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A former Jackson County funeral director has been charged with fraud for swindling people who paid for their own funerals in advance.

Ronnie and Thomasine Riddle, 55 and 56, of Sylva systematically defrauded as many as three dozen funeral customers out of tens of thousands of dollars over a nine-year period, according to an ongoing investigation. The couple was running Melton-Riddle Funeral Home at the time but are no longer affiliated with the business.

The victims paid the Riddles up front to cover the cost of their funerals when they eventually died — but the money is now unaccounted for and the funeral services never provided, according to the charges.

So far, the Riddles have been charged with defrauding 13 people of $50,000.

But that’s only part of the picture.

The charges at this point represent only a portion of the funeral home’s customers whose money went missing after being paid to the Riddles, according to records on file with the N.C. Funeral Services Board.

In all, more than three dozen people have come forward saying they prepaid the Riddles — for a total of more than $150,000 that was not properly deposited into funeral accounts and is now missing, according to funeral board records.

The investigation appears to be ongoing, but it is unclear whether more charges could be forthcoming.

“The investigation into these activities is continuing and will be continuing as allegations come forward from people who may have been affected,” District Attorney Mike Bonfoey said.

Funeral homes are supposed to follow strict guidelines when people pay for a funeral ahead of time. The person who paid for their funeral upfront won’t exactly be around to make sure they get what they paid for, giving rise to clear state laws on how the money for prepaid funerals should be handled. The money must be set aside either in a designated trust fund or through an insurance policy. Either way, it essentially goes in a lockbox ensuring the money will be there to provide the services.

SEE ALSO: Tombstone buyers in grave situation with Moody Funeral Home 

All the charges filed to date against the Riddles involved insurance policies — or rather the lack of insurance policies, according to warrants. The Riddles gave customers fake paperwork, leading them to believe their money had been put into an insurance policy when in fact no such policy existed, according to the charges.

“They wrote these contracts, accepted the people’s money and gave them receipts, but the money was never sent to the insurance company,” said Tom Tucker, the new owner and manager of Milton Funeral Home, who has condemned the Riddles’ actions.

The current charges are all the result of a two-year investigation by fraud officers with the N.C. Department of Insurance and deal only with cases that involved fake insurance policies.

But there are potentially another two dozen victims who prepaid for funerals whose money was supposed to be placed in a designated trust fund but now can’t be located, according to the N.C. Funeral Board. These did not fall under the purview of the N.C. Insurance Department but instead would be investigated by local law enforcement or prosecutors.

Bonfoey said he could not comment other than to say “The investigation into the entire sphere of this activity is continuing.”

Tucker said he would not be surprised if more charges came along at some point to hold the Riddles responsible for all the additional victims.

“It looks to me like there would because there is quite a number of those,” Tucker said.

The N.C. Funeral Services Board doesn’t have a law enforcement arm and can’t launch a criminal investigation of its own. It did send two letters to District Attorney Mike Bonfoey in 2009 alerting him to evidence of felony embezzlement and fraud by the Riddles. The letters offered to help in an investigation should Bonfoey chose to initiate one.

“We reported to the local district attorney as required by law when ever there is embezzlement of premium money,” Harris said.

 

State fund re-pays victims

In the meantime, the N.C. Funeral Services Board has forked over $60,000 to pay back victims, and more is likely coming.

“We are still dealing with potentially $100,000 or more in claims,” said Paul Harris, head of the N.C. Board of Funeral Services.

Paying for funerals in advance is fairly common. Sometimes people don’t want their funeral expense to be a burden on their family. Others are trying to spend down their assets in order to qualify for Medicaid. And some are simply hedging their bets, locking in the cost of their funeral at today’s rates.

The N.C. Funeral Services Board tries to act as a check-and-balance, ensuring that people who pay cash upfront for a funeral will actually get the service they’ve paid for when the time comes.

A record of every prepaid funeral transaction is supposed to be filed with the state funeral board, which checks to make sure the money got deposited where it was supposed to be. The Riddles did not file paperwork with the state as required, however.

Failure to file the paperwork can result in a funeral director losing the ability to sell prepaid funeral services — and that’s exactly what happened to the Riddles in 2006, although evidence suggests they continued to do so anyway.

Harris said every couple of years there seems to be a dishonest funeral director somewhere in the state who pockets people’s money.

