Packed house: Commissioners, leaders respond to GOP resolutions
Matthew Hundley / (firstname.lastname@example.org)
More than a dozen speakers in addition to the board of commissioners addressed two resolutions drafted by Avery County GOP Executive Committee during the board’s regularly scheduled meeting on Monday, Feb. 4.
The two resolutions charged the commissioners to address absenteeism on the board and to reconsider the plan to convert the old Banner Elk School into a business incubator; a plan that has been under way for close to 1.5 years.
The commissioners addressed the specific premises of each of the resolutions, after more than a dozen citizens and community leaders spoke in support of economic development and the future of A.C. P.R.I.D.E.
Discussion regarding the resolution that questioned the use of the former Banner Elk School as a business incubator actually began at the beginning of the meeting, when Commissioner Glenn Johnson, followed by more than a dozen citizens and community leaders, local business owners, county employees and retired natives told stories of leaving for decades to find work; of watching children and grandchildren leave to find jobs and never returning. Each speaker pleaded with the commissioners to continue to support economic development in hopes of providing better opportunities for young people, improve quality of life and slow the exodus of young people from Avery County, which has seen the average age of its population rise in recent decades.
Before the public comment, Johnson rounded up much of the argument for economic development in three statements, which he came down to the podium to read to a large crowd, as well as his fellow commissioners.
In his speech, Johnson noted that the course for A.C. P.R.I.D.E. is already set in motion.
“This came about through much hard work and dialogue between Banner Elk town board, planning board and our economic development director,” Johnson said. “Through consensus of five duly elected county commissioners, we all agreed. Four of those remain on your board of commissioners today. It has already been decided.”
Johnson also reminded the audience that business incubators are not a new idea by recounting some of the history of incubators, which he said spans more than 50 years.
Johnson quoted Proverbs and Ronald Reagan to support the economic development program.
“While we should never forget about our past, our heritage or where we come from, we must look to the future and have a vision of where we are going,” Johnson said. “I believe the majority of your board of county commissioners has that vision for Avery County. We must look to the future for the sake of our children and grandchildren.”
Johnson also listed some of the previous shifts in Avery County’s economy, including different changes in agriculture and tourism. Throughout his speech, Johnson maintained a theme of adapting for the sake of future generations.
“What will Avery County look like 20, 40 or 50 years from now? I don’t think anyone knows, but it will most certainly be different from today. We are in a constant process of change. It is our nature to resist change, but if everything around us changes and we do not, then we become stagnant and we will continue to lose our young people.”
When the resolution came up later on the agenda, the commissioners addressed the various items on the resolution.
Before the commissioners began, Clay Houston spoke on behalf of Avery County GOP Executive Committee, asserting that the committee was not against economic development, just the use of the former Banner Elk School as an incubator. Houston also questioned whether or not the incubator was redundant with community college programs. Earlier in the meeting, however, John Boyd, president of Mayland Community College, noted that the college was running out of facility space for its various programs and that the incubator would be an asset in addressing that issue in the coming months.
Poteat began by speaking to specific items on the resolution, beginning with the argument that other communities were granted the use of schools no longer in use.
“It is apples and oranges,” said Poteat, noting that in the case of Beech Mountain Elementary, the school was lost completely, not replaced with a new state-of-the-art facility, as was the case in Banner Elk. “That particular is moot in my opinion.”
Second, Poteat addressed the charge that the incubator had become a “‘money pit’ for the taxpayers of Avery County.”
Conferring with County Finance Officer Tim Greene, Poteat confirmed that the largest expense incurred so far at the old school was the replacement of the roof, which Poteat said would have been required regardless of whether or not the incubator was in place.
“You do not let a building deteriorate,” Poteat said. “We would fix the roof no matter what the use was.”
Next to speak was Griffith, who recalled his time on the campaign trail when constituents voiced their dissatisfaction with the incubator.
“We going to go plum back to the campaign trail,” Griffith said. “Where they are at, tonight, I couldn’t tell you. They are not here to speak. I couldn’t tell you. A number; a number; a number of people, just in Banner Elk. We are not going to talk about, down on the river, or Crossnore, or Linville, or whatever. We are going to talk about just Banner Elk. A number of people approached me. Of course, I am easily accessible over there. I am assistant chief of police at Sugar Mountain. A number of people approached me. ‘Reo we don’t like this school business. We should have had it, by all means we should have had it,’ and this and that.
“I came to this board with not a promise to keep. I made not a promise to a soul that ‘oh, don’t you worry, the old Banner Elk School is going to belong to you all,’ but I did say that we will look into this matter. As it proceeds and stuff, I think the school would make a wonderful community building.”
