Erwin Elephant Revival returning

By Brad Hicks

Following the Erwin Elephant Revival held in August 2016, Mary was no longer Erwin’s elephant in the room.

The event was held to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the Sept. 13, 1916, hanging of circus elephant Mary in an Erwin rail yard. The happening was also seen as a means to honor the memory of the departed pachyderm and erase the stigma that hung over Erwin for a century.

Activities held and memorabilia sold throughout the 2016 Erwin Elephant Revival raised funds for a refuge dedicated to providing care and habitat to captive elephants.

Despite the success of last year’s event, there were no initial plans for a second Erwin Elephant Revival. However, organizers could not ignore the mammoth response.

“We really just had no idea how well it would be received,” said Jamie Rice, president of RISE Erwin and communications specialist for the Town of Erwin. “We thought that we would do this 100-year anniversary for the event, but it just went so well and people just sort of grabbed ahold of it and couldn’t wait for the next one. So we were definitely encouraged by the success from last year to do it again this year.”

The second annual Erwin Elephant Revival, featuring a series of events organized by RISE Erwin will once again benefit the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, will kickoff on Saturday, Sept. 16, and run through Saturday, Sept. 23. This year’s festivities will include performances, a Hawaiian dinner, art displays, a big reveal, and a party in downtown Erwin.

The social media-based “#SeekMary” scavenger hunt will begin on Sept. 16 and continue through Thursday, Sept. 21. 

Rice said small elephant figurines will be hidden within several participating businesses located throughout downtown Erwin. Those finding these figurines will then photograph themselves holding the small elephant and upload the picture to Twitter, Instagram or Facebook using the hashtag #SeekMary.

A winner of the #SeekMary scavenger hunt will be announced at the end of the week, and this individual will receive two tickets to the charity dinner held on Friday, Sept. 22.

Information on the participating businesses will be released closer to the date of the event.

On Tuesday, Sept. 19, the Unicoi County High School Drama Department will present “Traveling Trunk Tails” beginning at 6 p.m. at the Bramble Event Space and Venue located in downtown Erwin.

“Traveling Trunk Tails” is a series of short stories and skits developed by UCHS Drama students based on the eight painted elephant statues found throughout downtown Erwin that were completed as part of last year’s Erwin Trunk Project.

Admission for the “Traveling Trunk Tails” presentation at the Bramble is $5 for adults and $3 for students.

The UCHS students will perform “Traveling Trunk Tails” at each of the county’s elementary schools during the week of their public presentation at the Bramble. 

“The schools are really onboard with it this year,” Rice said. “They loved it last year. Last year they got their feet wet, and this year they’re really wanting to participate.”

The county’s elementary students will play a big role in creating ambiance for this year’s Erwin Elephant Revival. Rice said during the week of Sept. 18, each of Unicoi County’s elementary schools will have the same art project. Students will be tasked with creating “glow lanterns,” Rice said, adding the lanterns creating by students will be displayed during the Mary’s Glow Party portion of the event.

“So they’ll get to come downtown and see all of the lanterns that they’ve made, so we’re really excited about that,” Rice said.

A number of teachers will also incorporate elephant-themed activities into their lesson plans to get students excited about the upcoming Elephant Revival, Rice said.

The Queen Kamarymary’s Hawaiian Luau charity dinner will be held on Friday, Sept. 22, beginning at 6:30 p.m. at the Bramble.

Attendees are urged, though not required, to dress appropriately for the luau-themed event.

“Everybody’s encouraged to wear their Hawaiian shirts, and we will provide leis for everyone to get everyone in the spirit when they walk in,” Rice said.

A live steel drum band will perform on Gay Street just outside the Bramble the evening of the event. Appetizers will also be served outside the venue, while a buffet dinner, featuring a roasted pig, will be served inside.

Tickets for the Queen Kamarymary Hawaiian Luau charity dinner are $40 per person and reservations are required. Tickets may be ordered online by visiting www.riseerwin.bigcartel.com or by emailing riseerwin@gmail.com.

This year’s Erwin Elephant Revival will culminate with Mary’s Glow Party, which will be held Saturday, Sept. 23, beginning at 6 p.m. in downtown Erwin.

This portion of the event will feature a kids’ sensory zone compliments of the Hands On! Regional Museum, food trucks, and glow-themed buskers including a living statue, a juggler, a hula hoop troupe and a unicyclist.

A magic show will be held during Mary’s Glow Party beginning at 6:30 p.m., and an elementary school musical will begin at around 7 p.m. at the Gathering Place Park located across from the Unicoi County Courthouse.

At 8 p.m., a “public art reveal” will take place at the Gathering Place, Rice said. She said a 20-foot-long mural created by the UCHS Art Department will be unveiled at that time.

Prior to the event, organizers will start the hashtag #erwinglowsformary, Rice said.

Unlike last year, the 2017 Erwin Elephant Revival will not feature a parade. However, Rice said what was perhaps the highlight of last year’s procession will be on display during this year’s Elephant Revival.

The large Mary statue created for last year’s event by Chris Kastner, owner of the Backyard Terrors Dinosaur Park in Bluff City, will appear in downtown Erwin during the week leading up to Mary’s Glow Party.

“People are going to have to come down and see her because we’re going to try and dress her up,” Rice said. “I know for Friday, of course, she’ll have the luau attire on. The title of our dinner is Queen Kamarymary, and it’s kind of based on the King Kamehameha Hawaiian tradition, so we’re going to have her out in full attire for the luau.”

But like last year, this year’s Erwin Elephant Revival will serve as a fundraiser for the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee located in Hohenwald. Proceeds from the Sept. 19 “Traveling Trunk Tails” performance, the Queen Kamarymary Hawaiian Luau dinner, and the sale of merchandise will go toward the Elephant Sanctuary.

The first annual Erwin Elephant Revival raised more than $7,000 for the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.

And the fundraising for the Sanctuary won’t end with the second annual Erwin Elephant Revival. The elephant statues are now on display throughout Erwin’s downtown as part of the Erwin Trunk Project public art initiative will be auctioned on Oct. 21 beginning at noon at the Gathering Place.

Starting at 11 a.m. the day of the auction, there will be live music and food trucks will begin selling fare.

Last year, the town purchased the fiberglass statues from the Elephant Parade, an international organization established in The Netherlands more than a decade ago which is dedicated to combatting elephant extinction. The Elephant Parade funds this mission through the sale of elephant figurines, which are decorated by artists and celebrities.

The unpainted statues were displayed during last year’s parade, and sponsors were acquired for statues. The statues were then sent to artists throughout the region for them to decorate.

The completed statues debuted during the Erwin Great Outdoors Festival held on May 6.

Rice said the parade of ornately-painted pachyderms has garnered widespread interest.

“We’ve had people from Montana and Florida call us,” Rice said. “It’s been pretty amazing.”

The starting bid for each statue will be $1,500. Proceeds from their sale will go to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.

Those wishing to bid on an elephant but unable to attend the live auction may obtain an offsite bidder form by visiting riseerwin.wixsite.com/erwinelephantrevival. An interested bidder will provide his or her maximum bid on the form and a live bidder will be assigned for them during the auction.

For more information on the Erwin Elephant Revival, contact RISE Erwin via email at riseerwin@gmail.com or Rice at 220-7624.

Demolition prepares property for development

Demolition of sections of the former Morgan Insulation property, which is currently owned by the Town of Erwin, is making way for industrial development. Demolition is scheduled to continue this week. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

Some preparation was needed before the Town of Erwin utilizes previously-received Tennessee Valley Authority InvestPrep funding to ready the former Morgan Insulation site for industrial development.

A significant portion of the town-owned site has been demolished, with more demolition work to come over the next week or so.

According to Town Recorder Glenn Rosenoff, the recent demolition has been completed by individuals and businesses who won stakes of the Morgan Insulation property through GovDeals.com, a website that allows governments to auction off items such as surplus equipment, police cars and buildings to private bidders.

Rosenoff said before “kickstarting” the InvestPrep grant process, town officials used the GovDeals website to auction off different parts of the Morgan Insulation building as well as equipment contained within.

The town placed around 20 separate items related to the Morgan Insulation site on GovDeals, and these items were awarded to approximately 10 high-bidders, Rosenoff said, meaning multiple bidders won different components of the property through the auctions.

“You had everything from a guard shack to the modular office to equipment to a rear building to the main building,” Rosenoff said, describing of some of the items put up for auction.

Although the town was not required to interview the winning bidders to determine how they intended to use the components of the property they won, Rosenoff said he understands some will continue to tear down their portions of the site to sell as scrap. Others will salvage equipment from their share of the property, and others intend to repurpose their portions, according to Rosenoff.

“I believe the rear building, which was 15,000 square feet, was a separate high-bidder,” Rosenoff said. “The goal was to remove the 15,000-square-foot part of the building and repurpose it somewhere else.”

The ongoing demolition is expected to be complete by the first or second week of September, Rosenoff said. The bid process for the portion of the site demolition to be covered by the TVA InvestPrep grant will begin soon afterwards.

“Everything worked out very well, the timing and the coordination, so that the GovDeals part of the project has worked out very well,” Rosenoff said.

Through the InvestPrep portion of the demolition project, anything left standing on the former Morgan Insulation site following the work of the GovDeals winners would be removed, including concrete slabs and the silos that tower above Second Street and Main Avenue.

The town closed on the purchase of the Morgan Insulation site in October 2013, using a $375,000 loan from U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development and chipping in $75,000 of its own money to purchase the $450,000 property.

Erwin received the TVA InvestPrep grant last year to demolish the Morgan Insulation property in order to prepare the approximately 15-acre site for industrial development. The town was awarded approximately $350,000 through the competitive grant program. A 30 percent match is required from the town, meaning the TVA would cover 70 percent, or around $250,000, of the work, while the town would be responsible for the remainder.

Rosenoff said the demolition being completed by the GovDeals auction winners will not only aid the InvestPrep process by clearing the site, but it will help the town meet the necessary grant match since the winning bidders paid the town to remove portions of the Morgan Insulation property.

“We’re hoping that this will help with the match for the grant but also that, hopefully, when the bids come in, we’re able to do everything we want to do including the silos,” Rosenoff said. 

The project timelines following the solicitation of bids for the InvestPrep demolition will need to be determined by the engineering firm previously hired by the town to complete civil design and geotechnical work on the grant-funded undertaking. Rosenoff said he envisions a scenario in which the winning contractor is onsite 30 to 45 days after the project is put out to bid. From there, the demolition could take 120 to 150 days, Rosenoff said.

“But all those have not been ironed out completely until the engineer comes up with the complete bid document and then it actually goes out to bid,” Rosenoff said of the projected timeframes.

Until then, town officials hope the GovDeals part of the project continues to move along to allow for a smoother transition into the InvestPrep-funded demolition.

“This is actually going very well, very systematic, very well-organized,” Rosenoff said, “so I think the nice thing is when it goes to bid the bid itself, the package, will include everything that is there including the silos with the ultimate goal that it’s a 15-acre, grassed, site-ready industrial prospect property.”

BREAKING: School system employee charged with statutory rape for alleged relationship with student

Justin Curtis Grindstaff

By Keeli Parkey

A Unicoi County School System employee has been charged with two counts of statutory rape by an authority figure for his alleged sexual relationship with a 16-year-old Unicoi County High School student.

According to Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson, the man Justin Curtis Grindstaff, 35, of Elizabethton, worked as a substitute teacher and drum instructor for the high school band.