The state has a restitution fund to pay back victims in this predicament. The pool of money comes from a $2 fee tacked on to all prepaid funeral arrangements made in the state. The fund is taking a serious beating in the Riddle case, Harris said.

Harris said victims are pleased the state has such a safeguard in place when the money they thought they put toward a funeral is stolen by a funeral director, but ideally the funeral director would be held criminally responsible and have to pay restitution if the case can be proven.

 

Funeral home founder devastated

The Riddles ran Melton-Funeral Home for almost a decade before losing their license from the N.C. Board of Funeral Services. The license was revoked in 2009.

The funeral home was taken over by Thomas Tucker, a longtime funeral director in the region who had been working at the funeral home part-time. Tucker dropped the Riddles’ name from the business and went back to the original name of just Melton Funeral Home.

The turn of events has been heart-wrenching for the funeral home’s original founder, Frank Melton, Tucker said.

“Oh my goodness, it has hurt him,” Tucker said.

The Riddles worked for Melton for several years before becoming partners in the business. Melton even added their name to the business making it Melton-Riddle Funeral Home.

When Melton was forced into retirement after a heart attack, the Riddles took over the business completely.

Although Melton “when all this started breaking lose,” was no longer involved in daily operations, he was devastated, Tucker said.

“It just sent him into a tailspin,” Tucker said.

More than two years later, Tucker said he is still sorting out the mess. People continue to walk through the door following the death of a loved one believing they had squared away arrangements years ago — not only putting down cold, hard cash to pay for the funeral but working out details of the service, like who the pallbearers would be, which casket they wanted and what verses they wanted spoken.

“Of course, we have no record of it,” Tucker said. “I am a lost ball in high weeds. It has been a nightmare.”

While the Riddles no longer have a role in Melton’s funeral business, Ronnie Riddle has continued to work occasionally as a gravedigger.

“But that will be no more,” Tucker said. “I’ve had people tell me they didn’t want him even at the graveyard.”

Tucker has been in the funeral business for more than 40 years, including serving as the manager of Wells Funeral Home in Waynesville.

A loosely affiliated group of 30 some people have been quietly meeting, more or less each week, in Jackson County on the heels of an Occupy Sylva event held last October.

This confederacy of the self-dubbed “99 percent” has morphed into Occupy Western North Carolina. While Asheville has its own Occupy group, OccupyWNC has become a catch-all for the counties west of Buncombe, bringing in residents from Waynesville, Franklin and farther west who expressed a desire to get involved following the Occupy Sylva rally.

“This is a much broader coalition than just Sylva,” member Allen Lomax, a Sylva resident and Waynesville-based real estate agent who also helps local, small investors connect with local, small businesses or entrepreneurs. “It has become much bigger than that.”

Don’t expect the tents or protests in WNC that you’ve seen elsewhere, or a visible police presence to ensure things stay calm. But, you also shouldn’t let the quiet nature of OccupyWNC’s gatherings fool you. These folks are dead serious about change. And they seem prepared to help make some noise, soon, to get just that. They are seeking results through “all possible nonviolent means of action.”

Gary Stamper, a Whittier resident who moved from Seattle to WNC three-and-a-half years ago, said he believes it’s time for change. And, that the nation is ripe for change.

“My outrage about what is going on is that we are losing all of our freedoms and rights. I can’t sit idly by and let it go,” Stamper said.

Stamper believes that bridges can be built to other groups, including the Tea Party and Republicans, and that the majority of Americans can work together for needed change.

“We have far more in common than not,” he said, adding that anything meaningful that happens will “start with individuals.”

“Really, we are just 100 percent,” Stamper said. “We are all in this together.”

While the OccupySylva rally last fall was organized under the auspices of the county’s Democratic party, the Democratic mantle of that event seems to have lifted, though there are certainly Democrats actively involved.

OccupyWNC is a self-described “diverse and nonpartisan coalition that acts to promote economic and social justice for the 99 plus 1 percent,” according to information provided by Lomax that has been officially approved by this very unofficial group.

OccupyWNC is open to all and seeks consensus through shared leadership, as it’s done on a national level in the Occupy events.

Lucy Christopher of Cashiers said that she became involved because of her reaction to the changes in the Middle East, and a sense of something new in the world.

