‘Unique’ Unicoi event celebrates community

Hannah Rice and Jessica Presser stayed busy selling buckets of fresh strawberries during the 16th annual Wayne Scott Strawberry Festival on May 19. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

For many years now, strawberries and Unicoi County have gone hand in hand, creating a frenzy of excitement each year when the bright red berries are in season. On Saturday, May 19, the Town of Unicoi once again celebrated its love for all things strawberry with the 16th annual Wayne Scott Strawberry Festival held outside of Unicoi Elementary School.

“For 50 years, maybe more than that, folks have been coming to this area to get strawberries … it goes that far back,” said Johnny Lynch, Town of Unicoi mayor. “I think everything has gone really well this year. The biggest thing is everyone has gotten to get together and old friends get to get together again. That’s what these festivals are all about.”

Lynch noted the increase in vendors at the festival this year; they were selling a wide array of handmade, artisan products. He also said, despite a few intermittent droplets of rain, he was very pleased with this year’s turnout.

Aside from the multitude of arts and crafts vendors, several food vendors could be found selling hamburgers, hot dogs, tacos, barbecue, and, of course, an array of sweets such as strawberry shortcake, strawberry sundaes, chocolate covered strawberries and more.

“That’s what is unique about it. We have kept the old-timey flavor of a festival by having local groups and local talent perform and the food vendors are all churches and nonprofits,” said Lynch. “It gives them an opportunity to raise funds for their particular organizations.”

This year’s festival included a Miss Strawberry Pageant, cake walks, and performances by the bands Turkey Creek, Wayne Keplinger & Friends and Rockingham Road.

There was also a recipe contest sponsored by the Mountain Harvest Kitchen where Holly Clark won first place for a strawberry flan recipe. Gloria Clark won second place for a strawberry dream cake and Grynd Staff won third place for strawberry dumplings.

The main vendor attraction was, of course, the Scott’s Farm strawberry stand, which stayed covered up with business throughout the day as customers happily walked away with their buckets of strawberries.

Scott’s Farms was originally started by Wayne Scott in 1959 after he retired as a school teacher to pursue farming full time. Since Wayne Scott’s passing in 2008, two of his five sons now own and operate the farm.

“I grew up on the farm and I went to school at Virginia Tech and was gone for a few years, but I came back. I always knew I’d farm in some capacity,” said Steve Scott, who now runs the farm with his brother, David.

The farm continues to remain a family affair, with Scott’s two sons now joining the efforts to keep it a success. Along with strawberries and tomatoes, which are their major crops, the farm also sells green beans, sweet corn and a variety of other vegetables at their market in the Town of Unicoi.

“There are a few smaller farms on the river, but around here we are probably the biggest ones left,” said Scott  “My mother and father worked really hard to build this farm and we’re lucky to have had the opportunity to do what we’ve done. Next year, the farm will have been in business for 60 years. I’m just trying to keep it going.”

Lynch said thanks to individuals such as the Scotts, the Unicoi area has established a reputation as an agricultural entity, which has lead to the creation of many agricultural-related jobs over the years.

“We had some individuals that were entrepreneurial in nature and they started small. I remember when Wayne Scott was my agriculture teacher in high school,” Lynch said.

To this day, Lynch said he still recalls the small strawberry patch that Scott started out with behind his house and how it has now developed into one of the most well-known businesses in the area.

“He was a very important member of this community and we recognize him each year by calling this festival the Wayne Scott Strawberry Festival,” Lynch said. “It has been, and continues to be, a great success.”

Tasty tradition continues: Flag Pond Ruritan hosts annual Ramp Festival

Donald Shelton, left, and Ed Sparks, right, stayed busy selling bundles of ramps to enthusiastic customers during Saturday’s 33rd annual Ramp Festival. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

For many of those in Appalachian communities, the blooming flowers and warming temperatures that are indicative of springtime also represent the arrival of the highly-celebrated ramp season. A member of the lily family, these wild edibles, which are stronger than a leek and more pungent than a scallion, are native to the forests of eastern North America and hold cultural significance for many communities.

Flag Pond once again demonstrated its status as a close-knit community and love for its Appalachian heritage with the 33rd Annual Ramp Festival sponsored by the Flag Pond Ruritan Club and held at the Old Flag Pond school on Saturday, May 12.

“I’m tickled to death with the turnout this year and plus we had pretty weather this year,” said Richard Waldrop, Flag Pond Ruritan Club president, who estimated that the festival had well over 700 attendees.

Several vendors attended the festival, selling handmade jewelry and other items, flower arrangements, essential oils and more. Live music was played throughout the day with performances from the Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band, Spivey Mountain Boys and the Flag Ponders.

On the menu for the day was soup beans, bacon, coleslaw, cornbread, fried taters and, of course, plenty of ramps. There were also homemade desserts and the option of hamburgers or hot dogs for those who found the strong ramp flavor to be overpowering.

“We went last Saturday and dug ramps and then we went last Tuesday and dug,” Waldrop said. “We hop on the back of a truck and go to the mountains to dig.”

Waldrop estimated that they harvested well over 40 pounds of ramps for the festival and said the best way to eat them is with fried taters.

Putting on the annual event takes teamwork, according to Waldrop.

“We couldn’t put it on if it wasn’t for the volunteers,” he said.

Waldrop also said several volunteers come together to make the festival a reality and contribute in various ways such as collecting ramps, cooking and promoting the large event.

Eddie Farmer, Unicoi County resident, has been cooking at the Ramp Festival for more than 30 years.

“I’ve been here since 6:30 a.m. this morning cooking,” Farmer said during the festival on Saturday. “The festival is just a really good thing for the community and we try to give back in different ways.”

For those who really took a liking to their ramp meal, ramps were available for sale, allowing many excited event goers to purchase their own bundles to take home and prepare.

Ed Sparks and Donald Shelton returned to the Ramp Festival for the 10th year to sell some ramps they had harvested.

“I’ve been eating them for about 65 years,” said Shelton. “I went to school here (Flag Pond School) in 1950. There’s plenty of ramps here if you go in the mountains … they grow in higher elevations”

Sparks and Shelton stayed busy as plenty of festival goers were eager to purchase a bundle of ramps that they could take home and cook up on their own.

“Ramps can be hard to get, but we like to do it for the Ruritan,” said Sparks. “We like the company, music and food at the festival.”

While the Ramp Festival was attended by countless locals to the Flag Pond area, there were attendees from neighboring counties and some who traveled more than a couple of hours to take part in the memorable event.

Johnson City residents Jeff and Delores Moore attended the festival for the first time this year and were eager to try the foraged delicacy for the first time.

“It’s a great festival and I didn’t know anything about ramps before attending the festival,” said Delores.

Jeff said he greatly enjoyed the memory room in the school, a bit of a time capsule that allowed people to learn about the history of the Flag Pond Community, the Ruritan club, and of course ramps.

“That is really awesome,” Jeff said about the room. “I didn’t know there was so much history and cultural significance associated with ramps.”

One of the main attractions at the festival was a memory room in which an informational video put together by East Tennessee State University showed ramps being foraged and how to prepare them.

Laurie Handshu, who traveled all the way from Nashville to attend the event, said she fell in love with ramps after she tried them for the first time in college.

“I fell in love, it was love at first stink,” Handshu said about her first experience trying ramps many years ago. “I lived here a long time ago, about 20 years ago, and I would always come to the festival every year.”

Handshu said she was happy to be back in Flag Pond for the day and described the festival as a “wonderful” event.

“It’s everything it should be,” she said.

While the penetrating aroma of ramps can be a deterrent for some, Handshu said it’s part of the fun of eating them and added that she enjoys other “stinky” foods such as garlic and onions. Waldrop also commented on the powerful smell ramps leave on their consumers and shared a few stories of his own experiences.

“When I was a young’un we’d eat them then go to school and they’d kick us out on the street,” said Waldrop, who recently had a comical encounter during a roadblock after he had eaten some ramps. “I pulled up and the state trooper said ‘are you drinking?”

Waldrop told the officer no, however she did share that she had indulged in quite a few ramps that day.

“‘Get out of there’ he said … he didn’t even check my driver’s license,” Waldrop laughed.

For attendees at the festival, any concerns of bad breath were thrown out the window as people chowed down on platefuls of ramps all throughout the day.

Before the event was over, a ramp eating contest was held and last year’s winner once again proved to have a true liking for ramps. Jasmine Shelton is still the reigning champion of the youth and adult class of the contest and was able to eat 15 ramps in one minute this year.

“This festival is special because it shows that we’re a close community here and everyone knows everybody,” said Waldrop. “We couldn’t do all of this without our neighbors and friends.”

Great Outdoors Festival draws largest crowd yet

Representatives from Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium drew crowds to the kid’s zone of the Great Outdoors Festival as they held demonstrations with birds of prey. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Despite the forecasted weather conditions, there were dry skies and warm temperatures awaiting event attendees who flocked to downtown Erwin for the Great Outdoors Festival on Saturday, May 5. The third annual festival was orchestrated by the community group RISE Erwin, and organizers deemed this year’s event as the most successful one yet with estimated attendance numbers between 4,000 to 5,000.

Along with dozens of outdoor-themed vendors, the festival provided a popular music lineup, a kids zone full of multiple activities, a mobile skate park, food trucks, a craft beer tent, live animal demonstrations with Bays Mountain, and the presentation of the International Fly Fishing Film Festival.

“Our food trucks sold out by 3:30 p.m.,” said Jamie Rice, RISE Erwin president and communications coordinator for the Town of Erwin. “The weather definitely helped a lot; last year’s event was pretty much rained out and this year when we went to bed on Friday night we were thinking it was going to be the same outcome, but when we woke up and there was no rain, we were so thankful.”

Rice said the festival was strategically planned to coincide with numerous hikers passing through Unicoi County as they come off of the Appalachian Trail.

“I think everyone was really appreciative of the efforts that have been made to highlight Unicoi County and the outdoor opportunities that are available here,” she said. “We had so many hikers, which is the reason we do the festival when we do it. That’s a huge win for us when people get back on that trail and tell everyone what a great experience they had in Erwin.”

Food trucks present at the festival included Joe Bill’s Kitchen, Bite, Opie’s Pizza Wagon and Italian ice and kettle corn vendors. The extensive variety of vendors could be found selling everything from pottery, jewelry and handmade body products to knives, outdoor apparel and clothing. Vendors were also offering massages and selling live plants, in addition to the various booths set up to represent community organizations.

