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.
Swain County is permanently etching its history in stone.
In the next couple of months, the first of about 60 black marble panels will be installed along the wall outside the county government building and courthouse in downtown Bryson City. The panels will detail important points in Swain County’s history and also list the names of its veterans from various wars and conflicts.
Swain County’s uphill battle to get the federal government to make good on its promise of a $52 million cash settlement may have just gotten tougher.
The federal government is supposed to pay Swain County $4 million a year over the next decade — a deal intended to finally compensate the county for a road that was flooded when Fontana Lake was built in the 1940s. But after an initial down payment of $12.8 million in 2010, Swain hasn’t seen a penny since.
And now, with the federal budget process barely out of the starting gate for 2013, Swain is already starting from behind. Its promised $4 million was left out of President Obama’s budget for next year.
Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, said he is baffled at how or why the $4 million cash settlement appropriation was left of out of the Presidential budget, pledging to press the White House until resolved.
“White House officials acknowledge that the omission of North Shore Road funding in the 2013 budget is problematic and have pledged to work with us to deliver the funding as promised,” Shuler said in a statement.
Shuler has twice gotten the annual $4 million payment appropriated for Swain County as part of the National Park Service budget — but both times it failed to actually reach Swain County. In 2011, the payment was rescinded after being caught up in an across-the-board clamp down on earmarks. So far in 2012, the National Park Service is refusing to release it, citing bureaucratic procedures that it wants followed.
For 2013, the payment could still make it in Congress’ budget even though it didn’t show up in the president’s. The president’s office has signed on in theory to support the funding even though it was somehow left out of its own budget document.
“I have been working closely with the administration to resolve this issue swiftly as well as release the $4 million in already-appropriated fiscal year 2012 funding currently sitting in the National Park Service’s account,” Shuler said.
But, Shuler is a lame duck now, having announced his retirement at the end of this year.
Shuler was perhaps one of the best advocates for the cash settlement Swain could hope for — at least in his willingness to expend political capital trying to land the appropriations each year. Growing up in Swain County, Shuler was unavoidably immersed in the raging battle over the road that hung over the county like a black cloud for so many decades.
Now, it will be up to his predecessor to carry the torch for Swain or not.
The Democrat running for Shuler’s seat, Hayden Rogers, said he supports the cash settlement and would fight for the annual appropriations as Shuler has.
“If elected, I will work to ensure that the remaining funding owed to Swain County is delivered as promised,” Rogers said in a written statement.
Rogers, who grew up in neighboring Graham County, served for six years as Shuler’s chief of staff, and is likely well versed in the political maneuvering behind the cash settlement appropriations.
The leading Republican candidate for Shuler’s seat, Mark Meadows, said it is a sad state of affairs indeed.
“We have an obligation we agreed to many, many, many years ago that wasn’t fulfilled and so we did another agreement and now we are not fulfilling that. At some point, we have to be good to our word,” Meadows said.
But, Meadows questioned how genuine it was for Shuler to lead Swain County to believe that he could land these appropriations each year in the first place.
“A current Congress can’t really obligate a future Congress to appropriations and therein lies the problem with the agreement,” Meadows said.
Meadows said it is unfortunate the cash settlement has fallen victim to the earmark ban, even though in principle the ban on earmarks was necessary to rein in federal spending and pork. But, it begs the question how Rogers plans to carry the torch.
“For Hayden (Rogers) to say he is going to continue to fight for that when we have an earmark ban, that is problematic,” Meadows said. “It is like saying ‘I’ll do my very best.’”
Meadows said Rogers, as Shuler’s right hand man, had his chance and didn’t perform. At this point, a strategy of meting out annual line item appropriations will continue to be difficult. A better strategy may be to get a larger, one-time budget allocation.
Meadows still faces a special primary election run-off July 17 against fellow Republican Vance Patterson to decide who will ultimately advance to face Rogers in November.
Shuler and Swain County leaders hold out hope they can convince the National Park Service to release the $4 million that was appropriated in 2012 budget. Specifically, it was included in the National Park Service’s construction budget, a total of some $159 million.
But, the park service claims it needs specific authorization — special language spelling out that $4 million should be handed over to Swain County.
When it comes to the rest of the $154 million construction budget, the passage of the appropriations bill itself counts as authorization, according to Jeffrey Olson, a spokesperson for the park service in D.C.
But as for the $4 million cash settlement contained in that same construction budget, simply passing the appropriations bill doesn’t cut it, Olson said. For that one particular line item out of everything else in the $159 million construction budget, the park service wants special language passed by Congress saying they really meant for the money to be spent that way.
“As I see it this as a problem with Washington, D.C.,” Meadows said. “You have money both people acknowledge was probably put in there for Swain County, and now we can’t release it because it doesn’t have the proper authorization.”
The fate of the $4 million at this point isn’t clear. The park service can’t spend it on anything else. If the money isn’t turned over to Swain County, the park service would give it back unspent to the federal government’s treasury.
Meanwhile, those who never stopped fighting for the road — and were opposed to the idea of a cash settlement in lieu of building it — have been quick to chime in with an “I told you so.”
“I never thought we would get the money to start with,” said David Monteith, a Swain County commissioner who was for the road and against the cash settlement.
Monteith believes the cash settlement was a sell out. He wanted to keep fighting for the road, hoping that eventually one day it would get built. By signing the cash settlement, the county gave up its claim to the road in exchange for cash — but it is contingent on the federal budget process and comes with no guarantee.
“It’s ‘if and when’ they want to release the money. That’s pure stupid,” Monteith said.
