor at the newspaper. You’re much too tired to cook, but upon leaving that morning, had chirpily announced you’d be in charge of dinner. What to do? Stop at Half Past, where there will be a full array of food such as beef pot roast with roasted vegetables, chicken parmesan, soups, side dishes, salads, pasta dishes, and baked goods. No indoor seating, this is you-take-it-home catering.
“There seems to be a call for it in this area,” Sipler said, adding the couple has been forced to cover-up the phone number on the store sign because of a barrage of requests they can’t yet fill.
Mountain Projects might take control of the REACH village in Sylva, ensuring the low-income housing would remain available to area residents in need, especially victims of domestic violence.
This does not mean, however, that REACH of Jackson County, an anti-domestic violence agency, will have shed its well-publicized financial woes. The nine-unit village, built in 2001 for $1.1 million through federal and state loans, precipitated a money crisis for REACH because the nonprofit couldn’t meet loan payments.
Even if Mountain Projects saves the village from foreclosure, REACH must come up with between $100,000 and $150,000 to keep operating for several more months until state grants come through (the financial heartbeat of many do-good agencies such as REACH).
North Carolina has taken to doling out grants about four months into each fiscal year, and as a result, agencies that desire solvency have learned to sock-away money. REACH has none in the piggybank. The agency has missed payroll a couple times, and had the water cut off to the village for nonpayment of bills, among other problems.
The Jackson County Board of Commissioners this week agreed to send a letter on Mountain Project’s behalf asking for a community service block grant for $600,000.
Mountain Projects is a nonprofit that administers programs to benefit the needy and elderly in Haywood and Jackson counties. Patsy Dowling, executive director, said the federal loan agency and REACH asked Mountain Projects to take over the village. Initially, Mountain Projects balked at assuming a loan of $840,074, but with a plan in the works to seek grant money, the agency said OK. The remaining balance of the loan will be paid by the N.C. Housing Finance Agency.
“We are very happy that the county commissioners agreed to partner with Mountain Projects to apply for funds to allow Mountain Projects to take over the village,” said Kim Roberts-Fer, executive director of REACH. “Our financial situation does not allow us to continue to maintain the village for the several months it will take for this process to be completed. We will be contacting (the note holders) to discuss possible ways to allow Mountain Projects to take over the project sooner. If no options are available within a few months, REACH will be unable to continue paying to maintain the property.”
In a we-were-really-just-kidding-around reversal, Jackson County commissioners this week decided to delay their previous decision to delay property revaluation.
A draft resolution to push back the countywide appraisal from next year to 2016 was thoughtfully included by county staff in commissioners’ and media’s agenda packets, but was ignored as commissioners by collective consensus shied away.
Commissioner Mark Jones, a Democrat who lives in the Cashiers area, acknowledged he’d gotten plenty of emails and phone calls from constituents on the subject. The market value of high-priced lots and homes are destined to fall in a countywide revaluation. Delaying the reval means the county can continue taxing high-end properties on a book value that is no longer realistic. But going forward with it would shift property tax burden to median-priced properties.
Chairman Jack Debnam, a real-estate agent in real life, said his change of heart was from a conviction the county needed to see the results of revaluations under way in Haywood and Henderson counties before making such a decision.
Tax Assessor Bobby McMahan had recommended the delay. During a prior board meeting, McMahan cited the extreme downturn of the real-estate market and the difficulty of accurately determining market value.
The purpose of a revaluation is to determine fair market value for tax reasons.
For upwardly mobile professionals who are looking for an outdoor lifestyle, scenic mountain beauty and the company of like-minded individuals, Jackson County has proven the perfect fit.
Just-released 2010 census data shows Jackson County emerging over the last decade as the fastest-growing county among the state’s 18 westernmost counties. The county grew from 33,273 people in 2000 to 40,271 last year, an increase of 21 percent.
It doesn’t take a demographer’s skills to pinpoint where that growth came from, not with the bottom falling out of Western North Carolina’s construction and real-estate sector: the anchor of the county’s economic base has been Western Carolina University. Supporting roles are played by numerous governmental institutions that serve the whole region but have their headquarters in Jackson — such as Southwestern Community College, the N.C. Center for Advancement of Teaching, Southwestern Development Commission, the N.C. Department of Transportation and Smoky Mountain Mental Health.