Alan and Nancy Stegall attended the event for the first time as pottery vendors and said they were “absolutely loving the festival.”

The Stegalls were selling their handmade pottery, which consisted mostly of coffee and tea mugs in vibrant hues of cool earthy green and blue tones, some with intricate designs and others that were monogrammed with names.

“We got hooked on pottery in college,” said Nancy Stegall, who was previously a registered nurse before pursuing pottery full time in 1983.

Ten years later, her husband, who has a 20-year military career, also began making pottery full time. For the Stegalls, being able to do something every day that they love while spending time with one another makes for a fulfilling career.

“That was the biggest attraction,” said Stegall.

This was also the first year that Northeast Tennessee Outdoors set up as a vendor at the festival. Northeast Tennessee Outdoors was selling outdoor-themed shirts, decals and outdoor-themed hats. The new business continues to grow through social media alone, where they also post informational videos related to outdoor activities.

“We’ve been selling an Appalachian trailblazer shirt and one with our logo on it,” said Katie Linkous, who started the business with her husband, Eric. “You can show where you’re from with our stuff.” 

On the company’s Facebook and Instagram pages, you can find various videos on the topics of hunting and fishing, as well as reviews on different sporting products. 

“If we go on a hike we always try to get online and let people know what the trail was like and if it’s suitable for kids and things like that,” said Linkous, who added they had a great time selling at the festival.

After festival attendees made their way past the foods trucks, musical stage and vendors that lined North Main Street, they entered the kid’s zone located on Main Avenue between Gay and Love streets. The kid’s zone included an archery course, target practice with a pellet gun, a petting zoo and two new editions this year – live animal demonstrations by Bays Mountain and catch and release trout pools supplied by Bass Pro Shops and stocked with rainbow trout from the National Fish Hatchery.

Small crowds gathered around Bays Mountain volunteers as they presented rescued birds of prey such as a Red Tailed Hawk and Great Horned Owl. Onlookers had the opportunity to learn facts about the birds and their impressive natural abilities.

Rice said the new additions were organized by RISE Erwin members Kristen Anders and Juan Villaba, who sought to kick the kid’s zone up a notch this year with the Bass Pro Shop sponsorship and live animal demonstrations.

“Those were huge additions that both the kids and adults enjoyed and we really appreciate their efforts,” said Rice.

Rice added that Trout Unlimited, which presented the International Fly Fishing Film Festival at Capital Cinemas around midday, was very pleased with the turnout and happy to bring awareness to their organization with the film. 

“Hopefully they will have some new members because of the outdoor festival,” she said.

About every couple of hours a new band performed at the festival and this year’s lineup included the Ripple, Folk Soul Revival, Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band, Anabelle’s Curse and 49 Winchester.

“It was definitely probably the best lineup we’ve had in the three years,” Rice said. “I mean we had people drive three hours to come and see Folk Song Revival and we were really pleased for the turnout they brought to the festival.”

Rice said she believes each time an outdoor- or nature-inspired event is hosted in Erwin, it draws needed attention to the area and its array of outdoor-themed assets.

Recently, Rice said the festival was mentioned in Blue Ridge Outdoor Magazine and a professor from Maryville College took notice of Erwin and Saturday’s festival.

“Two of those professors actually came to Erwin and spoke to the mayor about their outdoor program,” she said.

Rice also said the college is currently interested in sending students to Erwin and Unicoi County to help work with the area in conjunction with their outdoor program.

“It’s a feather in our cap each time we’re mentioned,” said Rice. “You never know what opportunities that may bring … our hope is the more times we’re mentioned, maybe a small business that’s outdoor-related will come to want and fill a store shop downtown.”

‘Addiction can last a lifetime’: Officials discuss opioid crisis at community forum

Christy Smith, Unicoi County Prevention Coalition director, left, directs questions towards a panel of experts during an informational opioid forum held on April 26. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

A Community Opioid Forum held on Thursday, April 26, at Calvary Baptist Church gave attendees an opportunity to learn facts about the opioid epidemic and what local resources are available, in addition to hearing from a panel of experts.

The event was hosted by the Unicoi County Prevention Coalition, the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, and the Washington, Unicoi and Johnson (WUJ) County Medical Alliance.

The panel of experts consisted of: Dr. David Kirschke, Northeast Regional Health officer for the Tennessee Department of Health; Regan Tilson, Town of Erwin police chief; Mike Hensley, Unicoi County sheriff, Angie Hagaman, Diversity Promoting Institutions Drug Abuse Research Project (DIDARP) director; Dr. Paul Jett, physician with Ballad Health; and Angela Murray, director of Corporate and Community development for Watauga Recovery Centers.

“It is our hope that these meetings will continue to educate the public about the opioid epidemic and direct individuals to recovery resources in their area,” said Terry Geraci, president-elect of the WUJ Medical Alliance.

The forum began with an informational video by the American Medical Alliance (AMA) that provided statistics and background information on the growing epidemic.

With an average of 44 people dying each day in the United States from an opioid overdose, many addicts switch to heroin after their supply of pills runs out, according to the AMA. This troubling public health crisis impacts individuals from all classes and walks of life.

Following the video presentation, Christy Smith, director for the Unicoi County Prevention Coalition, began directing questions to the panel of experts and first asked them to differentiate between dependence and addiction.

“When we think about addiction we typically think about people misusing the medication in ways other than intended,” said Dr. Jett.

Jett said that dependence is actually a natural cycle for any opioid use, even as directed by a doctor, and stopping use abruptly will likely lead to at least some withdrawal symptoms. Addiction is characterized by compulsive behavior, continued abuse of drugs, and persistent changes in brain structure.

“If untreated, addiction can last a lifetime,” said Smith. “According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are three factors that contribute to opioid addiction: genetics, environment, and opportunity.”

After being in recovery for 11 years for opioid addiction, Murray said that all three factors played a role in her addiction.

“I do have addiction in my family, for sure,” she said. “Because I was always a business owner and worked for myself, I had a perfect opportunity to use without people knowing.”

Murray said she grew up with chronic migraines and after being treated with several medications that failed to alleviate her pain, she was told her only option for pain relief was hydrocodone.

“The more I used, the better I felt and the more I used, the more I needed,” said Murray. “I became dependent and then full-blown addicted.”

According to statistics shared by the Unicoi County Prevention Coalition, there is a 40 percent increased risk that an individual will become addicted to opioids if a first-degree relative also suffers from opioid addiction.

Environmental factors that contribute to opioid addiction include: availability of opioids; perceived risk of opioids (the coalition found that 75 percent of high school students perceive heroin as dangerous, but only 40 percent perceive prescription opioids as dangerous); psychological stressors; learned coping mechanisms; and traumatic life experiences.

“Substance Abuse and Misuse Statistics from the Tennessee Department of Health show that for every 100,000 deaths in Unicoi County, 28 are caused by drug poisoning and this is higher than both the Tennessee and national average,” said Smith.

In 2016, there were six overdose deaths in Unicoi County, five of which were from opioids. That same year, a total of 32,610 opioid prescriptions were written in the county, or approximately 1,840 prescriptions per 1,000 people.

Around 127 pills are prescribed every year for each person in Unicoi County, according to research by the coalition.

“Most people that fatally overdose in our area are between the ages of 25 and 54,” said Dr. Kirschke. “In our region, we’ve had one or two child or teenage deaths, although non-fatal overdoses in teens are increasing.”

Smith said the coalition conducted a survey on drug use and attitudes towards drug use among sixth, eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders in Unicoi County schools.

“We found in Unicoi County, the average age of the first use of a prescription drug not prescribed to them is 13,” Smith said.

According to the survey, 51 percent of those who used prescription drugs not prescribed to them in the last 30 days obtained them from a relative, friend or someone they knew for free; 17 percent got it from a relative, friend or someone they knew without asking; and 18 percent purchased them from the internet.

Town of Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson said the number of DUIs have almost doubled in the last few years and the majority are not from alcohol, but abused substances.

“Years ago it was alcohol, but this day and time it’s prescription drugs,” said Mike Hensley, Unicoi County sheriff. “It presents a problem for us when we pull someone over and they’re on something, but they have a prescription for it.”

Tilson said officers go through extensive training to determine if someone is under the influence of an illicit substance and added that each DUI arrest can take two or more hours of an officer’s time.

Kirschke also talked about Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or when a child is birthed from a mother who is addicted to opioids.

“Basically, it’s become somewhat of an epidemic, especially in East Tennessee,” he said. “It seems like many of the child fatalities, especially infant deaths, a lot of them are from neonatal abstinence syndrome.”

Dr. Jett also said that the East Tennessee region has a rate of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome that is 10 times higher compared to the rest of the nation.

“We are leading the way with a lot of bad things,” he said.

• • •

The panel discussed what spurred the opioid epidemic, and pointed to events back in the 1980s and 1990s that acted as a catalyst for increased use of pain medications. Oxycontin was first introduced by Purdue Pharmaceuticals in 1996.

“We started to judge hospitals by how satisfied people were with their pain levels,” said Kirschke. “There was a time period during which physicians were basically graded with how well they treated pain … doctors’ hands were almost tied.”

Hagaman and Murray spoke on the varied treatments available for opioid addiction that include abstinence-based outpatient treatment, more intensive outpatient treatment, inpatient treatment which typically lasts 30 days and medication-assisted therapy.

“There are all sorts of different types of treatments out there and it’s going to be different for each person,” said Murray.

Smith said, unfortunately, many of the treatment programs don’t last long enough and can lead to relapse. She said goals of recovery include: reduced mortality, improved social function, decreased or discontinued drug use and improved quality of life.

Kirschner also mentioned Naloxone, the antidote to opioid overdose that is available in nasal sprays and injectable forms.

“It reverses the effects of the opioid,” he said. “You can get it from most pharmacies without a prescription and many clinics offer it for free.”

Unused medications can be disposed of at the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department or the Erwin Police Department.

In Unicoi County, CHIPs offers “Living Free” – a faith-based recovery meeting on Thursdays at 9 a.m. For more information, call 743-0022.

Family support meetings are offered in Johnson City at Covenant Presbyterian Church on Mondays at 7 p.m., Tuesdays at 7 p.m, and Thursdays at noon. Harrison Christian Church offers a meeting on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. and Watauga Avenue Presbyterian Church on Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.

First Christian Church in Erwin offers an AA meeting on Thursdays at 6 p.m.

