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Witness an authentic performance of the classic “A Christmas Carol,” with one of the original performers in the 1938 radio show that starred the legendary Orson Welles.

Tickets go on sale Tuesday, Aug. 10, at Western Carolina University for a December re-creation of the Campbell’s Playhouse radio adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.”

The WCU production will use Welles’ personal script and will star Arthur Anderson, who will reprise his role of the Ghost of Christmas Past that he performed in the original radio show more than 70 years ago. Now 87, Anderson was 16 at the time he portrayed one of Charles Dickens’ ghostly trio opposite Welles in the 1938 broadcast.

“A Christmas Carol,” which includes a live orchestra and sound effects, will feature the talents of WCU faculty, staff and students, as well as radio professionals from Western North Carolina.

Presented with special permission of the show’s original sponsor, the Campbell Soup Co., the performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 9, in WCU’s Fine and Performing Arts Center. All tickets are $10 each.

The academic-based entertainment event is being mounted by director Steve Carlisle, a stage and screen veteran who is associate dean of WCU’s Honors College; musical director Bruce Frazier, the Carol Grotnes Belk Distinguished Professor of Electronic and Commercial Music; and producer Donald Connelly, head of WCU’s department of communication.

The team previously collaborated on the 2008 live radio show production of Welles’ “The War of the Worlds” and last year’s nationally acclaimed Veterans Day tribute “On the Home Front, Nov. ‘44.”

The show is a joint production of the Department of Communication, Department of English, School of Music, School of Stage and Screen, and Honors College.

Visit FAPAC box office or 828.227.2479.

Each July since 1991, I’ve led field trips along the Blue Ridge Parkway offered as part of the Native Plants Conference sponsored by Western Carolina University. This year’s outings (July 25) will have taken place by the time you read this.

Between Waterrock Knob and Mt. Pisgah, the eight participants in my group will identify perhaps eight fern species, several grasses, a few lichens, maybe a mushroom or two, and more than 100 wildflower species, including wild quinine, large-flowered leafcup, bush honeysuckle, green wood orchis, starry campion, Indian paintbrush, enchanter’s nightshade, Small’s beardtongue, downy skullcap, tall delphenium, pale Indian plantain, tall bellflower, southern harebell, horsebalm, round-leaved sundew, Blue Ridge St. Johnswort and false asphodel.

No group of flowering plants along the Parkway, however, will be of more interest to participants than the “Monardas,” a genus in the mint family that includes the ever-popular bee balm. There are two other distinct “Monarda” species — wild bergamot and basil balm — that appear in this section of the Southern Blue Ridge Province in addition to a hybrid backcross called purple bergamont.

“Monardas” are sometimes called horsemints because “horse” signifies “large” or “coarse,” and the members of this genus are generally larger, coarser plants than many other members of the mint family.  In this instance “coarse is beautiful.” Most of the horsemints have quite appropriately been introduced into cultivation.

Here’s a checklist of those three horsemint species and the hybrid found in the Western North Carolina mountains. All flower from mid-June into September and can be readily located along the parkway, especially in the areas of the Grassy Ridge Mine (milepost 436.8) and Standing Rock Overlook (milepost 441.4).

Bee balm, also called crimson bee balm or Oswego tea (Monarda didyma): occasional in moist, shaded situations; adapted by scarlet color long tubular shape of flowers for pollination by hummingbirds, but often “robbed” by bees and other insects that bore “bungholes” at the base of the corolla tube; note the reddish leaf-like bracts just below the flowers; called “bee balm” because it made a poultice that soothed stings; sometimes called Oswego tea because of its use as a steeped medicinal by the Oswego Indians of New York; generic name honors an European botanist, Nicholas Monarda, who had an interest in medically useful plants from the New World. No red flower — save, of course, cardinal flower — is more resplendent. And like cardinal flower, this member of the mint family often haunts a lush and dark setting so that when it catches slanting light the flaming crimson gleams like a beacon.

Wild bergamot (M. fistulosa): common but variable species flowering in open fields, meadows, and on dry wooded slopes; petals are usually lilac or pinkish-purple (rarely white) with the upper lip bearded at the apex; bracts often pink-tinged; frequently visited by butterflies; oil with an odor resembling essence of bergamot was once extracted from the plant to treat respiratory ailments; brewed as tea by the Cherokee for many ailments, including flatulence and hysterics.

• Basil balm (M. clinopodia): occasional in both moist and dry woods and thickets; similar to wild bergamot but with paler pink or white flowers that have purple spots on lower lip and whitish bracts; common name indicates that it was used like bee balm as a poultice. Wild bergamot and basil balm often interbreed along the parkway.

