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It’s nearing showtime for the most heated race in Swain County: the battle between Republican Sheriff Curtis Cochran and his challenger, Democrat John Ensley.

Controversial issues were neither few nor far between during Cochran’s first term as sheriff: a suspected murderer escaped from Swain County’s jail last year; a Swain detention officer purchased a big-screen TV using the county’s credit card; a newly built $10 million jail continues to sit half-empty; and Cochran went head to head with commissioners over deputy pay. Cochran even sued Swain’s Democratic commissioners for discriminating against him by essentially reducing his salary.

As a result, Cochran has been a polarizing figure in Swain politics. Bumper stickers saying “Elect anyone BUT Curtis Cochran” appeared as much as a year ago, but many Swain residents still stand by Cochran’s side. Cochran said the same scrutiny would hold true for anybody currently in office.

“You’re going to have a group of supporters. You’re going to have a group that wants you out,” said Cochran.

Cochran said if re-elected he will continue making progress at the sheriff’s office, including continuing a fight against drugs.

“I’m here for the people of Swain County,” Cochran said. “I don’t see myself on a pedestal and the people under me.”


Building rapport & budgets

In his campaign against Cochran, Ensley is emphasizing the importance of building good relationships.

Ensley says he will “rebuild” a rapport with county commissioners, with surrounding counties and Cherokee, with state and federal agencies, and with the community at large.

Despite the Cochran’s lawsuit against commissioners, Cochran said he and the county board have always had an open door policy and continue to have one now.

“I think that we work very well with the commissioners,” said Cochran. “The only big issue is with the budget and the lawsuit.”

Cochran would not comment on the lawsuit, adding that his focus is on carrying out his duties as sheriff, not the case filed against commissioners.  

As for the budget, Cochran had fought hard to keep overtime pay for his deputies, who sometimes work 18- to 20-hour days. “I’m a firm believer that if people work, they need to get paid,” Cochran said.

But the commissioners refused to grant overtime because of the recession and slashed his workforce by 22 percent with the 2009-10 budget.

“I’m not going to second-guess commissioners. I’m not going to say what they were thinking,” Cochran said. “That’s pretty well self-evident.”

Commissioners at the time said overtime was being abused as a recurring means of inflating deputies’ base salaries. Cochran said he will actively request more deputies and salary increases for his employees from the new county board if re-elected.

Ensley points to his business expertise, which he says would help him stretch every penny he gets from commissioners. Ensley plans to restructure the department and handle the budget “much better” than the way it has been handled in the past. Ensley would like to charge a fee to those who are convicted to fund a salary increase.

“Times are tough, and you have to make do with less,” Ensley said. “We’re going to get creative.”

Ensley said he has spoken with most of the current commissioners and those who are running for a spot on the county board.

“We are not going to have an issue,” Ensley said. “It’s a priority for me to have a good working relationship. There are ways [to find a] resolution without having a public fight.”


Experience or lack thereof

Experience has long been the centerpiece of the upcoming election. In May, eight Democrats packed the ballot for the chance to take on Cochran come fall. Ensley won by a comfortable margin.

Every challenger highlighted his law enforcement background, drawing a contrast with Cochran, who had no law enforcement training before going into office as sheriff.

Ensley said he is a certified law enforcement officer in North Carolina, has worked at the Swain County jail and a jail in Florida. He graduated as president of his basic law enforcement training class at Haywood Community College.

In addition to law-enforcement training completed after becoming sheriff, Cochran said unlike other candidates, only he can boast on-the-job experience.

“They talk about experience,” Cochran said. “I am the only candidate who has the experience of being sheriff of Swain County …I got four years at the helm. I know where the problems are.”


Filling up oversized jail

When Swain built an oversized jail several years ago — twice the size needed for its own prisoners — it was banking on filling it with prisoners from other counties and federal prisoners to subsidize the cost. But other counties had built their own jails and federal prisoners dried up, too. Cochran inherited the plight of the oversized jail when he took office.