“On Aug. 9, the Erwin Police Department received information that there was an inappropriate relationship between a 16-year-old female student and a 35-year-old male substitute teacher/drum instructor,” Tilson said. “An investigation was initiated by the Erwin Police Department and Unicoi County Director of Schools John English and high school principal Chris Bogart were contacted for notification and assistance in the investigation. During the course of the investigation on Aug. 10 information was gathered to confirm the relationship.”

Tilson said Grindstaff was interviewed on Aug. 10. After he was mirandized, Grindstaff “admitted to having a relationship with the juvenile student to include sexual contact,” Tilson also said.

Grindstaff was arrested on Aug. 10.

English told The Erwin Record that Grindstaff’s employment with the system was “immediately terminated upon learning details about the investigation.”

English also said the school system is providing support to students.

“These events will certainly impact our school and community,” English said. “The school will offer counseling to any students who feel it is necessary.

“Out of respect for the people involved in this matter and their families, the Unicoi County Board of Education and its administration will have no further comment. We urge members of the school community to refrain from gossiping or speculating since doing so could hurt innocent people and compromise any law enforcement investigation.”

For a full story, pick up a copy of the Aug. 16 issue of The Erwin Record.

County Commission passes budget on initial vote

Chairwoman Marie Rice addresses the Unicoi County Commission during Monday’s meeting. The panel voted 6-1 to approve the first reading of the 2017-18 fiscal year budget. The second reading is set for Aug. 28. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

The Unicoi County Commission on Monday lent its approval to the first reading of the county’s 2017-18 fiscal year budget, one that currently includes a balanced bottom line, no property tax increase, and a projected seven-figure fund balance to end the budget year.

The budget, as approved by commissioners during the brief special-called meeting on Aug. 7, reflects a total anticipated revenue of $7,349,995 against $7,349,834 in total projected expenditures. Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice said assuming these figures hold throughout the 2017-18 fiscal year, the county would end the year “in the black” $161.

“It isn’t a big amount, but we’re balanced,” Rice said following the meeting, adding the county’s fund balance was not utilized in order to balance the budget.

Six of the seven county commissioners present for Monday’s meeting voted to approve the budget’s first reading, with Commissioner Loren Thomas casting the dissenting vote. Commissioners Glenn White and John Mosley were not present.

According to the budget, nearly $4.087 million of the projected revenue is expected to come from county property taxes. This includes more than $3.721 million from the collection of current property taxes and around $267,000 from prior year collections.

Local option taxes, which include the county’s hotel/motel tax, litigation tax, business tax, mixed drink tax and mineral severance tax, are projected to generate $189,500 in 2017-18. Revenue from licenses and permits is expected to come in at $21,000, and money generated from fines, forfeitures and penalties is projected to slightly exceed $95,600.

Fees received from various county offices makes up $923,000 of the projected revenue, and state revenues, which includes the local income tax, beer tax, grant funding and the housing of state inmate in the county’s jail facilities, is projected at more than $1.310 million.

The largest departmental expense for Unicoi County is the budget of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department. Departmental expenditures are expected to exceed $1.777 million in 2017-18.

But Thomas said it was funding not included in the UCSD’s proposed budget that led him to vote against the budget’s approval. When county departments were asked several months ago to submit their budgetary requests for 2017-18, the sheriff’s department had originally included within its requests $35,000 to be used toward the purchase of a new vehicle for the department.

The budget approved by the Unicoi County Commission on Monday, however, included no funding for a UCSD vehicle in 2017-18. The County Commission’s Budget & Finance Committee began meeting in May to develop the county’s overall budget for 2017-18 and, during the committee’s July 12 meeting, commissioners present agreed to completely cut the $35,000 the UCSD had budgeted for new vehicles.

Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley was not present for Monday’s meeting but, in a letter dated Aug. 4 and addressed to Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch and members of the County Commission, reiterated his department’s need for vehicle funding.

“I budgeted for one vehicle and it was cut to (zero),” Hensley wrote. “I absolutely needed at the time one vehicle but now, on 8/3/17 I have lost another vehicle due to an accident. It was a 2008 Crown Vic and was totaled in the accident. The other vehicle ran a stop sign and crashed into the patrol car. My department contributes a lot of revenue to the county. We are constantly looking for ways to bring in new revenue. The sale of surplus equipment since we started on GovDeals has exceeded $32,000.”

Thomas said the move to cut the entirety of the requested vehicle funding for the UCSD prompted his vote.

“They’re in dire need of at least two vehicles,” Thomas said following Monday’s meeting.

The county had budgeted around $35,000 in 2016-17 for UCSD vehicles.

In his letter, Hensley also voiced his concerns over other proposed funding cuts to his department. The UCSD had budgeted $8,000 for communication equipment, but the Budget & Finance Committee during its July 12 meeting agreed that this amount should be cut by $3,000.

“The county is need of an updated command center that can be set up anywhere in the county for emergency operations,” Hensley wrote. “We were in hope that there could be some type of federal funding or grant that could assist us on this. After research, we found there was not. I have acquired a 30-foot mobile trailer with compartments and utilities at no cost to the county. However, it will have to be equipped with communication equipment of radios, computers, and etc., should there be an evacuation incident at a location near our dispatch center. We, the county, need a mobile command center.

“I request you take serious consideration of replacing the $3,000 you cut from this.”

The UCSD is also responsible for the county’s two jail facilities. During its July 12 meeting, the Budget & Finance Committee agreed to cut $1,500 from travel expenses budgeted for the UCSD and the Unicoi County Jail. If unchanged, this would leave the UCSD with $4,000 for travel in 2017-18 and the jail with $2,000 for the same expense.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I operate on a very tight budget,” Hensley wrote. “At the last quarter, you will find several amendments moving money to pay necessary expenditures. Law enforcement changes on a routine basis, I absolutely have to send my officers as well as my jail administrators wherever this training is held. They, in return, return back to the department and hold training within the department to save the expense of travel and hotel lodging. I myself have to travel to the TN Sheriff’s Association for updates and training.”

Hensley’s letter was not addressed during Monday’s meeting but, following adjournment, Rice said she spoke with the sheriff prior to the meeting to hash out his concerns.

“We were going to buy one car last year, and he was supposed to buy one (this year) out of his surplus equipment or drug fund, and so, basically, that’s what he’s going to do now,” Rice said. “I don’t see a problem with that. He was asking for more in his communications line, but we had a discussion and there’s another avenue that he can do that, that he can find those funds, so we’re going to go that route.” 

Other expenditures included in the county’s 2017-18 budget include $52,236 for costs associated with the Unicoi County Commission, $272,458 for the operation of the county mayor’s office, and $27,000 to pay the county attorney for his services.

Approximately $185,700 has been budgeted for the Unicoi County Election Commission in 2017-18, around $194,900 for the Register of Deeds, more than $130,300 for county buildings, nearly $256,000 for the Unicoi County Property Assessor’s office, and around $188,500 for the Unicoi County Trustee’s office.

A little more than $266,700 has been budget for the office of Unicoi County Clerk in the new fiscal year. Expenditures for Unicoi County Circuit Court are projected at more than $470,300, costs for the county’s General Sessions Court are budgeted at around $119,500, Chancery Court expenses are projected at around $159,900, and costs related to the county’s Juvenile Court are projected at around $52,600.

Along with the approximately $1,777,400 budgeted for the UCSD in 2017-18, around $783,200 has been budgeted for the operation of the Unicoi County Jail, and around $521,400 has been budgeted for the Unicoi County Jail Annex.

The budget also includes more than $64,000 for civil defense, more than $39,900 for the county’s coroner/medical examiner, around $81,700 for the local health center, around $158,600 for rabies and animal control, and $132,000 to pay the county’s annual subsidy to MedicOne Medical Response, the county’s current ambulance services provider.

Other projected expenditures include county funding provided to local nonprofit agencies and organizations.

Also included in the budget are bonuses that will be paid to county employees during the 2017-18 fiscal year. Full-time employees will receive a bonus of $800, while the county’s part-time employees will receive a $250 bonus. These bonus payments account for more than $60,000 in expenditures.

The county’s projected fund balance to end the 2017-18 fiscal year stands at a little more than $1.1 million. While this is slightly below the approximately $1.5 million Rice said the state has recommended that Unicoi County maintain, it is the largest fund balance county officials can recall. It is nearly double the $569,000 fund balance projected for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

“So we’re pretty close. We’re pleased with that,” Rice said of the projected fund balance in comparison to the state’s recommendation. “If we can just hold around $1 million, I would be happy just to have that to fall to.”

With Monday’s approval, the county’s proposed 2017-18 budget will now be published in this newspaper. The Unicoi County Commission will consider the second and final reading of the budget during its regular meeting on Aug. 28, and the Commission will set county’s 2017-18 property tax rate at that time. A public hearing on the budget will be held that evening.

The consensus among commissioners present for the Budget & Finance Committee’s July 12 meeting was that the county’s property tax for 2017-18 should remain at $2.6838 per $100 of assessed value, the rate the county has maintained since 2012.

Each penny on the county’s property tax rate is expected to generate $31,106 in revenue in the new fiscal year, which is up from the $30,342 each penny generated in 2016-17. Total property tax billing in Unicoi County is set to exceed $8 million in 2017-18.

The county’s current property tax rate, and the rate commissioners wish to maintain, exceeds the $2.6282 certified tax rate provided by the state as part of the 2017 reappraisal. The certified tax rate, provided after reappraisal cycles and based upon updated property values, is essentially the property tax rate needed to bring in the same about of property tax revenue a government bought in the prior year.

During its July 24 meeting, the Unicoi County Commission voted to accept the 2017 certified tax rate. While governing bodies are required to consider acceptance of the certified tax rate, these entities are not bound to the provided figure when setting the jurisdiction’s actual property tax rate. During the same meeting, the commission voted to authorize the publication of a notice in the local newspaper announcing the county’s intent to exceed the certified tax rate with the actual property tax rate.

A public hearing must be held if a government intends to exceed the certified tax rate, and this hearing will also be held during the Unicoi County Commission’s Aug. 28 meeting.

Rocky Fork waterline extension project moving forward

By Brad Hicks

A project that would bring clean and dependable drinking water to dozens of Unicoi County households is moving forward.

Erwin Utilities recently advertised that it is accepting bids for its Rocky Fork Waterline Extension project.

Matt Rice, Erwin Utilities director of water and wastewater, said the project, in part, calls for the installation a new 8-inch line from the point Erwin Utilities’ existing line stops near Clear Branch Road up to Rocky Fork Road along the Old Asheville Highway. Homes and businesses would then be “hooked up” to this line, allowing them to receive water from Erwin Utilities.

The other component of the undertaking calls for other homes to be hooked into what is referred to as the “Clear Branch line” – a waterline installed by the state as part of its construction of the Zane Whitson Welcome Center located along Interstate 26. Those households that qualified based on income will be connected to this line at no charge, extending Erwin Utilities water services to these homes.

“There’s about 93 customers that are either along the Welcome Center or along the Rocky Fork line that will have access to the water,” Rice said.

According to the bid solicitation, 15,000 linear feet of the 8-inch line and 3,000 linear feet of smaller diameter lines would be installed as a result of the project.

Although Rice said Rocky Fork Waterline Extension is technically one project, its two components are primarily being funded through two different sources. Erwin Utilities previously received $650,000 in grant funding from through the Appalachian Regional Commission to extend the waterline from its Clear Branch terminus to Rocky Fork Road.

In the latter part of 2016, the county received $525,000 through a Community Development Block Grant to connect some nearby homes into the existing Welcome Center waterline.

“When the state built that Welcome Center, they paid for the installation of a water main from our Temple Hill system all the way up to the Welcome Center, but they didn’t provide any funding for any assistance to customers to help the customers get connected to that Welcome Center line,” Rice said. “So with this Community Development Block Grant project, we’re able to hook customers up to the line along the Welcome Center in addition to the customers that are along the Rocky Fork waterline extension.”