“That restless unwillingness to continue with the status quo is now alive in my own country and in the neighboring part of my state,” Christopher said in an email interview. “I believe that our national security is threatened from within by its enormous economic disparity. I want a more just world for all of us, including my children and grandchildren.”

Lomax said that current financial and political situations shaping the nation are “simply not right.” Lomax cited some of the group’s dissatisfactions, including corporate ownership over most media outlets, which members believe means the message is controlled, and corporate ownership of the telecommunications industry, which is leading to increasing attempts to place restrictions on the Internet.

Though not an active conspiracy, the “1 percent,” Lomax said, is a loosely bound group of people who share common interests and, individually, great wealth.

“There’s 400 or so families involved — not that many,” he said. “And they certainly know each other, and go in the same circles. They are openly working to control legislation and are not hiding the fact that they are buying elections.”

Lomax said the Occupy movement has a much more powerful weapon than the money controlled by the 1 percent.

“We have the people,” Lomax said.

 

Rally with OccupyWNC for change

A nationwide rally will have its place in Western North Carolina on the streets of Bryson City at the federal building on Main Street from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m Friday, Jan. 20. Occupy groups across the nation want a constitutional amendment to end “corporate personhood and legalize Democracy.”

 

Attend the next OccupyWNC meeting

The OccupyWNC General Assembly meets most Tuesdays from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Jackson County Justice Center in Room 220.

Get more information by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or visit www.facebook.com/pages/OccupyWNC/243008235753789.

The number of people applying for library cards in Jackson County has doubled since the new library opened this summer.

Jackson’s striking increase in library use in part is a testament to just how low use was before. A dismally undersized library, limited programs and a small collection led to abnormally low per capita use at its former location. In fact, Jackson had the lowest circulation per capita and fewer library card holders per capita compared to surrounding counties — and was well under the state average in those benchmark areas.

When planning for a new library began in earnest four years ago, librarians cautioned the county not to put too much stock in the number of past library users as a yardstick for how big the future library should be. New libraries are like self-fulfilling prophecies, with more users suddenly crawling out of the woodworks as soon as its doors open.

So while it’s no surprise that library use has gone up, no one anticipated it would go up by as much as it has.

Jackson’s has gone up by much more than other counties that have recently built new libraries.

• After building new libraries, Macon County saw only a 15 percent increase in the number of people applying for new library cards, Polk saw 12 percent increase and Transylvania County saw 58 percent — nothing close to the 100 percent increase in Jackson.

• Jackson’s new library has increased by 38 percent in circulation of materials. Compared to Macon’s circulation increase of 17 percent, Transylvania’s by 27 percent and Polk’s by 20 percent.

And, with 28 public computers, computer use is up an amazing 154 percent.

A counter on the front door is also logging a huge increase in the number of library visits. For that stat, Jackson County Head Librarian Dottie Brunette said that it isn’t just people living in Jackson County driving the higher numbers, however, though they obviously are beating a track into the library.

“Daily, we get people in just to look at it,” Brunette said.

 

Insanely popular

The new Jackson County library in Sylva has seen skyrocketing use since it opened this summer. These numbers tell the tale, comparing use between July and November of this year at the new library compared to the same five months of last year in the old library.

                                         Old    New

Items checked out    34,735    48,112

Computer sessions    5,501    14,196

Special programs        78    382

Everyone who has seen and toured Jackson County’s new public library knows that it’s beautiful, but now the state has put an official stamp on that fact.

The library recently won the Outstanding Facility Award for new libraries larger than 26,000 square feet presented by the N.C. Public Libraries Directors Association.

Library patrons last week said they weren’t the least surprised to hear the facility was a state winner when it comes to beauty, functionality and technology.

“I love this library,” said Karen Wall, who was working on her laptop in the reference section one day last week. She was seated in a comfortable chair at a desk near huge windows affording a bird’s eye view of the Plott-Balsams mountain range.

SEE ALSO: New Jackson library a self-fulfilling prophecy

Wall described herself as a grateful library user. She is a voracious reader, one of those people who have two or more books going at a time. Fiction, nonfiction, it matters not just so long as the books involved are captivating.

“There’s a joy for me to be able to come here,” Wall said, gesturing toward the view.