Of course, there was a similar caveat in the original agreement by the federal government promising to rebuild the road it had flooded. The government promised to rebuild the road “if and when” Congress appropriated the money to do so. The nation was in the throes of WWII, so it seemed reasonable to give a war-embroiled nation a little wiggle room on building back a flooded road in remote Appalachia. Seventy years was obviously more wiggle room than the people of Swain County expected, however.
The latest double-cross by the National Park Service is par for the course, according to Mike Clampitt, a Swain County resident who also sided with the “build the road” camp.
“Again we have an empty broken promise to the people of Swain County by the federal government,” Clampitt said. “I am not surprised that there are these complications getting the money to the people of Swain County because of quote ‘red tape.’ It is insult to injury.”
Swain County leaders have been hoping Shuler could fix the hang up with the National Park Service. So far, they’ve not waded into the bureaucratic quagmire to demand that NPS release the money and instead let Shuler do the heavy lifting. Clampitt said they should be more proactive at this point.
Swain County’s Department of Social Services has started cracking down on welfare fraud after seeing a rise in violations.
“We have found that welfare fraud is on the rise,” reported Melissa Adams, a fraud caseworker, who spoke to the Swain County Board of Commissioners last week.
Since March 2011, Swain County DSS has helped prosecute eight cases of welfare fraud, each ranging from $4,500 to more than $24,000 in claims. It is currently conducting 238 investigations into alleged fraud. It is unknown how much money that translates to.
“Our agency has been working diligently in prosecuting welfare fraud,” Adams said.
Most investigations begin with a phone call from a concerned citizen or another agency. Since Jan. 1, the county has received 54 calls about possible fraud and initiated 15 investigations on its own after red flags were raised during the application process.
“We rely heavily on the reports we receive,” said Janet Jones, the chief fraud investigator with Swain County DSS.
Social service agents cited the economy as a likely reason for increase in fraud.
“Truthfully, it is probably the economy. People are struggling and looking for a way to survive,” Jones said. Jones has also started working on fraud cases full-time, allowing her to investigate a claim further to determine if it was a case of intentional fraud.
Sharon Blazer, Haywood County social services’ chief fraud investigator, agreed.
“I think, with the economy and everything, it is on the rise,” Blazer said. “I don’t think it ever stops; I think it just gets worse.”
The number of calls that Haywood County receives regarding welfare fraud varies from month to month. Some of the complaints can be difficult to verify.
Prosecuting welfare fraud can be difficult if the county cannot prove that someone intentionally deceived the system. Either they claim that they don’t have a job or are double dipping into the federal welfare coffers. Some things, like the number of people who live in the home, are hard to substantiate.
“There is not a way for use to actually verify that,” Blazer said.
However, if a discrepancy is found no matter whether it’s intentional, inadvertent or an error made by the department of social services, the person receiving benefits is required to repay the money that they were not supposed to get.
The state of North Carolina has seen an increase in fraud overall as well. As of April 2012, the departments of social services were investigating almost 780,000 active cases.
From October 2011 to March 2012, departments in North Carolina have received more than 11,000 referrals about possible fraud. The claims are equal to about $7.1 million — a more than $1 million increase compared to the same time last year.
Although welfare fraud has been around for as long as welfare programs have existed, people are taking it to a different level to get by, according to DSS investigators.
“Now, it is going a little further,” said Pam Hooper, an investigator with Jackson County’s DSS. “It’s got everything to do with the economy, I’m sure.”
Jackson County saw its highest number of cases, investigating nearly 350, during fiscal year 2010. That number declined to 116 cases the next year, but Hooper said it is a result of policy changes. Welfare programs no longer take into account facts like how much money a person has tucked away in savings or whether they just bought a new car.
“Change in policy has made a big difference,” Hooper said.
In Swain County, Jones said, a new car purchase still sets off red flags and prompts DSS officials to look into that person.
Unlike its neighboring county, the number of cases investigated in Macon has stayed about the same, according to its DSS.
The county is currently investigating 68 cases, equal to more than $45,000 in claims.
“It’s like déjà vu all over again,” quipped the legendary Yogi Berra after watching Yankee greats Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit back-to-back homers so often it became almost commonplace.
That’s the sentiment many in Swain County are feeling after the most recent twist in the long and tortuous North Shore Road battle. Another broken promise, like déjà vu all over again. But for those who have been involved in this fight, there is nothing funny about the federal government holding up payments it promised to residents in lieu of rebuilding the road. In fact, it’s imperative that this current impasse get settled, and quickly.
The North Shore Road saga is littered with bruised feelings and broken agreements. The $52 million cash settlement was agreed to in a 2010 memorandum of understanding that was signed at Swain County High School in a ceremony attended by 200 people. The payments were intended to resolve the decades-old dispute between Swain County and the federal government over a road flooded during the construction of Fontana Lake back in the 1940s. The government at that time promised to rebuild the road but never did.
But it wasn’t just the broken promise to build the road that has contributed to the emotional turmoil suffered by many in Swain County. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, senators and congressmen from North Carolina lined up on different sides of the issues, cajoling presidents and cabinet secretaries to either build the road or compensate Swain citizens for their loss. Many visited the area, promising to do what they could in Washington. It has been a decades-long seesaw, with momentum swinging wildly with the political winds.
Through all of this, it has been Swain County residents who suffered. Families have been divided and friendships strained. That’s why the 2010 memorandum of understanding was so important, because no matter what side of the issue one believed in — build the road or provide just compensation — there was finally an end in sight.
Now federal bureaucrats, hopefully just temporarily, are foiling that agreement. The short description of the current imbroglio goes something like this: an initial $12. 8 million payment was made in 2010. The 2011 payment of $4 million was lost to budget cutting. This year’s $4 million was included in the Park Service’s budget, but because there was not line-item description in the budget directing NPS bureaucrats to send the money to Swain, it can’t be released, they say.
