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.”

Erwin man, four juveniles arrested in alleged vandalism spree

Thomas Blaylock (Contributed by the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department)

By Kendal Groner

The two-week long vandalism spree that reportedly occurred in parts of Unicoi County, the Town of Erwin, Washington County and Madison County, North Carolina, came to a halt after five individuals were apprehended on Sunday, Feb. 5.
According to information released by law enforcement officials on Tuesday, Feb. 6, Thomas Blaylock, 19, of Erwin, and four juveniles, two males and two females, are facing charges in Unicoi County that consist of civil rights intimidation, vandalism over $1,000, aggravated burglary and theft of golf clubs, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, vandalism over $4,000, vandalism under $500, over 25 counts of vandalism to mailboxes, and theft of property.
“They just went on a rampage,” said Mike Hensley, Unicoi County sheriff.
The vandalism reportedly included spray painting vehicles, punctured tires, and broken windows and mailboxes. Two churches, Unaka Springs Freewill Baptist Church of Erwin, and Enon Baptist Church of Jonesborough, had swastika symbols as well as inverted crosses spray painted on church vehicles, creating grounds for the charge of civil rights intimidation.
“This was a team effort among all the sheriffs and police department. I want to thank God for helping us with this investigation,” Hensley stated.
The alleged crime spree started in the Town of Erwin near the Linear Trail where bathrooms were vandalized before the individuals reportedly began defacing mailboxes and cars in the town where thefts also occurred. After that, the vandals allegedly moved into the county and vandalized parts of Unicoi County High School, Tipton Street, and a property on Old Asheville Highway before vandalizing property in Madison County, North Carolina, and Washington County.
Town of Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson said three vehicles were vandalized in the town and Erwin will have additional charges related to a home burglary where the golf clubs used to vandalize the various properties were allegedly stolen.
“This is a good example of teenagers telling their parents that they’re going to go and spend the night with so and so,” said James “Buddy” Harwood, Madison County sheriff. “I urge parents that if your teenager tells you they are going to spend the night with someone … you might want to make sure they are actually spending the night with the person they said they were.”
A total of 34 mailboxes were damaged from Shelton Laurel to Mars Hill in Madison County, one of which had an improvised explosive device inside. It was confirmed that all of the crimes were connected, and each of the five individuals confessed to all of the crimes, according to law enforcement officials.
Hensley also said that there was no clear motivation for the crimes other than some alcohol consumption and “meanness.” In Washington County the individuals are being charged with three counts of felony vandalism, one count of civil rights intimidation, and one count of misdemeanor vandalism.
They are also facing felony charges for possession of a weapon of mass destruction and will be extradited back to North Carolina after being processed through the State of Tennessee.
“We all worked together great; everybody was just phenomenal,” said Ed Graybeal, Washington County sheriff.
Assistant District Attorney Todd Hull said more charges could be pending, and whether or not the juveniles are tried as adults will depend on the extent of their involvement. The civil rights intimidation charge is a class D felony, punishable by up to 12 years in prison, according to Tennessee Disorderly Conduct Laws.
“All of us here we live in the Bible belt, so when you’re messing with our churches, or what they have, we’re going to come get you and do our very best to put you in jail and make sure we make things right,” Hull said.
Hensley added that it is rare to catch a mailbox suspect, and encouraged anyone that has had damage that has not yet been reported to come forward.
“There is possibly some more suspects, and this is still a fluid investigation among all of the counties,” said Hensley. “I’m sure there are cases out there that haven’t been reported. There were several mailboxes throughout Unicoi, Washington, Madison County and the Town of Erwin with damage done.”
Blaylock will have his first court appearance at the Unicoi County General Sessions Court on Thursday, Feb. 8. Anyone with additional information related to the crimes is encouraged to call the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department at 743-1850.

Buffalo Valley Golf Course Committee makes proposal

If the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen do not place a bid to purchase the 18-hole golf course from the City of Johnson City by the deadline of Feb. 7, the fate of the property and it’s future use will remain uncertain. The Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen will vote in a special called meeting on Feb. 5 to decide on any purchasing plans. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

On Thursday, Jan. 25, the Buffalo Valley Golf Course Committee held its second meeting to discuss a proposal for the Town of Unicoi to purchase the course from the City of Johnson City.

Before discussing the purchasing proposal, new information was shared on the wastewater package plant that is to be included in the sale of the course, which has been a major concern for many of the committee members.

Jeff Linville, Town of Unicoi alderman and committee chairman, was informed by the City of Johnson City that the package plant generates $2,789 in average revenue per month and costs an average of $14,000 a year.

There are operating, equipment, material, lab testing and inspector costs associated with the package plant on top of additional expenses for sludge pumping activities. Linville was unable to find out who operated the plant prior to Johnson City in 1993, and received no response when he asked about renovations in the past decade.

“I just don’t like the wastewater treatment plant, and I don’t think we (the Town of Unicoi) have the capability or the manpower to operate a wastewater treatment plant,” Linville said.

He said that Johnson City would be willing to continue operating the plant for up to 12 months should the Town of Unicoi purchase the property. The current National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit is set to expire in a few years, and whoever purchases the property will be required to get their own permit.

After speaking with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), Glenn Rosenoff, Buffalo Valley Golf Course committee member, also learned that a certified operator and inspector will be required to run the plant.