That sentiment holds true for Becky Foxx of Sylva, too. Foxx’s one complaint is that the books aren’t as clearly labeled, by topics, as they were in the old library on Main Street. She was searching near the audio section for spiritual and self-help books, which were located several shelves from where Foxx actually was hunting. With 5,500 linear feet of shelving capacity — over one-mile of shelving if stretched out end to end — Foxx was finding navigation at the new county library a bit of a challenge.

That one irritant aside, Foxx loves her library. Like Wall, she said it was well worth every penny spent despite some grumbling over the price tag in certain quarters.

Jackson County’s library towers over Sylva — 107 steps up from Main Street — attached to the back of the historic courthouse complex. The new library cost $8 million, a project that also included renovating the historic courthouse as an auditorium and community meeting space.

The Jackson County Friends of the Library raised $1.8 million to outfit and furnish the new library. The cost per square foot was $282, including construction, landscaping, site improvements, architect and consultant fees and the furniture and equipment.

The librarian accept the facilities award last month in Greensboro where she presented a PowerPoint slideshow about the building at a showcase of the state awards given for facilities, programs, staff development and service innovation.

McMillan, Pazdan, Smith Architecture designed the library for Jackson County.

If there’s been one major challenge for Jackson County’s new library, it’s been parking. There just isn’t enough space on the 2.8-acre site, at least close-by, to meet demand.

There are only 73 parking spaces on top of the hill. To save those spots for library visitors, employees park in a lot down below and hoof it up the hill either from a small parking lot on Keener Street or from Mark Watson Park. The county recently improved a trail up leading the back side of the hill from Mark Watson Park and added a handrail to make the route more friendly.

Rumors of an impending closing to the contrary, The Coffee Shop in Sylva is not shutting down, owner Phyllis Gibson said this week.

“We’ve heard it, too,” Gibson said. “I had a woman customer come in this morning and say she’d been praying over it.”

The rumor includes actual nitty-gritty details. That Gibson plans to close the Sylva mainstay for burgers, fries and slices of pie not for economic reasons, but because she and the workers there are tired. The Coffee Shop opened in 1926.

“We are tired,” Gibson said in reply. “But that don’t make no difference — we’re still not closing.”

Gibson said that a slew of recent business shutdowns in Sylva might have fueled the rumor of The Coffee Shop’s imminent demise, particularly the recent shutdown of Annie’s Naturally Bakery on Main Street. Additionally, 49-year-old Cope’s Superette will close next week. The decades-old Kentucky Fried Chicken on N.C 107 closed a few weeks ago, too.

It’s 8 a.m. and the everyday regulars — Sylva’s working class Janes and Joes — are stopping by Cope’s Superette on Mill Street for packs of cigarettes, morning newspapers, soft drinks, candy and other breakfast necessities you grab when on the go and in a hurry.

“Hey, Tanya,” says Jeremy Edmonds. He’s at Cope’s to buy a bag of Bugler tobacco on his way to work at Whittier Automotive. Times are hard. Like many smokers, Edmonds has taken to rolling his own cigarettes to save a few dollars.

Edmonds is one of many who walk in and greet storeowner Tanya Calhoun-Cope by first name. Ed Cope, her father, and Fred Cope, her grandfather, opened the store 49 years ago.

It’s been left to Calhoun-Cope to shut Cope’s down, for good, come Dec. 23.

Edmonds, at 24, has never known his hometown absent Cope’s Superette. In fact, he worked here for a short time following high school. He managed to accidentally set a trashcan on fire with a smoldering cigarette butt. It’s a story he and Calhoun-Cope joke together about. They are happy, for the moment at least, to have a fresh set of ears to hear their well-honed, practiced tale.

These are difficult times for Calhoun-Cope. She’s been six years coming to grips with her decision — her desire, actually — to close the family’s namesake store. Calhoun-Cope kept Cope’s Superette open during those years since her mother, Anne, died; unwilling to take that step she knew, one day, she must.

“I’m just tired of doing it,” Calhoun-Cope says in explanation. “This is not what I wanted to do. I’m going to go back to the laboratory.”

She wants to return to the medical field, to use the education she acquired at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville after graduating from Swain County High School. To, frankly, do something else with her life rather than operate a corner store. But closing Cope’s Superette feels like a funeral, Calhoun-Cope says. She’s grieving; so are Cope’s many customers.

“Stopping here is almost like a habit,” Edmonds says. “And we’ve had so many small businesses close down. It is sad to see them leave. I sure hope more businesses will come in and rejuvenate the downtown.”