We’ll call bull on that. The agreement has been signed, and Park Service bureaucrats should not be able to hold up payment on what is owed to Swain County. If Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville — who happens to be a Swain County native — can’t get this fixed pretty quick, then we’ll have to agree with those who have long insisted the feds had no intention of holding up their end of this deal. We hope the naysayers are mistaken.
Recordings made some seven decades ago of nearly 60 men and women who lived in what became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park soon will be made publicly available online.
In 1939, a young graduate student by the name of Joseph Sargent Hall traveled through the region’s coves and hollows with an audio recorder powered off his pick-up truck battery, capturing tales of bear hunts, lessons on herbal remedies and authentic mountain tunes. He spent eight months recording the experiences of older residents and the music of young aspiring musicians. Of the 60 interviews, 17 were from Swain County and 16 were from Haywood County.
One of the mountaineers recorded by Hall was the famous Steve Woody of Cataloochee Valley, who was 86 at the time.
“That’s not me; that’s my grandfather,” Steve Woody the younger said with a laugh. “I can remember him.”
Woody owns a tape rendition of the 1939 recording Hall made of his grandfather. It is a story about a bear hunt, Woody said, and there’s also a photograph in the family album of the actual interview taking place, too.
Woody thinks it’s terrific that the old recordings soon will be made easily available.
“It’s a good thing,” he said. “I think people need to know the history of these mountains.”
When the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created, hundreds of people living in remote Appalachian settlements were forced to move. Hall’s recordings were made just as this was happening, capturing a moment in time and way of life that was coming to an end. Woody’s grandfather was the last person to move out of Cataloochee Valley after the park was created.
The City University of New York will host the non-commercial website where the recordings will be made publicly accessible. A release date hasn’t been set — the project’s members are trying to ensure that living descendants of those recorded are given notice first that the recordings are being made public.
Michael Montgomery, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of South Carolina and a member of the project team, said that the digitized recordings are being made from tape recordings that were, in turn, made in the 1980s from the original recordings.
“They are actually quite clear for recordings made more than 70 years ago,” Montgomery said, adding that the original discs are held in safekeeping in the Library of Congress.
Copies of the recordings are currently available for people to listen to if, that is, they are willing to drive several hours into Tennessee to the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University.
Using Civilian Conservation Corps camps for home base, Hall ventured throughout the area to record. For this work, Hall used two recorders, one that produced aluminum discs and was operated by cables hooked to a pick-up truck battery and another that made acetate discs and ran on a portable battery pack.
Montgomery said that Hall became close friends with many of the men working in the CCC camps and returned to visit them for many years after the first recordings were made. Hall died in 1992.
Luke Hyde of Bryson City, who had family members who once lived where the park was subsequently created, said he believes it will be helpful to families such as his and for park history buffs in general to have the recordings easily available via a website. In addition to the recordings, searchable texts also will be online.
“I like the general concept,” Hyde said, adding that he is well familiar with the important work done by Hall to record the people of the Smokies.
“He was fascinated by a lot of things, and he listened to people,” Hyde said. “He was one of the chroniclers of the mountain people.”
Montgomery said Hall’s interest in making this set of recordings was to record dialect. That meant he didn’t care so much what people said as long as they said something — so what’s on the recordings are such things as “women talking about herbal remedies and fellows talking about bear hunting,” Montgomery said.
Hall himself wrote about his work that, “the topics of the recordings were anything the informant wished to talk about. Men talked about their farm, their crops, their cattle, and hunting. Women liked to tell recipes or talk about their interest in weaving and quilting and the like.”
Hall also recorded the music of the day. Young musicians played country and swing and other tunes they were hearing on the radio.
“Joseph Hall recorded anything people wanted to play,” Montgomery said.
In 2010, the Great Smoky Mountains Association released “Old Time Smoky Mountain Music,” a CD with 34 of the musical selections recorded by Hall.
Montgomery said that one of Hall’s most admirable traits was his determination to stay in the background and not overshadow the men and women that he was recording.
“He thought that was the best way to counter stereotypes. He wanted mountain people to use their own voices,” Montgomery said. “His approach really was to avoid general statements and to let mountain people speak for themselves.”
Not everyone is certain the release of the recordings is a good idea.
Harley Caldwell, 75, was the last person born in Cataloochee Valley before the park was formed. He’s concerned about the privacy rights of the people who were recorded, about whether they realized that one day their stories and tales would be released publicly.
Caldwell, in fact, is involved in a similar project to Montgomery’s. The Cataloochee Oral History Project teamed with Western Carolina University to record and videotape 33 living descendents from Cataloochee. A DVD is set for release in early 2013.
“It’s a bigger project than I wanted to tackle, but I tackled it anyway,” Caldwell said.
WCU provided the equipment and is editing the interviews and preparing the DVD. Caldwell facilitated the project by rounding up the Cataloochee descendents. Caldwell said, perhaps echoing what Hall also found, that he was most surprised by “the willingness of people to talk about their past.”
One of those men interviewed was age 99, Caldwell said, adding that the man remembered historic events as if they’d occurred yesterday.
“It was the most interesting thing I’ve ever done in my life, and I’ve done a lot of exciting things,” Caldwell said of the oral history project.
One thing Caldwell and his team were careful to do was obtain signed releases from those interviewed — and he worries that, in contrast, Hall’s subjects were never cautioned that one day their voices would be heard again.
• Mack Caldwell, 53, Mount Sterling.
• Mack Hannah, 81, Little Cataloochee.
• Mrs. Mack (Fannie) Hannah, 73, Little Cataloochee.
• Millard Hill, 27, Saunook.
• Mark Mehaffey, Maggie.