Purple bergamot (M. media): an infrequently encountered natural hybrid backcross of the above species displaying deep reddish-purple flowers and dark purple bracts; habitat about the same as bee balm, so look for color differences between scarlet of that species and deep purple for the hybrid; despite the hybrid status it’s reliably distinctive and exciting to encounter.

Note: Excellent colored illustrations of each of these horsemints appear opposite p. 92 of Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1977).  Dotted horsemint (M. punctata), which has purple-spotted yellow flowers, is primarily a species of the piedmont and coastal plain that does not — to my knowledge — appear in the Southern Blue Ridge Province.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

An unusual proposition has landed on the doorstep of Forest Hills, a tiny speck of a town at the edge of Western Carolina University.

In hopes of transforming Cullowhee into a more vibrant college community, a group dedicated to reinventing the lackluster area around campus wants Forest Hills to expand its town limits and annex a portion of the university and its surrounds.

It would be quite a leap for a town of Forest Hills size. With only 347 registered voters, a property tax rate of just one cent, and an area of a little over one square mile, the Village of Forest Hills seems more like a homeowners association than a bona fide town. It has no town hall and no paid employees.

Yet being part of an incorporated town is crucial in the quest for WCU’s campus to be more than an island in the middle of nowhere, according to those advocating the idea.

The restaurants, coffee shops and bars typically found around universities are markedly absent at Western — witnessed by a standing joke on campus that “Cullowhee is a state of mind.”

Incorporating would give Cullowhee the option of allowing alcohol sales and bring greater access to state and federal grants, supporters say.

Conjuring up a college town from thin air isn’t exactly what advocates have in mind, but they do want a more robust commercial district. In particular, the area along Old Cullowhee Road bordering the Tuckasegee River isn’t reaching its potential.

“I think it is difficult to sustain a business there. We have seen restaurants come and go, businesses change hands or just go defunct,” said Brian Railsback, dean of the WCU Honors College who is active in Cullowhee revitalization efforts. “Rather than a backwater to the university, it could become a hub.”

The appeal came to Forest Hills by way of the Cullowhee Revitalization Effort, a group that goes by the acronym CuRvE.

The decision is ultimately up to the five members of the Forest Hills town board. So far, they appear willing to hear out the idea.

“We are part of the larger Cullowhee community, and we don’t want to divorce ourselves from that but instead look at our mutual interests,” said Clark Corwin, a Forest Hills town council member.

Details of the proposal are still in formation, including exactly what area CuRvE wants Forest Hills to annex. A public presentation by the group next week should shed light on those questions.

“I want them to share with us what their visions is and see if any of it fits with how the village is evolving,” Corwin said.

The town board is eager to keep Forest Hills residents abreast of the proposal, so much so that it sent a letter to every household in the town limits inviting them to the public meeting.

“The council would appreciate your presence and participation during this meeting,” the letter states.

The proposal to grow the town’s size comes with the suggestion for a name change: from Forest Hills to Cullowhee.

A name change would certainly create a shift in the town’s identity, Corwin said. But mention the two names to an outsider — Forest Hills and Cullowhee — and it’s easy to guess which one they’ve never heard of. Corwin said his post office address is in Cullowhee, after all, not Forest Hills.

Railsback said his group envisions a commercial district along Old Cullowhee Road with a “river walk” feel.

 

Road to redemption

 

One barrier to revitalization in Cullowhee is the lack of alcohol sales. Whether it’s a six-pack at a gas station or a glass of wine with dinner, alcohol sales aren’t allowed by Jackson County. Incorporated towns have the option of allowing alcohol sales, however.

If the annexation goes through, and if Forest Hills in turn passed a law to allow alcohol sales, it would help attract restaurants, Railsback said.

“That is the most important source of revenue for many restaurants,” Railsback said.

Railsback said legalizing alcohol sales is not the driving factor in the annexation plan, however.

“We didn’t all sit around say ‘Hey, let’s get incorporated so we can drink,’” Railsback said.

If it does pan out that way, however, beer could be sold at the Ramsey Center, where concerts and sporting events are held, and wine could be served during receptions at the Fine and Performing Arts Center — since both buildings would be taken in by the annexation.

The revitalization crew will try to convince the property owners in the area being annexed to support the move. But the most important pitch is to the people of Forest Hills. Many Forest Hills residents are affiliated with the university, from retired professors to currently faculty. For them, the motive to revitalize Cullowhee might be reason enough to support the idea.

But to others wondering what’s in it for them, Railsback points out that expanding Forest Hill’s town limits is the only way to give them control over how growth around the university will look.

“Whatever happens in Cullowhee is going to be right at their front door,” Railsback said. “If you just passively sit there, you won’t have a say in what this will look like. I don’t think that will be in their best interest.

“Let’s face it. Even if you are in Forest Hills, you are living in a part of Cullowhee. I think people are interested in having a say and being a part of creating an identify for that,” Railsback said.