Rice said different benefits of the project were emphasized in the grant applications submitted to the agencies providing funding. He said Erwin Utilities needed to highlight how the project would benefit the county from an economic development standpoint when seeking the ARC funding, and the county needed to express how the project would help low-to-moderate income residents in the project area in its pursuit of the CDBG money.

“It is all one project, so the contractor who’s bidding on the job, they’re just going to see it as all one project. It’s one scope of work,” Rice said, “but that’s how the money came together is ARC’s wanting the extension to the park and CDBG wants to serve people. So Erwin Utilities and some folks at the state and First Tennessee Development District, and the County Commission, the mayor’s office have all been kind of working together to try to blend those two funding sources to come up with enough money to do the project.” 

Nearly $194,000 in local funding will be put toward the project to provide grant matches. In early 2016, the Unicoi County Commission voted to commit $100,000 in county funding if the county was to receive the CDBG grant. Prior to that, Erwin Utilities and the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi agreed to contribute more than $93,000 to the waterline extension project.

Rice said the estimated cost of the overall project is $1.369 million.

Bids for the project will be accepted through Aug. 18. While Rice said officials do have an estimated completion timeframe in mind, the actual date for the start of construction is not yet known.

“It’s going to be about a nine-month construction period, but we won’t know the start date of construction until we figure out who the lowest responsive bidder is and work out a start date with them but, definitely, the project needs to be completed by end of the calendar year 2018,” Rice said.

Rice said the waterline extension project does not directly tie into the Tennessee Department of Transportation project that would see the widening of Rocky Fork Road leading into Rocky Fork State Park and the improvement of access in that area. However, Rice said Erwin Utilities will have to coordinate with TDOT to install the waterline up Rocky Fork Road once improvements to the road at the park begin.

“Right now, it’s not part of the scope of this project at all,” Rice said. “Because of the CDBG money, the focus was really along Asheville Highway where we could serve customers because there’s no additional customers that can be served up Rocky Fork Road.”

Rice said officials feel the project is much-needed, as it will benefit so many in an underserved area of the county.

“I think it’s going to be a really good thing,” Rice said. “We’ve had some droughts in the last few years, and there’s some homes through there that have springs that were going dry so they were kind of having a lack of water. Then there’s other houses that their wells and their springs tested positive for bacteriological contamination, so it’s going to be a really good thing that a lot of these customers will get hooked up to the water system at no charge to them and they will have a good, reliable, clean source of drinking water.”

Rice added residents who are not connected to the water mains through the project, particularly those who did not qualify based on income, will have access to water in the future should they need it.

And the project will also greatly benefit any businesses that may develop to support the traffic to Rocky Fork State Park as the infrastructure will be in place to provide water to these enterprises, Rice said.

“The fact that it will be there is a big thing,” Rice said of the waterline.

Community celebrates groundbreaking of new hospital

Mountain States Health Alliance representatives, local officials and stakeholders grab a shovel to participate in the groundbreaking ceremony held last week for the new location of Unicoi County Memorial Hospital. The facility will be located at 2030 Temple Hill Road. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

Mountain States Health Alliance representatives, local officials and stakeholders gathered last week to don their hard hats, take up their ceremonial shovels and turn dirt to mark the official start of construction on the new Unicoi County Memorial Hospital.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the new facility was held Wednesday, July 26, at 2030 Temple Hill Road, the site on which the replacement hospital will be built.

“I know I speak for the hospital staff as well as the entire community when I say we are excited for this day and can’t wait to see this great new facility begin to take shape,” said UCMH Administrator Eric Carroll.

The approximately 40,000 square-foot facility will replace the current UCMH, which opened its doors more than 60 years ago. Once complete, the hospital will have 20 beds – 10 in its emergency department and 10 for inpatient services. Along with a 24-hour emergency department and  inpatient acute-care services, the new hospital will offer patients standard and advanced diagnostics, will include a chest pain center, an area for community education and physician office space.

Construction on the new hospital will continue throughout next year and is expected to be complete in the fall of 2018. Although he said an exact date for when dozers will begin moving earth is not yet known, Carroll said survey work on the facility will begin “almost immediately.”

Last week’s groundbreaking was several years in the making. Glenn Tilson, who now serves on the UCMH community board and chaired the hospital’s Board of Control during the early phases of the MSHA acquisition, said July 31 marked the five-year anniversary of his signing a request for proposal. This RFP went out to both MSHA and Wellmont Health System to gauge each health care entity’s interest in acquiring UCMH and what each would bring to the table were it to welcome the hospital into its respective system.

Both MSHA and Wellmont responded to the RFP, and the UCMH Board of Control would eventually opt to accept MSHA’s proposal. After months of further discussion and review, Roland Bailey, who had taken the chairmanship of the UCMH Board of Control by that time, and then-MSHA CEO Dennis Vonderfecht on Nov. 1, 2013, signed the documents to make MSHA’s acquisition of the community hospital official.

“Several years ago, the leadership in Unicoi County made the decision to join Mountain States Health Alliance, and we made a commitment at that time that we’re going to make sure high-quality health care was available to the people in this community,” current MSHA President and CEO Alan Levine said prior to last week’s ceremony.

A caveat of the agreement was that MSHA was to construct a replacement UCMH within Erwin’s municipal limits. Following the acquisition, a visioning committee made up of hospital leaders and community stakeholders was formed, and this panel was tasked with leading the early planning phases of the project and developing the guiding principles for the new hospital. 

The purchase of the land for the new hospital was finalized in July 2015. The approximately 40 acres of property is located just off Interstate 26 near the Jackson Love Highway Exit.

“I think the piece of property is perfect,” Levine said. “It’s high visibility. It’s easily accessible. We’re just excited to be here today to be working with our friends in Unicoi County, to hold hands with the people here as we go forward together to develop a health care system that they can be proud of.”

“It’s absolutely gorgeous out here,” Dr. Joshua Puhr, an emergency physician at UCMH, said during the ceremony. “I couldn’t imagine a better place to build a hospital where our patients can come, be listened to, be treated and, hopefully, experience healing, as well.”

The final plan for the new facility was approved by the MSHA Board of Directors in February 2016. Earl Swensson was subsequently selected as the architect and Layton Construction as the contractor.

In December 2016, the Tennessee Health Services and Development Agency granted a Certificate of Need to MSHA for the new UMCH, clearing the way for the health care system to proceed with the process of bringing a new UCMH to Unicoi County.

“Today is a great milestone for Unicoi County,” Levine said. “What we’re building here is a state-of-the-art new model where we’ll bring the services that are needed into the community here.”

Since MSHA’s acquisition of UCMH, which opened in early 1953, the health care system has made a significant investment in the local hospital, Levine said. At the time of the acquisition, UCMH was cashflow negative, Levine said, adding MSHA has funded more than $6 million of negative cashflow to ensure UCMH remained open.

“The hospital doesn’t make money,” he said. “It actually has negative cashflow, and Mountain States has been subsidizing those losses for three years now. We’ve believed historically in trying to keep access in this community, and for as long as Mountain States can do that, we want to do that. We obviously would prefer the hospital have positive cashflow, and hopefully some of the investments we’re making will help with that.

“The hospital today would not be open if we did not do what we did four years ago. It literally had no cashflow.”

Levine was quick to point out that the situation has been much more dire for rural hospitals across the country in recent years. He said since 2010, more than 70 rural hospitals across the U.S. have shuttered their doors.

“Because of the partnership with Mountain States, that has not been the story here,” Levine said. “The end of the story here is a whole lot better than what other communities have seen, including several communities here in Tennessee.”

Levine also said once the new hospital is built, MSHA will continue to invest heavily in the facility through the recruitment of “certain types of physicians and specialties so people can try to seek as much care locally as possible.”

“There are people here who go all the way to North Carolina, to Asheville, for their care,” Levine said. “We’d like to see that change, and we’d like to see people stay here in Tennessee instead of going to North Carolina, over the mountain.”

State Sen. Rusty Crowe and State Rep. John Holsclaw were among the scores present for the groundbreaking ceremony. Crowe read for those in attendance a portion of a proclamation from the state legislature commemorating the construction of the new UCMH.

“With its updated facilities, Unicoi County Memorial Hospital will continue to serve its community well into the future,” the proclamation read, in part. “Tennessee is fortunate to have such an excellent resource as Unicoi County Memorial Hospital, whose dedicated staff strives to exceed their patients’ expectations with the highest quality and most compassionate care possible.”

Carroll became emotional during last week’s ceremony as he announced that officials were just moments from breaking ground on the new UCMH. He said the facility will mean “so much to so many.”

“We’ve been waiting anxiously, and to see it finally here, it’s not just important for us as a hospital or us as Mountain States, it’s important for the community,” Carroll said. “I think you can see that with the show of support that we’ve gotten today.”

Levine said last week’s groundbreaking was about more than marking the project’s transition from the boardrooms to the physical work. He said the event demonstrates that MSHA delivers on its promises.

“The (MSHA Board of Directors), back years ago before I even came here, made a commitment to Unicoi County,” Levine said, “and a lot of people have asked us over the last four years, ‘Are you really going to do this? Are you really going to build the hospital?…Are you really going to do what you said you were going to do?’ I just want to be clear about something – if Mountain States Health Alliance makes a commitment, we’re going to keep that commitment, and that’s why we’re here today.

“We committed to this because we believe in Unicoi County.”

Group buys Erwin Motors, changes name

Charles Frazier stands in front of the former Erwin Motors building. Frazer is one of the new owners to what will soon open as Neighborhood Ford. Watch The Erwin Record for further details on the date and a Grand Opening celebration. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

As Charles Frazier discussed the aspirations and possibilities for the local enterprise he and his business partners recently acquired, one word continually found its way into the conversation: “excited.”

“We’re really excited about being here, and we think that we have a lot of room for growth here,” Frazier said.

Frazier and his partners are the new owners of the business now known as Neighborhood Ford, the business formerly known as Erwin Motors. Neighborhood Ford will occupy the same North Main Avenue building that Erwin Motors once did.

And Frazier said it shouldn’t be too long before the local Ford dealership will again opens its doors. He said he and his partners are targeting an opening date within the next 45 to 60 days.

“I don’t want to rush anything,” Frazier said. “I want to work on this. I want to spruce her up a little bit more.”

As of last week, Frazier was in the process of acquiring from the state a motor vehicle dealer license which would allow him to sell cars from the local lot. Because of this and some work that needs to be completed around the building, Frazier said he is offering a conservative timeframe for the dealership’s opening.

“I hope it doesn’t take me that long,” he said. “I’m trying to be on the safe side and saying 60 days and then if I open in 30 everybody will be tickled, including me. I’d be real tickled. I’m ready to go.”

Erwin Motors, which was established in 1958, closed in mid-January and has remained so since that time. The vehicles were moved to a fenced-in lot behind the dealership on the evening of the business’ closure.

Todd Love, whose family had owned the dealership for more than 50 years, said at that time: “I had sold over a year ago and we had never closed and are still in transition on closing. “That’s where it’s at – the dealership could open back up and it could not.”

Love added that the franchise had not been closed on but the building had been.

“That’s why the cars are behind the building,” Love said. “It may come back to life and it may not. (The new owner) may have to do something different, but that’s where we’re at.”

It was around a month ago that the transaction was made official, Frazier said, as he and his partners completed the “final signing” to purchase the dealership.

“We’ve been working on it for quite some time with Ford Motor Co. and just this thing and that thing,” Frazier said.