To connect to more resources in the region or to learn more about the Unicoi County Prevention Coalition, contact Christy Smith at 735-8407.

Unicoi County Republican Primary: Evely wins mayoral race, Hensley wins sheriff’s race

By Kendal Groner

The results for the 2018 Unicoi County May 1 Republican Primary are as follows.

For Unicoi County Mayor, Garland “Bubba” Evely won the highest number of votes. Evely received 1,821 votes. Incumbent Greg Lynch received 1,301 votes.

For Unicoi County Sheriff, Michael K. Hensley received the highest number of votes. Hensley received 1,955 votes, Jimmy K. Erwin received 805 votes, and Robert Bryan Mccurry received 429 votes.

For Unicoi County Commission District 1, Loren Thomas, Jamie Harris and Marie Shelton Rice were the three candidates who received the highest number of votes and won seats on the panel. Thomas received 545 votes, Harris received 516 votes and Rice received 457 votes.

Other candidates Damon Wilson received 393 votes, Gene Wilson received 307 votes and Eddie Bolton received 272 votes.

For Unicoi County Commission District 2, Jason Harris, Glenn White and Matthew K. Rice were the three candidates who received the highest number of votes. Harris received 580 votes, White received 560 votes and Rice received 553 votes.

Other candidates Kenneth E. Garland received 371 votes and Michael H. Harris received 355 votes.

For Unicoi County Commission District 3, Todd Wilcox, Stephen Hendrix and John W. Mosley were the three candidates who received the highest number of votes. Wilcox received 707 votes, Hendrix received 520 votes, and Mosley received 413 votes.

Other candidates Bridget R Peters received 393 votes and Billy R. Harkins Jr. received 351 votes.

Paul Berry ran uncontested for County Trustee and received 2,898 votes. Darren C. Shelton ran uncontested for Circuit Court Clerk and received 2,842 votes. Mitzi Bowen ran uncontested for County Clerk and received 2,854 votes. Debbie McInturff Tittle ran uncontested for Register of Deeds and received 2,846 votes. Terry Haynes ran uncontested for Superintendent of Roads and received 2,761 votes. Arthur Metcalf ran uncontested for Constable in District 1 and received 857 votes. Wayne Edwards ran uncontested for Constable in District 2 and received 861 votes. Timmy Lewis ran uncontested for Constable in District 3 and received 874 votes.

In the Aug. 2 Unicoi County General Election, Evely, the winner of the Republican Primary race for county mayor, will face independent candidates John Day and Richard G. Preston.

In the race for seats on the County Commission in District 2, the winners of the May primary – Jason Harris, Glenn White and Matthew Rice – will face independent candidates Rob Martin and Lisa Brewington White.

The results of the May 1 primary are unofficial until they are certified by the Unicoi County Election Commission. For a full story of the primary, including interviews with winners, pick up a copy of the May 9 issue of The Erwin Record.


Industrial Development Board OKs agreement to pave way for new shopping center

The Unicoi County Industrial Development Board discusses potential development opportunities within the county. The board is currently working to build an incentive package for an interested developer. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

During the Wednesday, April 18, meeting of the Unicoi County Industrial Development Board, the board unanimously approved an agreement with special counsel to represent them in connection with a proposed tax increment incentive that will assist with the development of a shopping center in Unicoi County.

The Knoxville based law firm, Bass Berry & Sims will represent the board as their client and the developer, a large regional retailer, will be responsible for paying the legal fees.

“We’re not spending any money and we’re not giving anything away … this is just to develop the incentive package,” said Tyler Engle, executive director of the Unicoi County Joint Economic Development Board and Industrial Development Board member. “It’s very important for everyone to understand that there is no agreement or contract, we have just agreed for Bass Berry & Simms to develop the initial offering.”

The proposed development would occur on Second Street in Erwin; however, Engle asked that the name of the developer be kept confidential until they are further along in the development process in order to prevent the prospective deal from being hindered in any way.

“It has very strong potential and the clients are excited,” said Engle. “We are very pleased and that’s one reason we are really asking for everyone to be patient. We think it will be a really great development that everyone will be pleased with.” 

According to the agreement, Bass Berry & Simms will perform the following duties: assist the board in preparing an economic impact plan that would authorize the proposed incentive; draft the basic agreement governing the incentive; prepare and review necessary documents; assist the board in seeking approvals from other governmental authorities; review legal issues related to the structure of the incentive; and, subject to the completion of proceedings, render their legal opinion of the tax increment note.

Industrial Development Board Vice President Garland “Bubba” Evely asked whether or not the board would be the ones determining what the incentive package will be.

“Yes, and we hope to have that done rather quickly,” said Engle. “The developer is on an aggressive timeline.”

Board member Ted Hopson made a motion to approve the proposal as written and it was seconded by board member James Mumpower before it unanimously passed.

“I think this could be a great deal, provided they go through with it,” said Evely.

• • •

In other business, Engle said the Joint Economic Development Board is working with counterparts from Washington County and Carter County to identify new industrial sites.

“We have all worked together to identify large-scale tracts that would be appropriate for industrial development and we are working on that list,” he said.

He also said they have already enlisted the help of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and will also be working with the State Department of Economic and Community Development.

“That’s a regional project and we are very pleased with how that long-range planning venture is coming along,” said Engle. “We’re not focusing just on Unicoi County or Johnson City, but we are building a regional economy so we can all be strong together.”

To date, a total of $1 million has been spent on the former Morgan Insulation Property Second Street, a potential large industrial site, in preparation of future developers.

“We actually have an agent in Germany right now representing the property and we have this property in front of interested parties all the time,” Engle said. “We’re sharing these characteristics of the property and the information as it’s appropriate to interested users.”

Just last week, Engle said the Joint Economic Development Board met with individuals to craft the best marketing strategies for the site. 

“Because we’ve taken steps to invest in our property resources, I think that pushes us on down the road,” said Engle.

Unicoi County Commission votes to issue RFP for ambulance service

By Kendal Groner

While it is still being determined whether or not Unicoi County can use the $440,000 Community Development Block Grant allocated to the Town of Erwin for the purchase of ambulances that would be used to create a locally-operated service, county officials met to discuss proposed changes to the request for proposal (RFP) that MedicOne, the county’s current ambulance provider, had bid on.

Following the April 20 meeting of the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee, the Unicoi County Commission voted to issue out the RFPs on May 8 during its meeting on Monday, April 23.

Until the First Tennessee Development District finishes a round of surveys to determine whether the county can use the block grant, officials felt it would be prudent to go ahead and see what service offers they receive from other ambulance providers, seeing as MedicOne was the only company that bid four years ago.

“We’ve got several different ones (RFPs) from other counties that we’ve been looking at,” said Jason Harris, Ambulance Committee chairman, during the April 20 meeting.

After dissatisfaction with long wait times and not enough ambulances, one of the major issues the county has faced is being unable to penalize the company due to the weak wording of the contract and RFP.

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said he has been looking at RFPs and contracts from Marion County, Knox County and Sequatchie County, which has a population similar to that of Unicoi County.

“The problem is, the more stuff we put in there, the less likely we are to get bidders and the more likely we are to get high bidders,” said Lynch.

Unicoi County Commissioner Glenn White asked if the main issue with MedicOne’s service had been a lack of vehicles.

“We have the vehicles, but not the staffing,” said Lynch.

Ed Herndon, Unicoi County Emergency Management Services director, said all ambulance service providers across the country are having similar problems. Bobby Westberry, senior account executive for Lifeguard Ambulance Service, attended the meeting and confirmed that staffing is an issue across the board and even though pay increases have helped, they haven’t solved the problem.

With MedicOne’s contract not expiring until April of 2019, County Attorney Doug Shults pointed out that the time frame might be an issue for some ambulance service providers.

“You’re asking people to make proposals a year ahead of time,” said Shults. “I’m not in the ambulance business, but that might make me hesitant.”

White asked about the possibility of going ahead and terminating the contract with MedicOne, but Lynch felt it was best to leave the contract as is and allow MedicOne to place a bid if they choose to do so.

“It’s also within our right to write a refusal of any bid,” said Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice.

Westberry with Lifeguard Ambulance service, which has Tennessee locations in Nashville, Humphrey’s County, Knoxville and Spring Hill, said an established ambulance service with facilities available could be ready within 60 days.

“But just in my opinion, with a year out projection a lot of things can change,” Westberry said. “We definitely do have interest here (placing a bid for service) and it’s in our wheelhouse … as long as it’s sensible.”

Commissioner Gene Wilson asked why Lifeguard didn’t bid four years ago and Westberry said the climate of the company was considerably different at that time.

Next, the board began discussing changes they could make to the current RFP to attract a satisfactory service.

“We want to get the wheels rolling in the next two months that it will take us to get the surveys for the grant going,” said Lynch.

The board discussed changing the required time for notice of withdrawing services, the amount of the subsidy provided to the company, the number of required ambulances and how many years and miles the ambulances would be good for.

The original RFP required the company to provide a 60-day notice if they intended to end their services; however, the board felt it would be better for the county to stipulate that the company had to provide a 120-day notice.

As opposed to having two locations, the board suggested just having one central location as home to the service within 1.5 miles of the Harris Hollow exit because the majority of ambulance calls originate from within the Town of Erwin.

“I think roughly 49 percent of our population is in or around Erwin also,” said Herndon.

The current RFP calls for two advanced life support ambulances running 24/7, with one basic life support ambulance for peak times.

“I think if we did create our own service, the idea had been to have three ambulances running full time,” said Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley.

The board recommended having the two advanced life support ambulances running 24/7 along with a basic life support ambulance that runs for 12 hours a day as opposed to the vague wording of “peak times.”

They also included that a company may wish to include a backup ambulance, in case one ambulance went down for maintenance reasons.

“They would basically be in violation of their contract if one went down,” Rice said.

For the advanced life support ambulances, the original RFP allowed them to be used for four years, up to 200,000 miles. The board suggested changing it to four years and 250,000 miles because ambulances are required to go through state inspections.

“The key is a good maintenance program,” Wilson said.

Lynch suggested a $200,000 performance bond as opposed to $150,000 due to the fact that he said it could cost up to $2,000 a day if the county had to rely on services from neighboring counties.

“The biggest thing is going to be determining how to word the penalty with the contract,” said Rice.