While no one at the Unicoi Water Department is certified to operate a sewage plant, Rosenoff noted that TDEC should have a list of certified individuals within a nearby radius.

“It’s a big decision, not just for the committee, but for all of the people tied to the plant,” Rosenoff said.

Kent Bradley, owner of the apartment complex that is also serviced by the treatment plant, suggested that he would be open to the possibility of him taking over the operations of the package plant if the Town of Unicoi purchased the property.

• • •

Several golf course homeowners – Steve Williams, Glenn and Lori Rosenoff, Tyler and Brandy Bevins, Eric and Jamie Carroll, and Roger and Sharon Gardner – spent countless hours devising a detailed proposal plan for the Town of Unicoi to purchase Buffalo Valley Golf Course.

The proposal included a financial breakdown, review of equipment costs, administrative oversight structure, alternative outcomes, and a timeline for the purchasing and reopening of the course.

Based on official financial records gathered from Johnson City, Buffalo Valley Golf Course was averaging between $500,000 and $550,000 in expenses, around $320,000 in revenue, and experiencing losses from $160,000 to $200,000 each year.

The homeowners proposed an operating budget of $373,502, with $382,820 in revenues and operating profits of $9,318. Capital expenditures include golf carts, major mowing equipment, supplemental mowing equipment and additional pro-shop and course start up costs.

They presented several strategies to reduce costs that included reducing the number of golf carts to 40, “right sizing” of staff and utilizing volunteer labor, leasing of major mowing equipment, and establishing oversight through an organizational chart.

Rosenoff noted that the majority of the equipment that was last used at Buffalo Valley Golf Course was from the 1990s, and therefore would not be a large recurring expense.

“The life expectancy of some of this equipment is very impressive,” he said. “Of course it requires maintenance, but it’s not like a police car where you may only get eight years out of it.”

The proposed organizational chart would be headed by the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen, followed by the Buffalo Valley Board of Directors, then a course superintendent, maintenance staff and pro-shop staff.

The Buffalo Valley Board of Directors would allow for more community involvement with the course and would serve to provide oversight, especially with finances.

To increase revenue, the homeowners proposed establishing a golf league, increasing online presence, establishing a social media campaign, and partnering with local businesses, not-for-profits, and educational systems.

The group mentioned establishing a golf course league separate from memberships to Buffalo Valley Golf Course. Costs for the competitive golf league would be $100 per year, and Buffalo Valley Golf Course would be the home course. The fees would go towards prizes and celebrations at the end of the year, but members of the league would be encouraged to play weekly in order to be competitive.  This would encourage more rounds played at the course, and potentially more memberships to Buffalo Valley Golf Course. In just a week alone, there are already 50 people interested in joining the league, according to the group.

“You are still picking up revenue, whether they are members or not,” said Eric Carroll, Buffalo Valley Golf Course Committee member. “I do think 50 is a conservative number.”

Buffalo Valley Golf Course has previously had joint memberships with Pine Oaks Golf Course, also owned by Johnson City. The membership costs for residents have been $720 a year.

“That’s pretty much below every other place in the area,” Carroll said.

The homeowners have also devised a plan to increase community engagement, some of which includes partnerships and marketing with local businesses, educational partnerships, hosting tournaments for local businesses and utilizing the assistance of private donors.

“We have a lot of plans on bringing in the community,” said Brandy Bevins, Buffalo Valley Golf Course Committee member. “I have even reached out to people outside of the town that are willing to work with us.”

One idea that Bevins has been working on is allowing local businesses to sponsor golf carts, and display a marketing logo on the carts in return. She said that several businesses have expressed interest in the idea.

“That could be a big revenue area, and it would also bring in the community,” she said.

Bevins spoke with the horticulture department at Walter State Community College and discussed the idea of pairing up to host the students for internships. She has also spoken with Unicoi County High School about utilizing Buffalo Valley as their home course.

The Elks Lodge in Erwin has offered to help with start up costs and some local business owners have offered to help with smaller maintenance items.

The homeowners group also cited several potential impacts that could occur as a result of the abandonment of Buffalo Valley Golf Course. The abandonment of the course could lead to diminished property values for Unicoi County residents and a decrease in property value assessments, resulting in lower tax revenue for the county.

This could also impact small businesses within the community and become a detriment to economic development due to a reduction in county resources.

“The whole golf course is tied to land,” Rosenoff said. “It’s not the improvements, not the buildings that you will see so much a decrease in the next little while, but it may be the land value.”

He added that there are more than 171 tax cards around the golf course, and there is more land yet to be developed.

“There is a linkage between the asset and the land … 130 acres in a town this size is a huge asset,” said Rosenoff.

The eyesore of an abandoned, overgrown golf course is another source of concern for the committee members, and the greens need to be treated by March 1 to prevent that from happening. Johnson City has agreed to perform some maintenance on the course, but they did not indicate how long they would continue doing that.

“There’s two chemicals, around $1,400 total, and if the greens do not receive that treatment, then in all likelihood those greens will grow up,” Rosenoff added. “The cost will be staggering to bring it back as a green, ready golf course.”

The timeline for proceedings to purchase the golf course proposed by the homeowners is as follows:   

Feb.5 – Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen vote on proposal

Feb.7 – request for proposal documents deadline for Johnson City

Bid awarded within 60 days

March 31 – all equipment to be put into place

April 1 – deadline to hire course superintendent and work with volunteer consultants to avoid delay in course maintenance

April 1 – course reopens.