Ensley characterizes the $10 million jail as an investment that needs to turn profitable. He plans to launch an all-out campaign to win over state and federal agencies, such as U.S. Marshals and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“I’m going to go out of my way to work with each one of these groups,” Ensley said. “I have salesmanship, and I think that’s part of what we need to do.”

Most of the prisoners housed in Swain County’s jail that come from outside the county hail from Cherokee. But the Eastern Band now plans to build its own jail — a final blow to Swain’s half-empty jail being heavily subsidized by county taxpayers.

Ensley is still holding out hope that a compromise can be reached. He said the tribe could possibly look at building a drug-abuse center instead and continue to send prisoners to Swain.

But Cochran said he’s done absolutely everything he could to bring more prisoners to Swain’s mammoth jail. The U.S. Marshals Service continues to send most of their inmates to Cherokee County — despite Bryson City’s advantage of housing a federal courthouse. For the time being, the Swain jail has only three Marshals Service inmates. The Marshals Service claims that the crime rate has decreased

Cochran says he’s traveled to Charlotte and Asheville and spoken with U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler and three state legislators, but to no avail.

“We’re kind of at the mercy of the Marshal Service at this point — to be fair, and I can’t stress that word enough, to be fair,” Cochran said. “We should be getting our fair share. I’m very disgusted with this process.”


No more escapes

Cochran said he put policies in place to make the facility more secure after a jail escape involving inside help from a jailer. Cochran said he could not mention specifics on the new procedures for security reasons.

Cochran emphasized that no matter how secure the physical building is, inserting a human element will inevitably bring unpredictability.

“It wouldn’t matter if it was San Quentin, it was going to happen,” said Cochran, citing the inside job.

To ensure that everything is running as it should, Cochran visits the jail every day. “We don’t have those problems anymore,” Cochran said.

Ensley said ensuring the jail’s security is a top priority. He will bring his own work experience at the Swain County jail and a correctional facility in Florida. He plans to provide training and to place an instructional pamphlet at every station to keep jailers up to speed on policy.

Moreover, Ensley promises to keep serious watch over his employees and look out for red flags.

“Folks didn’t really realize how serious some of these warning signals were,” Ensley said.

If something goes wrong under his watch, Ensley said he will take full responsibility.

“If I’m the sheriff, right here is where the buck stops,” Ensley said. “If someone in my department hurts my county, it’s my responsibility. I won’t be standing behind him. I will be standing in front.”


Reaching out to community

Swain County Sheriff’s Office already has a great relationship with the community, according to Cochran.

“We have an open line,” said Cochran, adding that his department works with the community every day and makes sure to keep anonymous tips anonymous.

Cochran pointed to recent success busting a meth lab, which could not have happened without tips from residents.

Though some have complained that the sheriff’s office is inconsistent in how it handles calls, Cochran ensures the public that officers do follow through with every concern that is brought up.

Sometimes, the magistrate’s office doesn’t find probable cause or an investigation will dead-end. Moreover, Swain’s limited staff makes it difficult for deputies to jump on every new call right away.

“We’re stretched pretty thin as far as personnel,” Cochran said. “These calls don’t stop coming in just because we don’t have enough personnel, but we do get to them.”

Ensley says he will create an advisory board for the sheriff comprised of experts in law enforcement and business. The board would give level-headed advice to the sheriff and keep in touch with concerned citizens.

Ensley would also like to institute more volunteer programs to get the community involved, including a youth advisory council made up of high school kids. The board would help motivate young adults to take responsibility for their own schools, Ensley said.

Ensley is also in favor of creating a community watch in each of Swain’s communities.

“We don’t want them out there playing police officer, but we want eyes and ears,” Ensley said. “We all have a responsibility whether we’re a sworn officer or not.”

Cochran said he has already made an appointment next month to set up a community watch program.

When Swain County faced an onslaught of snow and ice last winter, local radio station WBHN wasn’t broadcasting road information or school closings.

