Tennessee Valley Authority officials have confirmed that its board of directors will make a decision on May 5 regarding the future of houseboats on all of its 49 lakes and reservoirs.
The tiny town of Fontana Dam is getting to keep its post office, but what’s not clear yet is whether the post office will be manned or not.
Fontana Dam was included 10 months ago in a list of 3,700 money-losing post offices slated for closure. The U.S. Postal Service is headed for $14 billion in losses this year. The agency recently opted not to close the post offices amid public outcry. Instead, the postal service is cutting hours and some services.
After two years of lawsuits and two mediations, Swain and Graham counties have finally agreed on where to draw the county line signifying their portions of the Fontana Dam.
Fontana Dam straddles the two counties. How much of the dam lies in each county determines how much they each get in property tax money from the Tennessee Valley Authority for the dam, its hydropower equipment and generators.
Previously, the two counties split the money 50-50. However, Graham County successfully argued in 2010 that it deserved more of the money since more of the dam lies on its side of the county line. Graham then sued Swain County for taxes going back decades that TVA had paid to Swain but rightfully belonged to Graham, estimated at $15 million. Swain filed a countersuit. Leaders from the two counties used mediation to eventually find a dividing line that suited them both.
Historically, the center of the Little Tennessee River was the boundary line between counties. But the river was covered up by Fontana Lake when the dam was built, and finding that center line now has proved elusive.
In a quest for resolution, surveyors were sent out to take a look at the area and discovered an old monument marking the center of the river on the dam, giving Swain County a watertight argument for where the county split should lie.
“We did not compromise beyond that marker. That marker establishes the exact center,” said Swain County Manager Kevin King.
Unfortunately for Swain County, however, it will recoup some, but not all, the tax money it has lost to Graham. With the new, or rather old, marker as the agreed on dividing line, Swain County will gain back about three-fourths of the funding it lost last year.
Under the disputed formula, Swain County lost more than $200,000 a year from its budget — a devastating blow that might have forced the county to raise taxes or increase fees. King estimated that the county will get back about $150,000 of that.
“We are better now than we were six months ago, but we’re worst now than we were two years ago,” said Commissioner Donnie Dixon.
Commissioners in both counties have signed a joint agreement that they will forward on to the General Assembly for approval. The state legislature’s rubberstamp is a mere formality however since the counties are in agreeance.
“We’re hoping that everything is going to work out and (want to) re-establish the relationship we’ve had with Graham County,” said Commissioner David Monteith. “We need to work together on everything.”
Overall, the county commissioners were happy that an accord was reached and will avoid the county having to either hike taxes or make major budget cuts.
“We were looking at different ways to fill the gaps in the budget,” King said. “We’d have to come up with that revenue somehow.”
The town of Fontana Dam can still send and receive mail via its own post office — at least for now.
The U.S. Postal Service decided to delay closing or merging scores of post offices nationwide following protests from lawmakers such as U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville. Legislators wanted the process slowed so that Congress can first debate possible methods of fixing the money-troubled U.S. Postal Service.
The shutdowns were slated to begin early this year.
This postponement comes as great news to residents of North Carolina's newest town, Fontana Dam — population 33 — a rural outpost in the wilds of Graham County near the Tennessee line.
"I think it is really important we have a post office," said Darlene Waycaster, who doesn't actually live within the town's limits but is an employee of the town's sole employer, Fontana Village Resort. "We do so much mail through here, and we have so many Appalachian Trail hikers coming through, too."
Fontana Village Resort boasts 140 employees during warmer times of the years, and more than 100,000 visitors annually make their way to this remote spot. The Village's seasonal workers rely on post office boxes as the only means to get their mail. The demand is so high that some years the Fontana post office has run out of post office boxes.
Equally reliant on the post office in Fontana Dam are the legions of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who stop to pickup supplies as they traverse the famous footpath, which spans from Georgia to Maine. Many AT hikers, before leaving on their treks, mail themselves food and camping items to various drop points along the trail. Fontana Dam is the last re-supply point before hikers hit a tough stretch of the Smokies.
That information seemed to make an impression on U.S. Postal workers, said Fontana Dam town board member Craig Litz. Driving the curvy road to this far-flung outpost, some 45 miles roundtrip from the next nearest post office, probably made some sort of an impression, too, he acknowledged. The Postal Service actually came to Fontana Dam to hear concerns.
Litz had praise for the postal workers and U.S. Rep. Shuler. He said both parties seemed genuinely interested in hearing and understanding the situation faced by Fontana Dam's residents, workers, visitors and hikers should the post office close.