• Bill Moore, 21, Saunook.
• Howard Moore, Saunook.
• Manuel Moore, Saunook.
• Mrs. George Palmer, 65, Cataloochee.
• Will Palmer, Cataloochee.
• Mrs. Will Palmer, 69, Cataloochee.
• Herbert Stephenson, 25, Saunook.
• Eugene Sutton, 43, Cataloochee Creek.
• Jake Sutton, 63, Cataloochee.
• Jim Sutton, 70, Cataloochee.
• Steve Woody, 86, Cataloochee.
• Mrs. Bill Brown, Towstring Creek.
• Dan Cable, 73, Cable Branch, Proctor.
• Aden Carver, 91, Bradley Fork, Smokemont.
• Mark Cathey, 54, Deep Creek.
• D. F. Conner, 84, Oconaluftee.
• Bert Crisp, 47, Towstring Creek.
• Zeb Crisp, 64, Hazel Creek.
• Grover Gilley, Bryson City.
• Gladys Hoyle.
• Frank Lambert, 40, Towstring Creek, Smokemont.
• Grady Mathis, 50, Smokemont.
• Al Morris, 67, Kirklands Creek.
• Rebecca Queen, 70, Cherokee.
• Docia Styles, 66, Indian Creek.
• Zilphie Sutton, 70, Chestnut Branch.
• Jake Welch, 79, Ryan Branch, Hazel Creek.
• Fate Wiggins, 79, Deep Creek.
• Mary Wiggins, Deep Creek.
A series of oral interviews with the people of Western North Carolina are now available online through Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library.
“Stories of Mountain Folk” is the first all-sound collection released by Hunter Library. The collection’s interviews cover traditions, events and life stories of regional individuals including gardeners, herbalists, farmers, musicians, artists and writers. The archive is searchable by name, place and topic.
The interviews were produced by Catch the Spirit of Appalachia, a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 by the sisters Amy Ammons Garza, an Appalachian storyteller, and Doreyl Ammons Cain, a visual artist, with the mission of preserving local memory. In September 2008, Catch the Spirit of Appalachia began “Stories of Mountain Folk” as a half-hour radio show.
Catch the Spirit of Appalachia teamed up with Hunter Library to preserve the recorded material. The online archive holds approximately half of the roughly 200 existing radio programs, with Hunter Library staff continuing to upload the backlog.
“The university has provided expertise to preserve the content, which is very different from academic creation of new intellectual content. This content was created in the community, and the library is providing a service in preserving the material,” said Anna Fariello, an associate professor in Hunter Library’s Digital Programs.
For her part, Garza is thrilled with the arrangement.
“I cannot tell you how my heart leapt when this agreement was signed,” she said. “Saving the voices of the mountain folk has been a longtime goal of Catch the Spirit of Appalachia, for listening to the mountain folk as they tell their own personal stories evokes evidence of an unmistakable wisdom and sense of place.”
The collection can be found at www.wcu.edu/library/digitalcollections/storiesofmountainfolk.
While Swain County fights to secure the rest of the $52 million cash settlement its owed by the federal government for the North Shore Road, the $12.8 million already in the bank is generating hundreds of thousands in interest every year.
Since the initial payment of $12.8 million to Swain County in 2010, it has made nearly $1.5 million in interest.
The cash settlement money is held in a trust fund managed by the N.C. Treasury Department. Every year, the state remits a portion of the accumulated interest to the county. The principle itself is safeguarded, and can only be tapped if two-thirds of Swain’s registered voters agree to do so in a special vote, per the terms of the trust fund.
So far, Swain has gotten $150,000 of the interest generated on the account. Even though the actual interest earned on the fund is much higher, some has been reserved as a cushion, intended to safeguard the principle $12.8 million.
Should interest rates take a dive, or even post a lost, the cushion that has been held back should prevent an erosion of that principle sum from dipping below the $12.8 million.
The fund currently stands at just over $14 million, according to the state treasurer’s office. Now that a sizeable cushion has been built up, Swain can expect to see more interest flowing to it each year and less held back. This year, the county could expect as much as $500,000.
How to spend the money is ultimately up to the county commissioners. The current board of commissioners don’t want to merely dump the money into the county’s general budget, but instead want to see it go toward special projects, so the public can see the good the money is doing, according to County Manager Kevin King.
“They didn’t want to see any of the money going to the operational budget because it gets lost in the shuffle,” King said. “We want to be able to identify every penny that goes to every project.”
Likewise, the commissioners are hesitant to use the money for a big-ticket item, like a new school. Dedicating the money to that kind of recurring expense — such as annual debt payments on the same large construction project year in and year out — would tie up the cash settlement interest on a single project for the foreseeable future, King said. Instead, the county is interested in special projects that otherwise would be taxing, if not impossible, for the county to undertake.
So far, the county has spent its cash settlement interest money on public restrooms at a downtown riverside park in Bryson City, a series of historical monuments, a new trash truck and renovation of the historical county courthouse for a museum.
The commissioners have dedicated $50,000 so far for a cultural heritage museum being constructed inside the iconic Swain County courthouse, and have pledged another $100,000 from future interest payments.
The National Park Service is refusing to let go of a $4 million payment Swain County is due as part of the cash settlement over the North Shore Road.
The federal government is supposed to pay Swain County $4 million a year over the next decade — a deal intended to finally compensate the county for a road that was flooded when Fontana Lake was built in the 1940s.
Swain has had little luck getting the government to make good on the pledge, however.
Swain didn’t get the money in 2011 after Congress clamped down on earmarks. This year, the money was supposedly included in the National Park Service’s construction budget by both the President and Congress, but the park service isn’t releasing the money.