Instead of stipulating what response times should be, Lynch suggested having a periodic review of response times and Rice also mentioned that since they would have to subsidize any ambulance company they enter into a contract with, there should be an expectation that a financial statement of revenue is provided.

The board discussed penalties for violations of the proposed contract, such as not having enough ambulances available, and Harris said most RFPs he looked at, called for a penalty of up to $5,000 per violation.

Unicoi County Commissioner and Ambulance Committee member Kenneth Garland suggested issuing a warning for the first violation and then penalizing subsequent violations.

“Everyone is going to make mistakes once in awhile,” Garland said.

During the county commission meeting on Monday, commissioners also discussed voting to purchase property to build an ambulance station in the Harris Hollow Area of exit 36.

However, Wilson felt it would be unwise to confine the ambulance station to that area when he said he had heard from a few people on the south end of the county with potential property.

Commissioner Loren Thomas agreed and said he would like it to be better researched on what the best central location would be.

“Somebody needs to do a study,” said Thomas.

Thomas made a motion to table any further action regarding the purchase of property to construct an ambulance station until the Building and Grounds Committee is able to complete a study.

“We need to meet quickly so any of this available land doesn’t go away,” said Harris.

His motion was seconded by White before it unanimously passed.

“I’d like to see one central location and do it right so it benefits everyone,” said Wilson.

During the commission’s discussion on the RFPs, Garland made a motion to table the matter, but later withdrew his motion.

Thomas, who was unable to attend the Ambulance Committee meeting, did not feel the commissioners had adequate time to look over the RFPs before voting in the meeting.

“We were just handed this (RFP) as we got in … how can we vote on something we just got,” Thomas said. “He may have a point,” White said about Thomas’s remark.

Lynch said he was hoping they could “test the waters” with the RFP and get an idea of what kind of services would be interested in bidding.

“There’s still a split in Unicoi County on whether or not we should start our own or turn it over to another corporation,” he said.

Jimmy Erwin, MedicOne’s current operations manager, cautioned the commissioners that they should be fully confident with the RFP and specifications they were putting out.

“When you do this bid, put it out exactly like you want it,” he said.

Harris made a motion to place the RFPs out for bid on May 8 with a deadline of noon on June 20 to have them in the mayor’s office. The motion was seconded by Wilson before it passed, with only Thomas voting in opposition.

CASA seeks volunteers to serve as advocates for children

Melanie Feathers, CASA program coordinator for Unicoi County, and Whitney McLaughlin, executive director of CASA of Northeast Tennessee, stand behind the pinwheel garden they installed in front of the Unicoi County Courthouse in recognition of Child Abuse Prevention Month. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

On April 12, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Northeast Tennessee installed a pinwheel garden outside the Unicoi County Courthouse to recognize April as Child Abuse Prevention Month.

CASA of Northeast Tennessee has partnered with Prevent Child Abuse Tennessee to create pinwheel gardens across the Northeast Tennessee community.

“The pinwheel has kind of taken on the symbolism that each pinwheel stands for a happy, healthy child who has been served by child advocacy programs such as CASA,” said Whitney McLaughlin, executive director for CASA of Northeast Tennessee. “When you see this, you see that someone has helped a child in need and now they are better off than they were before.”

CASA, a non-profit organization, works to recruit and train community volunteers to advocate on behalf of children who are in the court system as a result of abuse or neglect to ensure they get a safe and stable home. In order to become a volunteer, individuals must be at least 21 years of age, pass a background check and interview with current CASA workers.

“We have a 35-hour training course, and during that course they learn everything from court etiquette, how to write court reports, how to interview families and cultural diversity,” McLaughlin said.

Melanie Feathers, CASA program coordinator for Unicoi County, said they also teach volunteers how to see risk factors for abuse and neglect such as substance abuse or domestic violence.

CASA advocates are appointed by juvenile court judges and each court has its own coordinator on staff that is available to support and guide volunteers while acting as a liaison to the court.

“Anytime a child comes through the juvenile court system with allegations of abuse and neglect, we are appointed to some of those cases,” said McLaughlin.

CASA of Northeast Tennessee serves Washington, Green, and Unicoi counties, and in 2017 they were able to advocate for 329 youth in the region. Of the 329 youth, approximately 60 were from Unicoi County.

Feathers said that while seeing children placed in safe and stable homes is extremely rewarding, the process can at times be difficult, which is why the volunteers and coordinators work closely to create a support system for one another.

“The most taxing emotional part is on our volunteers because they are the ones visiting with the children regularly, and who are invested in seeing these families succeed,” said Feathers. “That’s another reason the coordinator is there to be available to them … one thing we try to do is be a sounding board for them and kind of walk through what’s happened with a case so they don’t internalize it all.”

The caseload for each volunteer is generally kept small, with only one or two cases at a time so that volunteers can be as available to the children and families as possible.

“We are always recruiting more volunteers because unfortunately abuse and neglect are not going away,” McLaughlin said. “We need new fresh blood to act as the child’s voice.”

She said they see many volunteers who are retired school teachers, nurses or military personnel. Some volunteers are employed; however, they need to be able to commit to at least three to four hours per week with CASA.

No prior experience is required, and anyone interested in becoming a volunteer is encouraged to contact CASA.

“What we really want to see in people is their willingness to serve children who have fallen through the cracks,” McLaughlin said. “If you feel in your heart that you love children and want to be their voice and create change in the world, then being a volunteer with CASA will definitely fulfill that vision.”

If you are interested in learning more about CASA of Northeast Tennessee or becoming a volunteer, contact Whitney McLaughlin at 461-3500, or email mclaughling@casanetn.org.

The Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce is teaming up with CASA of Northeast Tennessee to host the 7th annual Achin’ for the Bacon 5K River Run on May 5. The cost to register is $25, and a portion of the proceeds will benefit CASA of Northeast Tennessee.

If you are interested in registering for the race, contact the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce at 743-3000.

Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band debuts first CD

Current members of the Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band and alumni gather at a recent event. (Contributed photo)

By Keeli Parkey

Waiting for a live show to enjoy the music of the Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band?

Now you don’t have to thanks to the release of the group’s first CD, entitled “Keep Travelin’ On,” which became available in December 2017.

“We appreciate all the folks that helped make this project a reality, especially our alumni members that played on the CD with us,” band sponsor Lori Ann Wright said. “The CD really represents how far the band has progressed since the first year. It was a true learning process to create the CD and a joy to get to work with previous band members.”

Current members of the Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band (UCHS BGB) are Adam Miller, Bailey Robinson, Hannah Edwards, Sarah Grace Larkey, Matthew Hatcher and Benjamin Edwards. Lucas Swinehart and Kaitlyn Rogers provide tech and public relations for the group.

Joining forces with the current UCHS BGB members to make the CD a reality were UCHS BGB alumni – Courtney Harris, Jacob Shelton, Adam Larkey, Alison Miller, Cheyenne Godsey, Craig T. Nelson, Lincoln Hensley and Troy Boone – and Ben Bateson at the East Tennessee State University recording lab.

The CD is the result of two years of hard work by Wright and the band members. In addition to practicing and planning for the recording, members also did a lot of fundraising to cover expenses. Wright said each member of the 2017 band picked two bluegrass or gospel songs available in the public domain for the set list. The band then went to work as a group to arrange each selected song. The members also chose an original song written by the 2013-14 members of the UCHS BGB on a bus ride back from student performances in Nashville and used the song’s name as the title of the album.

“The goal was to go into the studio as prepared as possible so we could make the most of our limited recording time and stay on budget,” Wright said. “The students were so invested in making the album; they treated the project as music professionals would in a studio setting. I was proud, not only of the talent they displayed, but of the mature attitude and ownership they displayed while recording.”

Wright also said the design and photography for the CD case were done by senior Kaitlyn Rogers who used regional photographs as inspiration for her design.

CDs are currently on sale in the main office at UCHS and are $15 for one and $10 for additional copies.

• • •

The UCHS BGB has several live performances on its calendar, including:

• April 13 from 5-7 p.m. – Temple Hill PTO annual Soup Bean Supper Fundraiser.

• April 14 at 6 p.m. – Annual UCHS Drama & Bluegrass Down Home Dinner Show at Farmhouse Gallery & Gardens. Tickets are available at the UCHS main office.

• April 28 at 10 a.m. – Fiddlers and Fiddleheads Festival in Unicoi.

• May 4 at 7 p.m. – Opening for Sideline at the UCHS auditorium. Tickets are now available at the UCHS main office.

• May 5 – The Great Outdoor Festival in Erwin.

• May 12 – Feed and Seed in Fletcher, North Carolina.

• May 26-27 – Dollywood in Pigeon Forge.

According to Wright, the UCHS BGB has been lucky enough to have some unique performance experiences in recent months, including local and regional gigs, as well as travel performances.

“We have enjoyed several special moments over the past year, but performing on Danny Stewart’s Bluegrass Cruise to Cozumel and performing at Bluegrass First Class in Asheville had to be our top favorite events,” said Adam Miller and Benjamin Edwards.

Five seniors – Benjamin Edwards, Adam Miller, Bailey Robinson, Matthew Hatcher and Kaitlyn Rogers – are currently part of the UCHS BGB.

“This year the band graduates five seniors and they all plan to go on to college,” Wright said. “Ben and Adam want to study at ETSU and be a part of the bluegrass program there. Bailey also plans to attend ETSU and wants to become a drama teacher. Matthew wants to study agriculture in college and hopes to use that knowledge on his farm one day. Kaitlyn, our PR person and graphic designer, plans to study graphic design and digital media at ETSU.”

Students interested in the joining the UCHS BGB are invited to audition on May 2 from 3:30-5 p.m. at UCHS. Unicoi County Middle School eighth graders or UCHS student interested in auditioning should contact Wright at wrightl@unicoischools.com.

Unicoi County officials consider starting new ambulance service

Unicoi County and Town of Erwin officials once again sat down to discuss the county’s ambulance service options during the March 21 Unicoi County Ambulance Committee meeting. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

After plans for the Town of Erwin to create a countywide ambulance service came to a halt earlier this month when the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen rejected a plan to create an interlocal agreement, Unicoi County officials must now decide how to address the inadequate service they have been receiving with their contract through MedicOne.

During the Wednesday, March 21, Unicoi County Ambulance Committee meeting the general consensus was that the county’s best option would be to create its own ambulance service rather than putting the service back out for bid.

The major obstacle for officials with the Town of Erwin and Unicoi County is trying to find a way for the county to utilize the $440,000 Community Development Block Grant that was allocated to the Town of Erwin to purchase ambulances.