• • •

“I will say on the town’s behalf that we can only do so much,” Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch said. “We are willing to jump in and do what we can, but like I said we can only do so much. We could probably bid on the golf course up to $500,000, if they let us pay it over 10 years … but we can’t do that plus the startup costs.”

Linville responded to the proposal from the homeowners by stating that he liked the marketing plan, however he felt the course was better suited for private ownership.

“Things fizzle, so what’s the backup plan,” he asked. “Would the group be interested in forming their own association and using the fees to cover the startup costs … take the risk away from the town?”

Lynch clarified that if the homeowners started an organization, the town would lease the golf course to them, and it would be theirs to make money on or lose money on.

“That becomes a legal entity, and it’s a huge undertaking … do we have time for that,” asked Steve Williams, Buffalo Valley Golf Course Committee member.

Lynch responded that if they were to bid on the property they could include plans for an organization to purchase the golf course from the town in order to buy the homeowners some time.

“If you had to build a golf course like this what would it cost you … three, four million,” Williams said. “When we open the doors we are going to have people coming in and generating revenue, so in two or three years you decide that you don’t want it anymore, at least you have a golf course property that is showing increased business.”

Lynch and Linville still felt that it would be best if the Town of Unicoi did not take on the responsibility of operating the course. Linville added that he has seen the golf course in its prime, and when it was struggling. He said it seemed to go downhill once it was operated by a municipality.

“That’s because it’s a municipality that basically didn’t want to work with the community, and a golf course is community property,” Williams said. “It’s all based on community, that’s how it works.

“Just from a morale standpoint … I’m tired of losing,” Williams continued. “I would like to have something positive come about for Unicoi County. Can we not come together as a county and city and realize the benefit for everyone to work together and make something happen?”

The Buffalo Valley Golf Course Committee will hold one more meeting on Thursday, Feb.1, at 5:30 p.m. before the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen vote on any plans in a called meeting on Monday, Feb. 5, at 5:30 p.m.

Artists sought to create new herd of elephants for downtown Erwin

The first group of elephants that could be found along Main Avenue in downtown Erwin, including this one, have been auctioned off. But, a new herd will soon be on its way. RISE Erwin is currently seeking artists to paint the new statues. (File photo)

By Kendal Groner

A new herd of eight baby elephants will soon be gracing downtown Erwin with their presence. After the first bunch of elephant statues received such a positive community response, the volunteer organization RISE Erwin wanted to reintroduce the masterpieces with the help of local artists.

Following the 100 year anniversary of the infamous hanging of Mary the circus elephant in an Erwin railyard, RISE introduced the elephant statues along with the Elephant Revival event to raise funds for the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald Tennessee.

“Our goal is to make this an annual thing,” said Jamie Rice, RISE Erwin member. “Everyone saw how much positive attention it brought to Erwin last year. We are thinking that the statues will be displayed downtown for six months, and then auctioned off again.”

Some of the statues were purchased up front by the Town of Erwin, and others were sponsored by locals. The statues are made of fiberglass and come from a social enterprise based in Thailand known as the Elephant Parade. The Elephant Parade seeks to raise awareness on elephant conservation and currently runs the largest art exhibition of decorated elephant statues.

After the auction of the eight elephant statues last year, the statues sold for over $15,000 collectively, and allowed RISE to donate over $10,000 to the Elephant Sanctuary. This year, a portion of the funds will once again benefit the Elephant Sanctuary, but another portion will go toward charities chosen by the sponsors.

“We will probably let the sponsors have a say in where the money goes,” Rice explained. “So for instance if someone had a passion for the animal shelter, they could tell us they wanted some proceeds to benefit them. “We want to be sensitive to our local communities and charities and what they need.”

RISE is once again seeking local artists to construct creative and original designs to decorate the statues. Following the auction of the first bunch of elephants, four people automatically volunteered to be sponsors of statues this year.

Rice also said that after posting a flyer on RISE Erwin’s Facebook page, she has been amazed at the enthusiasm exhibited by community members.

“I posted the flyer, and it has been the most popular flyer that we’ve had in three years,” she exclaimed. “I’ve gotten probably 60 different people that have emailed RISE wanting to volunteer to be an artist. The first year I was basically calling my friends, and begging people to be an artist, but this year it has been so successful.”

The elephant statue auction is modeled off of a similar program that has been occurring in downtown Hendersonville, North Carolina for close to two decades.

Each year, 20 fiberglass hand painted bear statues that are sponsored by local businesses and painted by local artists are displayed throughout the summer before being auctioned off to benefit an array of local charities.

There are no stipulations for the submissions by local artists other than they be cheerful and vibrant. RISE is asking that all artists have their submissions turned in by Feb. 1. After the deadline, a committee will pick the top eight submissions and then send those off to the Elephant Parade in Thailand for final review.

For more information on the elephant statues, or if you are a local artist interested in making a submission, contact RISE Erwin at

Operation Snowball: Law enforcement agencies arrest more than 20 individuals on drug charges

District Attorney General Tony Clark, Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson and Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley announced the arrests of more than 20 individuals as part of “Operation Snowball” during a press conference on Friday, Jan. 19. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

From Staff Reports

For the last six months the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department Narcotics Unit, Erwin Police Department Criminal Investigation Unit and First Judicial District Drug Task Force have worked together on what they deemed “Operation Snowball.”