Die-hard fans of Swain County High’s sports teams haven’t been able to tune into any of the school’s games since last fall.

Financial hardship had forced WBHN to temporarily suspend operations on Sept. 16, 2009. If the station doesn’t find its footing by Sept. 16, the Federal Communications Commission will promptly cancel its license and the station will stay “dark” permanently.

Two independent movements have sprouted in the last year to rescue the Bryson City station from oblivion.

Lloyd Brown is leading an effort to convert WBHN into a listener-powered station, similar to National Public Radio. Brown said the newly-formed nonprofit, The Lighthouse Broadcasting Corporation, will primarily play gospel music, but also broadcast bluegrass, country, Western and easy listening. Church programming, youth sports and local bands such as the Rye Holler Boys will be featured.

“We’re not going to have any of this hard rock or any of this off the wall music,” said Brown.

Gary Ayers, who was a radio personality on WBHN from 1974 to 1984, is leading a separate attempt to revive the commercial station.

Many Swain County residents have expressed concerns about the station going off the air to Ayers.

“It’s just a lack of information, a voice for the community,” he said. Many elderly residents in Swain County rely on the radio for information.

“I have not run across one person who didn’t want this station back on,” said Ayers, who has made the rounds to local businesses to gauge interest in advertising with the radio station.

“People have been very willing to spend ad dollars,” Ayers said. “In some cases, it’s not a lot of dollars, but every business has been very open.”

Ayers is still looking for donations to help him become the next owner of WBHN.

But Brown said he has already offered $85,000 for a six-month lease, with $10,000 as a down payment and $75,000 to come in the next six months. As of last week, Brown said he had $8,000 in hand from private contributions. Victory Baptist Church has said it will make up the remainder, according to Brown.

Before he passed away, Pastor Tom Harris of Victory Baptist Church ran a program on WBHN every day for at least 35 years.

“He was a daily source of information,” Ayers said. “He would come on and say who was sick, who was in the hospital…Tom was like the county’s pastor.”

Brown says he plans on playing tapes of Harris’ past shows at least every Sunday.

“We’re going to keep his ministry alive,” said Brown.


Down to the wire

Ayers and Brown have mutually agreed that Tuesday, Sept. 7, would be the deadline for either group to buy the station from its owner.

“If a sale agreement is not reached, it’s very unlikely we’re going to have time to get it back on,” said Ayers.

When a financial hardship case is filed with the FCC, the station has up to 12 months to either sell the station or find funding to get it back on the air.

If the station isn’t broadcasting by Sept. 16, it would disappear from the dial for good, according to Ayers.

Finding a new frequency would be much more expensive than taking the station over before the deadline, Ayers said.

Brown was confident that the nonprofit model would be the key to success despite financial difficulties in the past.

“People won’t donate to an individual, but they will donate to a nonprofit,” said Brown.

If Brown’s nonprofit becomes a reality, it will be run by a community board and an advisory board with seven members each.

Ayers said he’s a friend of Brown’s and has no hard feelings against his group, whatever happens next.

“One of us needs to succeed,” said Ayers. “We’re just really hoping to get the station back on.”

Brown hopes Ayers will help with youth sports programming and advertising since “everybody knows him.”

Brown’s ultimate goal remains for the station to be cooperatively owned by Swain’s citizens.

“We want to keep this on for our grandchildren and maybe even our great-grandchildren,” said Brown. “We’re doing this for Swain County.”


Pitch in to save WBHN (1590 AM)

Contact Gary Ayers at 828.506.9362 or

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Contact Lloyd Brown at 828.488.2833 or 828.736.0280.

A state proposal to widen and pave a gravel road that runs alongside the Little Tennessee River and near the protected 4,400-acre Needmore Tract is being greeted with caution by conservationists.

“It is a very important stretch of river,” said Stacey Guffey, chairman of the board overseeing the Little Tennessee Watershed Association. “As a group, I’d say we’re not opposed to improvements that would help river quality. But, if something is going to be done, we want to see it have as little impact as possible.”

