Editor’s note: Our review of the top stories of 2012 is presented in two parts. Part I ran in the Dec. 28, 2012 edition. The Jefferson Post wishes you a safe and happy New Year.
A small-town newspaper with a community focus faces a special challenge with the inevitable slow news cycle: having little to report in a place where news travels fast. Fortunately, Ashe County is a community which knows how to keep things interesting.
This year, we’ve seen crimes and misdemeanors as well as great outpourings of charity. Layoffs and bouncing jobless figures reminded us the local economy is still taking a knee, while new proposals and charities have sparked excitement in the community.
North Beaver Baptist Church on N.C. 163 outside West Jefferson, built in 1943, was destroyed Sunday, July 29 by a fire that started in the building’s attic.
Shortly after 1 a.m. Sunday, a passing Ashe County Sheriffs Office Deputy saw the fire and alerted county communications, according to Pastor Rick Miller of North Beaver Baptist Church, who rushed to the scene.
“I made it to the church probably 15 minutes after they called West Jefferson (Volunteer Fire Department) out,” said Miller. “Flames were shortly shooting through the roof. It was so sad to watch.”
“Our deepest thanks and appreciation goes out to the fire departments,” said Miller. “They worked all night and tried their best, but the fire was too much for the structure to be saved.”
Arson was beleived to be the cause of the fire. The Ashe County Sheriff’s Department said there is a suspect, although no other information has been released.
Middle School Proposal
The Ashe County Board of Education brought forward a financial “wish list” to the Board of Commissioners at a joint meeting held on Monday, Aug. 6 at the courthouse.
This meeting was held to brief the commissioners on challenges the school district will face over the next 15 years keeping its facilities safe, secure and up-to-date.
Ashe County Middle School was the primary focus of the meeting. While there are several renovations that could be made to ACMS, the idea of building an 800-student school was discussed as the main goal. Reeves offered several options to address the aging middle school facility while highlighting its current condition.
According to projections made by Larry Greene, the district’s architect, there are four feasible options to solve the problems at the middle school.
• The first option is to construct a new 800-student sixth through eighth grade middle school. This option would cost an estimated $24 million.
• The second option is to construct a new 550-student seventh and eighth grade school. This option would cost an estimated $17.6 million.
• The third option is to upgrade the current middle school to accommodate 800 students. This school would include grades six through eight and would cost about $10.8 million.
• The fourth option is to upgrade the existing seventh through eighth grade middle school. This would cost roughly $7.6 million.
During the meeting, the members of both boards leaned toward a consensus that renovating the current building may not be the best investment, citing the buildings 50-year-old foundation.
The closing of McNeill’s Department Store in downtown West Jefferson marked the ending of a 123-year legacy.
The stores final owner, Robbin McNeill, was thankful to the community for all of the years of patronage.
“I am taking away so many memories from having been the fourth generation McNeill to work at McNeill’s Department Store,” said Robbin.
The store began as a country general store under Elihu Alexander (E.A.) McNeill in 1889, and evolved over the years to meet the changing needs of its customers.
Before its closing, McNeill’s was the oldest family owned department store in North Carolina.
Ashe County’s inaugural Olde Times Antiques Fair was met with a large crowd and positive reviews from vendors on Saturday, Sept. 22.
“The turnout has been bigger than we expected for a first-time event,” said Keith Woodie, owner of Antiques on Main, sponsor of the event.
According to Woodie, the event played host to 42 different vendors renting out 45 spaces. Most of these vendors sold antiques, while a few vendors sold food.
Woodie also said the entire town benefited from the event. “The stores and restaurants in town have been packed all day, which is what we wanted,” Woodie said on Saturday.
“This event was a wonderful addition,” said Cher Schaffer, a vendor who attended the event.
Rescue Squad Celebrates 50 year anniversary
The Ashe County Rescue Squad celebrated its 50th anniversary Sunday evening to recognize all of the accomplishments of the rescue squad since its inception.
“I would like to thank each and every squad member for your dedication,” said ACRS Capt. Ricky Roark.
Roark was one of several speakers to address the crowd gathered to honor the rescue squad. Another member, A.B. Weaver, a retired charter member who was among the first members of the Ashe County Rescue Squad, gave an eloquent speech to the crowd.
“We gathered in 1962 (a group of men from West Jefferson) and made a decision that we needed a rescue squad,” said Weaver.
The rescue squad currently has 31 members on its roster and a wealth of equipment, which includes two ambulances, three fully-equipped crash trucks, and two motorized boats.
“I would never have dreamed the rescue squad would become what it is today. Many people don’t know the rescue squad here in Ashe County is one of the best squads in North Carolina,” said Weaver.
The duties and responsibilities of a law enforcement officer are familiar to most of us, patrolling, protection and investigation, but what about waiting?
Over the last several months, Ashe County Sheriff’s Deputies have spent days, and sometimes, weeks waiting with a mental health patient, who is also waiting for a secure facility where they can get help.
The county, said ACSO Captain Carolyn Gentry, has seen an “astronomical increase” in the number of involuntary commitments over the summer months, some of them waiting “two and three weeks at a time” for placement.
“(It has become) a horrible problem for the hospital and for law enforcement officers, and it’s not very humane treatment for the person with mental illness,” Gentry said. “It’s a serious issue.”
Malony rides for wounded warriors
Kyle Maloney’s arrival in Ashe County Monday, Oct. 8, marked the end of a 704 mile bike ride to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project and allowed him to visit his cousin, Jim Maloney, an Ashe County native.