"It was definitely not just for show," Litz said. "They definitely heard us."
That said, the U.S. Postal Service is teetering into bankruptcy and is forecasted to lose a record $14.1 billion this year alone.
The mail-carrier service has plans to cut $20 billion in costs by 2015. Doing so, however, is contingent on closing more than 3,700 post offices and about 250 mail-processing facilities, including one in Asheville that serves this region. Mail processing for Western North Carolina would be consolidated into a facility in Greenville, S.C.
The Postal Service also wants to end Saturday mail deliveries, slow the delivery of first-class mail and change labor union contracts to cut up to 120,000 jobs.
Nothing will happen now, at least regarding the post office and mail-processing facilities, until May 15 at the earliest. Since northbound Appalachian Trail hikers pass through Fontana in April and early May, they can continue to use the post office for their supply drops this year. Reviews of the situation and various postal offices will continue, though.
"Given the Postal Service's financial situation and the loss of mail volume, the Postal Service must continue to take all steps necessary to reduce costs and increase revenue," USPS said in a recent statement.
But even a reprieve is helpful, Fontana Dam's first-ever official mayor, Tim Gamble, said — and not just because everyone who is associated with the town would like to have a place to send and receive mail. But, also, because of the historic importance of the post office to the Fontana area: Fontana Village Resort is one pillar supporting this community, and the post office serves as the other one.
Both pillars, town leaders and community members said, are vital.
The U.S. Postal Service wants to close Fontana Dam’s tiny post office to save money, a downsizing move critics say would further isolate the small community.
This far-flung outpost in Graham County is frequented by tourists, and serves as a vital waypoint for thousands of hikers on the Appalachian Trail.
Despite the region’s remote location, it turns into a bustling place in the summer with throngs of tourists coming to Fontana Village Resort — as well as an influx of seasonal workers topping more than 140. Those seasonal workers rely on post office boxes to get their mail, with so much demand some years the Fontana post office has run out of post office boxes.
Residents also rely on the post office boxes, according to Craig Litz, an employee at Fontana Village Resort.
“You have a significant number of people who live in the village,” Litz said. “Their round trip to the next closest post office is 45 miles.”
And it will hurt the resort as well, he said.
“From a business standpoint we have tons of guests at Fontana Village resort who forget stuff that we have to mail back to them,” Litz said. That would now require a trek to town every time grandma left or glass or junior left this favorite stuffed animal behind after their stay.
The next closest post office is in Robbinsville or the Nantahala Gorge, a 45-mile trip respectively. Factor in the slow speeds required on the curvy, twisty roads, and a trip to the post office would require a two-hour investment.
The community, just this year, become a bonafide town. The new town is home to only 33 fulltime residents, but that population number is deceptive: about 100,000 people a year visit the resort.
The Fontana post office is perhaps most critical, however, to hikers along the Appalachian Trail.
The long-distance hiker traversing the 2,200-mile trail from Georgia to Maine mail themselves care packages, as do friends and family, full of needed supplies.
“Everything from food to extra socks,” Litz said.
The Fontana post office is a key drop point for these care packages.
“In the spring time, we have a room dedicated just to stuff from the hikers,” Litz said. That’s when thru-hikers doing the entire trail are coming through in waves of 30 a day.
Hikers also use the post office to send unneeded equipment back home, such as winter jackets they started the trail with but no longer need. Fontana Dam is just 1.8 miles from the trail.
“It’s very important — Fontana is part of the long-distance hiking experience, and part of the logistics of resupply,” said Laurie Potteiger, an AT thru-hike veteran and information services manager for the Appalachian Trail Conference, headquartered in Harpers Ferry, W. Va.
Fontana Dam is the first post office hikers hit after starting the trail in Georgia, once any distance under way, that’s in such close proximity to the trail.
The proposed closure is part of a broader cost savings measures by the U.S. Post Office. Last week the postal service announced it would study whether to close nearly 3,700 local offices and branches because of falling revenues. Facing an $8.3 billion budget deficit this year, closing post offices is one of several proposals the Postal Service has recently considered to cut costs, and one of three that are drop points for Appalachian Trail hikers.
Fontana’s leaders are fighting the proposed closure. They have appealed to U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, for help.
Shuler hopes to stop the closure, spokesman Andrew Whalen said this week.
“We are doing our best to ensure it stays open,” Whalen said Tuesday. “We’re drafting a formal appeal to the U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission.”
It doesn’t take long to survey North Carolina’s newest town; perhaps five minutes, tops.