A portion of Needmore Road is a rough, one-lane gravel road that parallels N.C. 28 in Macon and Swain counties but on the opposite side of the river. The state Department of Transportation is proposing to pave and widen 3.3 miles of Needmore Road from one lane to two lanes. The new road would have a minimum width of 18 feet. Additionally, work would take place on the shoulders of the roadway.

“I think Needmore Road needs to see some improvement, but if they’d pave it just as it was, I’d be happy,” said Cheryl Taylor, a resident of the Needmore community and leader of the group Mountain Neighbors for Needmore Preservation.

Taylor said she and members of her group are concerned about the scope of the transportation department’s proposal.

“(The Needmore Tract) is a place to go to enjoy the area and outdoor recreation,” she said, adding that those qualities need to be protected.

The project is estimated to cost $6.5 million and would target the section from Byrd Road in Macon County to existing pavement in Swain County. Work on three of the four sections making up the project would get under way in 2012. The final — and most difficult section from an engineering standpoint — is slated for 2015.

“This alternative will improve the entire facility to conform to NCDOT Division 14 Secondary Road Standards,” states a meeting notice issued by the transportation department. “The proposed alignment calls for widening the roadway away from the Little Tennessee River.”

Joel Setzer, DOT division engineer for a 10-county region that includes Macon and Swain, said the paving proposal dates back to about 1997. Justification for the road upgrade is based on the number of houses served and traffic counts. Though there aren’t many houses along that stretch of road, Setzer said the traffic counts are high “as compared to other gravel roads.”

The purpose of the project is as follows:

• To improve the quality of travel for local residents who currently use the road.

• Reduce sedimentation from Needmore Road into the Little Tennessee River.

• Avoid or minimize adverse impacts to the existing high-quality natural resources.

The transportation department has worked on environmental assessments of the project, Setzer said, and has plans to deal with the Anakeesta-type rock found in the area. These rocks contain high levels of iron-sulfide and can create acidic runoff.

About 4,400 acres along the Little Tennessee River known as the Needmore Tract was saved from development and turned into a state game land overseen by the N.C. Wildlife Commission six years ago. Needmore Road, in places, borders the protected tract.

Nantahala Power and Light bought the property in the 1930s with the intent of damming up the Little Tennessee River for hydroelectric generation. The power company never built the dam. Instead, the bottomland was leased to farmers. Local residents used the remainder for hiking, camping and hunting.

Duke Power in 1999 took over Nantahala Power and Light and decided to sell the land for development. Public outcry led to a massive, five-year campaign to save the tract. Local residents, conservationists and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee worked together to raise $19 million in state grants and private donations to pay Duke. The Needmore Tract was then placed under state protection as the Needmore Game Land.  

Aklea Althoff, who operates an office in Franklin for the environmental group Western North Carolina Alliance, echoed calls for restraint when it comes to tinkering with Needmore Road.

“We know that some improvements need to be made because of the sedimentation problem from the gravel road,” she said. “But it needs to be as minimal as possible because of this pristine ecosystem.”


Want to get involved?

WHAT: Presentation on Needmore Road paving proposal sponsored by WNC Alliance environmental group.

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 16.

WHERE: Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin, Sierra Lane.

Learn More:

WHAT: Question-and-answer session, followed by public hearing sponsored by N.C. Department of Transportation.

WHEN: Q&A from 4:30-6:30 p.m.; public hearing starts at 7 p.m., September 21.

WHERE: Southwestern Community College in Swain County, known locally as the old Almond School, off U.S. 74, 5.5 miles west of Bryson City.

Public input is being sought for a memorial dedicated to the North Shore families in Swain County who had their land taken in the 1940s during the creation of Lake Fontana.

A design meeting will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 14, at United Community Bank in Bryson City.

The push for a memorial comes from two Swain County residents, Richard and Carolyn Allison, who say it’s time to honor the 600 families and gain some closure to the decades-long North Shore Road debate.