“It is currently sitting in the National Park Service’s account,” said Whitney Mitchell, spokesperson for Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville. “It is unclear why the National Park Service has delayed transferring the $4 million payment out of their budget into the Swain County trust fund.”
The National Park Service claims it doesn’t have proper authorization to make the payment.
Simply including the money in its budget isn’t enough. The park service claims it needs specific authorization — spelling out that $4 million should be handed over to Swain County — included as part of the budget bill that was passed by Congress last December.
“While the funding was included in the final bill, the necessary language was specifically excluded,” said Jeffrey Olson, a spokesperson for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C.
Without that language, it won’t turn over the money, Olson said.
“Everybody agrees the $4 million for Swain County was passed,” said Leonard Winchester, a Swain County resident who has been working on behalf of the cash settlement for years. “Why this money can’t be turned loose because someone at Department of Interior said they didn’t have the proper authorization, I don’t know.”
Shuler’s office, meanwhile, claims the money included in the budget carries clear instructions to be handed over to Swain County.
Olson was unable to address the apparent stalemate, simply reiterating that the park service lacked authorization to release the money.
“That is the end of the question for us,” Olson said. “If a member of Congress says ‘Yes it is,’ and we say, ‘We don’t have it,’ that’s as far as I can take it. It either shows up in the language of the appropriation bill or it is not there.”
Specifically, the money for the cash settlement was included as part of the National Park Service’s construction budget, a total of some $159 million. That’s something even Olson agrees with.
But where he differs is whether the $4 million for the cash settlement needs its own authorization before it can be released.
Olson said everything else in the construction budget carried the necessary authorization. That authorization usually comes in the form of an itemized list of approved construction projects.
“When we have a construction budget, it often includes a list of projects. It is my understanding that list of projects is our authorization,” Olson said.
However, that itemized list doesn’t show up in the appropriation bill passed by Congress in December. The list was left out of the final bill.
“Where it went astray was they didn’t keep the list. It just devolved to a single number,” Winchester said. “Whatever wording the National Park Service thought ought to be there went away, and they ended up with a lump sum number for their construction budget.”
That begs the question: Can the National Park Service not spend any of the $159 million in its construction budget this fiscal year because it too lacks authorization due to the absence of the list? Or is Swain’s cash settlement is being held to a double standard?
Olson said the National Park Service doesn’t need specific authorization for the rest of its construction budget. When it comes to the rest of the $154 million construction budget, the passage of the appropriations bill itself counts as authorization even though the list was left out of the final budget bill, Olson said.
“There is no requirement that this list of construction projects be attached to the appropriations bill Congress passes and the President signs before we proceed with the projects,” Olson said.
But as for the $4 million cash settlement contained in that same construction budget? The park service wants Congress to pass specific language saying its OK to pay it out.
Apparently, even though the money was included in the park service construction budget, the park service isn’t willing to consider the cash settlement as “construction.”
Leonard points out that the cash settlement is a substitute for constructing the road itself, and so in a way, it is kind of construction — since it is “in lieu of” construction.
At one point, there was indeed an itemized park service construction list circulated in budget talks. The cash settlement was allegedly on the list. The list was even referenced in budget committee documents as the “go-to” list for what the National Park Service should spend its construction budget on.
“The amount provided will fully fund the NPS construction projects as prioritized by the Service pursuant to the Administration’s revised request list provided to the Committees on June 24, 2011,” according to a draft version of the National Park Service appropriation bill.
Olson didn’t want to talk about what type of authorization the National Park Service needs at this point to fix the situation.
“Those are conversations that happen between a congressman and the National Park Service,” Olson said. “We are not going to use your newspaper as a way to communicate with Swain County.”
However, that’s exactly the question that has stymied everyone working to secure the cash settlement.
“Somebody, somewhere, has to know if there is something missing, what it is,” Winchester said.
Winchester has followed the labyrinthian appropriations process through Congress. He even flew to D.C. in 2010 along with a delegation from Swain County to meet with Ken Salazar, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior, to remind him of the cash settlement promise.
Winchester said it is disappointing to fight so hard, to see the money included in the budget, but to come up empty-handed.
The cash settlement was intended to resolve a festering decades-old dispute between Swain County and the federal government over a road flooded during the construction of Fontana Lake back in the 1940s. At the time, the government promised to rebuild the road one day, but never did.
Nearly seven decades later, the government instead promised to make good on its broken promise by paying Swain the cash value of the road that was destroyed — a value pegged at $52 million.
The money was supposed to be appropriated by Congress to the tune of $4 million a year until the obligation was settled. But after an initial down payment of $12.8 million in 2010, Swain hasn’t seen a penny since.
The cash settlement was supposed to make right on the long-standing obligation to Swain County citizens. The federal government signed a memorandum of understanding amid great pomp and circumstance in 2010, a ceremony attended by some 200 people at Swain County High School, pledging to reimburse Swain County for the road.
If it’s authorization the park service wants in order to release the $4 million included in this year’s budget, how about that memorandum of understanding, signed by the Secretary of the Department of Interior Ken Salazar, promising to pay it? Winchester said that ought to be good enough.
“Each individual subsequent appropriation does not require a new additional authorization,” Winchester said. “These joint acts by the federal government and by Congress constitute the authorization, recognition, expectation and plan for future payments, if and when they are appropriated.”
Congressman Shuler has been a champion of the cash settlement. He grew up in Swain County and rode his football stardom there and at nearby Tennessee to his congressional seat in Washington.
Shuler had to lobby for the appropriation on two fronts. He worked closely with the Obama Administration to get the $4 million payment included in the National Park Service budget this year, Mitchell said.
He also had to shepherd the line item through Congress to make sure it remained intact during the budget process.
