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Jackson County commissioners say it’s high time Cashiers gets its due: an $8 million recreation center as pay back for the disproportional share of property taxes carried by the affluent homeowners there.
Blueprints for a Cashiers recreation center have been ready to roll since 2006. Five years later, the long-promised but yet-to-be delivered recreation center has become a symbol of discontent for Cashiers residents. Cashiers residents frequently claim they are neglected for the off-the-plateau county seat of Sylva and the communities surrounding it.
“They deserve a lot more than they have gotten in the past,” said Charles Elders, a newly elected Jackson County commissioner. “They feel like they have been neglected quite a bit.”
Elders said the recreation center has floundered on the “back burner” but that is about to change.
“I feel it was time to get serious about it and get busy with it,” Elders said.
The county has spent $3 million over the past five years getting the site ready, including water, sewer and grading. All that’s lacking now is construction, estimated at $5 million.
County Chairman Jack Debnam, also a newcome to the board, said it seemed like the county had lost momentum on the project.
“After this site preparation stuff, the building sort of vanished,” Debnam said. “I am not sure what happened and how we got to where we are at.”
Debnam, like Elders, cited the taxes paid by Cashiers and Glenville residents — a product of the higher-priced homes and lots in those communities — as justifying the expense.
“If anything happens as far as any kind of building project, I would like to see that be one of the projects we do,” Debnam said. “It is a project that has been promised evidently for years and other things have always pushed it back.”
But Debnam said other outlying areas of the county — such as Qualla for example — also deserve more.
“People in Jackson County stay so close to their communities they don’t understand the wants and needs of the other communities is what I have found,” Debnam said.
A long and twisted road
Progress on the recreation center was stymied at several turns by a web of environmental permits. Site work hit one setback after another as the county learned of yet another regulatory hoop that had to be jumped through. There were also water and sewer lines to run, and an entrance road to build.
“Progress has been slowly plugging along but nobody has seen a building go vertical,” said Commissioner Mark Jones, who lives in Cashiers.
Trying to explain why it has taken so long has been a “nightmare,” Jones said.
“I would tell people we are going to build it and they would say, ‘Oh yeaaahhhh, suuurrre,’” Jones said.
The site lies in the headwaters of the protected Chattooga River, and thus required stricter-than-usual environmental requirements. The county had to navigate a maze of permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, the N.C. Wildlife Commission, the N.C. Division of Water Quality and the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System
At each step, costs ballooned skyward.
“We had to spend a phenomenal amount of money to meet the environmental requirements and permits,” Jones said.
The county ponied up an additional $900,000 for site work between 2006 and 2008 to comply with tougher standards on everything from wetlands to stormwater runoff. Even bringing water and sewer to the site cost more than expected.
Cost overruns did influence the project’s timeline, Jones said.
“As we were spending the extra money, we saw more and more go to site prep and less and less left for the building,” Jones said.
County Manager Chuck Wooten, who just came on board in January, said it is unlikely the former board of commissioners would have kept spending on site work if they didn’t plan to follow through with the project somewhere down the road. In 2007, commissioners took out a $2.7 million loan to cover the site work.
But the drawn-out process and lack of actual construction work left many thinking the project was never going to be completed.
“I do think the folks up there in Cashiers are confused as to why it hadn’t been taken care of,” Wooten said.
Jones said the former board of commissioners were always committed to the project — at least the majority of them were.
Former commissioner Tom Massie said publicly — during a candidate’s forum held in Cashiers no less — that he thought it was unwise to spend the money at this time given the uncertain economic conditions and school funding shortfalls that could lead to layoffs of teachers. Jones said Massie’s honesty in a roomful of Cashiers voters on the eve of the election was admirable, at least.
At the same forum, the three newly elected commissioners pledged support for the recreation center.
Making good on their promise, they asked Wooten to bring them a status report on the project and what it would take to jump start it.
The architect, Dan Duckham of Cashiers, told Wooten plans could be ready to go to bid within two months. The cost estimate stands at $5 million.
Wooten hopes it might not be that much. Builders are hungry for work given the depressed construction market, he said.
“It is a great climate for bidding,” Wooten said.
The county has enough in reserves to pay for construction without borrowing.
Jones said the county once intended to take out a loan for construction but were waiting until this year, Jones said. The county this year will finish making loan payments on the Fairview and Scotts Creek schools, freeing up the county’s debt load.
Wooten instead has recommended tapping the county’s plentiful savings, which stands at roughly $20 million. Commissioners have informally agreed.
The county built up its reserves over the past decade, growing the fund balance by $10 million in the last 11 years, Jones said.
“They were very wise in socking away a considerable amount of money,” Jones said. “You have to give credit to the former county manager and boards of commissioners.”
The recreation center will cost another $330,000 annually for staff, overhead and maintenance, Wooten estimated. Part of that would be offset by memberships.
Jones said the Cashiers recreation center will provide economic stimulus in Cashiers, both creating jobs and spurring investment. People who have bought lots but not yet built their retirement home may now decide to do so thanks to the coming amenity.
Want to go?
Jackson County commissioners will hold a work session to discuss the Cashiers Recreation Center, including a chat with the architect, at 1:30 p.m. Friday, June 3, at the Cashiers library.