The Allisons moved to Whittier about four years ago, but they quickly saw how the heated debate over the North Shore Road had divided the county. They decided to spearhead efforts to create a memorial after recently completing a grantwriting course at Southwestern Community College.

The Allisons are seeking information from the community to come up with the 600 family names to put on a memorial wall, which they are calling a War Memorial. The name is sure to be an attention grabber.

“It gives something to mull over,” said Richard Allison.

Even though the North Shore families didn’t exactly fight in World War II, Lake Fontana was built to generate electricity for an aluminum plant that made airplane parts for the war.

After seeing their land taken away, North Shore residents seem to be suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, according to Allison.

“They lost not only their home, they lost loved ones who had to go into the service,” said Allison. “It’s important to get rid of this Post-traumatic Stress Disorder that has developed over all these years. They’re not just being ornery because they wanted something that was promised to them, it’s just because they have been stressed out.”

Lawrence Hyatt and Carolyn Allison will speak on Post-traumatic Stress Disorder at the meeting. While Richard Allison said a memorial might not fully relieve that stress, seeing North Shore families honored might be helpful.

Creation of the lake flooded a road that once led from Bryson City to Tennessee, passing through numerous rural communities along the way. In addition to losing their land, those who once lived in the area felt cheated by the government’s broken promise to rebuild the road.

Participants will divide into three groups to discuss what kind of mission statement should be etched onto the memorial wall and where it should be located. So far, the design calls for a granite and marble memorial with one large column flanked by two shorter columns of equal size over a base.

The cost would be about $4,900 and $1.25 more for each letter. It could be housed at the Swain County Administration building or in the North Shore area of the national park.

I admit to being slightly irked when I initially thought about writing this column. It has been about a year since Jeff Seiler retired as the director of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service for Swain and Jackson counties, and more than three months since a panel interviewed applicants to replace him.

I know this because the extension service was unwise enough to let me serve on that panel.

Lest anyone think less of these state employees for including a news reporter in such an important decision (or on any decision, for that matter), let me offer in their defense the following explanation. This all took place while I was earning my keep as a full-time farmer’s market gardener, not as a newspaperwoman. Thus, in the eyes of the state’s finest, my disreputable and seedy journalistic self was cloaked in robes of agrarian trustworthiness and dirt-under-the-fingernails wisdom.  

Whatever. Three months is too long a stretch between candidate interviews and the state actually selecting a director.

The situation is unfair to the extension staff in Swain and Jackson. It is unfair to the farmers and hobbyist gardeners who rely on their expertise. It is probably most unfair, however, to Heather Gordon, the 4-H agent who has so ably served as interim director.

Not that I asked Gordon what she thought, because she is not, in my experience, given to unseemly and employment-endangering bursts of opinion. I knew she would simply give me a smile and proffer a publicly acceptable response, something along the lines of “I’m happy to serve in any capacity.” For all I know, Gordon actually might enjoy bossing around people she’ll have to work alongside again soon, simply as a colleague.

Sure doesn’t sound like much fun to me.

Even given my rightful impatience with the delay, however, I’m forced to acknowledge that filling this particular job poses unusual difficulties. In this case, the extension service’s pick must serve a multitude of masters. The director will work with two county managers and two sets of county commissioners. Additionally, they will oversee a staff stretched thin by service to residents living in two counties. Ever driven from Little Canada to Needmore in a day? How about from Balsam to Big Cove? Swain and Jackson combined represent a huge chunk of land.

Dan Smith, director of the extension service’s West District — that’s the state’s 17 westernmost counties and the Cherokee Indian Reservation — told me state budget woes for a time delayed almost all extension hiring. That’s not the case now. In Macon County, longtime horticulturist Alan Durden was recently tapped to fill that county’s top extension position. Durden, however, was a non-controversial hire, one virtually guaranteed to please Macon farmers and politicians alike.