“Rep. Shuler worked closely with House leadership to ensure the $4 million annual payment the President promised and requested as part of the North Shore Road settlement was fully funded in the 2012 Appropriations bill,” Mitchell said.
Shuler is remaining optimistic.
“Rep. Shuler fully expects the National Park Service to fulfill the President’s request and uphold the federal government’s legally-binding obligation to Swain County by making the payment before the end of this year,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell pointed out that the government signed a “legally-binding” memorandum with Swain County.
Even with an ally in Shuler fighting for the cause, the cash settlement seems to have stalled out almost as soon as it was promised. Shuler is now serving his last year in office, however, having announced this winter he would not seek re-election.
Whether Shuler’s successor will fight with the same vigor for the settlement leaves the future of the payments in even greater limbo.
Shuler’s office says he will impress on whoever comes along after him to carry the torch.
“Our office will fully brief the incoming 11th District representative to ensure they have the information and resources they need to follow in Rep. Shuler’s footsteps and continue his leadership and hard-fought efforts on this front,” Mitchell said.
For now, Swain County leaders haven’t gotten actively involved in hunting down the $4 million that allegedly has their name on it somewhere in the National Park Service budget. Instead, they were counting on Shuler to fight that battle for them.
“The money is in the account ready to go but nobody is willing to sign the check,” Swain County Manager Kevin King said, proffering his version of the cash settlement’s status.
But Swain County commissioners might need to start rattling some cages.
“We might have to at some point in the future,” King said.
The so-called “Road to Nowhere” is a source of bitter resentment for the people of Swain County. Before it was flooded, the road traveled for more than 30 miles from Bryson City to Tennessee. The route was dotted with homes, farms, schools, churches, cemeteries and general stores of numerous Appalachian settlements going back generations.
When Fontana dam was built in the 1940s, what wasn’t consumed by the rising water of Fontana Lake was folded into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hundreds of people were forced to leave their homes forever.
The federal government promised in writing at the time to rebuild the road, but after pecking away at a dozen or so miles in the 1950s and 1960s, it was abandon due to the exorbitant costs and environmental hurdles of building the remaining 20 or so miles.
It became a symbol of Washington’s failure to keep promises to rural Appalachia. Swain County, after all, had paid to build the road in the first place — and had to keep paying off the construction debt for years after the road didn’t exist anymore.
A deep-seated distrust and disillusionment set in over the intervening decades.
Tee Coker and his company recently learned firsthand something they probably already suspected about creating brands and taglines for towns. Forget about pleasing everyone: it can be an insurmountable challenge to please anyone at all when it comes to developing exactly the right slogan for a community.
“It turned out a tagline wasn’t something Highlands either wanted or needed,” Coker said, perhaps reminded about Coca-Cola and its legendary public-relations disaster with “new Coke.”
Coker and his marketing consultant company, Arnette, Muldrow & Associates, were trying to convince Highlands’ leaders that the town had an upgraded image and needed a new slogan to match. Coker’s masterpiece — “Simply Stunning” — was destined for the same dustbin of history as new Coke, however.
Coker didn’t take the rejection personally, it should be noted. That’s just part of the job when your profession is developing taglines or slogans.
“It’s fun to do this for the most part,” Coker said. “But, it’s certainly challenging.”
Coker said that each community the company works with has its own personalities involved and various motivations at play for developing taglines. That can make reaching consensus difficult.
In Western North Carolina, quite a few communities have adopted a brand and slogan. Maggie Valley is “Can you come out and play?” Franklin is “Discover us.” Macon County is “Enjoy the beauty, discover the life.”
The challenge is coming up with a slogan or motto that highlights a community’s assets and creates an identity to distinguish it from other places. That can be difficult because everyone here, more or less, plays off our mountain locale.
In Haywood County, the tourism agency uses “See yourself in the Smokies.” Neighboring Cherokee is “Meet me in the Smokies.”
In local communities, the task of picking taglines has been taken up by marketing professionals, town officials, residents and wide assortments of tourism-oriented committees.
In Western North Carolina, logos and slogans reflect the heritage, history and image of the region’s towns.
Big cities use big dollars to brand and create taglines. New York is “The city that never sleeps.” Chicago is the “Windy City.” Virginia is for lovers. Las Vegas is “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Austin is “Keep Austin weird.”
But, branding and taglines are not just for the big cities of the world. When any city, county or state adopts a tagline, slogan or motto, it’s pitching that destination as a place to visit, live or work.
“We wanted something understated and unique to Highlands,” said Ron Shaffner, design committee chairman for the Highlands Small Town Main Street Program. “‘Simply Stunning’ sounded like something that relates to weddings or diamonds — and that’s not Highlands. We felt ‘Simply Stunning’ might become ‘Simply Cliché’ after 10 years or so.”
Arnette, Muldrow & Associates led a series of roundtables in Highlands during two days in February. While the “Simply Stunning” slogan is a no-go, the design committee has pretty much settled on a suitably understated logo: an image of a tree simply baring the town’s name, “Highlands, North Carolina.”
“It turns out Highlands doesn’t really have to market itself aggressively so it isn’t that shocking that they don’t want a tagline. Highlands is a special case in many ways — there’s not really any other analogous communities in the Southeast,” Coker said.
The logo is simple and small enough to fit on a lapel pin or to go on letterheads or even on the sides of town vehicles.
The town might use its elevation — 4,118 feet — in branding efforts too, he said. The Highlands Chamber of Commerce already capitalizes on that claim to fame as the basis for its distinguishing slogan “Above it all.”
“The tough thing about it is trying to make a tagline that is all things to all people,” said Matt Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce.