Frazier said he and his partners became aware that Erwin Motors was on the market through a combination of his own experience working at a Ford dealership in eastern Kentucky and mutual acquaintances.

“We kindly put out a couple of feelers that maybe we’d be interested in purchasing a dealership and, lo and behold, a gentleman called one day and said, ‘Hey, a little dealership in Erwin, Tenn., may be for sale,’” Frazier said. “So I immediately drove over here, looked at it, loved the little town, my wife and I did. We spent the whole afternoon here in town. I went back and called my partner.”

Following this call, Frazier and his business partner boarded a plane in Kentucky and flew into the Tri-Cities. Frazier returned to Erwin to lead his business partner on a tour of the available dealership. Afterwards, the men sat down with Love at the local Hardee’s restaurant and struck up a deal, kicking off what Frazier referred to as a “long-term negotiation” process.

A native of Knott County, Ky., Frazier will bring more than 30 years of experience in the vehicle sales industry to Neighborhood Ford. Prior to his involvement with the group that now owns the Ford dealership in Erwin, Frazier spent five years as the general manager at a Ford dealership in Hazard, Ky.

Prior to that, he worked for around 18 years at a Chevrolet store also located in Hazard, eventually working his way up to general sales manager. Before that, he spent around 15 years selling Mack trucks in the coal fields of eastern Kentucky.

“I’ve done a little bit of everything,” Frazier said. “I’ve washed cars, changed oil, sold cars, financed cars.”

The partners joining Frazier in the Neighborhood Ford venture are the husband-and-wife team of Marty and Theresa Johnson of Hazard, Ky.

“They have a lot of other business interests and they wanted to get in the car business,” Frazier said of the Johnsons. “I’ve got the experience in the car business and we put a package together, and here we are.”

While drastic aesthetic changes to the exterior of the building are unlikely, there is some work that needs to be completed before Neighborhood Ford opens its doors, including roof repair, getting utilities turned on and internet set up, and the possible sealing of the parking lot, Frazier said. He also said the dealership’s staffing must be addressed, as he had not yet hired anyone.

Frazier said Erwin Motors employed around 17 workers, adding he would like to see Neighborhood Ford staff around 20 people starting out.

“I’m big on local flavor,” Frazier said. “If I could, I’d like to have all 20 of them from Erwin. I’m just that way. I hope to get a few from out in the surrounding areas, though, because we need to draw a little business in, especially in sales. I’d like to have somebody up in Kingsport and Johnson City and Blountville and wherever where I could draw a few people in.”

While he said Neighborhood Ford will remain a Ford dealership “for the time being,” Frazier said he and the Johnsons intend to grow the business. This could include steps to increase the dealership’s exposure, as well as the possibility of opening a used car satellite store in another part of Unicoi County.

“I think you can see us growing, and I think you can see us get bigger out on the interstate,” Frazier said. “That’s kind of our plan. That’s our plan. We’ve actually made some headway into that. I don’t want to reveal too much, but I think you can see us growing. We will grow the business.”

Neighborhood Ford has acquired the Erwin Motors inventory left on the lot following the latter’s closure, Frazier said. He said more inventory will soon be on its way. Once open, Neighborhood Ford, like Erwin Motors, will have full-service, parts and sales departments.

And while Frazier said he is aware that there are plenty of automotive dealerships operating in the larger towns and cities throughout the region, he said he will ensure that Neighborhood Ford stands out from the pack.

“A lot of people get blinders on when they shop for cars,” Frazier said. “I’m going to be your neighbor. I’m going to tell you the highs and lows. We’ve got to make a little money to see the doors open, but we want to be competitive and we’re going to be forthright and straightforward with you.”

Frazier said he was unaware of the dealership’s significance to the local landscape until after he and his partners acquired it. Since then, fellow business owners, local leaders and community members who have learned that a dealership will once again occupy 901 N. Main Ave. have responded with positivity and encouragement, Frazier said. Tyler Engle, executive director of the Joint Economic Development of Unicoi County, referred to the word of Neighborhood Ford’s impending opening as a “bright spot in economic development news in Unicoi County.”

“I’ve sure been treated nice in this town,” Frazier said. “Everybody seems to be excited.”

The community’s excitement has Frazier all the more excited to open Neighborhood Ford. While the name is new and the ownership has changed, Frazier said the new dealership will have just as great a presence in the community as the one before it.

“We’re really excited about being part of the community, and we want to be a part of the community,” Frazier said. “We want to be a part of the neighborhood. That’s real fitting, I think – Neighborhood Ford. We’ll be a friend to the community, I can assure you.”

NN announces sell of PBC Group, which includes Erwin plant, for $375M

NN, Inc. plant in Erwin is part of a division being sold to a Japanese precision ball company. The $375 million deal is expected to be completed later this year. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Brad Hicks

The Johnson City-headquartered NN, Inc., announced Monday that it intends to sell a division of its business to a Japanese precision ball company, a move that may impact NN’s Erwin plant.

According to a release issued Monday morning by NN, the company has entered into a definitive agreement to sell its Precision Bearing Components Group (PBC) to Tsubaki Nakashima Co., Ltd. for $375 million in cash.

The transaction is expected to be completed in the second half of 2017 and is subject to regulatory and customary closing conditions, according to the release.

“The sale of PBC furthers NN’s long-term strategy to build a diversified industrial business with a comprehensive geographic footprint in attractive high-growth market segments,” the NN release states. “NN plans to redeploy the estimated $270 million in net proceeds from the transaction into higher-growth, higher-margin end markets, while also accelerating its focus on deleveraging.”

NN, Inc., founded in 1980, is a global manufacturer of high precision metal and plastic components and assemblies, according to the company’s website. The company employees more than 5,400 workers at 40 manufacturing facilities located throughout the world. Along with its PBC, NN, Inc.’s other business units include its Autocam Precision Components Group and its Precision Engineered Products Group.

Eight of NN, Inc.’s facilities are involved with its PBC, including its plants located in Erwin and Mountain City.

“The sale of PBC represents a key strategic step toward building a diversified industrial business and capitalizing on growth opportunities that foster strong operating performance, stable earnings and free cash flow over the long term,” NN, Inc. President and CEO Richard Holder stated in the company’s release announcing the sale. “This transaction further balances our portfolio and provides us with the capital to execute on our strategic expansion into the higher-growth, medical and aerospace end markets. Importantly, we will also strengthen our balance sheet and will now have the additional flexibility through cash on hand to make strategic acquisitions in markets that we believe have strong growth potential. We will continue to look for opportunities to further diversify our business and create a more balanced portfolio to enhance shareholder value over the long term. Finally, we believe that Tsubaki Nakashima is the right strategic fit for PBC, its employees and its customers. By joining with Tsubaki Nakashima, well-respected bearing components manufacturer with an established track record of global growth, PBC will continue to thrive.”

Officials with NN, Inc. could not be reached Monday for comment. However, Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership CEO Mitch Miller stated in a Monday email that with the purchase of NN Inc.’s PBC Group, Tsubaki Nakashima will “occupy/operate” NN Inc.’s manufacturing facilities in Erwin and Mountain City. Tsubaki Nakashima will also co-locate its North American headquarters in Johnson City alongside NN’s corporate headquarters, Miller said.

“We are excited to welcome Tsubaki Nakashima to Northeast Tennessee and look forward to working with them to grow their North American presence here in our Region,” Miller wrote.

Miller also wrote that NN “has been a great corporate citizen here in our Region and we look forward to continued growth of their corporate headquarters in Johnson City.”

According to the purchase agreement filed Monday with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Tsubaki Nakashima is to review and evaluate each acquired company employee for “continued employment opportunities with the Acquired Companies and/or Purchaser following the Closing whether in connection with the Acquired Business or otherwise.”

The agreement states that for 12 months following the transaction’s closing, Tsubaki is to provide each acquired employee with an annual base salary or wage rate that is the same or greater than his or her annual base salary or age in effect immediately prior to the closing, as well as annual cash incentive compensation opportunities and health and medical benefits comparable to any made available by NN.

According to its website, Tsubaki Nakashima, founded in 1936, is involved in the manufacturing and sale of industrial precision balls used for bearing and other applications, as well as the manufacturing and sale of ball screws and large-scale blowers.

Tsubaki Nakashima is the same company that in 1990 acquired the assets of the Hoover Ball and Bearing Company’s ball products division, leading to the formation of the Hoover Precision Products, Inc. subsidiary.

In 2007, the Hoover Ball plant in Erwin, where Hoover’s ball operations were moved to in 1959, and the company’s Connecticut facility, were consolidated and transferred to the company’s Georgia facility, resulting in the closure of the local Hoover Precision Products plant.

Director: Return to K-5 schools was positive

Director of Schools John English looks at items from a summer school program taught at Love Chapel Elementary School. Pictured with English are RTI instructor Renee Lingerfelt, and first grade teacher, Patience Erwin. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

In many ways, the 2016-17 school year in Unicoi County was no different than those of the past.

There was the usual homework and tests. Hours of study time were logged. The sights and sounds of recess and lunchtime filled playgrounds and cafeterias across the Unicoi County Schools system on a daily basis. Science fairs and school plays were held throughout the year. On the last day of classes, students picked up their final report cards before going off to enjoy their summer break.

There was, however, one large change in Unicoi County’s elementary schools this past year.

The 2016-17 school year was the school system’s first one under a more traditional kindergarten through 5th grade configuration. Under this arrangement, the county’s 4th and 5th grade students were not taught in a separate school but instead remained in the elementary schools where they had spent their kindergarten through 3rd grade years.

“At the end of the day, that move was truly, simply about what we felt like was best for kids,” said Unicoi County Director of Schools John English.

While most of the work needed to implement the reconfiguration was completed last summer, it was an unexpected event occurring several years ago that indirectly spurred the move.

A large sinkhole was discovered on the grounds of the old Love Chapel Elementary School in August 2012, just days after the start of the 2012-13 school year. This discovery would prompt the immediate relocation of the school’s students and staff to other schools within the system.

Love Chapel was relocated to available space at the county’s intermediate and middle schools for the remainder of the 2012-13 school year. In February 2013, the Unicoi County Board of Education voted to permanently close the 60-year-old Love Chapel Elementary School due to safety concerns, and the following month the board would approve the lease of 12 modular classroom units for a period of three years. These units were installed on a site adjacent to Unicoi County High School and began serving as Love Chapel Elementary School with the start of the 2013-14 school year.

English, who took over as the county’s director of schools in July 2015, said school officials were aware the lease on modulars would be up at the end of the 2015-16 school year. This left officials with a choice to make. They could purchase the modulars outright at a cost of around $1 million. They could also begin the costly process of bringing a new school to Unicoi County, an option discussed prior to English assuming the director’s position.

“I knew when I came into the job the situation that the lease of the modulars was going to be coming up, we were basically going to have a year of that,” English said. “So, at that point, you’re just sitting here looking at your options. To me, even though technically it was an option to buy the modulars, it really wasn’t an option. I mean, that was never anything that was considered, but when you’re looking at all options, you look at all options. We didn’t want that to become a long-term home for anyone. It served its purpose for three years, but it didn’t need to be the long-term solution to anything.”

The third option officials had was to efficiently utilize resources and space already available within the district to accommodate Love Chapel’s students and staff. Since it had been decided that the modulars would not be purchased, English said the situation presented the “perfect opportunity” to implement a systemwide reconfiguration, something he had wanted to see Unicoi County accomplish even before landing the director’s job.

“The day I interviewed for this job, that’s one of the first things I talked about as a vision of wanting to get to that, and it’s something that the board fully supported and saw, as well,” English said.

English, though, preferred to see Unicoi County Schools return to its previous K-8 configuration.