 

Forest Hills’ forte

 

Land-use planning just happens to be what Forest Hills does best. In fact, it’s their raison d’être.

The residents of Forest Hill incorporated as a town in the late ‘90s with one main purpose in mind: to keep student housing out. The town sits at the edge of the University and was at risk of becoming inundated by student apartments, condos and rental units.

Residents wanted to maintain their neighborhood feel. As a town, they could pass zoning laws to do just that. The town is currently refining its ordinance to limit the number of non-related people who can live under the same roof in an effort to prevent large groups of students from renting homes in certain neighborhoods.

The town hires off-duty deputies to patrol on weekend evenings during the school year to keep a check on loud partying.

Other than the security patrols, the town’s only other service is fixing potholes and street maintenance.

Corwin sees merit in Forest Hills being a master of its own destiny, rather than allowing Cullowhee to grow up around it.

“Either way, we are going to be affected. One way, we can have participation,” Corwin said.

Incorporating a brand-new town of Cullowhee will continue to be a fallback plan if Forest Hills doesn’t take the bait.

When Cullowhee Revitalization Effort launched three years ago, Railsback said the group quickly realized not being an incorporated town was hurting them. They weren’t eligible for some state and federal grants. From sidewalks to sewer lines, the area was missing out on funding it could get it only if it were incorporated, Railsback said.

“CuRvE didn’t begin with the idea of incorporation but we recognized pretty soon if you want to improve infrastructure or get grants or even stimulus money, no one is going to touch that if you aren’t incorporated,” Railsback said. “If you have a bunch of volunteers in an unincorporated area, you aren’t going to say ‘Here is $1 million, go to it.’”

Railsback said the proposal to Forest Hills came up as an alternative to jumping through the myriad hoops of incorporating a new town.

The idea to partner with Forest Hills has been percolating for more than a year, but it was publicly broached with the Forest Hills town board in December.

“We didn’t have a plan or anything then. We just said ‘Here’s what we are trying to do and would you be interested in some kind of expansion and being involved in creating Cullowhee,’” Railsback said. “Or should we reinvent the wheel and create our own Cullowhee, which could present problems for Forest Hills.”

Meanwhile, property owners in the area to be annexed also need convincing that something positive will come from having to paying town property taxes — albeit exceptionally low ones.

“If I was a property owner I would think on the one hand, I will have a city tax to pay, but on the other hand, if what comes with that is a whitewater park down the road and sidewalks and improvements and I can sell beer and wine, the property value would increase,” Railsback said.

Property owners would also be subject to whatever zoning laws Forest Hills leaders come up with.

If property owners sign on voluntarily, it will make the process far easier for Forest Hills. If they don’t like the idea, Forest Hills can annex them anyway, but the process is more cumbersome.

Railsback said the university administration supports the move. University leaders hope to create a new university “center,” a commercial district to fill the void of a college town. Being incorporated would help.

“The university likes it because if you are going to build a town center and you want a supermarket to come here, it is a much more attractive if it is an incorporated area,” Railsback said.

 

Want to learn more?

 

The Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor will present a formal proposal to the Village of Forest Hills to annex part of the university and surrounding area at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3, at the Ramsey Center hospitality room on the WCU campus. It is open to the public.

 

The feature film “Wesley” will be screened at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 13, at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin.

“Wesley” is based closely on the actual events of John Wesley’s life, a story that already reads much like a Hollywood screenplay.

Arledge Armenaki, WCU associate professor of cinematography, was the director of photography for the movie.

Sixteen Western Carolina University students got hands-on experience as crew for “Wesley” during filming on locations in and around Winston-Salem and Morganton for two months in 2007 and two weeks in 2008, including a sold-out red carpet premiere. WCU students and faculty also were cast in the movie.

Wesley is a compelling and controversial main character that women found intensely attractive; there is adventure on the high seas, a terrible storm and near-shipwreck. In the newly settled Savannah, Ga., there is an incredibly romantic but star-crossed love affair that ends tragically. Wesley is crushed, and on his return to England, we experience his spiritual struggle and finally renewal. We are then swept away with his preaching in the fields and his efforts to help the lowest classes of society. His ministry is controversial, there is mob violence, confrontation, and tension followed by his victorious preaching to thousands in his hometown.

Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the center box office at 1028 Georgia Road in Franklin, at Dalton’s Christian Bookstore in Franklin and Waynesville, and online at GreatMountainMusic.com, or call 866.273.4615.

Coastal Crusaders

When asked how he felt about the catastrophic BP oil spill, Robert Young paused for the first time during the interview, visibly moved.

“It’s depressing...don’t make me cry,” Young said before walking over to his desktop and opening up a recent home video of his sons enjoying a vacation on the Florida Panhandle.

The water is crystal clear, the sand pure, and his sons are laughing, one riding a boogie board for the very first time.