There’s a moment in the film “The Fugitive” when actor Harrison Ford is walking on Mill Street. What you see in that sequence is Cope’s Superette. But the store has been more to this community than just quaint local color.

Before new technology surged, opening fast and more direct flows of information, and before newspapers started their corresponding spiraling declines, Cope’s Superette functioned as a classic newsstand. Cope’s was where you picked up copies of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Charlotte Observer, the Raleigh News and Observer, The New York Times and any of a dozen or so community newspapers in the area. Calhoun-Cope remembers when the store sold 150 newspapers each Sunday.

Atlanta, Charlotte and other metro newspapers stopped delivery to this region as cost-saving measures. Even some of the community newspapers stopped deliveries, Calhoun-Cope said.

There weren’t a lot of these classic newsstands such as Cope’s to begin with. The other well-known one in Western North Carolina was the Curb Market on Main Street in Waynesville. It shut in 2004 following the death of the market’s original owner, Adeline Patrick. The store passed on to her children. They were forced to supplement the store from their own pockets to stay afloat until finally accepting, like Calhoun-Cope, that it was time to say goodbye. Waynesville mourned the loss of the last place on Main Street where a simple loaf of bread, candy bar or boiled peanuts could be found.

Mind you, Cope’s Superette isn’t just a simple newspaper stand. There are magazines, books, T-shirts, party items — the glorious eclectic mix of items every great corner store found in small mountain towns once boasted.

Crystal Styles of Bryson City and Beth Maynor of Whittier work in a medical services practice in Sylva near Cope’s Superette. They aren’t quite sure what they’ll do each morning for their drinks and food once the store closes.

“We’re here almost daily,” Styles says. “We’ll miss it.”

And so will everyone else in Sylva.

With a Billie Holiday-style microphone, an Apple computer camera and her two bandmates on either side, Maggie Tobias transforms from a lively newspaper reporter into a sultry jazz singer.

“You can put on a mask a little bit; it’s very theatrical,” said Tobias, a 23-year-old reporter for The Sylva Herald and Ruralite.

Tobias and fellow musicians Michael Collings and Jeff Savage compose Maggie and The Romantics, a jazz band from Sylva.

Tobias described Maggie and The Romantics as a fusion band. Their original songs always have jazz roots but can also be classified as funk, salsa or singer/songwriter.

 

Sampling an idea

Last month, the band started an early resolution, the kind typically reserved for New Year’s — to write one original song a week. The exercise helps them hone their songwriting skills and learn to create new tunes quickly.

Although it may seem daunting, the task is easier than one might think, Tobias said. Just start with a single theme or idea, she said, and form the song from there.

“It’s not going to be perfect. There are going to be some things you wish you changed,” Tobias said.

Each week, a different band member debuts their new song.

“They (Collings and Savage) are really good,” Tobias said. “It always surprised me how they can take this little song I’ve been singing in my head and make it into a real song. That’s pretty cool.”

The group uses the camera on an Apple computer, an external microphone and five or six takes to record the original song and post it to YouTube.

The idea for the weekly song came from Savage, who told them about a more than two-decade-long project by They Might Be Giants, Tobias said.

From 1983 to 2006, the alternative music group They Might Be Giants recorded new songs each week, and sometimes daily, on an answering machine. People would call the answering machine to hear the band’s newest recording.

While Maggie and The Romantics original song project may not last that long, Tobias said the troupe will post “as many as we can.”

As of Monday, their four videos had racked up a few hundred views each and mostly positive comments.

“People have said they like it,” Tobias said.

Like any family, hers had a few critics, she said.

“My mom told me to stop being so sultry in my videos,” Tobias said, adding that one of her sisters thinks she puts on a different voice when she sings.

The trio hopes to include other local artists in their future videos and posted a call for guest musicians on their Facebook page.

Tobias is currently composing a folk song for Kelly Jewell-Timco, a hula-hooper and wife of a coworker, and is making plans to perform a Frank Sinatra-style song with trumpeter Boyd Sossamon.

 

The band’s genesis

Tobias began singing at the First Presbyterian Church in Sylva, where bandmates Collings and Savage also play.

“I’ve sung my entire life,” said Tobias, who was a member of her college jazz band. “My whole family is very musical.”