“I personally, long before the sinkhole, I kind of have always liked the idea of elementary kids getting to stay at a location, the same location, as long as they can,” English said. “For me, if we could’ve gone K-8, we would’ve gone back K-8. I think the longer you can leave kids with a principal they’re familiar with, a building they’re familiar with, staff they’re familiar with, the better.”

Unicoi County Schools was a K-8 system before the middle school concept was introduced here in the early 1990s. What was, until the start of the 2016-17 school year, Unicoi County Intermediate School served as the county’s middle school until the county’s current 6-8 middle school opened at the start of the 2010-11 school year.

With the opening of the new middle school just across the street, the prior middle school became Unicoi County Intermediate School. The intermediate school would house Unicoi County’s 4th and 5th grade students, and school system officials viewed the intermediate school as a way to help these students transition to the middle school environment.

But English felt the intermediate school concept presented issues. He said just as 3rd grade students were likely becoming comfortable with their elementary school surroundings, they would have to start school in a new building the following year. The situation, English said, was the same for students at the intermediate school, who would be heading to the middle school just as they were likely becoming contented in the intermediate school.

“When we went to the intermediate concept, we felt like that was a lot of start and stops for our kids,” English said.

After some assessment, it was determined that a K-8 configuration, which would keep students in one location for a longer period of time, was not viable.

“Our buildings couldn’t hold K-8, but we just liked the idea of letting kids connect to a school longer, getting comfortable there,” English said. “We felt like with the intermediate concept we had lost a lot of that connectedness that our families and kids felt to schools.”

However, it was determined that a K-5 configuration was feasible. Under this setup the intermediate concept would be completely eliminated. The county’s elementary students would attend one elementary school through 5th grade before heading off to Unicoi County Middle School for grades 6-8. Following 8th grade, these students would attend classes at Unicoi County High School.

The move to a K-5 district would not be made without a great deal of discussion and deliberation. English said he spent much of the 2015-16 school year walking the school system’s facilities, looking at class sizes, assessing available space, and pitching plans on how officials could make the reconfiguration work.

English said he discussed the proposal with the school system’s teachers and principals. Several town hall meetings were held across Unicoi County to garner input from the parents and families of the students who would be impacted by the move. English said he was encouraged by the feedback provided by these stakeholders.

“It’s the one thing that I can say, because it probably never happens, that 100 percent of the feedback I had before we made the decision and since we made the decision was positive,” English said. “I think families really wanted the move.”

Making the reconfiguration happen would be no easy feat. It would involve what essentially amounted to the closure of one of the county’s school and that facility’s subsequent transformation necessary to prepare a new crop of students for relocation from their temporary base.

The move toward reconfiguration was made official in February 2016 when the Unicoi County Board of Education voted to essentially eliminate Unicoi County Intermediate School and return all of the county’s elementary schools to K-5 campuses. English said this move had nothing to do with the intermediate school’s teachers and administrators and was simply a way to get Love Chapel’s students and staff into a brick and mortar facility while allowing the county’s elementary school students to stay in one place longer.

But the former intermediate school would play a key role in the reconfiguration, as the facility would soon undergo a facelift to become the new Love Chapel Elementary School.

The former intermediate school’s metamorphosis began last summer. Due to a short turnaround between the end of the 2015-16 school year and the start of the 2016-17, the work to convert the intermediate school to the new K-5 Love Chapel had to be completed quickly.

“The day school ended, we had to get the move started because summers are short and to get all accomplished that we needed to get accomplished it started the day kids were picking up report cards,” English said.

Unicoi County Schools accomplished its mission, and the 2016-17 school year marked the first time in four years Love Chapel Elementary School’s students and staff had been under one roof. And, according to Unicoi County Schools officials, Love Chapel’s staff was grateful for the move, as the new surroundings were a far cry from the modulars.

“You appreciate things like hallways and just being able to go to a gym or a commons space, a library that’s large enough to hold a classroom and playgrounds, so many of the aspects of school that sometimes we take for granted that are really important and special parts of a child’s day,” said Unicoi County Schools Elementary Curriculum Supervisor Jenifer Lingerfelt.

Since Unicoi County Intermediate School was to be no more, local school officials also spent a great deal of time last summer getting the intermediate school’s teachers moved into elementary schools throughout the district.

“For them to have to go out and make a physical move to a Temple Hill, a Unicoi, a Rock Creek, and some got to stay, that’s tough,” English said. “But I think even the 4th and 5th grade teachers would say, ‘Gosh, yeah, it’s been difficult on us to move but we can’t argue that K-5 is a better concept,’ and I think in hindsight people – the teachers, the kids, the families – would say that it’s been a positive experience.”

Aside from the emotional ties many had to the intermediate school, there was also the matter of space. Room had to be made in the county’s elementary schools to accommodate the 4-5 students and teachers.

Unicoi Elementary School Principal Mike Riddell said space for students and six teachers needed to be made at his school prior to the start of the 2016-17 school year.

“We had to move several of the teachers that were already in the school in the K-3 to different classrooms,” Riddell said. “So not only was it the move of the 4th and 5th coming in, but we had to shuffle around within our school to make room for them because we wanted to keep them, location-wise, as close as possible to each other.”

The prep work completed at Unicoi Elementary School was also done at the county’s other elementary schools, English said. With the relocation of desks, supplies and shelves, the summer of 2016 was physically taxing for the system’s staff, English said. But it was mentally taxing as well, as officials had to determine which elementary school each of the intermediate school’s teachers would call home moving forward. English said officials worked to determine the “best fit” for each educator.

“To get teachers that had to move to a spot where they were comfortable and wanted to be and felt good about it, a lot of discussion and thought went into that,” English said.

English also said system officials were forced to be creative in their scheduling, as elementary schools now had additional grade levels for which to schedule lunch and recess. Some teachers had to share classroom space to make the reconfiguration work.

“It’s not just a physical move,” Riddell said. “It’s all the things within the school, too, on a daily basis that you have to think about.”

Although questions over its future have been posed for years, Temple Hill Elementary School was also vital to the reconfiguration, as space there was required to make the move happen, English said.

Questions over Temple Hill’s fate were put to rest last year as the local school board moved to make a significant investment in the facility. Unicoi County Schools received around $4 million in insurance funds from the closure of the former Love Chapel Elementary School. Around $3 million from this settlement was used to pay for the three-year lease of the modular units. In March 2016, the school board awarded a bid of a little more than $1 million to Johnson City-based Preston Construction to complete renovations at Temple Hill. The remaining $1 million from the insurance proceeds was used to pay for this work.

Upgrades and improvements completed at Temple Hill last summer included the installation of a new gymnasium floor, a new roof, new playground equipment and retrofitted bathrooms, new electrical wiring and a new fire alarm system, and the installation of new HVAC units in each classroom.

“That community deserves and needs a school,” English said. “We’re doing some things to try to increase the numbers there and beef up the numbers there but, truly, when we talk about space, Temple Hill had to be part of that equation. You couldn’t do K-5 without Temple Hill. Rock Creek, Love Chapel and Unicoi couldn’t take on the students.”

While English said the reconfiguration move was made with the best interests of Unicoi County’s students in mind, there were also some positive financial ramifications for the county. The construction of a new school would have cost the county in the neighborhood of $14 million, English said.

“We did feel like it was a prudent move from a taxpayer and monetary standpoint as well, because if we ever go to the County Commission or if we go to this county and ask for a new school, it’s going to be because we need one, not necessarily because we would just like to have one,” English said.

The school system, English said, put about $28,000 into the new Love Chapel to ready it for the incoming students. Otherwise, he said the cost of reconfiguration was the time associated with the moves necessary to make it happen.

Love Chapel’s teachers also put their own time and resources into the building, purchasing decorative items and painting murals to individualize their classrooms and provide students with a unique experience.

“I wouldn’t want to know what teachers spent,” English said.

“I think their staff in particular were in a unique situation, but it created an opportunity for them to think differently and to be creative and, because of those times they were in modulars trying to problem solve, ‘How can we provide a really special experience for our students with what we have,’ that they’ve carried that forward and made Love Chapel a real unique building and experience,” Lingerfelt said.

Lingerfelt added educators across Unicoi County Schools have responded positively to the reconfiguration.

“In several conversations with the teachers, they, especially the intermediate school teachers that came back into the elementary setting, were pleased to get to experience more of the elementary culture,” she said. “They had some tight connections themselves at the intermediate school, and they still work collaboratively planning for the content at the 4-5 level, but I think to be back into the elementary schools and to get to know children from the time they come to school as a 5-year-old and then get to follow them all the way until they leave to middle school, it’s a special part of the teacher journey to be able to see a child grow over time. I think that’s something that they’ve really appreciated.”

English said it’s just as special for students to spend their elementary years in familiar surroundings.

“I think for kids, getting to see a teacher that they had in kindergarten and for teachers getting to see the kid they had in kindergarten and what they look like in 5th grade, I think that’s big both ways, for our teachers and our kids to have those familiar faces and to kind of watch them grow up, literally, through 5th grade,” English said.

Parents have offered positive feedback thus far, according to school system officials. Both English and Riddell said prior to the reconfiguration, many parents and families expressed concern over students essentially graduating to a new school at the end of their 3rd grade year. These families, Riddell said, are appreciative for the extra time their children will remain in an elementary school setting.

“As a matter of fact, when we were just K-3, every year when the 3rd grade kids would leave, their parents would say, ‘I don’t want them to leave. They’re too little to go to a different school right now,’ and they didn’t want them to have a 4-5, overwhelmingly, which that was the setup at that time,” Riddell said. “But they all have had, from what I’ve seen and what they’ve told me, positive experiences from them coming back.”

As for the students, school system officials concur they have also responded well to the reconfiguration.

“Kids are resilient,” Riddell said, adding 5th grade students at Unicoi Elementary School during the 2016-17 school year served as “mentors” to kindergarten and 1st grade students, going into the classrooms of younger students to read to them and help lead group activities.

“It seemed like we had happy kids, and that’s the most important thing to us – happy kids,” English said. “And our families seemed to enjoy the move.”

According to officials, the positive feedback from teachers, students and families does not mean the new configuration will be without changes. Measures aimed at potentially improving the setup will be studied throughout the summer and the upcoming school year.

“It may be a few years before it all gets perfected,” Riddell said.

And, while he said the school system is “not there yet” and the move is not one he is “pushing for,” English said he has a 10- to 20-year vision for Unicoi County Schools. English said he would like to eventually see new elementary schools constructed on the north and south ends of the county to serve students in those areas, with the middle school and high school arrangement left intact. This would give the district four schools and would increase efficiency, English said.

In the meantime, the reconfiguration implemented at the start of the 2016-17 school year appears to be a sound solution for the foreseeable future, English said.

“Just like anywhere, facilities don’t last forever and, ultimately, we’re certainly going to look at that but, as far as reconfiguration, I see K-5, 6-8 and high school as our long-term fix,” English said. “And, who knows, maybe you get to K-8 again one day.”

At this time last year, the school system was in the middle of the move necessary to convert the district to a K-5 configuration. With the heavy lifting out of the way, system officials now have the summer to not only prepare for the upcoming school year but reflect on 2016-17 now that it is in the books. These officials agree the reconfiguration was a success and the best possible move for Unicoi County Schools.

“It’s one of those things you plan for a year and you hope and you think all things are covered, but then looking back on it and reflecting back on it, I think it says so much about the teachers and the principals and the administration and the folks involved that it really was, I feel like, a smooth transition,” English said. “It was a big change for our school system, but I feel like our families would say and our students would say and our staff would say that it went really well.”