There’s the swanky Fontana Village Resort, the community’s sole employer. Just down the road are an ice cream shop, laundromat, post office and gasoline station. There’s a combined general store and outfitter where tourists can purchase their T-shirts, ballcaps, refrigerator magnets, beer and that Smokies gift-shop standard, the iconic black-bear figurine.
That’s pretty much it.
Fontana Dam, despite officially encompassing 250 acres, isn’t even a one-stoplight town — it’s actually a town of stop signs, a blip of urbanity within a huge swath of federally held forestlands.
The General Assembly earlier this month agreed Fontana Dam could incorporate.
This is a company town in every sense of the word. It existed initially to accommodate the workers and their families who helped build Fontana Dam during World War II; and later, to serve Fontana Village Resort and the 100,000 visitors who make their way each year to this remote spot.
“We are a half an hour from any other group of people,” said Theresa Broderick, breaking briefly from greeting and checking in new arrivals at the front desk of Fontana Village Resort to chat. “If you don’t like your neighbors, you’re in trouble.”
During the warm months, about 140 people work at Fontana Village Resort. Come winter, however, the staff drops to a core 45 or so. Officially, just 33 fulltime residents call the new town of Fontana Dam home, including Broderick.
It took community unity and a concerted push to get the incorporation approved by the General Assembly. That vote followed literally years of efforts, said Mack Tallent, a lawyer in nearby Robbinsville who has been handling the town’s legal matters.
Tallent believes Fontana Dam’s unusual circumstances — being on federal Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) lands — gave legislators pause.
Unusual it might be, but the situation is not unheard of: Tallent pointed out that there are military bases in the eastern part of North Carolina where municipalities can be found, like Fontana Dam, situated on federal-land holdings.
Craig Litz, one of the town’s newly appointed interim council members, said the option for Fontana Dam to be a township was contained in original land leases with TVA. It just took this many years to actually make that happen.
This is not about opening the door to selling legalized alcoholic beverages, Litz emphasized. People can already buy beer and such through Fontana Village Resort, if they want to, though Graham County itself is dry.
Fontana Village Resort has supported the incorporation efforts, including offering the use of its events hall both for town council meetings and an election polling site in the fall.
The attorney said that sometime this week, Fontana Dam would have its first town council meeting. The interim board will be sworn in, a town clerk hired and an attorney officially appointed — probably Tallent, though he was careful to emphasize the town can hire anyone it pleases. His firm, McKinney & Tallent, already represents Graham County’s other two municipalities, bringing a certain level of municipal legal expertise difficult to find elsewhere in a county of fewer than 8,000 people.
It’s fun, the 44-year-old attorney openly acknowledged, to help create a town from scratch. After all, how many people ever experience such a thing?
Though, interestingly, Graham County had another town form within the past couple decades.
Robbinsville was incorporated in 1893. It was joined by the Town of Santeetlah, which incorporated in early 1989 after a developer more or less abandoned the infrastructure of what was then called Thunderbird Mountain.
State grants and assessments on the properties allowed Santeetlah to build a water system; roads were also repaved. A volunteer fire department and community center were built, and a decade later, in 1998, a town hall in Santeetlah was dedicated.
Fontana Dam hopes to follow suit. In November, the new town will hold its first election. But Fontana Dam “needs to be up and running” by then, Attorney Tallent said.
That means creating a budget from scratch. And it means sorting out what Fontana Dam will get in tax payments from Fontana Village Resort. That’s just one of the many issues facing this new town, Tallent said.
Interim Mayor Tammie Dees had just come off working the third shift at Fontana Village Resort. She was clearly tired, but still excited to be talking to a reporter about her new town.
Dees’ accent tags her as having growing up in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Turned out she was raised not too far away, on Cochrans Creek in Graham County. As a child, Dees and her family used to travel over to Fontana Dam to see movies. There was a theater in the community in those days.
She takes her new duties seriously.
Residents of the community, Dees said, “have put faith in me to try to get the town off the ground.” She isn’t sure whether she’ll actually run for election in November, but Dees clearly plans to put her heart and energies into Fontana Dam until then, regardless of future political decisions.
Dees said Fontana Dam plans to hire a town manager and clerk; long-term, residents want municipal fire and rescue services and police. Town residents also want Fontana Dam to oversee municipal infrastructure that’s already in place: a sewage and wastewater plant, disposal system, a water treatment plant, solid waste pick up and disposal, paved roads and electrical systems.
That is actually more than many small towns in WNC can offer. Dillsboro has a part-time employee — Webster, none.
Being officially incorporated should allow Fontana Dam to tap state funding these other municipalities take for granted.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Dees said. “We’ve been operating as a town since the 1940s — I think it is about time.”