The results of this drug investigation, which targeted the sale and use of methamphetamine, Xanax, Suboxone, Hydrocodone and marijuana, were announced during a press conference in Erwin on Friday, Jan. 19.

“Since late August 2017, my department, as well as the Erwin Police Department and the Drug Task Force, have conducted several undercover drug operations here in Unicoi County,” Sheriff Mike Hensley said at the press conference. “We named this ‘Operation Snowball’ because when we started one investigation it would snowball into something else. This operation has led to the recovery of several stolen items, as well as taken a large amount of methamphetamine and prescription drugs off the street here in the county and the city of Erwin.

“I want to commend all the officers who have worked on this investigation,” Hensley continued. “There were a lot of man hours put in. It consisted of working not just with the law enforcement agencies but with the Attorney General’s office and other agencies.”

Some of the individuals were indicted by a Unicoi County grand jury on Jan. 8. Other arrests were the result of warrants that were issued and individuals who were at locations where warrants were being served and were in possession of drugs and paraphernalia, according to law enforcement.

The total value of drugs seized in the operation is estimated to be “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” according to a press release from the UCSD. Fourteen firearms and three stolen firearms were also recovered by law enforcement.

Hensley said Friday that 25 people have been charged and that most of the charges are methamphetamine related. Law enforcement officers are still looking for four individuals.

“Methamphetamine is one of the most addictive drugs on the street, along with prescription drugs,” Hensley said. “We also charged some individuals with maintaining a dwelling where drugs are used or sold. We want to make sure, as does the Erwin Police Department, that these people are held accountable for distributing these drugs in Unicoi County and the Town of Erwin.

“This is serious business,” Hensley added. “There are a lot of people dying from these drugs. We have done everything that is in our power to make the Town of Erwin and Unicoi County safe – and we will continue to do that.”

Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson and District Attorney General Tony Clark were also present at the press conference.

According to information distributed by the UCSD, the individuals arrested and their charges as of Friday are:

  • James Fitzpatrick of Erwin – sales of schedule VI, possession of drug paraphernalia;
  • Robert N. Harris of Erwin – sales of schedule VI, possession of drug paraphernalia;
  • Joshua Price of Erwin – sales of schedule VI, possession of drug paraphernalia, failure to appear;
  • Matthew T. Smith of Erwin – sales of schedule III, possession of drug paraphernalia;
  • Steven D. Walker of Carter County – sales of schedule VI, possession of drug paraphernalia;
  • Breanna K. Davis of Erwin – conspiracy to sale methamphetamine (3 counts);
  • Bobby L. Jones of Erwin – conspiracy to sale methamphetamine (4 counts);
  • Dallas Mosier of Erwin – sales of schedule VI, possession of drug paraphernalia;
  • Rebecca Barlow of Unicoi – conspiracy to sale methamphetamine, maintaining a dwelling where narcotics are sold, possession of firearm by drug user, possession of schedule VI;
  • Brandon Barlow of Unicoi – conspiracy to sale methamphetamine, maintaining a dwelling where narcotics are sold, possession of a firearm by drug user, possession of schedule VI;
  • Dennis Spencer Ingram of Unicoi – sales of methamphetamine (5 counts), sales of schedule IV, sales of schedule III, conspiracy to deliver methamphetamine, conspiracy to sale schedule III;
  • Willard Davis of Unicoi – sales of schedule II, conspiracy to sale schedule II;
  • Brandy L. Gosnell of Erwin – sales of schedule III;
  • Joshua R. McGee of Erwin – sales of schedule III;
  • Austin Ingram of Erwin – conspiracy to deliver methamphetamine;
  • Michael E. Cannon of Unicoi – sales of methamphetamine, conspiracy to sale methamphetamine, maintaining a dwelling where narcotics are sold;
  • Chad Higgins of Erwin – sales of methamphetamine, sales of schedule III, conspiracy to sale methamphetamine;
  • Mary Cowden of Unicoi – sales of methamphetamine, conspiracy to sale methamphetamine, maintaining a dwelling where narcotics are sold;
  • Jacenda M. Rogers of Erwin – sales of methamphetamine, conspiracy to sale methamphetamine, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug crime;
  • Michael L. McNalley of Erwin – possession of a firearm by a convicted felon;
  • Elliot Shaw of Jonesborough – sales of methamphetamine, conspiracy to deliver methamphetamine.

The defendants in these cases are scheduled to appear in Unicoi County court on Feb. 14. The investigation is ongoing and other arrests are expected.

For a full story, pick up a copy of the Jan. 24 issue of The Erwin Record.

Birdie or bogey? Officials exploring possibility of purchasing Buffalo Valley Golf Course

By Kendal Groner

Unicoi Town Hall was at maximum capacity during the Monday, Jan. 15, Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting. Dozens of community members attended the meeting to voice their concerns and hear the discussion on the fate of the Buffalo Valley Golf Course.

The golf course had been operated by Johnson City and Johnson City commissioners voted to close the course in 2017 to save on maintenance costs after it had not seen much use from Washington County residents. The City of Johnson City has since put the golf course up for sale, and any interested buyers, including the Town of Unicoi has a deadline of Feb. 7 to submit a proposal.