Teresa Killian Tate, 35, who works in WCU’s office of public relations, is one of the faces of this growing-ever-more-professional Jackson County. She was a police-beat reporter for the Spartanburg Herald Journal in South Carolina when the bug to move to WNC hit.
The Asheville native started coming to the far western counties to take advantage of the Nantahala River. Then she took up mountain biking and was soon riding the trails in Tsali Recreation Area.
“I started thinking, ‘Gosh, some people actually live here — how does that happen?’” Tate said.
Then she heard WCU Chancellor John Bardo’s message that he wanted the children of the mountains to have jobs in the mountains and be able to stay and work in this region. “I was so moved,” Tate said. “It inspired me to want to be a part of this community.”
Others, like Tate, were equally intentional in their selection of Jackson County. Or, to be more accurate, in their selection of WNC — more often than not, Jackson County simply has the jobs available that this career-minded, educated population seems to be searching for. Once here, however, the burgeoning downtown scene in Sylva has kept them entertained, and Asheville is just a hop, skip and a jump away for those needing a taste of big-city life.
Thirty-year-old Taylor Bennett, who lives in Cullowhee and owns a building company, Riverwood Custom Creation, is a 2003 WCU graduate who discovered he wanted to make his home in Jackson County.
The Greensboro native, who received a degree that had a concentration in outdoor leadership, helped a friend start a Dillsboro river company. He shifted to building, and eventually started his own company, which has found a comfortable Jackson County niche in areas such as building “green” and in energy retrofitting. Times have gotten tougher, but for now, Bennett is holding his own in the rough economic climate.
“This is somewhere I’d love to stay,” said Bennett, whose wife also attended WCU.
Bennett touted the growing contingent of “young professionals,” and an increasingly vibrant downtown scene in Sylva, as reasons he loves calling Jackson County home.
These days, Sylva boasts plenty of bars, but also trendy restaurants, and perks such as a bakery, brewery and farmers market.
“Our goal was to get back to the mountains, though not necessarily Jackson County,” said Rose Bauguess, 35, on her move here.
Bauguess is from Clay County, her husband, Greg, from Wilkes County. The couple has two children. She telecommutes for a Raleigh environmental consulting firm; he works at WCU as director of development.
Rose Bauguess has been impressed by the development of Sylva from what she remembers as a child — more “happening,” perhaps, than her hometown of Hayesville, but not exactly what most people would consider hip — to today’s modish downtown.
Another newcomer who helped propel Jackson to the region’s fastest growing county over the past decade is Elizabeth Gillespie, 50, who picked WNC as the place she wanted to live after spending time here seasonally, then ferreted out a job and new career to help enable that dream. Gillespie is highly educated. She brings extensive previous professional experience to the table, including nine years as the vice president and production manager for Granny Gear Productions, a sports marketing and events company. She proved the perfect fit, in turn, as a public communication specialist for the Center for the Advancement of Teaching, where kindergarten through high-school teachers from across the state take advantage of cross-disciplinary classes.
“I love being in a town that is this closely connected to a university,” said Gillespie.
Neighboring Macon County, which relied almost exclusively on home building and real estate to underpin its economy, by comparison saw growth slow drastically. Macon County grew from 29,964 people in 2000 to 33,922 last year, an increase of just more than 13 percent — half the growth rate posted in 2000 for the previous decade, when Jackson County’s neighbor was booming at a 26-percent rate.
“We had a lot of our eggs in one basket, and unfortunately, that was a basket that got dropped,” said Brian McClellan, a financial advisor in Highlands with a doctorate degree from Clemson University who serves as chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.
Bigger is not always better, but when it comes to census data, larger matters: federal and state funding is often directly tied to the population count.
“I was pleasantly surprised at the growth in the county and the fact that our population has now moved beyond 40,000,” said interim County Manager Chuck Wooten, who also lives in Jackson County because of a job with WCU. Wooten in January retired after 30 years as the top finance officer there.