After speaking with the First Tennessee Development District, the agency that administers the grant, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said there may be a way for the Town of Erwin to purchase the ambulances, then move them over to the county.

“I think it’s a good possibility that the county could move forward with the grant, or with the actual ambulances, and somehow get them into a county run ambulance service,” Lynch said.

The county can also still utilize the $250,000 for the sale of Unicoi County Memorial Hospital to Mountain States Alliance, and Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley mentioned an additional $115,000 the Hospital Foundation offered that could be paid back over time.

Lynch has been reviewing the business plan drafted by the Town of Erwin for the creation of a new ambulance service, and Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice has been conducting extensive research on the ambulance services of similar sized counties.

“I think it’s a good possibility we can break away from corporate providers for ambulance services,” Lynch said.

Ambulance Committee Chairman Jason Harris asked about a time frame for the grant, and Lynch said that it was still uncertain, but they should have a more definitive answer in the coming weeks.

“I believe that if you all create the ambulance service, we could let you use the ambulances,” said Mayor Hensley. “I don’t foresee a problem as long as you all will pay the matching fees.”

The scope of the grant states 75 percent of the ambulance’s usage must be within the Town of Erwin. However, Unicoi County Commission Gene Wilson stated that he believed close to 80 percent of all ambulance calls actually originate from within the Town of Erwin.

Hensley also stated she had inquired about the possibility of purchasing used ambulances to try and get the most out of the grant funds. She was told that as long as it was justifiable, such as ambulances with low mileage and in good condition, that it was a possibility.

“What we ought to do is apply (for the grant) in the next go round so we can get another new ambulance and upgrade or whatever if we have a used one or two,” said Rice.

Rice said ideally she would like to see the service start with two new ambulances and two used ambulances.

“This was pretty unique, the Town of Erwin getting this Community Development Block Grant,” said Lynch. “The high scoring ones have usually been for infrastructure.”

“It’s a big leg up,” Rice said about the grant.

Bill Hensley, chairman of the Unicoi County 911 Board, said that the best cooperation he has seen between any of the governments happened between the Town of Erwin and Unicoi County in attempts to create a countywide ambulance service before the plans hit a roadblock in the Town of Erwin BMA meeting.

“Everyone was on board,” Bill Hensley said. “The silent people that stopped this are still out there … you’ll have to fight them.”

Unicoi County Commissioner Kenneth Garland said he felt the county ought to look into purchasing a piece of property and building a structure to house the ambulances.

Rice was concerned with focusing on purchasing property at the offset when they currently had locations to house them.

“I think if we were able to get a good director to run this thing, we could make it work,” said Unicoi County Commissioner Gene Wilson.

Mayor Hensley stated the reasoning for the high wages in her business plan was to attract quality workers. In her plan, paramedics would average $18 an hour, full time AEMTS would average $16 an hour, and part time AEMTS would average $13 an hour.

Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley mentioned that Johnson City pays $17.75 an hour for EMS workers, and noted that two MedicOne employees recently left Unicoi County to work there.

Wilson asked about contracting employees out to save funds, and Bill Hensley responded that it could cause issues with being able to reprimand or fire an employee who was not fulfilling their duties.

In discussing how to finance the service, Garland also stated that if funds weren’t available, the county could borrow funds for the service.

“If we’re in the black it could be its own entity … later down the road if the county had to subsidize some we could,” said Rice

Rice said that back in the 1990s Unicoi County subsidized $380,000 for ambulance services. She emphasized that she did not want to let the opportunity pass to create a new service.

“What do we have to show for the $1 million and something we’ve paid over the last years,” she asked, referencing their past with contracted ambulance services.

Lynch also reminded the committee of the past troubles the county has had with contracting ambulance services, and even mentioned an instance when one contracted company completely pulled out of their agreement, leaving the county temporarily without service.

“The history I’ve had with contracted agencies since I’ve been here has been rough,” said Lynch. “Someone said, ‘you know we don’t contract out our policeman or firefighters … why would we contract emergency medical services’.”

The committee will continue looking into the Community Development Block Grant and meeting again before next month’s Unicoi County Commission meeting.

Town of Unicoi BMA voices support for open records exemption

By Kendal Groner

During the Monday, March 19, meeting of the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen, the board passed a resolution in support of open records legislation protecting the privacy of food-based business incubator entities such as the Mountain Harvest Kitchen.

The resolution endorsed legislation in the Tennessee State Legislature that when originally filed would have “made confidential the records of a food-based business incubation service provider created by a municipality.”

However, after the executive director for the Tennessee Open Records Coalition spoke with Senator Rusty Crowe, the bill has been amended with a subdivision to specifically protect the proprietary, trade, and marketing information of those who utilize the kitchen.

“This whole issue came about because the director of the kitchen had grave concerns about folks coming in, maybe they have a novel idea or special recipe, or something unusual they want to develop,” said Town of Unicoi Attorney Lois Shults-Davis. “Based on her experience in working with the Small Business Administration and the federal government’s regulations, was that every single thing about the client’s experience was confidential.”

Shults-Davis continued by saying that Lee Manning, director of Mountain Harvest Kitchen, had concerns about offering someone these services and then their private information potentially becoming public.

It was also mentioned by Shults-Davis that there is a number of exceptions in Open Records Law that deal with similar activity and stated that the Town of Unicoi was supporting those efforts to protect that information.

“Their proprietary information is already protected,” Alderwoman Kathy Bullen said about the Tennessee Open Records Law.

Alderman Roger Cooper said he has been following the senate bill since he became aware of it, and stated that he agreed the client’s proprietary information should be protected, but his concern stemmed from the original wording of the bill.

“The original bill actually protected everything,” Cooper said. “Luckily the amended bill talks about proprietary information … it doesn’t say anything about the financial records of the kitchen.”

Cooper said he ran the resolution by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, and it was suggested to him that the resolution by the town should be clarified so it should not be misunderstood to close the records of the kitchen, which is a government entity.

“Records of the kitchen include financial records, including the names of the clients and the amount they paid to use the kitchen,” Cooper continued. “They are saying we need to add this to our resolution to remove any doubt.”

Cooper made a motion to amend the resolution to state that it does not close the records of the kitchen.

Shults-Davis felt the added amendment would not add clarity to the resolution, and expressed concerns that private information of the clients could become records of the Town of Unicoi.

“What about when it becomes part of the town’s records, that’s the issue,” Shults-Davis said.

Cooper’s motion to amend the resolution failed with himself and Bullen voting in favor. Vice-Mayor Doug Hopson, Aldermen Jeff Linville, and Mayor Johnny Lynch voted in opposition.

The original resolution supporting the bill in the Tennessee State Legislature passed with Lynch, Linville, and Hopson voting in favor. Bullen voted in opposition, and Cooper abstained.

“Let’s just wait and see what the state legislature decides,” Bullen said.

The bill was last awaiting further action on March 20 in the State Senate and Local Government Committee.

• • •

Following the discussion of the open records legislation, Cooper initiated a discussion on Tennessee Open Records Law and read an article from the Knoxville News Sentinel that stressed the importance of open records, and the need to reexamine exemptions to the law that keep information private from the public and elected officials.

Cooper mentioned that last week was Sunshine Week, an annual celebration that celebrated access to public information and highlighted the dangers of unnecessary secrecy.

“Public and elected officials have a legal right to know how an entity is being managed and how money is being spent,” he said. “Prohibiting access to public records hurts everyone. We need to see what we can do to work through this and not have this come up again.”

• • •

Security at Unicoi County Elementary School was also a topic raised by Cooper during the meeting. With 353 children and 49 adults at the school, Cooper would like to see increased security measures.

“As we have all seen, security at our schools is mandatory … we need to see what we can do to help the security at Unicoi Elementary.”

Cooper said that as elected officials, he felt their number one priority should be protecting the welfare of the citizens. He suggested that the board discuss in their upcoming retreat the possibility of putting a School Resource Officer in the school as well as a deputy on the road. Based on the estimates he had, he believed it would cost approximately $80,000 for one officer.

“We need to look at this as a challenge, because as a town we need to support our citizens … they are in our care,” said Cooper. “This is a small amount for us to invest to protect them.”

• • •

In other business, the board passed a resolution to amend the Town of Unicoi personnel policy to remove the two month probationary period before new employees can become eligible for health insurance.

New employees will now be eligible to participate beginning the first day of the month following their hire month.

The board also passed a resolution authorizing the mayor to make an application and sign necessary documentation for a Local Parks and Recreation Fund Grant in the amount of $248,000 for the construction of an amphitheater.

In order to qualify, the Town of Unicoi must be willing to provide a 50 percent match of $248,000 for a total project cost of $496,000.

The board also passed a resolution adopting the Town of Unicoi’s updated 2017 official strategic plan.

Ambulance issue in county’s hands after Erwin BMA rejects interlocal agreement

By Kendal Groner

After a motion to create a new ambulance service department failed during the March 12 meeting of the Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen, it is now up to Unicoi County officials to find a solution to the inadequate ambulance services the county has been receiving.

“I was shocked, absolutely shocked,” Doris Hensley, Town of Erwin mayor, said about last week’s meeting. “In the work session everyone was in favor or agreement that something had to be done, even one of the aldermen said we’ve got to stop pointing fingers and solve this problem.”

Inadequate staffing, long wait times, and simply not enough personnel have become common complaints by local officials against MedicOne, the ambulance service Unicoi County currently has a contract with.

Jason Harris, Unicoi County commissioner and chairman of the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee, said he would have liked to see the motion pass in the Erwin BMA meeting, which would have created an interlocal service agreement among the three municipalities.

“Once they got it up and running we could have turned it into an authority,” Harris said. “I was really hoping they could get that passed.”

Harris mentioned Washington County, Johnson City, and Jonesborough, three governments who all three work together as an ambulance authority.

“That’s what it could be turned into,” he said. “I really was hoping we could all (Unicoi County, the Town of Erwin and the Town of Unicoi) three work together on it and get something together for the people of the county.”

Mayor Hensley said that she still receives complaints about the service on a regular basis, and is concerned with how long the issue has been drawn out without agreeing on a solution.

“I had a report that a parent had to put a child in their own car and take them to the hospital … this is a scary situation,” Hensley said.

Harris could not affirm whether or not the county will pursue legal action against MedicOne for contract violations. He said officials are currently compiling data on the number of calls where an ambulance was not available or there was a considerable wait time.