“I was that boy,” said Young, who heads Western Carolina University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines. “The guys are just dying to go back again...We can’t. We can’t go back now.”

Like many others, Young is finding it difficult to find an outlet for his anger.

“It’s not very satisfying getting angry at a multinational corporation,” said Young. “I can’t not buy gas at the BP station in town. It’s locally owned...We can’t hurt BP. That’s what’s so hard.”

Even with no chance of a do-over on the Gulf Coast crisis, Young and his team of coastal scientists at WCU have gotten actively involved in its aftermath, hoping to make a positive impact.

An unusually vocal scientist, Young’s opposition to the current plan of attack — which calls for building sand berms to block oil from reaching the shores — has earned him national attention.

Young has made the rounds, speaking to NPR, Newsweek and the Rachel Maddow Show and writing an op-ed for The New York Times, actively opposing Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s push to construct the sand barriers.

Young said there’s little evidence the barriers would work. They would be susceptible to erosion before the project is even complete, not to mention the slim chance that they would survive the impending hurricane season.

Moreover, the sand berms would alter tidal currents, leading to the erosion of natural barrier islands that protect the coast from hurricanes, Young said.

Even with the EPA speaking out against it, the project is moving ahead with the construction of test sand berms. Young is devoted to continue monitoring the process.

Meanwhile, coastal scientists at WCU’s Shoreline program, including two Western grads, Katie McDowell and Adam Griffith, have captured aerial photography during flyovers off the coast of Louisiana.

Last week, Griffith returned to the state to scope out the damage done along the coastline, accompanying two volunteers from the environmental nonprofit Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

What Griffith witnessed upon reaching the beach at Isle Grand Terre left him horrified.

“Oil in large pools was evident on the beach. Hermit crabs wandered around next to bubbles of oil while dolphins frolicked in water that wasn’t quite the right color. Foul fumes were ubiquitous and oil could be seen oozing out of the wetlands,” Griffith wrote in a guest blog entry for LA Bucket Brigade.

That oil will undoubtedly gush to more and more locations. Griffith’s goal, like that of the Bucket Brigade, is to amass a large-scale collection of images to archive the environmental disaster as it unfolds in specific locations.

“Hopefully, these images will help remind us what the land should look like,” Griffith writes in closing his blog entry.

Griffith said the BP oil spill has the potential to be one of the most polarizing moments in our lives, almost like an environmental version of the Sept. 11 attacks.

As a coastal scientist, McDowell said she can clearly grasp how the oil spill will impact the ecosystem for years to come.

“You realize how big-scale it’s really going to be, how devastating it’s really going to be,” said McDowell. “You realize how fragile the ecosystem is.”

Though McDowell hasn’t been back to Louisiana since the flyover in April, she would like to devote every single day to studying the oil spill.

“Everyone wishes they could do more than what they’re doing,” said McDowell. “It’s hard because I think about it all day long.”

Western’s internationally renowned program

Unlike most other programs of its kind, WCU’s Program for the Study of Developed Shoreline houses the oft-separated fields of science and policy under one roof.

That places PSDS scientists in a uniquely difficult position.

“The people who solely do policy and management often think we’re naïve scientists who don’t really have a grasp of the intricacies of politics and policy,” said Young. “The scientific community quite frequently decides not to take scientists who communicate regularly with the public as seriously as scientists who sequester themselves in a lab somewhere, and slip their results under the door.”

But since so many scientific programs receive grants — which are funded by taxpayers — Young said it’s imperative that scientists talk to lay people about their findings.

With few scientific journalists left standing, it’s up to scientists to communicate directly to the public, Young said.

For that reason, the coastal scientists that Young hires must have excellent communication skills. McDowell, for instance, tutored at WCU’s writing center as a student.

McDowell is now working on building a national database that details how high the seas have risen in specific locations during past hurricanes.

In a few weeks, WCU Shoreline scientists will assist in dam removal project in Washington state, one of the largest ever projects of its kind.

PSDS has five full-time staff and, seven research fellows from universities around the country, in addition to one from Ireland.

The program, which has been around for about 25 years, was formerly headquartered at Duke University.

Its director, Orrin Pilkey, handed the program over to Young, who was too enamored with the mountains to move back to Duke, where he completed his graduate studies and is now an adjunct professor.

Pilkey serves as a Young’s mentor and collaborator, and continues to participate in shoreline studies program, officially making it a joint effort between Duke and Western.

PSDS scientists work all over the country, in addition to exotic locales like Morocco, Honduras and New Zealand. Much of what they do involves evaluating coastal engineering projects, whether its building beaches or “mining” sand from the beach to use in construction projects.

The program’s ultimate goal is to preserve and support the proper management of the world’s beaches. PSDS scientists not only work to study the impact of development on shores, but also chime in while harmful policies are being pursued.