“The university may very well be one of the factors for growth since the Cullowhee township is now our largest township,” Wooten said. “I’m going to ask (Planner) Gerald Green to dig into the census numbers so we can understand where the growth in the county took place.”
What could the census data mean for Jackson County? Wooten said he hopes to soon understand the unexpected growth and ensuing effects better, but for now: “Obviously, I would anticipate that with the additional growth would come some additional revenues like increased sales tax, etc.,” he said. “But, it could also generate more demands for services so net gain may not be significant.”
Mark Jamison, a resident of Webster, fears Jackson County might lose its identity because of the growth.
“If communities don’t define who they want to be, they let other people and other forces define them and try to catch that wave and ride it wherever it takes them,” Jamison said. “We don’t want to turn our county into nothing but gated developments or a university town.”
The election for the Jackson County Board of Commissioners might have wrapped up last fall, but the war of words didn’t end then.
Last month, newly elected Chairman Jack Debnam wrote to unseated Commissioner Tom Massie’s employer, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, complaining that Massie had possibly abused his position and power while a commissioner. Massie is the mountain field representative for the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which is within that state department.
Richard Rogers, executive director of the Trust Fund, said Monday his agency “did not take any action” regarding Debnam’s complaint about Massie “because the complaint was not associated (with) a CWMTF project and CWMTF has no regulatory authority regarding development or land disturbance.”
Debnam wrote state authorities at the apparent behest of developer and trailer park owner Wayne Smith of Jackson County. Smith complained of being harassed by state authorities because of Massie.
The developer contributed at least $650 and provided billboard space to Debnam’s campaign, according to records on file at the Jackson County Board of Elections.
The N.C. Division of Land Resources determined Smith opened a 4.5-acre mining operation without the required state permit at the intersection of Skyland Drive and Parris Branch, records show. A notice of violation was issued Nov. 2, which happened to fall on the same day as the election.
Smith has been repeatedly cited by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources for sediment control violations, most recently in 2005, when he was assessed a $37,500 penalty, according to records.
Debnam, who ran as an independent but received GOP backing and financial support, declined to discuss the e-mail he wrote on Smith’s behalf.
Massie also declined an opportunity to comment. A Democrat, he lost his commission seat in November.
“A resident of Jackson County contacted me after the first of the year about an issue that he feels may be an abuse of an appointed position on the Mountain Resources Commission,” Debnam e-mailed Coleen Sullins on Feb. 2, the apparent start of the ensuing e-mail battle.
The N.C. Mountain Resources Commission is tasked with making recommendations at the local, state and federal level on how to best protect this region’s natural resources. Massie was appointed to the board by then state Speaker of the House Joe Hackney, a Democrat, in December 2009; Massie’s term on the board continues through Aug. 31, 2013.
Sullins, who works for the state Division of Water Quality, forwarded the e-mail to Jim Simons, who is the director of the N.C. Division of Land Resources, and Richard Rogers, executive director of the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund. For his part, Debnam included two county employees on the email: Planner Gerald Green and Land Development Administrator Tony Elders. Those men are tasked with working with local developers such as Smith on behalf of the county.
“It appears that Mr. Tom Massie has let his personal opinions and contacts come into play whenever Mr. Wayne Smith or one of his companies becomes involved in any grading projects in Jackson County,” Debnam wrote. “Mr. Massie seems to exert this pressure thru Mr. Gray Hauser with NC-DENR and Linda Cable, former planning director for Jackson County. Mr. Hauser and his department have been repeatedly contacted by Mr. Massie over the past several years to inspect one of Mr. Smith’s projects, to the point of embarrassment to the Jackson County Planning and Erosion Control inspectors. … No one in Jackson County government thinks that Mr. Smith is in violation of that (mining) act or any other ordinances. It is at the point that Mr. Smith has contacted me in my position as chairman of the Jackson County Commissioners to ask for assistance in resolving this matter.”
Massie, not surprisingly, wasn’t happy to learn about the email.
“I look forward to your apology,” he wrote Debnam not long afterwards.