After a lengthy discussion at Monday’s meeting, Vice-Mayor Doug Hopson made a motion that unanimously passed to form a committee that would devise a plan once the panel determined what would best serve the public’s interest. A presentation of any proposal or plan drafted by the committee will be presented during a called meeting for the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen on Feb. 5

“This does have an economic impact on the town and the county, and we do need to take a real close look at these things and see if there’s anyway that we can help to keep this thing going,” said Mayor Johnny Lynch. “Ideally, I’d love to see some person come in and keep that golf course running and just move on like we’re doing, but that may not happen.”

Lynch also said that it if the golf course were to close, there could be a negative impact for the people whose homes are located on the golf course and could lead to a tax adjustment being made on those homes, leading to a potential deficit in county property taxes.

“There’s a lot to this, more than just having a golf course to play golf on,” Lynch said.

Alderwoman Kathy Bullen expressed concern that if the Town of Unicoi was to purchase the golf course, they would be responsible for the strict maintenance regulations.

“In the proposal package from Johnson City … it says that if there was a purchase then the town is responsible to operate and maintain a collection and wastewater plant,” Bullen said.

Aldermen Roger Cooper expressed similar concerns that stemmed from the potential environmental impact of the golf course along with the permits and labor that would be required to operate the course.

“One question is if there has been an environmental assessment on the property,” Cooper said. “A list would have to be put together to see how much money we’re talking about to even get started. The environmental impact could be huge, and environmental cleanup is costly.”

Cooper added that diverting town funds to operate the golf course could deplete the town’s budget and could lead to the town needing to pass a property tax. This was especially concerning to Cooper due to a previous resolution the aldermen passed that pledged to not pass a property tax as long as they were in office.

“I was looking at the financials we received, and if project is close, the Mountain Harvest Kitchen will cost about $100,000 to run it,” Cooper said. “I was looking at it in detail, and I talked to a lot of people. In my opinion, the only way this town could operate that golf course would be to instigate a property tax.”

Aldermen Linville stated that he didn’t have a particular interest in the town running a golf course, but wanted to make sure the town had explored all of its options to assist any other individuals who may be in a position to purchase the course.

“If we are going to be involved at all we need to do something quick. You’re going to have to get this committee going if you’re going to do anything,” Lynch stated. “I know it’s not much, but this is all we can do for now.”

Lynch appointed Cooper and Hopson to the committee for the Buffalo Valley Golf Course, with Linville serving as committee chair. Community members Tyler Blevins, Andy Lander, and Justin Black were appointed to the committee, along with the new Town of Unicoi City Recorder Dustin Thompson.

“If the town happened to decide to take on an obligation of owning the golf course, obviously it would place a contingent liability on everybody that has property,” said Wayne Lewis, community member. “I am just wondering if your committee is properly represented with people outside of the golf course, as well as people that live on the golf course. If we choose to spend the money I would like there to be an equal amount of property owners represented.”

Lynch responded that the committee was open to anyone with an interest in the decision on the golf course and the agenda was amended to appoint Lewis, along with community member Deborah Perry, and Town of Erwin City Recorder Glenn Rosenoff to the committee.

• • •

In other business, after recent concerns that Unicoi residents have not been utilizing the Mountain Harvest Kitchen as much as anticipated, the Mountain Harvest Kitchen Committee presented the board with a resolution that would waive the $80 orientation fee and $25 an hour usage fee for up to eight hours of use for certain individuals.

Those fees would be waived for Town of Unicoi residents wanting to use the kitchen for personal and commercial purposes, and who did not intend to sell any products made while using the facility.

The resolution encouraged the Town of Unicoi to set aside $2,800 of scholarship money to fund the waived fees. It also encouraged the Town of Erwin and Unicoi County to match the scholarship.

Bullen expressed concern that she had not been able to get information on the businesses that launched after utilizing the Mountain Harvest Kitchen, even after she explored multiple chains of communication with kitchen staff.

“Why is it so difficult for me to get an answer on this?” Bullen asked.

Lynch responded that no one was intentionally keeping information from her to his knowledge, and he was unaware of any reasons why that information had not yet been divulged to her.

“This is an economic development project. Economic development is not necessarily a money making thing, but rather it creates jobs,” Lynch said. “I have never heard of a business that started and after four months it was doing great.”

Linville made a motion, seconded by Cooper, to move a line item in the town’s budget to fund the Mountain Harvest Kitchen scholarship. The motion passed unanimously.

• • •

A resolution from the Unicoi Business Alliance was also passed to express  gratitude to Ike Wilson for providing a location to Clarence’s restaurant after the restaurant lost its building to an accidental fire.

“It is an example of one Unicoi business helping another Unicoi business in need,” the resolution stated.

The resolution also stated that Wilson’s generous act was an example of goodwill, and that the resolution was intended to encourage and promote future acts of kindness.

Linville made a motion to accept the resolution, second by Bullen before it unanimously passed.

• • •

A motion passed to accept a recommendation of Dustin Thompson as the new Town of Unicoi city recorder after the interviewing process among the 20 candidates came to an end.

Thompson is currently a financial analyst for Johnson City, as well as resident of Unicoi County. Contingent on a background and reference check, Thompson will serve as the new City Recorder, and the position includes a $50,000 salary along with medical and retirement benefits and paid vacation time.

“The interviews went really well, and we had two very good finalists in there and it was  a hard decision,” said Lynch. “We think that we have made the right decision on this recommendation.”