“Right now I think we’re just waiting to see the 911 board and attorney … they’ve (MedicOne) had one letter sent to them before and they know they’re in violation, but they want specific dates,” Harris said.

The creation of the ambulance service had projected costs of $1,233,807. A total of $440,000 from a Community Development Block Grant, and $250,000 from the Hospital Foundation for the sale of Unicoi County Memorial Hospital to Mountain States Health Alliance was available to fund the service.

After collecting data on the number of ambulance calls over the last few years, Mayor Hensley estimated that projected revenues would run close to $1,184,000. The Hospital Foundation was also willing to provide a additional $115,000 that could be paid back over a period of time. The Town of Erwin had agreed to match an additional $115,000, with the three municipalities splitting the rest of the costs.

The $440,000 Community Development Block Grant was allocated to the Town of Erwin rather than the county. However, Mayor Hensley is still working to see if there is a way the funds can benefit the county.

“I am still working on the possibility of us buying two ambulances and keeping it in our name and letting the county use it, but I don’t know if my board will even go along with that,” Hensley stated.

If the Town of Erwin had progressed with plans to create the new ambulance service department, Unicoi County would have been responsible for $138,253, the Town of Erwin would be responsible for $47,651, and the Town of Unicoi would be responsible for $27,779.

The Unicoi County Ambulance Committee had voted to recommend to the Unicoi County Commission to provide the $138,253 in funding for the service. Unicoi County currently pays a $132,000 subsidy, or $11,000 each month, for MedicOne’s services. 

During the Town of Erwin’s BMA meeting last week, those opposed to creating the ambulance services cited a potential tax increase to cover the costs as the reasoning behind their opposition. However, Mayor Hensley said after working long and hard to come up with her financial projections, she was confident in the figures she had.

“It was all covered, we would have had a surplus,” she said. “I know the first year would have been the hardest, but everything was covered for the first year.”

With the grant money available to the Town of Erwin, Hensley felt there was a greater chance of the county having to raise taxes if they were to create their own service.

“That was one thing I didn’t get, they talked about a tax increase, but a tax increase for the county would have been much larger than one for the Town of Erwin, if there had to be one,” she said.   

On Wednesday, March 21, at 3 p.m. the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee will meet in the Unicoi County Courthouse to discuss their options in addressing the ambulance issue.

March 21 Issue of The Erwin Record Delayed

From Staff Reports

A fire to the van being used to deliver the March 21 issue of The Erwin Record has delayed distribution of the paper.

The issue is being reprinted on Wednesday morning and will be delivered as soon as possible. The new paper will also be available in boxes and in stores as soon as possible.

The Erwin Record staff apologizes for any inconvenience this accident has caused. For more information, call 743-4112.

Bill draws attention of open records watchdogs

By Kendal Groner

A bill in the Tennessee State Legislature related to the accessibility of public records from food incubation service providers, such as the Mountain Harvest Kitchen located in the Town of Unicoi, attracted the attention of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

As it was originally written the bill will “make confidential the records of any food-based business incubation service provider created by a municipality.”

Deb Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, became aware of the bill after speaking with State Senator Rusty Crowe.

“As a non-profit organization that seeks to preserve transparency, we track bills that make changes to the Public Records Act,” Fisher explained. “That bill would add an exemption to the Public Records Act.”

The bill is currently sponsored by State Representative John Holsclaw and State Senator Rusty Crowe, and was first filed for introduction at the end of January.

Fisher said she believed the bill was initiated by Town of Unicoi officials due to concern that in the business incubation setting of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen, the proprietary records of the companies would become public.

“What I told Senator Crowe is that there are exemptions in the Public Records Acts that are written in a way to protect proprietary information and trade secrets,” said Fisher.

The topic of Mountain Harvest Kitchen’s financial statements and records of who is utilizing the service have come up in multiple meetings of the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch confirmed that the push for the bill did originate from the mayor’s office, but stated that the bill’s only intended purpose was to protect the privacy of the clients utilizing the kitchen.

“We called to basically allow for some sort of privacy for users of the kitchen to protect their recipes or ingredients and that sort of thing,” Lynch said. “We need to do the best we can to give them that kind of protection. Nobody is trying to keep anything from the public.”

Town of Unicoi attorney Lois Shults-Davis said she spoke with Senator Crowe in an attempt to align regulations concerning food based incubators with other entities in the state and protect sensitive information of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen clients, such as their financial information and business plans.

“It gets into some really confidential information that could be taken advantage of by competitors and become a source of real mischief,” Shults-Davis said. “Mountain Harvest Kitchen was conceived as something to benefit the patrons.”

She noted that under the Small Business Administration, which is offered as a resource for people that utilize Mountain Harvest Kitchen, the proprietary and trade secret information of the client is protected.

According to Shults-Davis, as it was explained to her, the information clients give to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also protected.

“We asked for it be very broad based initially, but I think the current wording of the bill does not leave out names, but does cover proprietary information,” she said.

• • •

Town of Unicoi Alderman Kathy Bullen says she has still not received any kind of financial statement on the overall use of the facility or a report on the users of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen, even after making multiple requests and filling out an open records request.

“I have asked since it opened, probably something at every meeting we have asked for a financial statement on the kitchen since it was up and running,” Bullen stated. “Preventing the aldermen from having access to information that belongs on a profit-loss statement regarding the kitchen prevents an elected official from fulfilling their judiciary and policy making responsibilities.”

Bullen also expressed concerns that this bill had not been discussed in any of the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen meetings.

Mayor Lynch said that he expects the bill to be discussed in the meetings at some point after further action is made at the state level. He also said that he did not feel the financial statements that Bullen has repeatedly asked for have anything to do with the classes and activities being held at the kitchen.

“If I were a user of the kitchen, other than my basic information like my name and address, I would be skeptical about any other information being released,” Lynch said. “I would not personally want to have that information given out to the public, and that’s just my feeling. As long as we can stay within the law on this thing, I feel like we need to make some arrangements so our clients can protect certain areas of their business.”

While Fisher agreed that it was not unreasonable to protect the proprietary and trade secret information of companies or individuals using the Mountain Harvest Kitchen, her main concern was with the blanket wording of the bill which would withhold all information related to the users of the kitchen.

“The way the original bill was filed, it actually closes the names of the companies that are receiving services and anything about them,” she said. “Our baseline on that is that a company receiving services or as a lease to use a facility, that information should not be confidential.”

With taxpayer money being directed to Mountain Harvest Kitchen, Bullen questioned why such information would be sealed off from not only the public, but the town’s elected officials.

“The town is running a financial enterprise, and if the bill went through the way it is originally stated, it would block us from having that information,” Bullen said. “It must be amended. We need names, contact information, and dollar amounts that people are paying to use the kitchen.”

Both Bullen and Fisher contacted Senator Crowe and discussed the need to refine the bill. According to Bullen, Senator Crowe assured her that the amended bill would only withhold proprietary information.

“Our (Tennessee Coalition for Open Government) hope is to help the lawmaker identify some language that would protect what needs to be protected, but not make everything confidential,” Fisher said.

The bill has recently been amended with a subdivision that will specifically protect the client’s commercial or financial information, manufacturing processes and materials used, and marketing information designed to identify potential customers and business relationships.

The new subdivision to the bill currently reads “proprietary information, trade secrets, and marketing information submitted to any food-based incubation service provider created by a municipality shall be treated as confidential and shall not be open for inspection by members of the public.”

When the Town of Unicoi originally contacted Senator Crowe, Shults-Davis said they had asked for more narrow wording of the bill that would specifically include Mountain Harvest Kitchen and the Town of Unicoi.

“But as it was looked at in Nashville, there is hope that this type of effort will spread across the state,” she said. “If there are other food based business incubators that develop like this, the bill can apply to any and all of those. It is a much bigger issue than just the Town of Unicoi and our kitchen.”

Even after the amendment, Bullen still says she has unanswered questions. She referenced a WCYB article that mentioned ‘Bite’ food truck as a success story from Mountain Harvest Kitchen.

“But the article has a date for the start of the business, before the kitchen even opened,” she said.

While Mayor Lynch has encouraged contact with Lee Manning, Mountain Harvest Kitchen director, according to Bullen, the mayor instructed Manning to not speak with anyone regarding details on the kitchen.

Since the bill’s introduction in January, it has since passed on first and second considerations and is awaiting further action in the State Senate and Local Government Committee on March 20.

Bullen said she plans to discuss the bill pertaining to the kitchen in the next Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting scheduled for  Monday, March 19, at 5:30 p.m.

New Upper Higgins Creek bridge installation begins

Terry Haynes, Unicoi County road superintendant, oversees the installation of the new Upper Higgins Creek Bridge. Unicoi County Highway Department workers carefully guide a bridge segment as it is set into place. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

On Feb. 27 construction crews began installing segments of the new Upper Higgins Creek Bridge. The project began in October, and is expected to reach completion by the end of March.

“We are actually probably a month ahead of schedule now,” said Terry Haynes, Unicoi County road superintendent.

The bridge was built offsite at Permatile Concrete Products Company in Bristol, Virginia. The bridge was transported to Unicoi County in 16 pieces that were placed segmentally onto a concrete foundation. The segmented units are connected by lateral ties and a grouted keyway formed into the foundation, according to Haynes.

The entire project, including the construction of the foundation and installment of the segments for the 48 foot long bridge, will be completed within 150 calendar days. 

“It would’ve taken over a year to build the bridge by hand,” Haynes said. “Since I’ve been in office I’ve seen six of these pre-fastened bridges.”

Each piece of the bridge segments weighed over 48,000 pounds and were positioned using an expensive link belt crane.

Haynes said he is hopeful that the new bridge will generate revenue back into the Flag Pond area, which he says has been negatively impacted by the interstate. It will also provide a more convenient access for the new Rocky Fork State Park.

“We’ve got to do some road widening soon, and we’re hoping this will open the Flag Pond community up, and encourage some kind of convenience center or store of some kind,” he said. “The state park was a big kick to get this bridge put into place.”

UCSD, EPD, school system to host active shooter trainings

By Kendal Groner

While the country is still dealing with the aftermath of the recent Florida school shooting, local law enforcement is working with the Unicoi County School System to ensure students and faculty are prepared to respond to active shooter situations.

During the first week of March, the Erwin Police Department and Unicoi County Sheriff’s Office will be conducting active shooter training drills at all county and city schools.