However, it wasn’t until high school that her first boyfriend — a fan of music icons Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and John Coltrane — kick-started her affinity for jazz and blues tunes.

“There is something just kind of sultry about jazz,” Tobias said. “It’s kind of a sexy, evolving art form.”

Some people think that the time for jazz music has come and gone, but artists such as Diana Krall and Corinne Bailey Rae continue to add a modern flair to the genre.

“I think people kind of see jazz as a museum art form,” Tobias said. “It’s like classical music; it’s untouchable. It’s hard to see it as the popular music that it once was.”

Collings, a bassist, and Savage, a guitar player, had performed together as a jazz duo for six years at Sylva establishments like Guadalupe Café, where they play for tips. And after meeting her at the church, Collings and Savage asked Tobias to join them for a jazz cover gig.

Tobias said she thinks being a girl helped with the tips during her first performance with the guys.

“I think that’s kind of why they wanted me to keep playing with them, because after that one show we got so many tips,” Tobias said.

Soon after her first gig with the duet, Tobias started writing original songs, which the troupe performed in addition to traditional jazz standards.

The trio decided to cement their partnership by creating a band name. After receiving such suggestions as Beauty and the Beats, The Lovesick Fools, and Lady and the Tramps did they settle on Maggie and The Romantics.

“It just kind of sounded right,” Tobias said.

The band plays at various Sylva locales for tips about once a week in addition to its weekly YouTube melodies but is looking at branching out to venues in other Western North Carolina communities.

“We really like playing,” Tobias said. “It’s not the main source of income for any of us, so we can just have fun and take our time.”

 

See Maggie and The Romantics in action

Where: JJ’s Canteen & Eatery on N.C. 107 in Glenville

When: 8 p.m, Jan. 27

What else: Tips are accepted

Like Maggie and The Romantics on Facebook or check out their YouTube channel, MaggieRomanticsMusic.

Permaculture has become something of a catchword in farming and homesteading circles, a grand concept — but one usually unfulfilled in hands-on practice — of layering one’s land with a variety of edible plants that will feed you or your animals.

Luckily, Sylva native and permaculture expert Zev Friedman is available to help sort the reality from fantasy. Friedman, who lives in Weaverville and runs Urban Paradise Gardening, will hold a two-day workshop this coming weekend, Dec. 3-4, on permaculture practices. The cost of the program is $75, with the workshop running from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. both days. Mountain BizWorks is sponsoring the program.

Friedman focuses on whole-system design of water savvy landscapes that yield valuable foods and medicines and provide for other human needs with a minimum of external inputs.

Friedman’s workshop will take place on a farm owned by Ron and Cathy Arps of Sylva. The couple is well known in the local agrarian community — the Arps pioneered the now popularly used Community Supported Agriculture plan in these westernmost counties. CSA’s are a means for farmers to exchange produce for purchased shares, in practice meaning those participating buy-into the farm by paying for produce at the beginning of the growing season. You then share in the risks and windfalls of that season through the CSA. The Arps have successfully fed families for more than a decade from their intensively managed small farm just off Cope Creek Road.

Friedman toured the farm recently with the couple, laying the framework for the upcoming workshop.

“This could be a pretty good workshop for getting some things done,” Friedman said, adding that it’s important that people who attend get “hands-on” experience with such work as removing invasive plants and so on. This, he explained, will translate to lessons for working their own properties.

The trio let the land help dictate the shape of the workshop, perhaps the first lesson those interested in permaculture must learn. Workshop attendees will learn about site assessment and design, information they can take back to their own properties and, hopefully, put into practice.

A stream beside an existing pasture seemed perfectly destined for a streamside forest garden, Friedman explained, perhaps with raspberry plantings or comfrey replacing the invasives dominating there now.

The existing forest area could transition to a nut, timber, craftwood and animal products system.

In addition to nitty-gritty work, Friedman views the workshop as an opportunity for local farmers, homesteaders and those generally interested in permaculture to discuss economic niches and various business opportunities. Not to mention, he said, the opportunity to network with like-minded people.

 

Use what works

Touring the Arps’ farm, Friedman quickly identifies what’s there now — along the stream beside the pasture and on up toward the garden, there is a heavy infiltration of walnut trees.