Hopson made a motion to accept the recommendation that was seconded by Linville before it unanimously passed.

Developer begins to plan work on old school soon

Plans are expected to begin this Spring to renovate the former Old Elm Street School building that was built in 1922. The three-story, 12,000 square foot structure is being preserved and converted into Erwin’s first condominium complex by Lee Naylor, a Georgia developer. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

After purchasing the old Elm Street School building last year, Lee Naylor, a developer with the Georgia-based company Plansouth Inc., is continuing with his plans to create a new condominium complex.

The 12,000-square-foot building was built in 1922 and served as a school until 1969 before it was utilized as the central office for the Unicoi County School System and the Board of Education meeting place from 1970 to 2011.

“I noticed the property and had admired the building for several years. After I started seeing some activity, I knew I needed to speak up,” Naylor said.

Plansouth Inc. specializes in historic preservation, and Naylor contacted city officials and informed them that he had interest in saving the building, while other contractors interested in the property were more focused on the idea of tearing the building down and building something new on the property.

“There’s a lot of history in Erwin, and I knew they had lost a lot of historic properties over the last 10 or 20 years and it floored them when I said I was interested in preserving it,” he stated.

Naylor purchased the property for $50,000 and closed on it in August of last year, and expects work on the project to begin sometime this spring after the site plans are approved by the State Fire Marshal’s Office.

After the building was gutted, Naylor had several structural engineers deem it a solid building with no foundation or structural issues.

“We really have a gem as far as structural stability goes,” said Naylor. “We were able to preserve all of the window frames, and for the exterior of the building we aren’t planning to change anything other than reconditioning it some.”

He was originally going to pursue a nine unit plan with two bedrooms and two baths each, however due to the limited response from the flyers and brochures, he opted to go with a lower price point and 15 unit plan.

“We are on the verge of finalizing a 15 unit plan, and those range from 680 square feet to just over 1,300 square feet. We have one bedroom efficiencies all the way up to two bedroom and two bathroom plans on the third floor,” Naylor explained. “Prices will range from $140,000 to the upper $200,000 range. Part of the program will include a long term lease option, so there is a provision for that, and that is to be neighborly to the people that do purchase units.”

Several people have already expressed interest in wanting to form a purchase agreement, and Naylor says they plan to start marketing locally in the coming months. After evaluating ideas for apartments or an assisted living center, he concluded that for sale condominium units would best fit the area.

For those who do purchase units, Naylor would like for there to be a stipulation of a minimum one week or five day and four night reservation for listing with services such as Airbnb in order to be courteous to those living there permanently.

“There’s not anything else like this here, and I don’t know that the area is really ready for a 50 unit project, but a 15 unit project is something I certainly feel will be good for the area,” said Naylor.

“The national average commute is around an hour, and a lot of people are willing to commute longer now,” he continued. “Erwin is charming with it’s small town atmosphere that isn’t overcome by business like Johnson City or Asheville, and I think there is a demand for this plan.”

Plans call for elevator access for the three story building along with 15 garages large enough for cars and additional storage that is located to the side, behind the building. There will also be an amenity plan included with access to the beautiful rooftop view along with an outdoor grill and a firepit. 

“I am excited and I believe it will go well, and I think this will be successful,” Naylor said. “It is our intention to presale some of these units and we will offer pretty significant incentives for the first five or six units sold to help the project gain traction, and that way some buyers can customize more and pick out more with the interior design.”

For more information about the property, contact Lee Naylor at 770-616-3205.

County government achieves clean audit

By Keeli Parkey

The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office announced last week that Unicoi County has received a clean audit report for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2017. This is the second consecutive year the county had no findings on its annual audit.

“A clean audit is a positive sign that a county government in on track,” said Comptroller Justin P. Wilson. “I commend all of the elected officials, leaders, and county staff who have committed to a well-run government. This is an accomplishment worth celebrating.”

Unicoi County joined Bedford, Franklin, Gibson, Giles, Marshall, Rutherford and Tipton counties as governments with no weaknesses or deficiencies in operations during the most recent fiscal year examined by state auditors, according to a press release from the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office.

“These audits each revealed a strong system that allows for accurate financial reporting and clear checks and balances that help protect taxpayer money,” the press release stated. “The residents of these counties should be encouraged that county leaders and elected officials are taking their responsibilities seriously.”

This second consecutive clean audit is something for officeholders, county employees and citizens to take pride in, according to a county official.

“It makes you proud. It’s not an easy process,” Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said. “It takes everyone working together to make it happen.”

Lynch said state auditors examine the operations of each office found in the Unicoi County Courthouse, as well as the Unicoi County Highway Department and the Unicoi County School System. Each office or department has its own rules and regulations it must abide by. These are checked by the auditors for compliance.

“It is a very thorough process,” Lynch said of the audit. “The auditors check for procedural details. They check how money is coming in and they track the process until the money is spent. They make sure the money is spent in a way that conforms to state or federal regulations. The auditors also check how payroll is handled. They check grants that come into the county and make sure that grant rules and regulations are adhered to.”

Lynch credited the efforts of staff in his office, county officeholders and county employees working together to abide by the accounting laws of the state.

“It is pretty complex,” he added. “I don’t think most people don’t know how complex county government is and how important it is that there is cooperation between the offices. Everyone has to be on point.”