“We take this really serious, and it’s good training, especially in the times we live in and with what’s gone on recently,” said Mike Hensley, Unicoi County sheriff. “We are going to be blocking off the roads to the schools, and it will also be broadcast over the police radio, so if anyone hears anything we want them to know that this is a drill.”

The drill will mimic an active shooter situation, and prepare students and faculty to respond in a timely manner. The drills are meant to instruct students and faculty how to safely and efficiently evacuate the building or lock down a classroom.

Director of Schools John English said that these drills with local law enforcement are conducted at least annually, and other emergency preparedness drills for lockdowns, fires, tornadoes, or site evacuations are conducted on a monthly basis.

“We have several requirements by state law that we do these, but we will probably take this drill further than we have to in light of recent events,” English said. “This is all to make sure our students and staff are as prepared as possible.”

Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson said these drills are important to refresh skills and refamiliarize the officers with the different school buildings and familiarize the students and faculty with their response time. He said that these drills have been done in the past, and back in December his department trained at the Unicoi County High School to prepare for an active shooter situation.

“The difference between those drills and the ones that will be carried out during the first week of March is that we are doing these upcoming drills jointly with the county,” Tilson said. “We are going to respond together, so it is important that we are also training together.”

Tilson said that he and Sheriff Hensley have worked out a mutual agreement that regardless of whether an emergency situation occurs in a city or county school, both departments will respond.

“We are both small, and so we are going to pull those very precious resources together,” Tilson said. “This will allow us to work on the unification of those resources, because the last thing we want to do is divert those.”

Sheriff Hensley said that previously there was a School Resource Officer (SRO) in all of the county schools, but due to budget cuts it is no longer possible.

“If you asked me if an SRO should be in every school my answer would be a definite yes,” Hensley said.

There is currently an SRO at Unicoi County High School, Unicoi County Middle School and Rock Creek Elementary School.

“We can’t say an active shooter situation is never going to happen, and I hope and pray it doesn’t,” Hensley remarked. “But if it does happen, we have the training to take care of the situation. The way I look at it is we are protecting our future. Our children are our future, and we want a safe environment for the school teachers as well as the students.”

Election 2018: Fields set for local races

The Unicoi County Election Commission qualifies candidates during a meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 27. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

On Tuesday, Feb. 27, the Unicoi County Election Commission met to qualify candidates for the upcoming Unicoi County Republican and Democratic primary on May 1, as well as the candidates for the Unicoi County General election on Aug. 2.

Early voting times for the primary are set to occur April 11-26. The Election Commission office will be open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon. For election day for the Republican and Democratic primary on May 1, the polls will open at 8  a.m. and close at 8 p.m.

By law, it is mandated that there be two voting machine technicians, one Republican and one Democrat. Sam Keever will be the Republican voting machine technician, and Vince Roberts will be the Democrat voting technician.

The voting machine technicians verify and test the polling machines, after which the election commission will lock the polling machines. The public is welcome to view the polling machines being locked, and those dates will be released at a later time.

The following candidates were qualified for the Unicoi County Republican Primary:

Unicoi County Mayor

• Garland “Bubba” Evely – Republican

• Greg Lynch – Republican

Unicoi County Commission – District 1

• Eddie Bolton – Republican

• Jamie Harris – Republican

• Marie Shelton Rice – Republican

• Loren Thomas – Republican

• Damon Wilson – Republican

• Gene Wilson – Republican

Unicoi County Commission – District 2

• Kenneth E. Garland – Republican

• Jason Harris – Republican

• Michael H. Harris – Republican

• Matthew K. Rice – Republican

• Glenn White – Republican

Unicoi County Commission – District 3

• Billy R. Harkins Jr. – Republican

• Stephen Hendrix – Republican

• John W. Mosley – Republican

• Bridget R. Peters – Republican

• Todd Wilcox – Republican

Unicoi County Trustee

• Paul Berry – Republican

Unicoi County Sheriff

• Jimmy K. Erwin – Republican

• Michael K. Hensley – Republican

• Robert Bryan McCurry – Republican

Unicoi County Circuit

Court Clerk

• Darren C. Shelton – Republican

Unicoi County Clerk

• Mitzi Bowen – Republican

Unicoi County

Register of Deeds

• Debbie Tittle – Republican

Unicoi County

Road Superintendent

• Terry L. Haynes – Republican

Unicoi County

Constable – District 1

• Arthur Metcalf – Republican

Unicoi County

Constable – District 2

• Wayne Edwards – Republican

Unicoi County

Constable – District 3

• Timmy Lewis – Republican

• • •

In the Aug. 2 Unicoi County General Election, the winner of the Republican primary race for county mayor will face Independent candidates John Day and Richard G. Preston.

In the race for seats on the County Commission in District 2, the winners of May’s Republican primary will face Independent candidates Rob Martin and Lisa Brewington White.

Officials: Student made threats against Unicoi County High School

By Kendal Groner

Threats that a Unicoi County High School student allegedly made against fellow classmates have resulted in criminal charges.

On Tuesday, Feb. 20, Unicoi County High School administration received a report from another student that threats were made at an off site location. After receiving the report, Director of Schools John English said the school resource officer and other faculty began talking with the student who reportedly placed the threats, as well as other classmates.

“At the higher grades you get a little more of this. … but this is a different level,” English said. “We’re at a time now where ‘I was kidding or I didn’t mean it’ doesn’t work anymore. We are always teaching our students to be careful with what they are going to say.”

After a concerned parent contacted the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department later that day, law enforcement began collecting statements. Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said that several statements indicated that the student did in fact issue the threats.

“I take it serious, I have to,” Hensley stated.

After collecting multiple statements, the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department contacted the district attorney general in order to place charges against the juvenile.

“Based upon the statements we have, we had enough information to issue a juvenile petition on the individual,” said Hensley. “We got the green light to go ahead and charge this boy. We did arrest the individual, and they are currently being held at the detention center.”   

Hensley also said that the juvenile will be undergoing a psychiatric evaluation. Currently, the juvenile is charged with two counts of assault and one count of reckless endangerment.

Due to the nature of the threats, some students were fearful to attend school, giving grounds for the assault charge.

“For me, it’s about stressing the importance of having open lines of communication with our students, staff, and families,” English said. “If there is any noise or threats they get wind of, certainly please report that so, not only me and my staff, but law enforcement can take a deeper look at it. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of reporting what doesn’t feel, sound, or look right.”

Because the individual charged in this case is a minor, his name has not been released by law enforcement.

Ambulance talks continue

Representatives from Unicoi County, the Town of Erwin and the Town of Unicoi gathered at Erwin Town Hall last week to discuss the future of ambulance services. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

On Thursday, Feb. 15, Town of Erwin, Town of Unicoi and Unicoi County officials gathered in a work session to discuss plans to create a countywide ambulance service due to dissatisfaction with the county’s ambulance service provided by MedicOne.

The Town of Erwin has been receiving ambulance services through an agreement with Unicoi County, who holds the contract with MedicOne. Inadequate staffing, long wait times and simply not enough ambulances have become a common occurrence since the county contracted with MedicOne for their services, according to local officials.

The county’s four-year contract with MedicOne took effect in April of 2015, and includes a $132,000 subsidy. In an attempt to address some of the issues with the service, MedicOne hired Jimmy Erwin, MedicOne’s Operations Manager in February of 2017.

“There’s really not been that much of an issue everyday, but when multiple calls come in, such as two emergency calls, there’s a small wait time,” Erwin said. “There are occasions that arise, and there will be two or three emergency calls within five minutes.”

Erwin said that while there is nothing in the contract specifically about wait times, they are required to have two ambulances running 24 hours a day, and an additional ambulance for times of peak call volume.

“The wording in the contract was weak,” Erwin added.

The biggest issue impacting the quality of the services is the lack of personnel, according to Erwin. However, he did say MedicOne has managed to attract one full-time and one part-time employee with a $5,000 sign on bonus, which he says has tremendously helped the staffing after those individuals went through training the first week of February.

Still, county and city leaders feel the service isn’t meeting the needs of the area, and with the help of $440,000 from Community Development Block Grant funds to purchase ambulances, the Town of Erwin is spearheading the task of creating its own service.

During the meeting last week, one option was discussed at length, which would create an interlocal agreement among the Town of Erwin, Unicoi County, and the Town of Unicoi to create the ambulance service.

Under that option, the projected costs for the creation of the ambulance services would be $1,233,802.56, with projected revenues of $885,120. With the projected budget gap of $348,682.56, the Town of Erwin would contribute an additional $115,000 in matching funds, bringing that deficit to $463,683.

After the anticipated $250,000 for the sale of Unicoi County Memorial Hospital to Mountain States Health Alliance in 2013, the remaining $213,683 would be split among all three municipalities based on population.

Based on this plan Unicoi County would be responsible for $138,253, the Town of Erwin would be responsible for $47,651, and the Town of Unicoi would be responsible for $27,779.

“I think this would be a great deal for the county … but I think this is a county problem to be honest with you,” said Unicoi County Commissioner Gene Wilson. “We do need to work together on this.”

The second option, would not include the additional $115,000 matching funds from the Town of Erwin, and after subtracting the $250,000 for the sale of the hospital from the $348,683 budget gap, there would be $98,683 remaining.

Of that, Unicoi County would pay $63,848, the Town of Erwin would pay $22,006, and the Town of Unicoi would pay $12,829.

Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said she believed that after the first year, the service would be self-supporting. The employees would work 12-hour, as opposed to 24-hour shifts, eradicating the need for additional costs for overnight housing.

She also said she didn’t foresee an issue with attracting employees and mentioned they would be offering competitive pay for the industry. Currently, 17 cents from every dollar a MedicOne employee makes goes to pay for MedicOne’s insurance, according to Hensley.

“They’re only making a little bit over minimum wage, and they’re going to go where the money is,” Hensley said.

The proposed salary for the director of the service would be $50,000, and the seven paramedics would average $18 an hour. Full time AEMTS (advanced emergency medical technician) would average $16 an hour, and part time AEMTS would average $13 an hour.

Town of Erwin Aldermen Mark Lafever mentioned that the shortage of paramedics and emergency medical technicians was not a salary issue, but a reflection of an industry shortage of trained personnel. He also expressed concerns that the projected $885,120 in revenue, could take longer than expected to come in.