Cherokee, as much as any community in WNC, is in transition. For decades the Cherokee Indian Reservation marketed itself as a family destination for cultural events. That’s still true, but now you also have Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort and such specialty niches as trout fishing on the Oconaluftee River.
Pegg said a good slogan must reflect the myriad nature of the offerings in a community such as Cherokee but not be so generic as to be useless.
“And there’s probably not another place you can go from the National Park to all the glitz and glamour of what will be at Harrah’s,” Pegg said, referring to the casino expansion and the new casino entrance under construction. Known as the rotunda, the new entrance that will feature shining five-story trees made of colored glass, with a 75-foot waterfall cascading down the middle and a 140-foot screen wrapping around the walls where choreographed light and surround-sound shows will be projected.
Pegg said committees and marketing professionals helped develop Cherokee’s taglines, including the currently in use “Meet me in the Smokies.”
“If it’s something we can do we try to do it internally, but we’ll certainly bring in groups to help, too,” Pegg said.
Until recently, neighboring Swain County like Cherokee played off of its position next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For several years, Bryson City used “base camp for adventure.” After reviewing visitor demographics, the town opted to change course, however.
Karen Wilmot, executive director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce, said that it turned out the most important decision maker when it comes to trips to Swain County is actually 40-year-old women. The “base camp for adventure” was deemed too extreme to attract a wide cross section of visitors, particularly that imaginary 40-year-old woman.
“We do get a lot of younger folks, but we didn’t want to scare off that other demographic by saying we’re too extreme,” Wilmot said, saying she didn’t think most 40-year-old women were looking for freestyle kayaking events or to mountain bike at Tsali Recreation Area, two well known Swain County-based sports possibilities.
“We wanted to think about that armchair adventurer, too,” Wilmot said, saying the tourism agency wanted to include gentler outdoor adventuring such as walking up Deep Creek to see the waterfalls.
In the end, the tagline chosen was open ended: “My Bryson City is …. (you fill in the blank).” The message, and the photo accompanying it, changes according to the publication viewers being targeted — “My Bryson City is dazzling” might accompany an advertisement highlighting autumn color. “My Bryson City is the Dragon” could accompany a photo of a motorcyclist targeting a riding audience.
“It is an easily manipulated yet consistent message,” Wilmot said, adding that an advertising firm helped develop Bryson City’s changing tagline.
“We were all sort of thinking the same things, and we knocked ideas around in a creative meeting then took a couple ideas to the board,” she said.
Bryson City is also an example of how difficult it can be to rid yourself of an old tagline you might have outgrown. For years the town went by “unhurried, unspoiled and uncommon,” and in fact, there’s still a sign on old U.S. 19 coming into town boasting this fact. Brad Walker, a former town mayor who’s long been involved in the hotel business in WNC, said that particular tagline of “unhurried, unspoiled and uncommon” was developed by the tourism agency in Swain County some 10 or 15 years ago.
“We were trying to figure out what the town is. And we decided the biggest thing we are is that we are in the Smokies, and we are the opposite of Gatlinburg,” Walker said.
So “unhurried, unspoiled and uncommon” really meant not Gatlinburg, Walker said.
Asheville, formerly “Altitude affects attitude,” has also undergone a change that reflects the city’s transition and newest image as a center of all-things-hip. Asheville is now “Any way you like it.”
Taglines and identities can be funny things. Some communities — in this case, Bryson City once again — can be downright protective of them. Bryson City recently took issue to the wording on a public art piece being installed on Main Street in Waynesville.
Donations are helping erect a replica of a historic arch that once spanned Waynesville’s main street, proclaiming the town as the “Eastern Entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”
That wording was too long for the artistic replica, however, so instead it will bear the words “Gateway to the Smokies.”
Not long after news stories ran about the arch, Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway received a phone call from Bryson City Town Manager Lee Callicutt regarding the wording on the arch. It was a slogan that Bryson City has used on its seal and police department badges for decades.
Callicutt had been directed to pass the concern of the Town of Bryson City onto Waynesville. The concern was duly noted but nothing came out of it.
Advertising agencies and companies can spend a fortune writing the right tagline. Small towns don’t have that kind of money. So sometimes they simply borrow.
Macon County’s current tagline, “Enjoy the beauty, discover the life” is a tweaked version of one a small business there was using, said Linda Harbuck, longtime executive director of the Franklin Area Chamber of Commerce.
Committees are used in Macon County to decide on taglines, saving on dollars and tapping local talent when it comes to defining the exact image to project. Harbuck said that community has had a number of different taglines during the years. The longest running one was “gem capitol of the world,” a play off of the large number of gem mining operations in Macon County. Macon County also has used “Mountain treasures, simple pleasures.”
“We don’t have any scientific ways of coming up with them,” Harbuck said. “A lot of things have just come from us sitting around the table talking.”
That’s been true in Maggie Valley, too, said Teresa Smith, executive director of the chamber of commerce there.
“We’ve used several recently,” she said. “We are trying to play off the park and being in the great outdoors.”
Maggie Valley uses a marketing committee to come up with choices. During the past several years, the town has used “Maggie’s calling.” Last year, they used “Far enough away yet close enough to play.” This year, it was tweaked to “Can you come out and play?”
Smith said it is indeed difficult to come up with taglines that make all those involved happy. Maggie Valley tourism leaders hold several meetings a year to do just that, usually working around a theme to help define the image Maggie Valley wants to project.
Jackson County recently has scaled down its slogan to focus on a single image it wants to project: mountains. The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce recently has been just using “N.C. Mountains.” It has also used “Mountain lovers love Jackson County” during the past few years, and previously used “A change of altitude,” said Julie Spiro, executive director of the chamber of commerce.