Apple Festival anniversary celebration in works

By Keeli Parkey

It might be months away, but the next Unicoi County Apple Festival is shaping up to be a memorable one with a week of events being planned to commemorate the popular event’s 40th anniversary.

“We are very excited to be celebrating the 40th Unicoi County Apple Festival this year,” said Amanda Delp, the executive director of the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce, the agency responsible for planning and coordinating the festival. “Working with a steering committee consisting of festival vendors, as well as local citizens, we have made plans to host a week of events in celebration of the 40th anniversary. We hope everyone will plan to join us; it’s going to be a great week.”

The festivities will start on Saturday, Sept. 30, with the return of the Miss Apple Festival Pageant being held in the auditorium of Unicoi County High School, according to Delp.

“The pageant will include divisions for all age groups,” Delp said.

Directing the pageant will be Whitney Carr. More information and an entry form are available at http://www.wonderimages.org.

On Sunday, Oct. 1, everyone is invited to a family-friendly event being held at the Clinchfield Senior Adult Center.

“After church on Sunday, we are having a fundraising luncheon,” Delp said. “The Senior Center will serve food. There will be activities for children, including an apple decorating contest. We will also kick off a new event – a scavenger hunt – at the luncheon and give the first clue. The apples will be hidden around town during the week leading up to the festival. Prizes will be awarded.”

Unicoi County’s natural beauty and recreational opportunities will take center stage on Monday, Oct. 2, with what Delp described as a “family adventure night” held at USA Raft.

“We want to showcase the beauty of our outdoors to guests coming in for the festival and to our local residents,” Delp said. “We will be grilling hamburgers and hotdogs. There will be lots of activities, including a corn hole tournament, guided hikes on the Appalachian Trail, volleyball, guided raft trips and other water activities.”

Everyone is invited to put their creativity on display with a “painting party” on Tuesday, Oct. 3, at the Choo Choo Cafe, Delp said.

“Individuals can purchase tickets to join us for food and for painting an apple-themed picture,” she added.

Tickets for this event will go on sale Aug. 1. Paint and canvas will be included in the ticket price.

The Chamber will open its doors to the community with an open house on Wednesday, Oct. 4.

“We will offer discounts on festival merchandise,” Delp said. “We plan to invite our longest-attending vendor to join us and cut an anniversary cake to celebrate the 40th festival.”

The festival’s vendors will be the stars of the day on Thursday, Oct. 5, with an appreciation dinner held at the Clinchfield Senior Adult Center. Following the dinner, vendors will take to the streets of downtown to set up and prepare for two days of shoppers and visitors.

“Set up on Thursday is always a challenging part of the festival,” Delp said, “but with the cooperation of the vendors and volunteers, it always comes together as smoothly as possible.”

This will all lead up to the festival itself on Friday, Oct. 6, and Saturday, Oct. 7, in downtown Erwin.

“In addition to planning the events prior to the festival, we are also planning to add elements to the festival itself to make it better than before,” Delp said. “We have several ideas in the works that will be announced at a later date.”

The Chamber has released a new festival logo that Delp said will be “consistently used” with future festivals as a way to brand the Apple Festival. She also said that the logo, which features an apple in a mosaic design, represents the elements that make the festival successful.

“The Apple Festival is many pieces and parts that come together to make a whole,” Delp added. “It’s the vendors, it’s the food, it’s the music, the tennis tournament, the road race – all the different elements. If you remove one, then you don’t have the perfect festival that we have.”

For more information about the Apple Festival, call the Chamber at 743-3000.

Shelter director: Facility seeing ‘unseasonably high number’ of pets being surrendered

UCAS Director Jessica Rogers holds one of many cats the shelter now has.
(Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

The dog days of summer have arrived a little earlier at the Unicoi County Animal Shelter.

The facility’s current cat population is the highest UCAS Director Jessica Rogers can remember seeing in some time. The number of dogs at the shelter is nearly double the typical amount.

Rogers said the population spike can be attributed to actions taken by shelters in surrounding counties in recent weeks and months. Throughout 2017, multiple shelters throughout the region have temporarily ceased animal intakes for various reasons.

“There’s no state law that a county facility is required to be open admission, but any facility that does receive some sort of taxpayer funding, it is assumed that their citizens will be able to surrender pets to that facility,” Rogers said.

The issues at other shelters have led to animals that would normally be taken to those facilities being dropped off at the UCAS.

“This has been one of the worst summers we’ve had in a while, and we feel like that largely is because of other citizens in other counties not having that open intake option available for animals in need,” Rogers said.

Rogers said the UCAS is in place to serve Unicoi County’s citizens and only actively takes in animals from within Unicoi County. However, she said boxes of animals have been “dumped” at the facility after hours. On a daily basis over recent weeks, boxes and crates containing unwanted pets have greeted UCAS volunteers and staff as they have arrived at the shelter, Rogers said.

“We’re seeing boxes of kittens when we come in the next morning,” Rogers said. “People are leaving dogs in makeshift kennels if the drop boxes are already full. I feel like that may largely be in part, too, because people know that we’re only going to actively take animals from within our county when we’re open, so they’re waiting until we close and bringing things at that point.”

The situation has left the UCAS without much of a choice, Rogers said.

“Our position always is they have to have somewhere to go, the animals have to have a safe haven to go to,” Rogers said.

Rogers said UCAS staff has found temporary housing for the “unseasonably high number of intakes” coming into the facility and is working to find a more permanent solution.

“We do not want to euthanize for cage space,” Rogers said. “That’s not something that we would ever aim to do or found that would be a solution for the overcrowding, but we do have to find a game plan for the animals that we do have currently in-house and the never-ending flow of animals still coming into the facility every day.”

Typically, the number of cats the UCAS has both in-house and in foster homes is around 100 to 120. Rogers said that number currently sits at around 170. The shelter usually has around 30 dogs in-house and in foster homes, but that figure is currently around 55, Rogers said. 

The UCAS was actually on track in 2017 to realize its lowest intake numbers in quite some time, Rogers said. When Rogers took over as UCAS director several years ago, the shelter began tracking local spay/neuter efforts in the community and animals leaving the shelter, as they are spayed or neutered before exiting. Each year, these numbers are compared to annual intake numbers.

Since the tracking processes were implemented, the shelter has consistently seen a steady decline in its annual intake of unwanted animals, Rogers said.

“This year, we were on track to, of course, be even lower than our previous year but, unfortunately, with some of the other local shelters closing their intake, that has funneled into our facility so we are actually at a higher intake than we would have ever expected to be.”

This, Rogers said, has put a bit of a strain on the UCAS, as it is one of the smallest shelters in East Tennessee with perhaps the smallest operating budget. The shelter’s operations are funded through a hybrid of fundraising and governmental contributions. Funding is provided annually by Unicoi County’s three governments which goes toward local animal control efforts and shelter personnel costs. The shelter relies on fundraising efforts to get the money for day-to-day operations and animal care expenses.

“But we still give every single animal that comes through our doors an equal opportunity,” Rogers said.

Rogers said shelters in surrounding counties have been able to offer free or reduced adoption fees, but she said the UCAS does not have the resources to do so.

“Our adoption rates have been fantastic, but we have noticed them slow down over the last few weeks with all of the other counties offering free or drastically reduced adoption fees,” Rogers said. “We have reduced ours to an extent, but since we do require all animals to be spayed or neutered before they leave us, that’s why the remaining fee is what it is. We have to be able to pay those vet bills. And even at the current adoption fees, if you look at what you spend as a private citizen taking an animal to a vet, a basic spay is going to be nearly $200, where if you adopt a shelter pet, everything is already included.”

Because of the overcrowding, UCAS officials are seeking the community’s assistance. Rogers said additional volunteers are needed to help walk dogs and groom cats housed within the shelter. The community can also assist through donations, as the shelter is in need of animal care items such as food, treats and puppy pads.

Those wishing to help may contact the UCAS at 743-3071.

County DHS office to reopen

The Department of Human Services office once will soon reopen in its former location on Ohio Avenue. LuAnn Hendren, pictured second from left, owner of the building, was on hand recently to meet with state representatives for a walk-through inspection. Pictured, from left, are Hendren’s niece, Alexa Parsley; Hendren; Jordyn Pasley, interior planning specialist with the Tennessee Department of General Services; Heather Cavitt, customer relationship manager; Stacey Nelson, executive director of leasing for the Tennessee Department of General Services; and Ron Bowman of Bowman & Sons Construction. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keith Whitson)

By Brad Hicks

Nearly a full 17 months has passed since the facility closed but, according to property owner LuAnn Hendren, community members dropping by continues to be an everyday occurrence.

All who visit the closed office on Ohio Avenue are seeking help. Many, Hendren said, inquire about the reopening of the building.

“Anytime there’s a car out front, they come and knock on the door,” Hendren said. “It was the same when they were remodeling. People have been asking all the time.”

But the days of turning clients away from the local office and directing them to Johnson City for assistance are almost over, and officials now have the answer to the question of when the Tennessee Department of Human Services office in Unicoi County will reopen.

Hendren said the expected reopen date for the local DHS office is Tuesday, July 18.

“I’m tickled that it’s finally going to happen and we have a date we can pass along,” Hendren said.

The DHS vacated the office building in late January 2016 after more than 20 years at the location. Hendren, who owns the building leased by the state for its Unicoi County DHS office, said a lease issue prompted the state to temporarily relocate the local office to Johnson City.

Hendren previously said she was seeking a long-term lease from the state which would allow her to complete renovations to the building, which had not seen major improvements in more than two decades. The state, however, wished to rent the building on a month-to-month basis after the lease it signed years prior had expired.

But when Hendren received word the state was interested in returning to its former location in Unicoi County, she reached out to state officials and the two sides went to work on a new agreement.

“They needed to kind of explore other options, which I totally understood,” Hendren said. “I needed to explore other options, and then we decided we were the best for each other.”

The state signed a new 10-year lease with Hendren on Jan. 23, the same day State Sen. Rusty Crowe and State Rep. John Holsclaw jointly announced the upcoming reopening of the Unicoi County DHS office. Hendren said she reached out to Crowe to help expedite the DHS return process, and she credits Crowe with helping to make the office’s reopening possible.

With the new lease agreement in place, Bowman & Sons Construction was brought in to begin renovation work on the facility. That work began in February.

Hendren said the renovations and upgrades on the building included the moving of some walls, new windows and doors, new roofing and a new central heating and air system, as well as new ceiling tiles, new carpeting and a fresh coat of paint.

Hendren added her family and friends supported the effort, in particular crediting Tim Yates for his “undying work ethic” on the fine details, such as painting and cleaning, necessary to ready the office for its reopening.

With these renovations and the addition of more natural lighting, greater energy efficiency and enhanced security, state DHS officials will return to a better office than the one they left, Hendren said.

“It’s something for Unicoi County to be very proud of,” she said.

Bowman & Sons by May 1 had completed the work necessary for the state to begin its move-in. Hendren said the state will likely begin moving in its furniture and workstations, along with setting up Internet access and installing office equipment, throughout the end of June and over the first couple weeks of July.

“So we’re basically waiting for furniture, computers, the data setup, all that sort of stuff,” Hendren said.

Hendren said the state should have everything needed for the operation of the office in place by Monday, July 17, the same day a final walkthrough of the building is to be conducted. State officials were in Unicoi County on Wednesday, June 14, to complete an initial walkthrough of the office.

According to information provided to Hendren by the state, the personnel count at the Unicoi County DHS office will be 10 once the office reopens. Hendren said state officials indicated less square footage was needed than before as the state wants DHS representatives to spend more time “out in the field.”