“All three governments have done well the past two years to come up with a good fund balance,” Lafever said. “We finally have our head above water, and we’re about to put ourselves in a situation where we are going to have to pull big dollars out of that to cover these expenses, or raise taxes.”

If the new ambulance service were to be created, the Community Development Block Grant would provide funding for two advanced life support ambulances, and two basic life support (BLS) ambulances would be purchased outside of the grant, unless a scope change request was submitted.

Two ALS ambulances would run 24 hours a day, with the third BLS ambulance being run during times of peak call volume. The fourth would serve as a backup.

Unicoi County Commissioner Loren Thomas raised concerns that running the ambulances 24 hours a day, all year could lead to mechanical issues, like MedicOne has been having.

“Three days this week we have had three ambulances running because of the call volume,” Jimmy Erwin said. “We had an issue with one ambulance recently, and it’s in the shop now because it had a fuel line break.”

Town of Erwin City Recorder Glenn Rosneoff said that according to the grant, the ambulances must remain the responsibility and property of the Town of Erwin, but they can be used countywide.

“We need to remember that we have a half a million dollar grant,” Hensley said. “You don’t get that everyday.”

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said that if you look at a zone breakdown, 70 percent of ambulance calls are for the Town of Erwin, 15 percent are in Unicoi County, and the rest originate from the Town of Unicoi.

“But that includes all of the nursing homes, the hospital calls, and I think the bottom line is, when you roll to a nursing home, you are going to get paid,” Lynch said.

Hensley said that according to her figures, 75 percent of all calls are paid, and each of those paid calls brings in $320. She also mentioned lost revenue from the over 100 ambulance calls Washington County has picked up since July 1 of last year because Unicoi County did not have enough ambulances available.

Thomas questioned whether there was anyway to fix the issue with MedicOne, and Lynch said that essentially the county’s hands were tied because of the way the contract was written.

“We’ve tried, and we’ve had meeting after meeting and nothing changed,” said Unicoi County Commissioner Jason Harris. “It changes for awhile, and then it goes back to the same thing. I think the only thing we can do is move forward and move on. It’ll cost the Town of Erwin, the county and the Town of Unicoi a little money, but you can’t put money on a life.”

Unicoi County Commissioner Kenneth Garland voiced his support for option one to create the new ambulance service, but only if the county paid the $213,683 remaining balance.

“Let the county be responsible … I mean we dropped the ball on this,” said Thomas. “Would we be better off to put it out to bid and let other ambulance services bid on it? If it costs us more then so be it.”

Unicoi Volunteer Fire Department Chief Robert Adams mentioned that anytime he has seen the county contract out for ambulance services it has been inefficient. He also stated that while some officials might be concerned about potential tax increases down the road, emergency services are imperative to have.

“Right now is the time for this county to come together and start an ambulance service, and we need to get quality people to do the job,” Adams said. “We’ve had countless days where we’ve had one ambulance in this county. It’s time to step up and do something to protect the people of this county … they deserve more.”

The Unicoi County Commission will discuss the ambulance issue during their next meeting on Monday, Feb. 26, at 6 p.m. at the Unicoi County Courthouse.

Consultant sees potential for growth

By Kendal Groner

Economic development consultant Adam Chandler presents the findings of his joint retail study for Unicoi County at Erwin Utilities last week. City and county leaders plan to integrate Chandler’s findings with those of an upcoming tourism study and comprehensive land use plan to further the area’s growth. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

On Thursday, Feb. 8, the findings of a comprehensive retail study for Unicoi County was presented by Adam Chandler, an economic development consultant with the Oklahoma-based company, Retail Attractions.

The retail study was funded through the Governor’s Three Star Program and is intended to give town and county leaders an idea of ways to move forward with healthy growth. In his presentation of the study, Chandler highlighted the topics of retail development, residential development, and intangible factors affecting the growth of Unicoi County.

Chandler began by discussing the retail leakage in Unicoi County, and noted that most of that leakage is from spending taking place north of the county, specifically in Johnson City.

“In some ways, Johnson City is a benefit to the area because it’s a retail hub and as it grows some of that will leak into Unicoi County,” Chandler said. “But it’s a detractor right now because it almost has a suction effect by pulling everything into Johnson City.

He also singled out the Okolona Road exit off of 1-26, and while there isn’t much land there suitable for development, he advised to keep an eye on this exit to prevent retail leakage just shy of the county line.

“One of the main strengths of Unicoi County are the exits along 1-26, and the fact that a major interstate cuts through the entire county,” Chandler remarked. “It’s a huge benefit and offers a lot of potential for the future.”

The first few exits are very scenic as is, and could be preserved that way to highlight the natural beauty, Chandler explained. However, he highlighted the exits from Jackson Love Highway and up as having development potential. At the Jackson Love Highway exit, he focused on seven or eight different land parcels, and said that ideally any growth that occurred here would trickle down into the rest of the county.

“It would be great for this interchange to turn into a medical hub, with maybe some smaller retail to support that,” Chandler said.

The main focus seems to currently be the exit that leads to Second Street in Erwin, and he suggested trying to combine land parcels of several different locations.

“This is the kind of artery and gateway into downtown,” he explained. “How difficult it would be to put all of those land pieces together, I’m not sure, but I don’t see a reason, whether it be land or road systems for why that couldn’t happen.”

Chandler also discussed the potential for the former Morgan Insulation Property, but advised that as it is being graded out and demolished, steps be taken to bring it all up to road level.

“It will definitely raise the value of that property and the usability of it,” he said. “Without that being done, it will probably continue to be overlooked by users.”

He suggested that the Town of Erwin have preferred options for the use of the property that they can suggest to exert control over the visual impact.

It was also mentioned for this exit the importance of putting a traffic signal into place and taking care of how individual lots are developed to make sure they help the exit remain visually attractive, which could play a large role in how the downtown area develops in the next five to 10 years.

For the Main Street exit, Chandler said that while it’s a good intersection, it gets caught between two better ones. Although it may not be as commercially appealing, there is strong potential for residential development.

He focused on a seven acre tract that would be well suited for a residential development project, and suggested possibilities for the former Wendy’s building.

“A dead fast food restaurant is a psychological killer for people looking to invest,” he cautioned. “But there’s a lot of possibilities, mainly because this isn’t an old building.”

He suggested a Cookout, Steak-n-Shake, or a Mountain Harvest Kitchen prospect business for the location.

The study found that because of Walmart and the large, flat land tracts, the Tinker Road exit is where most major development will occur in the future. However, Chandler said encouragement and very competitive offers will probably have to be given in order to get land owners to sell.

The exit of Highway 173, where Dollar General and Mountain Harvest Kitchen are in the Town of Unicoi, is the last exit headed north before leaving the county, and may have potential for small office space and residential development.

Chandler said that because of the way some of the larger land parcels have been split up, this area could be limited for larger development.

“In a lot of ways this intersection is a good example of how poor planning can limit options with an intersection,” he said.

Aside from the major interstate interchanges, a secondary retail district was identified. That retail district was classified by older retail with primarily restaurants and office use.

Chandler said that in the Town of Erwin the Food Lion and CVS shopping center, as well as the Tractor Supply Company and Dollar General shopping center were the main anchors for this district.

“This is where changing some code, signage restrictions, signage mandates and building restrictions could make a big difference,” Chandler informed. “Just because there’s a lot of properties in this corridor that have not been kept up to standard.”

He said that one issue that can arise with longer standing retail areas such as this, is there are less incentives for owners to invest money back into the buildings.

The study also took into account that the CVS building lease could expire in the next two to three years, and because of the widespread availability of drugs online, the company isn’t creating many new stores.

“That could change overnight,” said Chandler. “But there is a 50-50 chance that this center could be empty in three to five years. Having a plan in place could definitely prevent that from happening.”

The lack of signage at some old store fronts along North Main Avenue was mentioned as an issue in this retail area, as well as an excessive amount of phone and power lines.

“Over a 15 to 20 year period, if you had a vision for how you wanted this section to look, it would probably be much cleaner,” Chandler said. “This area just needs a lot of planning.”

For residential development, Chandler said that the biggest obstacle is going to be encouraging population growth, and the only way to kickstart that growth will probably be through incentives.

“Population is probably the largest county issue,” Chandler said. “The end goal of all these phases is your population increases, but it’s kind of a Catch 22.”

One issue related to population that Chandler found was that there is a considerable amount of people working in the area, but not living here. For incentives to catalyze population growth, he suggested developer incentives such as subordinated land costs, marketing campaigns in Johnson City to target homebuyers, tax incentives or credits for new homebuyers, and public-private partnerships with local companies to incentivize employees to live within the county.

“I believe new housing will sell here, and the reason it doesn’t is because there’s not much out there,” he said.

The retail study defined the intangible factors most affecting the economic growth of Unicoi County as the natural beauty and the emotional feel of the area.

Several view corridors along I-26 were analyzed and suggestions were given to highlight and preserve the aesthetics of each one. To enhance the natural aesthetics of the area, it was suggested to maintain the area the way it is at the start of the county up to the Town of Unicoi’s Visitor’s Center.

In addition to highlighting the Nolichucky River, the study recommended installing a tree screen on areas across from the new Unicoi County Memorial Hospital site, and to be conscious and aware of any clear cutting that could become an eyesore and damage the landscape.

Lastly, Chandler looked at the metaphysics or general attitude that people have towards the area that have the potential to impact population growth and the likelihood of new investors and developers.

“I go to a lot of different cities, and each one has a tangible feel to it,” he explained. “It’s a lot easier to look at the industrial and retail to come up with a plan of action, but all of those factors come into how it makes somebody feel.”

One thing he pointed out was that to most outsiders who aren’t familiar with Unicoi County and Erwin, the entire county is seen as one area, even though there are three different municipalities.

“It’s even taken me a while to stop calling it one thing, and to really split it up,” he said.

It was also mentioned that many people Chandler spoke with, referred to the area as being cliquish, however some of that could be generated from people that have moved here rather than those that are from this area. He added that the issue could possibly be addressed with online media or marketing.

Chandler concluded his presentation by saying that the bottom line for Unicoi County is that growth will occur, and that there is a chance exponential growth could occur in the next five to 10 years. How fast the growth occurs, and how it happens, will be up to the leaders of the area.

“My impression of this area is that it feels like it really wants to move forward,” Chandler concluded. “That was attractive to me, because there’s a lot of places that have had a rough go of it, and they have quit. I got the feeling that everyone here is trying.”