For example, Young protested against the idea of building a sea wall to protect a road in Florida’s Gulf Highlands National Seashore.

He said the idea would do more harm than good. Moreover, it wouldn’t work to protect the road. Scientifically speaking, it was simply a bad idea.

Young wrote a two-page scientific opinion and got the signatures of 25 coastal geologists from across the country to sign on before sending it to the head of park services. As a result of their combined input, the effort was abandoned.

Often, PSDS scientists are asked why they’re headquartered in the middle of the Appalachian mountains. McDowell seems well-trained on the response.

“Knowing what we know about global warming, sea level rise, and what happens on the coast, we feel a little bit safer here in the mountains,” said McDowell.

Another tangible benefit is being roughly equidistant from the east coast beaches of North and South Carolina as well as the Gulf. McDowell emphasized that people all over the world study coastal geology, whether or not they’re stationed anywhere near the coast.

Science’s role

Though he opposes the idea of sand berms, Young doesn’t have an answer on what would protect the Gulf Coast from the oil already creeping ashore.

Young is curious why the plan now isn’t to place sand on the barrier islands rather than in front of them. He emphasizes that traditional methods like booming and skimming should not be abandoned.

Young got especially vocal after the governor’s office of Louisiana applied for a permit from the Army Corp of Engineers to do massive engineering. He and his team had examined the proposed project and found major flaws.

“We were concerned about spending all that time and energy and manpower on a project that wasn’t going to work,” said Young. “...No one would be happier for me to be wrong than me.”

If the project had any hope of succeeding, its ancillary environmental effects would not matter. But Young sees a miniscule chance at success.

While other scientists probably agree, few have piped up.

“There are scientists all over the east coast and Gulf Coast, and I haven’t heard them,” said McDowell.

Young, McDowell and Griffith argue that there’s an obligation for scientists to share what they know.

“I think there is tremendous value in science intrinsically, but if we can share that with a larger audience, we can maximize benefit,” said Griffith.

For them, science — not politics — must guide efforts to clean up the oil spill.

A team of the best engineers and scientists should be consulted for every aspect of the response to the oil spill, according to Young.

“We should be putting them in rooms and brainstorming for ideas,” said Young. “We should have them on the scene in places — not so we can conduct yearlong studies —but so we can get as many ideas and eyes on this as possible.”

Griffith agrees that discussion on how to go about the cleanup should be a short part of the project.

“I think science’s perspective is valuable, but I think that part of the conversation needs to occur quickly and concisely,” said Griffith.

Grassroots efforts could also play a significant role, and Griffith said he’s sure there are citizen activists out there already cleaning up oil on their own.

Grassroots Mapping, for example, is using citizen volunteers to send up automatic cameras on kites and balloons to take photographs of the oil-stained shoreline. Those images are then stitched together to form a panoramic aerial shot.

“They’re not talking about what to do,” said Griffith. “They’re doing something.”

Rich Kucharski, chief legal counsel for Western Carolina University, became the seventh person in university history to receive one of the institution’s highest honors when the WCU board of trustees presented him with the Trustees’ Award.

Retiring this summer after a quarter-century of service to the university, Kucharski received the award during a surprise presentation as part of the board’s quarterly meeting Friday, June 4. The Trustees’ Award is presented only on rare occasions in recognition of exemplary service to the university, Steve Warren, chairman of the board of trustees, said in announcing the award.

Kucharski has provided legal advice on matters involving or affecting the university since 1985. He also serves as director of technology transfer and started the Office of Technology Transfer in 2004 to provide assistance to faculty and staff who want to see their on-campus creations benefit the public.

The Southwestern Community College Board of Trustees has settled on a replacement for outgoing President Cecil Groves.

Last week, the board approved the selection of Dr. Richard Collings, president of Wayne State College in Nebraska and a former administrator at Western Carolina University, as the college’s fifth president. His hiring is contingent upon approval of the State Board of Community Colleges next month.

The board arrived at its decision after narrowing the field of candidates to four finalists, a list they elected to keep secret while their final decision was pending. The finalists were interviewed in early June.

Collings served as vice chancellor for academic affairs at Western Carolina University from 1996 to 2004. He kept his house here when moving to Nebraska and rented it out with the intention of returning one day.

“We’d always planned to come back to the community to retire. I never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to come back and work,” said Collings, who is in his early 60s.

His son lives in Jackson County as well.

Collings has spent the last six years in northeast Nebraska at a four-year college with close ties to a community college system. Wayne State College recently opened a campus that is jointly owned and operated by Northeast Community College.

“When a student comes to that campus, they won’t know the differences between the four-year and two-year school,” Collings said.

Collings has worked closely with community colleges since 1989, and those interactions have accelerated during the last six years with the partnership between Wayne State and Northeast Community College.