And the DHS will not be the only tenant of the newly-renovated building. The same day the DHS moves into the facility, the Tennessee Department of Safety will move Tennessee Highway Patrol personnel into a portion of the building.

The THP will occupy around 800 square feet of the 3,600-square-foot building, and its side of the facility will include three offices. Four troopers will share two of the offices, and a sergeant will utilize the remaining office.

Hendren said the public will not have access to the THP’s portion of the building.

The steps to bring the THP to the building began after the Department of Safety contacted Hendren to see if she had additional space available due to the THP’s loss of its office space at Erwin Town Hall.

In October 2016, a letter signed by Erwin Town Recorder Glenn Rosenoff on behalf of the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen was submitted to the THP’s District 5 Headquarters requesting that the THP vacate its space at Erwin Town Hall. Erwin officials cited the town’s growth and need for additional space as the reason for the request.

Hendren’s building also previously housed the local Department of Children’s Services office, but she said that agency will not have a presence within the building once it reopens.

The facility that will once again be home to the local DHS office and will now house THP personnel was originally constructed in 1974 and initially owned by Hendren’s father, Joe. For years, the location served primarily as a service station. A laundry mat and later a florist was located in space next to the service station.

After the service station closed in the mid-1990s, the DHS began its occupancy of the building.

The Tennessee DHS offers information and assistance to its clients through various programs, including Families First and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It also offers assistance with a number of rehabilitation and community and social services.

Hendren said she is glad the DHS is returning to Unicoi County, adding community members in need of the help offered through the agency’s services and programs will welcome the fresh start.

“It really inconvenienced the town, so I’m thrilled that’s been lifted and they’re going to have to drive just a few short minutes to be able to get their needs taken care of,” Hendren said.

Elephant statues to go up for auction

Sir Elephant, completed by the Unicoi County High School Art Department, is one of eight elephant statues decorated through the Erwin Trunk Project. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

The eight elegantly enameled elephant statues completed through the Erwin Trunk Project have been on display in downtown Erwin for a little more than a month now, and the small pachyderms continue to create a big buzz.

“We’ve had an incredible response,” Erwin Communications Specialist Jamie Rice said.

The RISE Erwin young professionals group, of which Rice is president, is doing its part to promote the elephant statues. The group is encouraging folks to break out their cell phones, strike a pose alongside one of the colorful critters, and share their pictures on social media.

“To try and keep the buzz going for the social media aspect, we’ve created a hashtag for people to use on Instagram and it’s called #showyourtrunk,” Rice said. “It’s basically when people take selfies and they’re downtown with the elephants, it’s a way for us to track how many people are taking pictures with them and keeping the excitement going.”

And the group is receiving help in its efforts to promote Erwin’s first public art project. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, the Hohenwald-based elephant refuge that the Erwin Trunk Project will ultimately benefit, featured the story last month in the “EleNotes” newsletter the Elephant Sanctuary sends to its donors, as well as on its social media feeds.

“RISE actually had a little volunteer trip to the Elephant Sanctuary, and so we were in their newsletter and we got a lot of response right after that where people found out what we were doing,” Rice said.

Rice said it has led to contacts from people from all over the country who are interested in either coming to Erwin to see the statues in person during the upcoming Erwin Elephant Revival or to buy one when they go up for auction.

“Just with their audience that they are capable of reaching, I’ve had people from Montana call me, I’ve had people from Florida call, so people are really excited about seeing these little elephants all over town,” Rice said.

The statues are set to be auctioned on Oct. 21, with proceeds going to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. And Rice said local officials have come up with a solution for out-of-towners or those outside of the state interested in purchasing one of the statues but unable to attend the live auction. She said a bidder form has been created, and this form will be shared on the Erwin Elephant Revival’s website and Facebook page.

“Basically, anyone who wants to place a bid that can’t actually be here in person can just fill out this form and give us their maximum amount they would like for us to bid and then we’ll assign a live bidder for them the night of the auction,” Rice said.

The Erwin Trunk Project is a public art initiative and continuation of last year’s Erwin Elephant Revival, an event held with the dual purpose of erasing the stigma the town has carried since the 1916 handling of Mary the circus elephant in the Erwin rail yard and to raise funds for the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. The event raised more than $7,000 for the Elephant Sanctuary.

Last year, the Town of Erwin purchased the eight fiberglass statues from the Elephant Parade, an international organization that was established more than a decade ago in The Netherlands and which is dedicated to combatting the extinction of elephants. The Elephant Parade funds its mission through the sale of elephant figurines, which are decorated by artists and celebrities.

The unpainted statues were displayed during the Erwin Elephant Revival Glow Parade, which was held in September and served to mark the culmination of the monthlong Erwin Elephant Revival event. Sponsors, including area businesses and individuals, as well as the Town of Erwin, were acquired for the statues, and the sponsored statues were sent to artists throughout the region to lend their creative touch to the project. 

The completed statues debuted during the Erwin Great Outdoors Festival held on May 6 and were placed in various locations along North Main Avenue days later.

The second installment of Erwin Elephant Revival is set to be held this September, the month before the statues purchased as part of the inaugural Elephant Revival are to be auctioned. Because of this, Rice said the painted parade of pachyderms will be a centerpiece of this year’s event.

Rice said organizers are still working to iron out the details of this year’s two-day Erwin Elephant Revival, but she said the first night could include an outdoor block party including a fundraising dinner. The next evening could feature glow-themed activities, buskers and live entertainment.

“We’re still trying to work out the details on that, but we’ve got some good things up our sleeve, I think,” Rice said.

And, the next Elephant Revival could feature another public art project. To go along with the second night’s glow theme, Rice said she would like to see downtown decorated with lanterns similar to those seen in the Jamaica Pond Lantern Parade, an event held each year in Massachusetts. These lanterns are essentially made by placing a candle inside a 2-liter bottle after the top of the bottle has been cut away. Tissue paper of various colors is affixed to the bottles to create designs and give off a stained glass effect.

Rice said she would like to see local civic organizations and other agencies take part in this project by encouraging children to make their own lanterns.

“It would be something different, but it would still be really cheerful and get people excited about what we’re doing,” Rice said.

And, another initiative similar to the Erwin Trunk Project may be on the horizon.

“We’re hoping, if this goes really well, that the town will allow us to get another little herd of elephants for next year and have a new batch of artists and it’ll be a completely new public art project to keep people coming downtown and see the new elephants,” Rice said.

Town of Erwin chosen for state award

By Brad Hicks

The recent transformation of downtown Erwin both in terms of aesthetics and activity has not gone unnoticed by state officials who, earlier this week, recognized local leaders for their efforts to reinvigorate not only the heart of the town, but Erwin as a whole.

On Tuesday, the Tennessee Municipal League presented the Town of Erwin with the TML Achievement Award for Excellence in Economic and Community Development. The award was presented during the TML’s 78th Annual Conference held in Murfreesboro.

“Of course, it’s an honor to be recognized for our investment that we’ve put into downtown,” Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said last week. “It was a surprise.”

Several months ago, Pat Hardy, a municipal management consultant with the Municipal Technical Advisory Service, asked Erwin Town Recorder Glenn Rosenoff to reflect upon some of the town’s accomplishments since 2014, a request with which Rosenoff complied in April. That list, unbeknownst to Erwin officials, was used to nominate the town for the award it received Tuesday.

Hensley said Hardy made her aware that the town had been nominated for the TML Achievement Award for Excellence in Economic and Community Development during the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s retreat held May 12-13. She said the town received word it had won the award the week before last.

While the list previously provided to Hardy lists accomplishments such a beautification and access improvement projects, the securement of a highly competitive grant, and new festivals and events launched since 2014, perhaps the chief accomplishment among the list is the completion of Erwin’s Downtown Revitalization project.

The three-phase Downtown Revitalization project was completed in the summer of 2015. The enterprise got off the ground in 2012 when the Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved the project master plan. Work on the first phase was completed in 2013, and the remaining two phases were completed after the start of 2014.

Rosenoff said the recently-completed Downtown Revitalization project was the first major renovation to Erwin’s downtown area in around four decades.

In a release announcing Erwin as the winner of this year’s TML Achievement Award for Excellence in Economic and Community Development, Hardy described the downtown revitalization work as “unbelievable,” adding that the recent completion of the Pat E. Brown Memorial Bridge, otherwise known as the railroad overpass, is an example of the dedication to community betterment town leaders have displayed in recent years.

“This area has once again become the focal point of the community,” Hardy stated. “In fact, it is a destination in itself. Only a decade ago no one would have envisioned the completion of the bridge and related infrastructure. It would have seemed out of reach, too expensive, too complicated, and involved too many agencies and private sector actors. But looking beyond all these complications and envisioning a new era for the community, was the strong suit of the mayor, (Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen), and administrative staff. Working together, they pulled off one of the most amazing transformations of downtown infrastructure I have ever seen.”

Although integral components, Erwin officials saw the Downtown Revitalization project as more than the widening of sidewalks, paving of streets and upgrading of infrastructure. These officials viewed the undertaking as a catalyst for economic development, as it was felt that a facelift would serve to draw more visitors and prospective entrepreneurs to Erwin.

“The Downtown Revitalization was definitely a financial investment with the hopes, of course, to not only draw new downtown businesses and folks, but also have a ripple effect on other places and other corridors,” Rosenoff said.

And, according to Erwin’s leaders, the investment in the downtown district is paying off as downtown Erwin has served as the base of several events and festivals launched since the project’s completion that have attracted or continue  to attract scores of attendees.

As an example, Rosenoff pointed to the 57th Annual Southeastern Autorama car show, which was held on June 3. This year’s Autorama, for the first time in more than 40 years, was held in downtown Erwin. Rosenoff said both the event’s return downtown and its success this year to Erwin’s upgraded downtown district.

And the Autorama is hardly alone when it comes to successful events held downtown.

“All the way to the Great Outdoors Festival to the Elephant Revival festival to the Farmers Market, those were all successes after the downtown revitalization was completed,” Rosenoff said.

Rosenoff said while the town’s efforts have not solely been focused on revamping the downtown, he said having a dynamic downtown is an essential part of economic development. He also said the bustle and energy found in the downtown area since the revitalization project’s completion has been “contagious” because, as Erwin officials intended, the project’s impact has spread beyond downtown. 

“Having the vibrant downtown seems to have a significant ripple effect,” Rosenoff said. “If you look at Johnson City, they’re getting back to the core of what used to be the city, which was the downtown and having a vibrant downtown. Well, that’s what we’re looking at. Back 40, 50, 60 years ago, your downtown was vibrant. There were shops open. They had people walking and customers going in and spending money, spending local money, and bringing tourists. So we are full-throttle right now in trying to attract folks, not only just local, but regionally and beyond to come into Erwin and experience our town and the county.”

Hensley concurred.

“With the revitalization, it’s not just a downtown beautification project, but it is the revitalization of our town economically,” the mayor said.

Other projects to crack the list previously submitted to Hardy include the road rehabilitation completed along South Industrial Drive, which serves the town’s industrial park, a beautification project completed at Exit 36, and the sale of the previously town-owned Elm Street School property to a developer who is currently working to convert the former school into a residential development.

Also making the cut were the town’s receipt of grant funding from the Tennessee Valley Authority through the agency’s InvestPrep program. This funding is to be used to prepare the former Morgan Insulation site for future industrial development. The town also recently launched its Downtown Erwin Redevelopment Loan Program through which small business and property owners can receive financial assistance to purchase or renovate downtown property or to purchase equipment for the purpose of business creation, expansion or retention.