Maloney is a resident of West Milford, N.J., and began his long cycling journey from his home town on Saturday Sept. 29. This journey was inspired by Maloney’s desire to aid United States’ soldiers who return home wounded from action.
“The trip was worth it to raise money for everyone who made sacrifices serving our country,” said Maloney.
United Chemi-Con layoffs
Adding to Ashe County’s already shaky economy, United Chemi-Con has confirmed the Lansing plant will lose 142 jobs by April 30.
“It’s heartbreaking to see when a number of employees who have worked for Chemi-Con for years are being laid off,” said Ashe County Manager Dr. Pat Mitchell when she first heard about the layoffs.
According to Sandra Calhoun, the plant’s human resources manager, United Chemi-Con will retain 115 employees once the job cuts are completed.
“Basically, we (United Chemi-Con) lost one of our lines to Malaysia, so we will be transitioning from two lines to one,” said Calhoun.
United Chemi-Con is subsidiary of the Japanese company Nippon Chemi-Con, and moved to the Lansing plant when it bought Sprague Electric Company in 1992. According to Calhoun, the Lansing plant was significantly impacted by the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011.
Republicans sweep election
Republican incumbents successfully defended their seats on the Ashe County Board of Commissioners, while state and national Republican candidates easily carried Ashe County.
Winning new four-year terms on the county commission were Gerald Price, Larry Rhodes, and Gary W. Roark, with Rhodes pulling the largest number of votes.
Republicans Jonathan Jordan and Dan Soucek also won their seats in the N.C. House and N.C. Senate respectively. President Barack Obama was re-elected as president of the United States.
Countywide totals for the county commission race:
Richard C. Blackburn - 5955
Marty Gambill - 4164
Dan McMillan - 5033
Gerald Price - 6381
Larry Rhodes - 7232
Gary W. Roark - 6863
Totals for the N.C. House race:
Jonathan Jordan - 7307
Cullie Tarleton - 5146
N.C. Senate Race:
Dan Soucek - 7336
Roy Carter - 4976
Laurel Springs man shot by police
Mark Houck, 47, of the Laurel Springs community, was shot and killed by county law enforcement officers after a confrontation on Houck’s back porch at his home on Monday, Nov. 19.
According to an ACSO press release on Tuesday, Nov. 20, four officers responded to a call about a man shooting a gun off of his porch on Gaither Poe Road at 11 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 19. The man was later identified to be
“The officers identified themselves, and ordered the man to put down his weapon. Subject refused to comply, and began pointing the weapon at the officers. Officers fired their weapons, striking and killing the subject,” said the Nov. 20 press release.
Ashe County Sheriff James Williams released the names of the officers that have been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation from the N.C. SBI.
According to Williams, Deputy Joshua Hopkins and Deputy Jeremy Munday from the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office and Officer Jake Howell from the West Jefferson Police Department were placed on administrative leave pending an investigation conducted by the State Bureau of Investigation.
“Placing officers on leave after a shooting is standard procedure,” said Williams.
Deputy Brandon Howell from the Ashe County Sheriff’s office also responded to the shots fired call but was not placed on administrative leave.
221 widening explained
The N.C. Department of Transportation met with the public to discuss its plans to widen U.S. 221 into a four-lane road, and explain how local residents might be impacted by the project on Tuesday, Dec. 24.
“The reason for this public hearing is simply to make you, the public, a part of the development process,” said Jamille Robbins, the N.C. DOT’s public involvement officer who presented the information during the meeting.
According to Robbins, this project will span 16.1 miles from the intersection of U.S. 421 in Deep Gap to U.S. 221 business/N.C. 88 in Jefferson. The new four-lane road will be divided by a grass median between 17.5-36 feet wide. The road will also have eight-foot-wide shoulders (four feet paved and four feet grassed).
This project is estimated to cost $154,710,928 in all. The construction cost for the project is estimated to be $118,400,000, utilities cost is estimated to be $2,313,028, and the cost of right of way acquisition is estimated to be $33,997,900.
Joint BOC, BOE, ACSO school saftey meeting
Following the tragic shooting the occurred at Sandy Hook Elementry School, a special meeting of the Ashe County Board of Commissioners (BOC), the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) and the Ashe County Board of Education (BOE) was held Friday, Dec. 21 to dicuss security practices at Ashe County schools.
Board of Commissioners Chair Larry Rhodes said the purpose of the meeting was to review existing school security measures, and look at what might be done make improvements.
“The tragic situation they had in Connecticut obviously has heightened awareness of our school safety,” said Rhodes.
Sheriff James Williams said the incident at Sandy Hook “probably affected this country more than anything since 911.”
In addition to School Resource Officers (SRO’s) already on full-time duty at Ashe County Middle School and Ashe County High School, Williams said he had placed patrols at the elementary schools every morning “for the foreseeable future.”
Deputies on duty around the county have been ordered to step up their presence at schools in general. “If they pass an elementary school, they are to travel through the lot, observe what’s going on in and around the schools and, if time permits…walk in the schools,” he said.
Williams said his department wants students, parents and school faculty to feel safe.
“I want to assure the public the Sheriff’s Office has trained for…active shooters in schools,” he said.
Superintendent Dr. Travis Reeves said he feels the county’s schools are safe, but had convened a meeting Tuesday with school principals the ACSO and to discuss any security concerns.
Reeves said the BOE had already planned review of the school system’s crisis plan, and said a policy of locking all interior doors during the school day will be adopted throughout the school system. He has also considered adding keyless entry systems and additional security cameras.