Betty Huskins, a longtime marketing expert with Ridgetop Associates, makes a clear distinction between brands and taglines. A brand, Huskins said, “is who you are in other people’s minds. A lot of people feel they’ve developed a brand when they’ve gotten a slogan or tagline, but you can’t just choose that.”
You can’t, in other words, choose the perception people have of you simply by picking a catchy slogan.
Huskins said ideally in marketing “you have to see who you are and build what you want to be.”
Huskins said the best taglines, as she was taught and still believes, should be no more than three words (think Highlands’ “Above it all.”)
A tagline, she said, should ultimately define “who you are and what you do.”
Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, said a tagline has to generate an emotional response.
“You may think it is wonderful, but if people don’t respond to it, it doesn’t do much good,” she said. “If you have a really good slogan they know where you are talking about. It needs to appeal to people on an emotional level.”
The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority is currently using “See yourself in the Smokies.” The previously used tagline, “where the sun rises on the Smokies,” is still used too on logos, Collins said.
A few years ago, Haywood County made the tagline switch to “See yourself in the Smokies” on advertising to try to get prospective visitors to picture themselves doing such activities as skiing or hiking.
“We did it to get people to put themselves in that photo and imagine doing those activities,” Collins said. “It’s just another format of using the Smokies and to evoke that emotional response.”
Like Huskins, Collins makes a distinction between branding and taglines. Haywood County’s brand, she said, “is our natural scenic beauty.” The slogan is to try to get people to come and participate in that great scenic beauty in Haywood County.
Bryson City: My Bryson City is ___
Canton: Where the mountains kiss the sky
Cashiers: Nature’s design for enjoyment
Cherokee: Meet me in the Smokies
Franklin: Discover us
Haywood County: See yourself in the Smokies
Highlands: Above it all
Maggie Valley: Can you come out and play?
Macon County: Enjoy the beauty, discover the life
Tim Cain has a bird’s eye view of Swain County’s real estate market, and from where he sits, the news looks good.
Cain was hired to oversee the countywide appraisal of every home, lot and tract of land in Swain County, a periodic exercise used to determine property taxes. His firm, the Raleigh-based Assessment Solutions, has visited more than 85 percent of the properties in Swain County during the past nine months. His expert assessment: property values in the county have bottomed out and are now on the rise.
“There has been a leveling off, and I am really excited to see what happens this spring,” Cain said. “It appears that they (property values) have stopped falling.”
Although the numbers are nowhere near those shown in the 2009 revaluation, property values are close to pre-recession numbers recorded during the 2005 reval — a positive sign considering the plunge the market took during the past few years.
“It has picked up, and we are feeling optimistic that is will continue,” said Kelly Stribling, president of the North Jackson County Board of Realtors, a local board that includes Swain County. “(But) It is certainly not like it was.”
Homeowners are slowly starting to buy and sell property, though many must still reduce their asking price if they want anyone to bite.
“There is a slight decrease in pricing,” Stribling said. “Some homeowners and sellers if they really want to move the property, they drop the price.”
But, people are still willing to pay a good price for a nice home, she added.
Cain agreed, saying that a nice chalet near the picturesque Nantahala Gorge or Fontana Lake will likely see an increase in value since the last approved revaluation in 2005. Meanwhile, homes in Bryson City seem to have remained steady when compared to the 2005 reval.
“If you’ve got a house in Bryson City, we really haven’t changed much,” Cain said. “The numbers that we are seeing now closely mirror the numbers we saw in 2005.”
Commercial lots will likely see an increase overall, while vacant lots, which were once destined to become subdivisions, will still lose some value.
“You’ve got a lot of subdivisions; they’ve got the infrastructure in place; (and) they are just sitting there,” Cain said.
People had bought, what were then, choice pieces of property at a premium and made plans for development. Then, the housing bubble burst, and the properties have since sat vacant, waiting.
“People are waiting out the economy,” Cain said. “They were demanding top dollar for their lots. And today, you’ve got developments that have gone bust.”
The last few years have been “a scary time” for people who need or want to sell property, Cain said.
Property owners’ hesitancy to put their lot on the market, and people’s reservations about buying have made it more difficult revaluate parcels, a process which is based partially on the sale price of adjoining properties.
Realtors and property assessors are seeing only about one-third of the transactions that they saw five years ago, Cain said.
Each property revaluation is specifically tailored to an individual county and even a specific part of the county.
“There is a specific reason that people go to Swain County,” Cain said. “It is a distinct place.”
The market value is determined by how much the property has depreciated, how much nearby properties sold for and how any improvements affect the property’s worth. A homeowner may spend $10,000 adding an in-ground pool, but the addition is essentially worthless unless it is deemed a valued amenity by homebuyers. The same is true for a $40,000 kitchen renovation. It is only as valuable as buyers in Swain County believe it to be.
Swain County commissioners seem to have made the right decision when they decided to throw out the results of its countywide property revaluation in 2009 and call for a do-over.
The 2009 revaluation captured a snapshot of Swain County real estate values during the height of a market boom — and before everything went bust.
It takes about two years to appraise every home, lot and tract of land in the county, so that 2009 appraisal largely drew on 2007 values, when the market was still hopping.
Since someone’s property value dictates how much they pay in taxes, a bunk appraisal based on no longer valid real estate values would have skewed what people legitimately should have paid in taxes.
So commissioner tossed out the results and decided to try again in a few years. That time is now here, and the appraiser leading the process said commissioners made the right call to hold off.
The 2009 reval that was tossed out would have posted a 30 percent increase to property values on average since 2005.
The do-over of the reval underway now shows instead of increasing, values are pretty much on par with where they were in 2005.
“The numbers are significantly lower than they would have been during that (2009) revaluation,” said Tim Cain, president of the Raleigh-based Assessment Solutions.