His experience aligning the curricula of two systems could prove useful in the relationship between SCC and WCU.

In addition, Collings said his experience working with a rural student body, a neighboring Indian tribe and a strong community college system has prepared him for the job at SCC.

Collings said he has watched developments at SCC closely.

“I’ve seen the great trajectory that SCC has taken with all of the national acclaim and the acclaim from within the community college system,” Collings said. “I knew it was a great institution when I was there.”

Among his other accomplishments at Wayne State, Collings reversed a decade-long enrollment decline, improved graduation and retention rates, and led a successful $20 million capital campaign to commemorate the college’s 100th year in service.

Conrad Burrell, chairman of the SCC Board of Trustees, noted that Collings was chosen from a pool of highly qualified national applicants.

“Although our presidential search produced many outstanding candidates, Dr. Collings was chosen because of his impressive background and credentials. We feel his experience in education and knowledge of our service area will greatly benefit the college and the communities we serve,” Burrell wrote in a prepared statement.

Western Carolina University Chancellor John Bardo fears the budget passed by the General Assembly this year might cast a shadow over the state’s future for years to come.

Like many university leaders across North Carolina, Bardo opposes the House version of the 2010-11 budget, which requires UNC campuses to cut spending by $232 million this year.

UNC system President Erskine Bowles has estimated 1,700 jobs would be lost across 17 UNC campuses by July should the budget cuts become reality.

About 80 percent of WCU staff is funded through state money. Such a deep cut would jeopardize the ability of universities across the state to accept students — even if they’re perfectly qualified.

House leaders have threatened to fund no more than a 1 percent increase in the number of students who attend UNC colleges in the 2011-12 year, contrary to claims by legislators that enrollment growth is being funded.

“We’re making it incredibly difficult for North Carolinians to go to college,” said Bardo. “We’re restricting access. We’re restricting ability.”

Producing fewer graduates in North Carolina would not bode well for its economic development, Bardo added.

“We cannot cut areas of education and expect this state to have the capacity to compete globally,” said Bardo. “North Carolina tends to lag the rest of the nation in coming out of the recession. This is going to increase the lag, most likely.”

Skimping on faculty would lead to drastic cuts in the number of classes offered, making it harder for students to graduate on time.

WCU is nearing maximum seating capacity for many of its courses already. Only one of the university’s four lecture halls can seat more than 150 students.

On the bright side, the Senate version of the state’s $18.9 billion budget calls for cuts of $105 million, far less than what the House has proposed.

“In this economic situation, nothing is perfect,” said Bardo. “But the Senate really did attempt to make sure the universities had the resources they needed.”

Meanwhile, the governor’s proposed budget would cut $155 million from the university system.

The governor’s cuts equate to about 5 percent of the UNC system’s current budget, the Senate’s version includes 3 percent in cuts, whereas the House budget requires almost 7 percent budget reduction.

The House and the Senate have appointed their repsective delegates to a joint budget committee that will hammer out differences between the House and Senate budget starting this week, to arrive at a mutually agreeable budget hopefully by July 1.

Unfair treatment?

WCU greeted last year’s budget season armed with a plan. The college made painful, but strategic, cuts to reduce its budget by 8 percent.

In 2009, WCU’s budget was permanently reduced by about 5 percent, while the governor asked Western to make an additional 5 percent in cuts.

After passing the state 2009-10 budget, lawmakers left WCU facing the task of cutting the equivalent of 94 full-time jobs.

This year, WCU’s plan to cope with cuts under the worst-case scenario calls for freezing 45 full-time equivalent positions that are vacant. Depending on the kind of budget that’s passed, that number of positions left empty may go up.

On the other hand, Bardo estimates the Senate version of the budget might leave room for WCU to fill some of those positions. At a June 4 meeting of the WCU Board of Trustees, Bardo entreated college leaders to begin campaigning for the Senate proposal.

“We have to be seen as players in making things better,” said Bardo. “We have developed a reputation for being apathetic to what they’re doing.”

That could have led to last year’s budget, which was less than fair to the UNC system, according to Bardo. Although appropriations for the systems 17 campuses equate to 13 percent of the stat budget, 29 percent of cuts imposed across state government came from the universities, according to Bardo.

“We do understand that they have a short-term problem, having to deal with the budget,” said Bardo. “At the same time, we want them to take their responsibility.”

Western Carolina University’s quintet in residence should consider letting the Travel Channel tag along before embarking on its next international tour.

After returning from China last month, the Smoky Mountain Brass Quintet can count 49 first-time foods tasted in 14 days of travel.

The long list includes some intriguing items like yam noodles, lotus root, dragon fruit, and glutinous rice. But other novelties would more likely make stomachs lurch: pig penis, sheep stomach, goose liver, shrimp eggs, turtle, and black fungus, to name a few.