Smith would only say when lightly pressed (this isn’t exactly Watergate I’m investigating, after all, and Smith seems a nice-enough guy) that he believes the state will fill the position soon, he knows the hire is a priority and everyone involved is eager to see things resolved.

It’s probably important to note why this issue merits attention.

There aren’t many farmers left in Swain and Jackson counties, and not much farmland, either. All the groceries we can consume are available at supermarkets. The state and the nation have huge economic problems, and one could argue the extension service simply isn’t a priority.

I think that’s shortsighted. For one thing, a nation’s ability to produce food is vital to national security. Michael Pollan, writing in The New York Times Magazine, made the case succinctly: “When a nation loses the ability to substantially feed itself, it is not only at the mercy of global commodity markets but of other governments as well.”

The extension service was formed, and continues to serve, as a vital link between farmers and research. Without extension agents, what happens in the laboratory probably wouldn’t trickle down to those really needing the information — the farmers growing our food. Additionally, the best agents help set local food agendas in the communities they serve.

A few years ago, two agents — Sarah McClellan-Welch, who is on the reservation, and Christine Bredenkamp, the horticulturist for Swain and Jackson counties — formed a bee club in response to the honeybee decline and people’s interest in their plight. These same agents were instrumental in starting farmers markets in Cherokee, Sylva and Bryson City. Renee Cassidy, another extension employee who has since left the agency, helped set up a food-voucher program at the Swain County Farmers Market.

These folks deserve our backing and support. The agents in Swain and Jackson counties also deserve a leader who will help them help us — and the sooner that happens, the better.

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

Bryson City merchants can expect some relief from the downtown parking crunch once the old Swain County Jail is torn down in the next two weeks.

The crumbling jail was abandoned a couple of years ago for a new multimillion-dollar facility since it no longer met state codes. County commissioners have opted for the low-cost option of converting the old jail site into a public parking lot once the building is demolished.

“There is a need for downtown parking, especially in the summertime,” said Commissioner David Monteith. “A lot of merchants don’t have a place to park.”

“You’ve got to run yourself to death to find a parking space,” said Commissioner Glenn Jones. “It’s no different from any other town. Parking is always at a premium.”

Tourists riding the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad exacerbate the problem. Some train riders hunt for free on-street parking rather than paying to park in the train’s lot, tying up valuable downtown spots for hours.

There could be up to 20 additional parking spaces to accommodate downtown patrons now, and also future visitors to a museum planned nearby.

“We’re going to need a lot more parking for that project,” said Kevin King, Swain county manager. “The county doesn’t need another building.”

Commissioners are also planning ahead for a greenway with picnic tables at the edge of the parking lot along the river.

The historic courthouse, which is adjacent to the old jail, will one day house a heritage museum, along with a visitor’s center and store run by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit that supports the Great Smoky Mountains National Park by operating bookstores in the park’s visitor centers.

The visitor’s center will take up about a quarter of the first floor of the old courthouse, according to Monteith. The cultural museum will showcase the history of Swain County and its people, while the visitor’s center will increase the nonprofit’s presence in North Carolina.

But with the courthouse dating back to 1908, major repairs are needed to render the building safe for use. Monteith says the upstairs floor must be taken out and rebuilt, according to a study done early on in the project.

“That is why we had to literally stop before we got started,” said Monteith.

“It’s a laundry list of repairs and improvements,” said Commissioner Steve Moon. “But the historic value of that building is something that we cannot ignore. We need to preserve that all we can and do the best we can with it.”

King estimates it will cost about $800,000 to renovate the courthouse, significantly lower than the $4 million originally estimated. For now, the county has $150,000 in its hands, much of which came through grants from the GSMA, King said.

Several other grant applications are still awaiting responses.

Attorneys in the state’s seven westernmost counties sent a message to the governor this week that they don’t want a temporary fill-in as judge before the November election.

The retirement of longtime District Court Judge Danny Davis would typically trigger an appointment. But with a contested election for the judge’s seat just three months away, members of the N.C. Bar Association didn’t recommend anyone for the post.