That leaves two choices: cut them out, or plant edibles that can co-exist with these native plants. Sure, walnut trees provide food for people and animals, but walnuts also exude a substance caused juglone, which inhibits other plant growth. Tomatoes and potatoes, particularly, suffer tremendously when grown anywhere near walnut trees — these members of the ultra-juglone sensitive nightshade family show “walnut wilt” just when the gardener believes they might just harvest a beautiful crop.

The Arps aren’t keen on cutting down trees, no matter how inhibiting they might be to other plants. Instead, the couple and Friedman decide co-existence is the way to go. That means that raspberries, elderberries or comfrey, are obvious choices. Raspberries and elderberries provide berries for people and wild creatures. Comfrey provides fodder for animals, plus is an excellent source of potassium in the soil if used for mulching. Both plants defy the presence of juglone.

“Plant big long rows of comfrey, and scythe it down,” Friedman said. “You could harvest it six times a year.”

And this is the type of information homeowners can get through Friedman’s workshop.

 

Say what? Explaining permaculture

Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that is modeled on the relationships found in nature. It is based on the ecology of how things interrelate rather than on the strictly biological concerns that form the foundation of modern agriculture. Permaculture aims to create stable, productive systems that provide for human needs; it’s a system of design where each element supports and feeds other elements, ultimately aiming at systems that are virtually self-sustaining and into which humans fit as an integral part.

Source: Wikipedia

 

Want to participate?

What: Two-day workshop on intensive forest farming.

When: Dec. 3-4 in Sylva, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day.

Where: At Ron and Cathy Arps’ Vegnui Gardens farm.

Why: To learn how to put your land to work in a sustainable fashion.

How much: $75 for each participant. Food and beverages provided, but bring your own eating utensils, plates, and cups. Space is limited and pre-registration is required. Payment of workshop fee will reserve your space.

To register: Contact Sheryl Rudd at 631-0292 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Sylva might hear its local AM radio station WRGC back on the air — but the company involved wants a loan of $289,000 from Jackson County’s economic development fund to make it happen.

Roy Burnette, the CEO of the hopefully formed, embryonic 540 Broadcasting Co., said that he wants the future WRGC to intensely pursue the local part of local radio. But having said that, the geographic designation of “local” for WRGC would change, Burnette said.

Burnette wants to expand the range of WRGC allowing 540 Broadcasting to reach from east of Canton in Haywood County to Topton in Swain County — if he is able to get permission from the Federal Communications Commission for the extra power. The future WRGC would broadcast at 5,000 watts. Asked to explain the expansion of the Sylva-based radio station for the not-so-technical minded potential radio listener, Burnette suggested one mentally compare the light received from a 1,000-watt light bulb to a 5,000-watt light bulb.

“We want to offer in-depth service to Jackson, Macon, Swain and Haywood,” said Burnette on his plans for extensive regional radio reach.

Burnette has been in regional radio for years, including stints in Bryson City and Sylva. Additionally, he worked as a radio instructor for Southwestern Community College.

The Sylva radio station went dead in late August, a victim of dwindling advertising revenue dollars in a hard-knock economy. WRGC was owned by Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. If no one buys it and claims the frequency within a year, the license for that frequency would be lost.

It’s the expansion possibility, which promises a wider net of potential advertisers, that’s attracting notice at the county level.

“The 5,000-watt license is the big interest since the signal area would be substantially greater than current coverage area,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.

And that, Wooten added, would “provide an opportunity to generate significantly more advertising revenue.”

Regional radio personality and Sylva resident Gary Ayers earlier had expressed interest in buying WRGC. Ayers retreated from the idea after he said local advertising interest seemed tepid.

“I talked to the owners the other day and said if this guy can make it go, then great,” Ayers said Monday. “If not, then let me know and let’s talk again.”

Art Sutton of Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. declined to comment for now on the evolving deal.

Ayers said the most important point to him is that Sylva regains a local radio station.

“We are going to put a huge focus on community-based programming,” Burnette said.

Burnette said he hopes to have WRGC on the air by Dec. 10.

 

What price local radio?

540 Broadcasting Co. submitted a request for a $289,000 loan from Jackson County. Of that, $250,000 would be used to purchase the radio license from current owner Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co., and $39,000 would be used to acquire equipment needed to install the 5,000-watt station. 540 Broadcasting would provide an additional $100,000 in working capital. Payments on the county loan would be deferred until May 2012, and then be paid over ten years (40 quarterly payments) at an interest rate of 2 percent. Jimmy Childress (WRGC’s founder) would rent 540 Broadcasting the building, equipment and property where tower is located; collateral for the loan would be the radio license and equipment.