Surpassing all that hands-down and nearly reaching legendary status, though, is the drunken shrimp. Eating that correctly involves biting the head off live shrimp drenched in baijiu, a clear Chinese liquor.

Not all five musicians ventured to experiment as a few feisty shrimp leaped from the bowl, one landing as far as the floor.

As for the verdict, a video capturing the gross-out moment (for Westerners) shows trombonist Dan Cherry declaring that it tasted ... pretty much like you’d expect raw shrimp to taste.

Trumpeter Brad Ulrich, who co-founded the quintet with fellow trumpet player David Ginn in 1993, was brave enough to try the dish first. Ulrich also picked up the skill of opening up a bottle of beer with chopsticks during the trip.

Even with all the bizarre foods, the quintet has come back from their tour raving about Chinese food — the authentic kind. Most meals took place around a large round table with a Lazy Susan in the middle piled with 14 or 15 different dishes. Everything was fresh, healthy and delicious.

“If you order fish [here], it’s been dead for a long time,” said Ulrich. “There, they take it out of an aquarium.”

Every place they visited offered something new, with each province specializing in a different dish.

“I can’t eat Chinese here anymore,” said Ulrich. “It’s not the same.”

Despite a grueling schedule with eight concerts on eight consecutive nights, the quintet obviously didn’t forget to set aside time for fun on the trip.

“We’re like family. It’s rare to have brass faculty that gets along as well as we do,” said Ulrich. “On these tours, it’s nonstop laughter, crying until our ribs hurt.”

The quintet is made up of those who have taught or are teaching at Western, including Travis Bennett on horn and Michael Schallock on tuba.

SMBQ is also a registered nonprofit that has helped raise money for the new library in Jackson County, for the local art council and for the Jackson County band program. It helped raise $14,500 for National Alzheimer’s Day in 2007.

On the China trip, the quintet was accompanied by Will Peebles, director of WCU’s School of Music, and China liaison Tang Cai.

Schallock said there was never a dull moment. “We just went with our eyes wide open from place to place and from person to person ... what we learned was enlightening and exciting.”

Cultural ambassadors

SMBQ’s international tours serve many purposes, but their chief function is to promote Western Carolina University to students and professors who may want to spend a semester or two in Cullowhee.

The idea for a tour came about after Ulrich was invited to perform in an international trumpet festival in St. Petersburg, Russia, about five years ago. Ulrich persuaded his bandmates to join him in performances abroad. It became a tradition, and the next international tour took them to the U.K.

As the quintet experiences the excitement (and exhaustion) of touring internationally, they promote cultural exchange.

SMBQ builds relationships with administrators, faculty and students at sister schools abroad. Those relationships help bring about an increase in the number of students who come to WCU or those who study abroad at sister schools in China.

Though many associate China with business and assume students who study abroad there are interested mostly in economics, Ulrich says art and culture are just as relevant.

“Music, art and dance — it’s all an extremely important part of the way they function and think,” said Ulrich. “You can’t neglect culture when you’re talking about economic development.”

Most of the concerts during the 14-day tour took place in packed halls at Western’s sister schools in China. Despite offering 300 to 500 seats, throngs of people still had to be turned away. SMBQ certainly didn’t spare any efforts to impress the crowd they had.

“We did not leave any performance without being soaked with sweat,” said Schallock. “We gave everything that we had.”

The five would often be swarmed by requests from concertgoers for photographs and autographs after the shows were through. Treated like rock stars, WCU’s resident brass quintet was surprised and amused to find their faces on cardboard cutouts or gigantic posters at the concert halls.

The quintet typically emphasizes pieces from Southern Appalachia and original compositions from WCU faculty, but they added a few Chinese songs to its repertoire, much to the audience’s approval.

“We couldn’t get through a piece, and they would be applauding wildly,” said Ulrich.

Ulrich says the Chinese viewed the visiting quintet’s performance of traditional folk songs as a sign of respect.

“We learned a lot about their culture doing it,” said Ulrich.

The quintet took the time to arrange the popular folk songs played on traditional Chinese instruments into pieces suitable for brass.

The musicians researched on YouTube and listened to CDs, but it wasn’t until they reached China that they got an authentic feel for the songs.

“We heard people singing and humming some of these tunes on the street,” said Schallock. “Folk players who would play traditional flutes in the park, we’d hear them playing these tunes.”

After visiting the Terracotta Warriors, the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and Chinese cities sometimes four times bigger than New York, SMBQ are once again back home in Western North Carolina.

Less than a week later, they were performing a Sunday concert in Clyde. Their eyes are already set on the next stop abroad: Germany.

Visit www.smbq.org for more information, photos and the infamous drunken shrimp video.

A parking study of downtown Sylva conducted by a Western Carolina University graduate student has gotten local merchants talking and left the town board facing a puzzle.