“Jack,” Massie also wrote, “after giving your e-mail additional consideration, I am extremely disappointed that you chose to lend your name and elected position to give added weight to these reputed allegations without making any attempt to check to see if they were factual or to call me personally and ask if I were involved. These allegations are extremely hurtful to all the parties accused and cast dispersions about each individual’s integrity and motivations. I strongly resent this attempt to impugn my character and integrity!
“Forwarding these mistruths to legislators and division supervisors are temporarily harmful to my professional reputation, but the truth will prevail when the facts are investigated. Those same facts will be harmful to your integrity. I am appalled that you did not even invest the time to try to substantiate these outlandish charges. The allegations about me are dangerously close to defamation of character. I would not have thought you capable of such distortion. … You will find that you, in your position as chair of the board of commissioners, have been used to further a personal grudge against me and other innocent parties.”
Some local thrift shop operators in Jackson County or crying foul over a nonprofit accepting donations in Sylva despite not having a store in the county.
Goodwill Industries of Northwest North Carolina has a trailer (as in the second half of the word tractor-trailer) parked alongside N.C. 107 near Wal-Mart. The nearest Goodwill stores, however, are located in neighboring Macon and Haywood counties, with the one in Waynesville opening just last month.
Ina Claire “Sam” Bryant, a board member for Jackson County Habitat for Humanity, doesn’t deny that Goodwill does good work. That said, Bryant firmly believes the huge nonprofit needs to recognize it’s severely damaging the abilities of smaller good-work agencies to help county residents more directly.
“I think it is outrageous,” Bryant said. “My concern, as a citizen of Jackson County, is that whatever is collected in this county should benefit Jackson County — because our people need these collections and the donations. And the need is growing.”
Because Habitat for Humanity doesn’t accept clothing, it isn’t being as profoundly impacted as some nonprofits in Jackson County that rely on thrift-store money to operate, she said.
Goodwill is one of the world’s largest nonprofit providers of education, training and career services for people with disadvantages, such as welfare dependency, homelessness and lack of education or work experience, as well as those with physical, mental and emotional disabilities.
Goodwill Industries set up its Sylva donations trailer in 2009. Jaymie Eichorn, who handles marketing and communications in this region out of Winston-Salem for the nonprofit, said she understands the concerns of some in Jackson County, but added she doesn’t believe the entire problem rests with her agency. Not, she said, given the national downward spiral of the economy.
“Our donations are down, too,” Eichorn said.
Janet Mason, finance director for REACH, said the anti-domestic violence agency is experiencing more than simply a downturn in donations resulting from difficult economic hard times and a harsh winter season. Mason said the Jackson County nonprofit saw an immediate decline in donations when Goodwill moved in.
She attributed the donation drain to two issues: local residents not realizing that when they give to Goodwill the donations don’t directly benefit Jackson County residents, and the convenience and ideal location of Goodwill’s trailer setup. REACH thrift store moved from a near-downtown spot to a smaller store and along a fairly obscure part of Skyland Drive to save on rent.
REACH of Jackson County’s financial problems are so dire the agency is facing the possibility of shutting down. This is a larger problem than anything Goodwill can possibly be blamed for, Mason acknowledged. But since the larger nonprofit came in, she said, the agency’s thrift store is barely breaking even. And, when you are just hoping to cover payroll and find enough pennies for the phone bill, Goodwill and its donation drain aren’t exactly helping the situation.
“I can’t sell it if I don’t have anything to sell,” said Mason, who in a cost-saving move recently took over management of the thrift store in addition to overseeing the agency’s budget.
REACH in 2001 opened a transitional village for women to the tune of $1.1 million, using a federal loan and a state loan. The agency overreached in its ability to pay for that dream of helping abused women find temporary homes, jobs and other help. Today, the village is in foreclosure proceedings. The problems don’t stop there: because of how the state handles grant money — not starting payments until about four months into the beginning of each fiscal year — REACH must find money before July (an estimated $100,000 to $150,000) to ride out that financial drought.
Eichorn said Goodwill uses a trailer-donation setup elsewhere, not just in Sylva. It is an excellent method for the nonprofit to gauge whether a community has the interest and ability to support a store, she said.
“We’d love to have one there,” Eichorn said, though there are no plans for one at this point.