Griffith then talked at length about his career as an independent cattle farmer and police officer.
Griffith also related the story of a specific barbecue, during which he was disappointed that Economic Development Director Bret Gardella did not approach certain individuals about economic development, including Jack Wiseman.
“I called Robert Wiseman. I was producing as much economy as I could. I was putting up hay the next day. I stopped the tractor and I called Mr. Robert Wiseman. Do you remember me calling you? Sitting on a tractor seat in the hot, boiling sun and called him, and said ‘we’ve got a problem.’ Man, he needed to talk to Dr. Boyd and approach Jack Wiseman and talk to some of these people and see what is going on here.
“This incubator is going on, and tax dollars being put it into it, and I am thinking we can’t reinvent the wheel. The wheel has been invented years ago,” said Griffith, who insisted that Gardella’s time would be better spent supporting Christmas tree growers than on the incubator.
“If the Christmas tree market is declining, I think, well that is one of our two main sources of income in this county ... so if the county is going to do something to boost the economy, if we are going to use the taxpayers’ dollars to boost the economy, let’s have Bret Gardella, the economic development director, get up with Jack Wiseman, and there are several thousand other Christmas tree growers ... Let’s take some of that money and, if Bret Gardella went with him, let’s send some taxpayers’ dollars to the National Carolina Christmas Tree Convention and promote the Avery County Christmas trees. Let’s see if we can bring that market back up. Economic development.”
In their individual comments, commissioners Phyllis Forbes, Martha Hicks and Johnson all corrected Griffith for suggesting that Gardella had neglected the Christmas tree industry for the sake of the incubator.
“I know for a fact that one of the first things he did when he started the job as economic development director was to meet with the Christmas tree growers,” Forbes said.
Hicks also noted Gardella’s work with the tree industry, reminding Griffith and the audience that Gardella had ensured that Avery County Christmas trees and products had been used to decorate Fox Studios and recognized on the air statewide.
Johnson rebuked Griffith for failing to learn more about the work done by Gardella before commenting on it in the meeting.
“If you talk to him, you would have known that in the first month he was here, that he was working with the Christmas tree growers and Jerry Moody. Know the facts,” Johnson said, complimenting Gardella on the work he has done so far and for his long hours and hard work. “He is marketing this county. We hired an economic development director to market this county; to sell this county, and that is what he is doing, with vigor. He’s working 60 hours or more each week; we’re only paying him for 40.”
Forbes also restated her support for the incubator project.
“I very much support continuing with our project at Banner Elk School,” Forbes said, also noting that the incubator is designed to promote one of the economic drivers that Griffith mentioned, tourism. “It is not reinventing the wheel. I think we are on the right track, and Bret has brought us a long way on that track. And I think we just need to stay the course.”
Hicks noted that idea of selling the school, as the resolution suggested, was not viable given the real estate market.
“We felt like we could not get what the Banner Elk School and property was worth at that time, so we started to talk about other things,” Hicks said, recalling how the incubator concept was introduced. “Why let a building sit if you can’t sell it right now?”
Johnson echoed the frustration over the idea of selling the school.
“It is zoned educational/medical. Who is going to buy it?” Johnson said, also noting the wide disparity in evaluations, which ranged from less than $1 million to $4.1 million. “Sell it to whom? Sell it for how much? We are not reinventing the wheel here, folks. We are trying to do something for the future of Avery County.”
Poteat addressed the issue of the requirement that elected officials be physically present at meetings.
In response to the resolution – which stated, “Truancy is not responsible leadership and a practice that should not be followed by any person in any walk of life” – Poteat read from an article written by Frayda Bluestein, professor of law and government at UNC School of Government. In her article, entitled “Unexcused Absences,” Bluestein noted that while physical presence is required for certain votes, there is no law or statute requiring elected officials to be present at board meetings.
“More importantly, there is no legal penalty for excessive absences, whether excused or unexcused,” Bluestein writes in the article, which Poteat cited. Following Poteat’s reading of segments of the article, Griffith, who initially raised the issue regarding the presence of Commissioner Phyllis Forbes, who often attends meetings via teleconference, acknowledged that the law was clear on the issue. No other commissioners commented on the resolution.
For the full article by Bluestein, click to http://www.canons.sog.unc.edu/?p=6975.
Other news and notes:
In addition to the conversation around the resolutions, the Feb. 4 meeting also included discussion of a wide variety of other topics, including the addition of an adult high school to Mayland Community College, a new business venture for Yellow Mountain Enterprises and progress being made toward providing internet access across the county, all of which will be covered in February issues of The Avery Journal-Times.