For years downtown merchants have complained that the lack of available parking for customers hurts their businesses. But the study concludes that the town’s some 600 existing places are enough.

Thaddeus Huff –– a graduate student in public administration in his last semester at WCU –– authored the study as his final research topic for his professor, Dr. Chris Cooper. Huff circulated 50 surveys to business owners in the Downtown Sylva Association asking five basic questions about their views on parking downtown. The responses showed that 65 percent of the business owners felt there wasn’t enough parking for customers, and 69 percent felt there wasn’t enough parking for employees in downtown.

In March, Huff followed up the survey with a study of the supply and demand of parking in each of the downtown’s eight blocks, counting the number of spaces and the occupancy rate in each block four different times of day on four separate days.

The findings were surprising. Only three blocks downtown in the areas of Mill and Main streets closest to their intersection routinely had more than 70 percent of their parking spaces utilized at a given time of day.

Huff’s summary of the survey reframed the discussion about parking in downtown Sylva as having more to do with how far people are willing to walk from available spaces to their destinations.

“Given that the supply, in this case, is not the problem, the issue seems to be the proximity to certain locations for drivers,” Huff concludes in the study. “The answer is not more parking spaces. Even with no access to private lots, an argument could be made there is plenty of parking to meet the demand given the time periods the counts were conducted in.”

But tell that to the merchants who get phone calls from customers in their cars asking if they can get curbside service because they’ve already circled past the store three times.

Sarella Jackson, an employee of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, testified to that as she walked out of Annie’s Bakery on Monday.

“Most of the time, parking is a problem. It’s relatively hard to find parking close to the building at lunch time,” Jackson said.

She said it is not uncommon for her to circle the block two or three times before she finds a spot.

Annie Ritota, who opened Annie’s Bakery eight years ago, winces when she hears customers complaining about parking.

“We do have a problem on this end of town,” Ritota said.

A parking solution discussed in the past is for the town to purchase or lease a vacant private lot on the prime stretch of Main Street, the former Dodge dealer lot owned by Sam Cogdill.

Ritota said she would support the town leasing or buying the lot, although she wasn’t 100 percent sure it would solve the problem. Instead, Ritota suggested limiting how long people could occupy a prime downtown spots.

“Obviously that lot would be very helpful,” Ritota said. “But I’ve always said maybe if we went back to paid parking so people could come and go, people wouldn’t stay all day.”

Huff has also taken planning courses, and he said from a planning perspective, the town would ideally put the empty car lot owned by Cogdill to some use because vacant lots in a downtown send the wrong message.

But both Mayor Maurice Moody and Commissioner Sarah Graham said they would have a hard time spending the town’s money on parking when it was facing a very tight budget this year.

“Right now we’re paying for a pedestrian plan and directional signage, and I’d like to see those play out before we commit to another expense in parking,” Graham said.

Sheryl Rudd, co-owner of Heinzelmannchen said Mill Street’s problem is almost certainly the result of too many merchants and their employees occupying the handful of prime on-street spots readily accessible to customers.

The result is infuriating for Rudd.

“We lose business,” she said.

Rudd attended the town board meeting where Huff presented his findings and said she appreciated the information but would like to have seen the results of a similar study conducted during the high part of the tourist season.

Rudd said she favors the idea of the town leasing the Cogdill lot and either the Downtown Sylva Association or merchants reimbursing the town for a particular number of designated spaces.

Huff, who lives in Asheville, said most of the studies he used as models dealt with bigger towns. But he still thinks Sylva’s free parking could be part of the problem.

“If you give out free pizza, there’s never enough pizza,” Huff said.

Huff recommended a number of measures that could alleviate some of the strain the merchants are feeling around parking. He advocates better signage to steer people to the town’s public lots. He also recommends a firm policy against employees parking in spots for customers, and reviewing the idea of metered parking on Main Street.

The issue of downtown employees taking up prime on-street spots in front of businesses has been a topic of heated discussion the past, and a number of downtown business owners agree that it is a starting point for the discussion.

Recently one downtown merchant anonymously left flyers on car windows that read, “Dear customers. I work downtown. I took your parking space and you, the customer, had to search for parking.”

Steve Dennis, owner of Hollifield Jewelers, also thinks employees parking on Main Street all day are a large part of the issue.

“The enforcement needs to be addressed in terms of people staying a long period of time,” Dennis said. “You don’t need to drive up and walk straight into your job.”

Mayor Moody said he needed to study the results of Huff’s project in more detail before he responded to it directly.

“I think we all need more time to look at it closely,” Moody said.

Huff agreed the same type of parking count he conducted should be repeated during the high tourist season and on a festival week, but he really believes the town has to look at the parking issue holistically and not a simple shortage of open parking spaces.

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