The donation center employs two Jackson County residents, Eichorn said.
If you are looking for a trail race — with the emphasis on “race” — the Assault on Black Rock Trail Race might not be for you.
But, if you are willing to walk, crawl or yes, run, your way to the top of a very tall mountain for fun and in the name of a really good cause — supporting Jackson County’s Community Table soup kitchen — this is the event for you, so mark March 19 as a day to spend in the woods.
The Assault on Black Rock is the brainchild of Brian Barwatt, a climber who loves to hike up Pinnacle Park, a 1,100-acre tract of land owned by the town of Sylva and previously used as a watershed. The pinnacle is 5,008 feet in elevation, and Barwatt said the estimated 8.3-mile race (he believes the distance might actually be just over 7 miles in reality, signs to the contrary) gains 2,700 feet on the way to the top.
“It is a really hard trail run,” Barwatt said. “It would take a topnotch trail runner to actually run it all.”
But, don’t despair: Barwatt has asked Jackson County Emergency Medical Service personnel to stay for up to eight hours that day — plenty of time for even the slowest of the slow to get to the top and back down again. Even sliding down on your rear end if you must.
Barwatt said he wants to support the Community Table, which feeds the hungry in Jackson County, and introduce people to the beauties of Pinnacle Park. Prizes will be awarded to top finishers. Pre-registration is $25 (www.active.com, there is a $3.25 fee); race-day registration is $30. The race is at 9 a.m. March 19, starting at Fisher Creek parking lot in Sylva.
— By Quintin Ellison
Great Smoky Mountains Railway this week promised to return to Dillsboro in a big way, on this condition: Jackson County must come up with $817,176.
“We need to explore how we can work together and get that train here, and market it together,” railroad owner Alan Harper told county commissioners.
Taxpayers’ dollars would:
• Pay for moving a train set from Maine ($322,000 in the form of a grant).
• Restore and paint the locomotive and exterior coaches ($95,176, also a grant).
• Install a turntable in Dillsboro’s Monteith Park ($250,000 in the form of a loan).
• $150,000 in annual tourism advertising funds (in the form of a matching grant).
Until 2008, Dillsboro served as the headquarters of Great Smoky Mountains Railway, an excursion railroad catering to tourists. About 60,000 people a year rode the train, and Dillsboro boomed — until the train moved its administrative office and main depot to Bryson City. Dillsboro languished in the wake of that decision. Last year, and even more this year, Great Smoky Mountains Railway did begin limited, seasonal excursions out of Dillsboro again.
Now this news — 110 to 120 days of train service each year, 15 to 20 new jobs created in Jackson County, low estimates of at least 20,000 visitors to the tourism-dependent town, and the possibility of turning Monteith Park into a train destination in its own right, too. Harper said he has a steam engine that doesn’t work, and he’d be willing to possibly park it at Monteith. And, another sweetener — an unused metal bridge the town could use to span the creek in Monteith Park. All that for just more than $800,000, Harper said.
County commissioners clearly were not surprised by the request or presentation (the details were included in a pre-assembled packet for commissioners and reporters. Plus, Harper said he’d been discussing the deal with Dillsboro town leaders “individually,” and the possibility of a turntable had been bubbling about the town of just more than 200 residents for the past few weeks).
A turntable would do just what it says — serve as a means of turning the train around. Town leaders, Harper said, have indicated they believe Monteith Park would work for that purpose.
The train excursions would, he said, be first class using a steam engine. Commissioner Charles Elders asked when they would start if this deal is struck, and Harper said possibly by mid-summer. Commissioners took no action, with Chairman Jack Debnam telling Harper the county looks forward to working with the railroad.
A halfway house to help women who have been released from jail after serving time for minor offenses or other “life challenges” is opening in Sylva.
The transitional housing, called Clean Slate, will serve women from Jackson, Haywood, Swain and Macon counties, plus the Cherokee Indian Reservation. The group hopes at some point to open a second halfway house in Franklin.
Timing on the Sylva house’s opening comes as REACH, the anti-domestic violence coalition in Jackson County, has been forced to let its transitional housing for women go into foreclosure, raising questions about the funding for — and the financial sustainability of — Clean Slate.