A public hearing on the loan will be held Dec. 12 at 2 p.m. at the county’s boardroom. Commissioners are scheduled to meet that same day at 2:15 p.m. to consider the request.

Source: Jackson County

Metrostat Communications, the company that pioneered the advent of high-speed Internet in Sylva, will close Dec. 30.

“We’ve been through the screaming, the upset, and we’re at the point we know this is the best decision we can make,” said Robin Kevlin, co-owner of Metrostat with husband John.

Six Metrostat employees will lose their jobs. At one time, the company had 20 employees, but the ever-more difficult economy and increasing competition had taken a toll.

Metrostat was founded in 2002 in Sylva to solve a business problem for the Kevlins’ software company, located on Main Street, which they later sold. The couple needed high-speed Internet, as did other businesses in Sylva’s downtown. After identifying the critical need, they filled it for themselves and others by laying fiber optic cables and selling bandwidth to customers. The Kevlins declined to specify how many accounts they currently manage but described their service as extending throughout Sylva’s downtown area.

The business start-up was a brave foray into a market dominated by big companies such as Charter and Verizon. But here in Western North Carolina, Metrostat also found itself competing against a grant-funded, public-private partnership forged to run high-speed fiber lines through rural mountain counties in the far west.

The couple pointed to BalsamWest FiberNET, a joint venture funded by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Macon County private businessman Phil Drake, as Metrostat’s major competitor and most daunting business hurdle.

Though repeatedly emphasizing that they did not want to sound bitter or angry toward BalsamWest, the couple said Metrostat simply could not hold its ground against the larger company. Initially, BalsamWest was going to lay a fiber backbone through the mountains and allow smaller companies such as Metrostat to be the actual service providers. But BalsamWest began directly selling service and cherry-picking the customers, undermining Metrostat’s business model, they said.

“We needed the big customers, then BalsamWest came in, supposedly doing the ‘middle mile,’ and they started taking over our last-mile customers,” John Kevlin said. “And any grant money that came into Jackson County, they got 100 percent. I put my personal fortune into (Metrostat), and I got killed.”

Cecil Groves, CEO of BalsamWest, expressed sadness that Metrostat was closing down.

“I do regret that they were not able to sustain it. John and Robin did a very good job in helping this community and region. But I don’t think that falls back on BalsamWest,” the former president of Southwestern College said. “I feel for them. This is a very hard business, and it is changing very, very fast.”

For his part, Groves emphasized that BalsamWest’s business model extends far beyond Sylva where Metrostat focused its efforts.

“We’re trying to put a base in for economic development for this region, for the six western counties,” Groves said.

Groves said the initial goal, the building of the “middle mile,” was accomplished through the use of private money. Connecting the schools, Groves said, did result in BalsamWest tapping grant funding.

In downtown Sylva where Metrostat was known for providing good, fairly priced service, business owners were upset by the news they must now find another Internet carrier. Metrostat users received a Nov. 21-dated letter Monday morning via the postal service that explained the situation.

“Sustainable funding for an independent local utility requires long-term resources and support that we have not been able to identify,” the Kevlans wrote. “While we all love what Metrostat does, we simply do not see a financial path forward to continue operating.”

“I called them and said, ‘What do we need to do to keep you in business? Pay another $30 or $40 a month? Let us know, we’ll rally the troops,’” said Bernadette Peters, owner of City Lights Café in Sylva. “But it was too late. I’m not sure that they realized what people would have done to actually keep them here.”

Amazingly, in this day and age of questionable customer service, Peters said Metrostat was terrific because “you could call them if the server went down, and you’d actually get a call back.”

John Bubacz, owner of Signature Brew Coffee on Main Street and a member of the Downtown Sylva Association board, said he hated to see “hardworking people like Robin and John and all of their staff lose their jobs, and the community lose such superior service. We’ll never replace them.”

That said, Bubacz was anxious to emphasize that despite some recent business closings — Annie’s Naturally Bakery, Metrostat and a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant on N.C. 107 that seemingly disappeared overnight last week — Sylva’s downtown is still doing well.

“No, downtown is not dying,” Bubacz said.

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