Fifty-five of the 242 bar association members gathered Monday night at the Swain County Administration Building to vote on potential nominees. None of the lawyers, however, submitted their names as potential candidates, said Elizabeth Brigham, a Bryson City-based lawyer who serves as the bar’s current president.

Rather than using secret written ballots to select their top three candidates for Gov. Bev Perdue to review, bar members instead voted by a show of hands to accept a motion they make no recommendation.

“We really didn’t see any point in filling the vacancy for such a short amount of time,” Brigham said. “It didn’t make any sense.”

Davis, who served as judge for 26 years, stepped down July 31. Steve Ellis and Roy Wijewickrama, both Waynesville residents, are vying to fill the post in the nonpartisan race.

Perdue has the final say-so on whether there will be an interim judge named. Even if bar members had recommended candidates, the governor could have selected someone else not on their list. The timing is tight, however. It seems unlikely that Perdue could — even if she wanted to — find a lawyer willing to shut down their legal practice for the short time the post would remain unfilled.

Neither Ellis nor Wijewickrama wanted a nominee. They had both asked fellow bar members to leave the seat vacant until the November elections.

Brigham plans to send the results of the bar vote to Perdue this week. If the governor, as expected, doesn’t name a stand-in, Davis will continue to fill the vacancy as needed in the capacity of “emergency” judge.

By the end of this year, nearly every student in the six westernmost counties will have unprecedented access to technology in the classroom.

Thanks to a collaborative project called WNC EdNet, high-speed Internet will become a reality for all public and charter school classrooms in Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon and Swain Counties, along with the Qualla Boundary.

WNC EdNet recently got the go-ahead to connect The Highlands School — the last remaining school to join the regional network.

As late as 2000, schools in Western North Carolina could only transmit 1.5 megabyte per second. Now, schools with fiber can enjoy 100 megabyte per second connections.

Once these high-speed connections are in place, star pupils from far-flung schools can join together in a virtual classroom to take advanced courses that aren’t normally offered at their own schools. Live video will allow for face-to-face interaction between students and teachers.

“It’s not like an online class,” said David Hubbs, CEO of BalsamWest FiberNET, which implemented the WNC EdNet project. “You’re speaking to or interacting with a teacher in real time.”

Linking up to the state network creates access to The North Carolina Virtual Public High School, which already offers 72 courses including Advanced Placement and world language classes.

The widespread reach of fiber across North Carolina to even the most rural schools holds the promise of creating a level playing field for students, according to Bob Byrd WNC EdNet project manager.

“That’s our big push now, to narrow that digital divide,” said Byrd.

Moreover, fiberoptic technology makes professional training more readily available for teachers. Once colleges are hooked up to the statewide K-12 network, student-teachers at Western Carolina University or other colleges may observe teachers in actual classrooms without interrupting lessons.

Being on the same fiber network also decreases overhead for school systems, which only have to pay one Internet bill for all their schools, Hubbs said.


Jumping hurdles


The WNC EdNet project has traveled down a long road to get to where it is now.

Nearly 60 schools have been hooked up to their central office in the county via a fiberoptic line, which makes broadband Internet possible and also provides an important backbone for communication between the school district office and individual schools.

A separate project by a nonprofit called MCNC is in turn connecting these school district offices to a statewide fiber network, the North Carolina Research and Education Network. Now, MCNC is also working on linking colleges up to the state network.

WNCEdNet piggybacked onto the larger BalsamWest project, which has installed hundreds of miles of fiber underground to promote economic development in the Western North Carolina.

The mountainous terrain was a major obstacle BalsamWest had to overcome while installing equipment underground.

“The very things that we love about our rural area create challenges for technology,” said Hubbs.

Constructing in the remote area between Cashiers and Highlands was another challenge. BalsamWest had to speak individually to every property owner to get permission to build.

“We had more private easements between Cashiers and Highlands than we did everything else put together, over 300 miles,” said Hubbs. About 15 grant applications had to be submitted to lock down funding for the $6.1 million WNC EdNet project. The project was partly funded by the Golden LEAF Foundation, which chipped in $2.2 million, and the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, which contributed $1.7 million.