Organizer Alice Mason said unlike the funding secured to pay for the REACH village, however, Clean Slate is the result of individual donations and money given by a variety of faith-based organizations. The REACH village, by contrast, is a $1.1 million project paid for through federal and state loans, which the agency has been unable to pay.
Last week, the Clean Slate coalition (11 people on this day) gathered at the house in Sylva to develop bylaws, discuss liability insurance and take care of other opening details. The group is now screening applicants for the house, a two-floor, multi-bedroom structure which, when fully fixed up, could shelter up to 11 women.
“This could really help fill a need in the community,” coalition member Kristy Case said of the project.
Case, as housing coordinator for the southern region of Smoky Mountain Center, knows firsthand the difficulties of finding shelter and transitional housing for women and others in need. Smoky Mountain Center is the state agency tasked with helping those with mental health, developmental disability and substance abuse issues in North Carolina’s 15 westernmost counties.
Even individuals without the stigmas of having served jail time are struggling in this poor economy to find jobs and housing, Case said, much less women with criminal records or other issues Clean Slate plans to help.
The overarching hope of Clean Slate is to reduce recidivism (habitual relapse into criminal behavior) and addictive behavior.
Women accepted into Clean Slate will pay rent, coalition member Terri Sanger emphasized. The women will be encouraged, and helped, to find jobs. Additionally, Southwestern Community College’s campus is located fairly close to the house (the coalition asked that the location not be identified for safety reasons).
Like Case, Sanger became involved because she saw a direct tie to the work she does: Sanger is the More at Four director for Smart Start Region A Partnership for Children.
“Most of these women have children, and I’m concerned about those children,” Sanger said.
Children will not live at the house, but parenting skills will be taught to mothers there who need assistance. Other classes, too, will be offered, Mason said, and women who participate in Clean Slate will be required to commit to a program designed to “help them accomplish their dreams and goals and to become a contributing member of their community.”
The Rev. Mason, deacon of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Cullowhee, became interested in creating transitional housing for women who have served time after she began work as a chaplain in Jackson County’s jail.
“Many of the women, after their discharge, had to return back to the same destructive environment they had come from,” Mason wrote in a story she penned about the genesis of Clean Slate. “Others wanted desperately to begin new lives, to find employment and a peaceful place to live. After their release, always with no discharge planning, and usually with no warning, some called on me for advice and help in finding a place to live.”
Frustrated by her inability to fully help these women who seemed so sincere in their desires to live different lives than before, Mason began work to build a coalition and open Clean Slate.
Clean Slate is currently in search of a house mother to oversee the house at night. There is no pay, but rent will be free and eventually a stipend might be offered. Additionally, a multitude of volunteer opportunities are available, such as helping with tutoring, entertainment or general support in areas in which you are trained and proficient. Possibilities are: teaching computer skills, keeping a budget, checkbook and credit card management, preparing a resume, cooking, crafts and so on.
Help is also needed to transport women to and from self-improvement classes, Al-Anon and AA meetings, doctors and dentists. Work groups will be formed, too, to help with fundraising and marketing, and more.
Jackson County commissioners are faced with a dilemma over the new Sylva library slated to open in May: either pony up more money for staff or the library will be forced to cut hours.
The new library is four times bigger than the current one, and as a result needs more staff. It needs another $170,000 to remain open the same 45 hours that it is now. That’s a 35 percent increase over the county’s current funding for the Sylva library of $500,000.
But Jackson County is facing budget shortfalls, not surpluses.
“We’ve been hit pretty hard,” Commissioner Doug Cody said. “We are taking the punches really well so far. We are trying to be creative.”
The new library will have three desks — a main check-out counter, a children’s desk and a reference desk — compared to just one at the current library. The new library also has a large computer lab.
The current Sylva library is so tiny that any of the workers behind the circulation desk can easily pop over to the computer area or the children’s section. They can be reshelving books one minute and fill in behind the counter the next.
But the new library is far more spread out. The computer lab has its own room for example. And the main adult book stacks are on a separate floor from the circulation desk.
As a result, the new library needs twice the staff: the equivalent of 15 positions compared to just seven now.