Lynch said a clean audit is more than just a pat on the back for the county from the state as clean audits can play a factor in the county’s financial standing. A clean audit also helps protect the county government from liability.

“A clean audit is not just a trophy to put up on your shelf,” he added. “It helps if, for example the county has to borrow money again, a clean audit will mean a lot on the county’s bond rating. I also think it proves to our taxpayers that we are being good stewards of their money.”

The clean audit is the result of vigilance by all the officeholders and employees involved, Lynch also said. Officials and their employees will check with the County Technical Advisory Service (CTAS), our county attorney and even the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office and ask questions about procedures in an effort to ensure they are in compliance.

“For every dollar spent there is a procedure for it and that procedure has to be followed,” Lynch said. “We have a lot of resources. We have a lot of people working hard. Every officeholder and their employees can be proud of this. I’m especially proud of my office staff. It’s a big deal for everyone.”

Unicoi County’s audit report can be found online at

Former Bear Mountain Outfitters site drawing interest from buyers

The large log building on Industrial Drive in Erwin is a unique property that community leaders believe has the potential to house a successful business that could boost the local economy. (Contributed photo)

By Kendal Groner

The former Bear Mountain Outfitters building located at 1001 S. Industrial Drive in Erwin is currently on the market awaiting a new owner to utilize this unique property. For about nine months the property has been for sale and is currently listed with The Brokers Realty & Auction group based in Johnson City.

Built in 1999, the property is zoned for commercial or industrial use and features a large cabin style building totaling over 13,000 square feet and a second warehouse building totaling about 5,000 square feet. Situated on 12.3 acres, the property is located just off I-26 and includes approximately 800 feet of river frontage.

On Tuesday, Dec. 12, the realty group held a Lunch & Learn event where community leaders and business owners were given a chance to tour the property and learn more about its various amenities.

“If we all put our heads together then maybe we can come up with an idea for this great location,” said Joe Wilson, broker and auctioneer with The Brokers Realty & Auction. “The opportunities here are growing everyday.”

The larger building includes two roll-up doors, a kitchen area, two full baths, men and women’s restrooms and large open spaces ideal for retail on the first and second floor. The additional warehouse building has two 14-foot bay doors, three 10-foot bay doors and 15-foot ceilings.

“We’ve had a lot of interest, we just haven’t put a deal together yet,” said Bryan Sangid, commercial broker with The Brokers Realty & Auction. “I really think this property could help the economic prosperity of Erwin.”

With water, sewer and power on site, the property was originally listed at $2.8 million, but has since been reduced to $ 2.25 million.

“There’s really a multitude of uses for this property,” said Tyler Engle, executive director of the Joint Economic Development Board for Unicoi County. “It’s ideal for retail or maybe light industrial use, or even some sort of multi-use. People are getting creative with ideas, and when you look at the outside of the property and how it’s situated along the river, there’s a lot of really advantageous characteristics.”

Sangid and Wilson suggested that this property would make an excellent choice for any kind of winery, distillery, or outdoor sporting good retailer.

“There’s been interest shown from a Cracker Barrel, as well as a group in West Virginia interested in putting a small fabrication business here,” added Wilson.

The property can be seen off I-26 and is located on the left about .2 miles off of Jackson Love Highway heading east. For more information about the property, contact Bryan Sangid at 631-0355 or 747-8010.

Unicoi County’s United Way campaign reaches goal

Lee Brown, president of the Unicoi County United Way, announces that the latest campaign surpassed its goal last week. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Keeli Parkey

Thanks to the generosity of the local community, the Unicoi County United Way met its latest fundraising goal – and then some.

During a luncheon held at the Clinchfield Senior Adult Center on Thursday, Dec. 7, Lee Brown, president of the county’s United Way chapter, announced that the organization’s 2018 drive raised a total of $127,842 – almost $8,000 more than its goal of $120,000.

“I think we can all agree that we rise by lifting others and I think that is something each and every one of you are committed to,” Brown said. “I would like to thank you for your commitment to our community by giving to United Way and allowing us to help so many across our community.”

Unicoi County United Way provides funds to many organizations, including: The Rotary Club of Unicoi County, Unicoi County Family YMCA, Contact Ministries 211, Children’s Advocacy Center of the First Judicial District, Unicoi County Little League, Change is Possible (CHIPS) Family Violence Shelter, Unicoi County/Erwin Health Department, Unicoi County Shoe Fund, Second Harvest Food Bank, Sequoyah Council Boy Scouts of America, Clinchfield Senior Adult Center, Unicoi County Dental Schools Program and Backpack Program, Unicoi County 4-H, Tennessee Rehabilitation Center, Unicoi County Habitat for Humanity, The Monroe Foundation and CASA of Northeast Tennessee.

Because the 2018 fundraising goal was surpassed, the Unicoi County United Way was able to give these contingency funds to additional organizations, according to Brown.

“It always comes together and this community is so good at rising to the occasion to help someone else and I am so proud to be a part of that,” he said. “Through your generosity you have allowed us to continue to maintain funding to all the agencies that we normally fund.”

Frank Cooke, a board member of the Unicoi County United Way, presented checks for these extra funds to: Unicoi County Middle School, Rotary Club of Unicoi County, Unicoi County Heritage Museum and Clinchfield Railroad Museum, Erwin Kiwanis Club Foundation for the annual Christmas Shopping Tour, Imagination Library, Unicoi County Little League and Manna Storehouse Food Pantry.