Even with 12 different partners — including Southwestern NC Planning & Economic Development Commission, the Western Region Education Service Alliance, seven school districts and three colleges — WNC EdNet was smoothly coordinated.

A similar project in eastern North Carolina had failed due to infighting, according to Leonard Winchester, chairman of the WNC EdNet technology committee.

WNC EdNet coordinators were asked to come to Raleigh and explain how their particular project ended in success. Winchester said cooperation was key.

“We had a group of people that trusted each other,” said Winchester. “That trust, you can’t give to somebody else.”

The Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River members and all who are interested in clean mountain streams are invited to the WATR Summer Public meeting on Wednesday, July 21, at the Sylva Town Hall in Jackson County. The Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River will meet at 6:30 for socializing and with the regular meeting starting at 7 p.m. The meeting will feature two speakers.

Fred Grogan of Equinox Environmental will speak about the riverbank restoration along the Tuckasegee River at the old Dillsboro Dam site.  Next, Dave Cozzo of the Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources (RTCAR) program will present “Stalking the wild river cane: Finding canebrakes in the Tuckasegee Watershed.” The talk will be followed by a brief breakout session for group planning. Come join us, and leave knowing what dates and where you can help work for a healthy Tuckasegee River.

On Friday, July 23, WATR will have its Annual Walk ‘n Talk at Deep Creek in Swain County.  At 5:30 p.m., WATR will meet at the parking lot at the Deep Creek Entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a leisurely walk to a nearby waterfall. Glenn Liming and Dan Patillo, retired WCU professors, will be the leaders. Patillo will answer biological questions and Liming will assist.  Afterwards members will go to a local restaurant for dinner.  Check the website for directions.

For answers to questions and to sign up for the Walk ‘n Talk, call the WATR office at 828.488.8418.

When a $4,000 payment showed up in the mail to cover a $1,195 bill, Jim Freeman knew something was up.

Freeman, owner of Freeman’s Motel in Almond, made his way to Google and learned he had just narrowly avoided a sophisticated scam.

Earlier, Freeman had received emails from Nicole Bloomer, supposedly a 38-year-old accountant in London looking forward to a relaxing vacation in the mountains.

“Bloomer” was friendly, adding personal touches to her emails to increase her legitimacy. “Have a great day and God bless,” she wrote at the end of her first email.

After Freeman’s response to her inquiry, there was a delay. Bloomer wrote back later saying her dad had just undergone a triple bypass operation.

“It’s been a very nervous period for my family and I. Thanks to God he is awake today and responding well to treatment,” Bloomer wrote.

When it came time to reserve the room, Bloomer said her employer Shell Oil Company would send a money order paying in full. The money order Freeman received far exceeded the original bill, however.

Bloomer wrote again saying the finance department had made a mistake, instructing Freeman to return the remainder. To expedite the process, she even included the address of the nearest Western Union location in Robbinsville.

Freeman Googled “Shell Oil Company” in Stockton, Calif., where the money order came from. He learned from an actual employee that it was a scam.

The money order was counterfeit, which Freeman would learn only after sending the alleged overpayment from his own account.

Freeman immediately notified the Sheriff’s Office and was told to file a complaint with the FBI online. He then alerted the Swain County Chamber of Commerce to ensure other businesses would not be duped by the scam.

“If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is,” said Freeman. “Don’t be greedy. That’s what scam artists prey on, someone that is either greedy or trusting.”

Karen Wilmot, director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce, admits that scams are getting much more sophisticated, especially with the poor economy.

“Everyone needs to be vigilant, more so than ever probably,” said Wilmot.

The most common scam Wilmot comes across is a poor quality map of the region that claims to be affiliated with the Chamber.

“It gives them a tinge of legitimacy,” said Wilmot. “We publish our own maps and do not work with other agencies for the most part.”


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