“If the funding is not increased the hours of operation will have to go down,” said Chuck Wooten, interim Jackson County manager. “I can imagine there would be a lot of pushback from the public to do that.”
More than half of county residents have library cards. The public anted up generously for the new library, a sign of its popular support, Wooten said. Friends of the Library raised $1.8 million in grants and local contributions to furnish the library.
The Smoky Mountain Brass Quintet even commissioned a fanfare to honor the library, specially written by a composer to be performed at the grand opening in June.
“I think it would be very disappointing to the people in this community to not have convenient access to their wonderful new library,” said Karen Wallace, the head of the Fontana Regional Library system. “If we don’t get an operating budget increase, they won’t have the access that the facility warrants.”
Wallace pointed to the $8 million price tag for the new library and restoration of the adjacent historic courthouse.
“It is a big investment to build that facility. To not to be able to use it to its potential would be really disappointing to people,” Wallace said.
Cody and Wooten met with Jackson librarians last week to go over the figures. Cody said commissioners will likely hold a work session on the issue to figure out what to do — one of many hard decisions as part of developing a budget for the coming fiscal year.
“I’m sure there will be some nervousness over the situation, but we just have to drop back and punt and see where we stand on this,” Cody said.
Ideally, the county could increase library hours from 45 a week to 60 a week, Wallace said. The North Carolina Public Library Director’s Association recommends that the main library in a county should be open a minimum of 60 hours.
But doing so would take another $125,000.
Wooten agrees that would be wonderful, but whether it is doable is another story.
“We are really opening our library at the worst possible time,” Wooten said.
Cody said he would like to see library hours increased as well, but probably not until the economy improves.
“I don’t see us initially getting to 60 hours. And conversely I don’t want to see them be open any less either,” Cody said. “If you only operate 30 hours, that is not giving people much opportunity to use the facility.”
Commissioner Mark Jones said the county will obviously have to give the library more money, but isn’t sure whether it will be the full $170,000. Jones wonders if there is any middle ground.
“Can we shave off a little time here and a little time there?” Jones asked. “These are tough times and we have to make tough choices.”
But Mary Otto Selzer, a volunteer with Friends of the Library, said the public wants longer hours, not shorter ones, pointing to the input gathered during focus groups held in conjunction with planning for the new library.
“One of the things we heard loud and clear from people was they would like to see the library expand its hours,” Selzer said. “We need to listen very carefully to our community to address the community’s needs. We hope the commissioners will find a way to at least maintain the 45 hours a week we are currently open.”
Selzer pointed to the current lack of evening hours. The library is never open past 6 p.m. It is only open six hours on Saturday and not at all on Sunday.
“For folks who work and working parents there is not a lot of opportunities to use the library,” Selzer said.
Library use across the country has increased during the recession. Those forced to cancel Internet service at home have turned to public computers at the library. More people are checking out movies instead of going to the video store, reading newspapers and magazines at the library instead of home subscriptions and borrowing books instead of buying them.
The library is also a place used by job seekers and those going back to school, he said.
Indeed, Wallace said the computer terminals are popular with those looking for work, since many jobs require people to fill out online applications. Wallace also said they’ve seen an increase in people who have turned to distance learning for new degrees, which require online exams.
Jones suggested enlisting volunteers. That plan has shown promise for the Green Energy Park, which attracted 45 prospective volunteers to an organizing meeting last week following news that the county would cut its funding. The Green Energy Park houses a collection of artist studios fueled by methane seeping out of decomposing trash at the old county landfill.
“Ask not what your county can do for you, but what you can do for your county,” Jones said.
While another $170,000 annually is a substantial increase, Jackson librarians point out that the library is severely underfunded today. Part of the increase is merely catching up to where they should be already, according to Wallace.
When compared to surrounding counties, Jackson County libraries are indeed underfunded. Library funding amounts to $15 for each county resident. Per capita, that’s 36 percent below Haywood County and almost 50 percent below Macon County. Jackson’s library funding is 25 percent below the state average for all 100 counties.
Since the Sylva library is so small and antiquated, however, it isn’t used as much as libraries in other communities. Macon County sees nearly twice the library use of Jackson, for example.