United Way board member David Erickson recognized the 2018 campaign partners during the luncheon.

“This type of fundraising doesn’t happen without really good community partners,” Erickson said.

The 2018 campaign partners included: Erwin Utilities, Unicoi County Gas Utility District, Nuclear Fuel Services, Impact Plastics, United Steelworkers, NN Inc., Specialty Tires, Unicoi County School System, Foam Products Corporation, Unicoi County Memorial Hospital, Morrill Motors and IMC.

“Unicoi County is unique in the United Way world because the bulk of the dollar goes to the organizations that we help,” Erickson said. “… We are so proud that we have that type of a setup. Thank you so much for what you do.”

In his closing comments, Brown echoed that appreciation to all the groups and individuals who gave to the 2018 campaign.

“Thank you for what you do to make this community great,” Brown said.

The meal at the luncheon was catered by Hawg-N-Dawg. Entertainment was provided by the Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band, led by director Lori Ann Wright and including members Adam Miller, Ben Edwards, Matthew Hatcher, Bailey Robinson, Hannah Edwards, Sarah Grace Larkey, Lucas Swinehart and Kaitlyn Rogers. UCHS student Elizabeth Sutphin offered the welcome and invocation and led the Pledge of Allegiance to open the event.

Almost 200 children benefit from Erwin Kiwanis Shopping Tour

Volunteer Frank Cooke helps a local child shop for items during the annual Erwin Kiwanis Club Shopping Tour on Saturday, Dec. 2, at the Unicoi Walmart. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

The Erwin Kiwanis Club made the Christmas wishes of 193 children come true during their annual Christmas Shopping Tour at the Unicoi Walmart on Saturday, Dec. 2.

Along with the Kiwanis Club, teachers and school counselors, over 75 volunteers, individual donors and the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department all partnered together to make this event a success. Several restaurants in the area donated a total of 50 pizzas, and Food Lion donated chocolate milk for the lunch that was held at Unicoi County High School following the shopping event.

“It’s a great big community effort, and it shows that people really just want to give back,” said Bill Gaines, public relations representative for the Erwin Kiwanis Club.

Each child was given a limit of $100, tax free, to spend at Walmart, and each volunteer guiding the children was given a sheet with the child’s sizes, needs and interests in order to assist them in their shopping choices.

“If a kid needs extra, then we’re happy to step in, but a lot of times we don’t have to because the volunteers that are taking them will often make up for the difference,” Gaines said. “So this event is really bigger than the $21,000 the Kiwanis club spends.”

There were 40 children present from Rock Creek Elementary School, 85 from Love Chapel Elementary School, 23 from Temple Hill Elementary School and 45 from Unicoi Elementary. School counselors and teachers from each of the schools assisted the Kiwanis Club in determining which students would benefit the most from the shopping trip.

“We used to talk to teachers and parents and use our best judgement for which kids needed to go, but now we send a letter home with paperwork and the parents can sign up back in October, so it’s really a trust system and we trust that they need it,” said Summer Hughes, school counselor at Love Chapel Elementary School. “We never turn anyone away, and without a doubt, Unicoi County really takes care of it’s kids.”

This is Hughes’ 10th year participating in the shopping tour, and she said that the sense of community in Unicoi County is truly exceptional and unrivaled compared to what she has seen in other areas.

She has seen the event grow tremendously since her first year when she was working with Temple Hill and the school only took seven children.

“I believe this is the largest group I’ve ever taken, but it was also the best behaved group. We have a system here at Love Chapel where the kids are rewarded for good social skills,” she explained. “They get points for making eye contact, shaking hands, saying ‘yes, sir’ ‘no, sir,’ and we’ve had that in place for a year now. I really saw the effects of that today, and without even being prompted I saw the kids doing those things.”

Hughes was not only one impressed by the respectfulness and behavior of the children, but also by the kindness of each of the volunteers, namely the Unicoi County High School ROTC members.

“It’s really impressive that the ROTC students from the high school came. They have such exceptional social skills and manners, Hughes said. “I don’t know what they do in that ROTC program, but they’re doing a great job. The kids are so comfortable with them.”

One might expect children to fill shopping carts up with only toys if they were given $100 to spend at mostly their discretion, but many of the volunteers and event organizers were taken aback by how responsible the children were in using the funds.

“You’d be surprised, a lot of these kids don’t have much and so they really value clothes,” Gaines said. “When they get to that age where they notice what other kids have, they really want nice clothes to wear.”

For many of those involved in this event, it’s the joy and the appreciation that the children express that inspire them to come out each year and participate.

“I enjoy sitting here watching the smiles on their faces, and you’ll see little girls holding hands or several of them hugging and you can tell they’re so excited to go shopping,” said Gaines. “I had one little boy stop me and say ‘I’m rich, I have $100 to go shopping with’.”

It’s not only the volunteers that are generous with their time, but the children themselves are often thinking of others such as their parents or siblings when deliberating on what items to pick out. 

“We don’t tell them what they can and can’t buy, we encourage them to get one outfit, but the selflessness of these kids at such a young age is amazing,” Hughes said. “Most often each kid will try to buy something for another family member, and it’s such a sweet thing to see. They’re so frugal and thoughtful when left to their own devices. It really gives you hope for humanity.”