County leaders compare notes during quarterly round robin progress report

Jan. 24—CLYDE — Four times a year, elected leaders across Haywood County gather for a meal and an update on what's happening across the county.

The Council of Governments meeting is hosted on a rotating basis by the county and the four municipalities within, giving leaders in Waynesville, Clyde, Canton and Maggie Valley a chance to discuss mutual concerns.

The January meeting was hosted by Haywood County and held at the Haywood Community College's year-old Health Sciences building.

Following a catered meal by Smokehouse Barbecue, HCC President Shelley White emceed the event, welcoming the group to the campus and providing an update on the burgeoning college enrollment — up 6.5% since last spring.

The largest increase was in the workforce education programs, such as basic law enforcement and truck driver training, where there was a 15% enrollment spike. There's also been a strong interest in the construction trades, like plumbing and HVAC, White added.

Another positive is offering night sessions for technical and trade programs — such as machining and industrial systems.

Federal funds received by the college will be used to upgrade the Regional High Technology Center and create a training pad for truck driver and lineman courses.

HCC has a mill worker outreach program and has awarded $51,000 in scholarships to 55 students so far.

"I've adopted the phrase 'we are Haywood's college,'" White said. "We are here for this community."

Tourism update

The keynote program for the meeting was presented by Haywood County Tourism Development Authority Executive Director Corrina Ruffieux, who shared the effort underway to tell the story of Haywood County and use tourism lodging tax dollars to make the county a better place to live and visit.

Toward that end, the county tourism agency has hired a consulting firm to oversee the development of a tourism master plan, stimulate economic growth and ensure sustainability. A second effort will develop a positioning and messaging platform to elevate Haywood County's stature as a top-tier destination.

The process, which has gathered information through surveys and from many business and government leaders across Haywood, is expected to be completed in August, Ruffieux said.

Around the room

Russ Harris, executive director of the Southwestern Commission, gave an update on programs the agency is working on that benefit the seven westernmost counties in the state, including Haywood.

One such program is overseeing the National Dislocated Worker Grant, which has served more than 100 individuals so far. Southwestern has also put a framework in place where the $29 million in opioid settlement funds coming to the seven counties over the next 18 years can be leveraged with other funds and make a meaningful dent in the regional opioid crisis.

"If we're not strategic in how we spend the funds, we won't get a lot of bang for our buck," he said.

The agency also administers the Southwest NC HOME Consortium, which will have $1 million available next spring to help with affordable housing projects and a community enhancement grant program that many local governments in the county have taken advantage of.

Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers told the group the ice skating rink in Sorrells Park has been a huge success. He said it is time to move on from telling the county's story of heartbreak following major flooding and the mill closure.

"I'm tired of people feeling sorry for us," he said. "It's time for all of us to talk about what is good. We need to look ahead, and I don't trust anyone else but the people in this room to do this."

Clyde Mayor Jim Trantham said River's Edge Park along the Pigeon River once again made a major difference on Jan. 9 when a hard rain led to flooding in the county. The park is a wide open space along the river that absorbs overflow when the river rise, mitigating flooding further downstream in Clyde.

Renovations to Clyde's town meeting room should be ready in time to double in its role as a polling place for early voting in the March 5 Primary Election, he reported. Meanwhile, the Charles Street water line improvements that will remove a line hanging off a bridge are underway.

In Waynesville, Mayor Gary Caldwell reported the town has aggressively recruited employees and is now fully staffed for the first time since Covid. Two miles of sewer lines have been replaced, and remodeling is underway at the Hazelwood fire station, he said.

The town's wastewater treatment plant rebuild is expected to be completed by January 2025, he said, adding the town completed a public parking lot near Haywood and Church streets.

Maggie Valley Mayor Mike Eveland said 27 events have been scheduled at the town's festival grounds for the year so far and that festival goers will have more parking space now that the town owns property across the road where a 90-car lot is being prepped.

"I really enjoy watching crowds coming in," Eveland said, adding the town is looking at a five-year plan to look toward the future of the festival grounds.

The town has acquired a site to construct a shed for storing its winter decorations.

Also, homes will begin showing up on property on Jonathan Creek that was once owned by the town and county. The property was purchased for a recreation site where baseball fields were planned, but the 2008 recession shelved those plans, and the property was dormant until being sold off to a developer.

Haywood County Commission Chairman Kevin Ensley said debris cleanup following the 2021 flooding should wrap up in the next two years.

A public hearing on the proposed jail upgrade will be held in February. He praised the progress being made in the recovery court program, where those who get sideways with the law because of drug addiction have a chance outside jail to turn their lives around.

The county project accomplished with federal Covid funds to build an EMS base and emergency shelter in the Clyde armory should be completed in February, Ensley said. A public safety radio tower is being built in the Inman Branch area of Lake Logan, which should greatly improve telecommunications in the area. The tower is being built to where cell phone and internet providers will have space to lease.