Until now, that’s allowed the Sylva library to get by on fewer dollars.
Dottie Brunette, the head librarian in Jackson County, said she would have been hard-pressed to squeeze more staff into the existing library. There simply wasn’t enough elbow room for more people behind the small desk.
Jackson’s librarians are bracing for an explosion in library use when the new one opens, however.
Since a new library opened in Franklin in 2007, library use has shot up 50 percent. When Transylvania and Polk counties opened new libraries recently, they saw even bigger increases. The upsurge wasn’t a mere blip following the opening of a new library, but went up and stayed up permanently.
The stage is set in Sylva for an even more dramatic increase in library use than what was seen in other communities where new libraries opened. The current library is so bad, a smaller segment of the public uses it.
“The library has not been able to meet their needs. If you come to the library and can’t get what you need, after a while you just stop trying,” Wallace said.
Only 50 percent of Jackson residents hold library cards. In Macon County, that number was already 75 percent prior to the new library opening. Additional library use could only climb so high, and indeed most of the increased use in Macon came from existing cardholders simply visiting more often. But in Jackson County, the increase will not only come from more trips among existing users but from brand new users.
Wallace also pointed out that new library construction has been prominent in the public eye.
“I anticipate the numbers may be even higher in Jackson,” Wallace said. “I say that because the building of this library has had a very successful marketing campaign. And this library has been a long time coming.”
Jackson’s libraries are at the bottom of the barrel in yet another category. The volume of books and materials per capita are less than in Haywood, Macon or Swain. Again, there simply wasn’t room for stuff.
“There’s books lying across the tops of shelves because we have no room,” said Brunette.
In addition to the extra staffing, the county is on the hook for bigger heating and cooling bills, higher liability insurance and more janitors. County Manager Chuck Wooten estimates the cost of running the building will go up by $70,000 to $90,000, from $50,000 now.
Wooten, who came on board as interim county manager at the same time the new commissioners took office, said he does not know if these calculations were done previously.
“I could not find where there was an estimate of what it would be with the new building,” Wooten said.
An increase in library funding has blindsided three newly elected commissioners as they grapple with how to cut the county’s budget.
“Doesn’t seem amazing to you that this just came up? Why couldn’t this have been figured out when we thought about building the building?” asked Commission Chairman Jack Debnam. “If I got ready to build a building, I believe I would look at how much more it would take to staff and maintain it.”
Three conservative newcomers to the county board ousted their more liberal opponents in the November election, partly on the resounding Republican platform of reducing government spending.
But now this has landed in their laps, they said.
“This should have been anticipated two or three years ago when they started this project,” Cody said. “I am not trying to throw blame on anyone, but when you have a two-story building you effectively have to double your staff to keep people from carrying the place away.”
According to Tom Massie, a former commissioner who lost re-election last fall, the old board was well aware of costs the new library would require.
“We’re not stupid,” Massie said. “We knew it would cost more and we would have to rearrange funds. You do that in every budget year.”
Massie said deciding how to spend limited county money goes with the territory.
“We had our priorities and they have their priorities, and those are the tough decisions they will have to make,” Massie said.
Massie said the new board is learning that the job isn’t as easy as it looks.
“They had all the answers in the campaign,” Massie said.
Massie said the rubber will meet the road over the next few months as the new board develops a budget for the coming fiscal year.
“Come July 1, they are going to own the new budget,” Massie said.
Commissioner Mark Jones, who served on the old board with Massie and is still on there now, also said the increased costs aren’t exactly a surprise.
“We were aware that the new facility, with the size and the fact that it has multiple levels, would take additional staff,” Jones said.
Jones said when the last board embarked on the new library in 2007, they didn’t realize how much the recession would hurt county coffers.
When asked if the new library was a bad idea, neither Debnam nor Cody would go that far.
“I’m not going to go there,” Debnam said, when asked if the library shouldn’t have been built. But said “they should have considered it.”
“Regardless of how anyone feels about it, the library is there,” Cody said. “I have been through it and it is a beautiful facility. I am not going to tell you or anyone else I would have done anything any different. It is great.”