On top of the items listed, Rosenoff said other town efforts include “all walks of life in the economic development field.” He said town officials are continuing to work with officials from Mountain States Health Alliance on the development of the new Unicoi County Memorial Hospital. Town officials are working with someone who potentially wants to develop professional offices on the other end of town. Earlier this year, the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen also approved certificates of compliance for a pair of package stores to be located within the town’s limits.

“There’s just a lot of activity, a lot energy, going into the whole town,” Rosenoff said.

Hensley said the TML’s recognition serves as a symbol of how the community overcame and survived the job loss resulting from the October 2015 closure of the CSX office in Erwin and other losses. She spoke on this subject during the multi-day TML Annual Conference.

“They had asked me to speak on Sunday about the revitalization and how we have come back as a town and grown economically, so I’ll be presenting some information to all the other cities down there on how we survived losing 368 jobs,” Hensley said last week.

And Rosenoff said the list he provided to Hardy could have been longer. Additional events and projects include the recent hanging of banners announcing Erwin as the “Proud Hometown of the Erwin Nine” throughout the downtown, as well as the Nativity Parade held around Christmas and Welcome Home Veterans Parade, which will be held again this year on July 4 in downtown Erwin.

“I think overall accoplishments have been that the town has invested financially, emotionally and professionally in growing, not only the downtown, but also looking at the town in general, whether it’s housing, business or industrial,” Rosenoff said.

Hardy, in the release announcing Erwin as a winner of the award, stated the town was living up to its motto – “Advancing Erwin Through Economic Growth and Community Development.” Hardy added that the efforts city leaders working hand-in-hand with citizens and local agencies has created is “the perfect example of a community partnership.”

“They have realized amazing possibilities because they work together to identify and act on common goals,” Hardy stated. “In the minds of those in the town of Erwin, nothing is impossible, and anything can be achieved if you dream, work hard, and act in the spirit of togetherness. This is what local governance is all about, and Erwin exemplifies these ideals.”

Each year, the TML honors cities throughout the state for overall excellence, improvement, specific outstanding programs, or department accomplishments. Other award winners for 2017 include Bristol, for Excellence in Human Resources; Chapel Hill, for Small Town Progress; Chattanooga, for Excellence in Green Leadership; Collegedale, for Excellence in Community Planning and Development; Dyersburg, for Excellence in Police Services; Germantown, for Fire Services; Harriman, for Small City Progress; Livingston, for Excellence in Downtown Revitalization; and Townsend, Progressive Leadership Award.

First butane drug lab found in Unicoi County

Sheriff Mike Hensley, right, and Chief Deputy Frank Rogers inspect drug paraphernalia believed to be used in a butane lab found inside a room at the Best Southern Motel. (Erwin Record Staff Photos by Keeli Parkey)

By Keeli Parkey

A new threat has made its way to the Valley Beautiful, according to local law enforcement officials.

On Monday, June 5, the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department discovered what Sheriff Mike Hensley described as the first “butane lab” to be found in the county in a room at the Best Southern Motel located on Jackson-Love Highway in Erwin.

Hensley said a deputy visited the room to serve a warrant for failure to pay fines and costs and spotted the lab, which led to the investigation and the arrest of Katrena Star Bowers, 36, of Erwin. Hensley said Bowers had been living there for approximately two years.

“They use wax to enhance the THC in marijuana,” Hensley said of the lab and its process. “It is highly flammable. We have called in the Meth Task Force to come and dispose of the materials.”

A UCSD meth technician, wearing protective clothing in order to enter the motel room and remove materials, was working the scene on Monday. The Erwin Police Department and Erwin Fire Department were also at the scene. Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson also confirmed that this was the first butane lab his department has seen in the county.

According to information available online from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a butane lab is used to create a marijuana concentrate that can have a THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) level of 40-80 percent, which is much stronger than the average 20 percent level of “high grade” marijuana.

“Being a highly concentrated form of marijuana, the effects upon the user may be more psychologically and physically intense than plant marijuana use,” the DEA reports in the publication “What You Should Know About Marijuana Concentrates” published in December 2014.

The drug created by the butane process goes by the street name “wax,” and is also known as “honey oil,” “budder” or “710,” according to the DEA publication. The DEA also reports that “wax” is typically smoked through a water or oil pipe, but it can also be ingested through food or drink products. Some users use an e-cigarette or vaporizer, according to the DEA.

“Many abusers of marijuana concentrates prefer the e-cigarette/vaporizer because it’s smokeless, odorless and easy to hide or conceal,” the DEA publication states.

Hensley said “wax” can also be used “like a cream.”

“You can rub it on your skin and absorb it that way,” he added.

The manufacture of “wax” is a dangerous endeavor, according to law enforcement officials.

“Our main concern is to ventilate the room to get the butane out,” Hensley said on Monday. “That will take care of the danger of an explosion.”

The DEA reports that a butane lab is “particularly dangerous because it uses highly flammable butane to extract THC from the cannabis plant.” The DEA publication also describes a butane lab, saying: “In this process, shredded or ground up plant material is stuffed into a glass, metal, or plastic pipe, with a filter on one end and then the butane is forced in the open end of the pipe. As the butane goes through the pipe, the THC within the plant material is extracted and forced through the filter usually into a receptacle. The receptacle is then heated to burn off the remaining butane creating a butane gas. Given the extremely volatile nature of heating butane and creating a gas, this process has resulted in violent explosions.”

Hensley said there are misconceptions about the dangers of “wax.”

“This is serious stuff,” Hensley said. “It is an enhancement of THC, which is the compound in marijuana that makes you high. It’s not just a little pot as some people like to think.”

The DEA publication describes the dangers of a marijuana concentrate thusly: “Being a highly concentrated form of marijuana, the effects upon the user may be more psychologically and physically intense than plant marijuana use.”

While the danger of using the drug is concerning, Hensley said his department is also worried about the dangers posed by the manufacturing process of “wax.”

“When this product is being manufactured people have suffered third-degree burns and places have actually blown up,” he added. “When you’ve got several cans of butane in, say, a motel room and you’ve got several people living on each side of you – maybe families traveling with kids – and the butane vapor ignites, it’s just like a bomb, it will go off. It’s very dangerous. When you have this product being made in a motel, it could be a disaster waiting to happen.”

According to Hensley, Bowers has been charged by the UCSD with two counts of felony reckless endangerment, one count possession of a weapon during a felony, one count of maintaining a dwelling where drugs are used or sold, one count of the manufacture of schedule I drugs, one count of possession of schedule VI for resale, one count of felony possession of drug paraphernalia, one count of the possession of a schedule VI drug and one count of possession of schedule VI. Investigators believe she has been manufacturing “wax” for approximately six months. Bowers is scheduled to appear in court on July 6.

Erwin BMA approves changes to alcohol ordinance

By Brad Hicks

The Monday, May 22, meeting of the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen drew a considerable contingent opposed to the passage of a pair of alcohol-related ordinance amendments up for the board’s consideration.

Around three-fourths of the more than one dozen people who spoke during a public hearing held prior to the board’s consideration of the amendments voiced concern and opposition. Most of the opposed implored the board to reconsider the ordinances, as they felt loosening the reins on municipal alcohol laws would have a detrimental impact on the community and would not bring with it the economic boon Erwin’s leaders are hoping for.

But, at the end of a lengthy discussion, the BMA unanimously voted to approve the second and final reading of the ordinance amendment, one of which would abolish alcohol-related distance requirements in Erwin’s downtown overlay district, and the other pertaining to the serving of alcohol at special events.

Prior to Monday, municipal code stated beer permits may not be granted by the Town of Erwin to businesses located within 200 feet of an established church or school. While that distance requirement will continue to remain in effect for most of the town, it has been eliminated in Erwin’s downtown overlay district per the amendment passed Monday.

The amendment states the 200-foot requirement is “unreasonably restrictive” within the downtown overlay district, which was adopted in 2012.

“What we found is if a church is located right in the middle of downtown, within that distance, any restaurant or anyone coming that wants to sell alcohol would not be allowed to, which a 200-foot radius would take out almost the entire middle of downtown,” Erwin Town Recorder Glenn Rosenoff said in April, when the first readings of both amendments were approved by the BMA.

The issuance of beer permits will still lie with the Erwin Beverage Board, which is made up of the BMA’s membership.

The second ordinance amendment approved Monday relates to alcohol at special events. The town’s code provided officials with some discretion in allowing the serving of alcohol at special events and outdoor events held within the town, but Rosenoff previously said more specific language was needed in the ordinance.

“Basically, when we’re having our festivals and different activities, currently the municipal code says under ‘Alcohol’ that the board has the discretion and authority to do certain things to permit beer,” Rosenoff said last month, “but, seeing the (Erwin Great Outdoors Festival) and other things happening, this has been a work in progress to basically change the code and add it in there to where there is a process to allow, at certain times, alcohol for outdoor activity or special events.”

The amended code states that it shall be unlawful for a person to drink or consume, or have an opened container of beer or liquor on any public roadway, park, school grounds or other public place “except in a permitted outdoor use area with a permitted special event or town sponsored activity, or in a permitted outdoor use area with a restaurant or establishment with a current alcoholic beverage commission permit and town beer permit.”

Upon learning of the passage of the amended ordinances, Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amanda Delp said she also believed it would have a positive economic impact on the town. However, as for the Unicoi County Apple Festival, which the Chamber coordinates, the organization has no plans to include alcohol in the festivities.

“We have had no discussions, nor do we plan to have any discussions about having alcohol sold during the Apple Festival,” Delp said.

In an attempt to quell some of the concern, Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said Monday the event alcohol permit, for which a $250 application must be paid, must be approved by the town and is only good for the times and dates specified in the application. She added the amendment would pertain only to Erwin’s downtown business district.

Jim Thompson and Unicoi County Commissioner Gene Wilson were among those who voiced opposition to the ordinances prior to the board’s vote. Thompson said he failed to see how the ordinances would benefit the town and, citing the “beer joints” that once operated in Erwin, added their passage could create a poor environment.

“I just don’t think we need that kind of entertainment in our town,” Thompson said.

“I just wish you all would reconsider this and vote against this thing, because we don’t need it,” Wilson said.

Like several who voiced opposition, Erwin resident Norman Brown worried about the impact the passage of the amendments could have on the community’s future generations.

“I think we have all forgot that we set examples, and I don’t think that having a celebration so we drink down on the streets is a good example for our kids,” Brown said.

Jeff Autrey, a Burnsville, N.C., resident and pastor of the West Park Street Baptist Church located in Unicoi County, pointed at a child in the audience as he urged the board to vote down the measures.

“This whole vote isn’t about you guys, it isn’t about right now,” Autrey said to the board. “It’s what is this going to do to that generation. They’re the ones that’s going to have to live with it.”

Several others expressed skepticism that the ordinance alterations would result in an economic windfall for the town.

“I’m telling you folks – you’re going to lose more revenue by putting this in place,” Lee Bennett said. 

But several who spoke during Monday’s public hearing urged the board to approve the amendments. Tyler Engle, executive director of the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County, said the amendments, particularly the ordinance pertaining to special events, would actually create more control than the town possessed prior to their passage. He also said updated ordinances could serve to benefit the town economically.

“From an economic development perspective, it’s pretty imperative that we modernize our regulations,” Engle said.

Jamie Rice, who co-owns the Bramble Event Space and Venue located in downtown Erwin, also asked the board to support passage of the amendments.

“I, personally, as a business owner, feel this would be positive for us downtown,” Rice said. “When I am trying to talk to brides and their families and draw the wedding tourism business into our downtown, everyone asks, ‘What is there to do? Where can I take my family for a nice dinner after 7 p.m.?’ Right now, there are very limited options, so I feel like this ordinance change would potentially open the door for small business restaurateurs to come in and  open a business that I need for my business.”

Kelsey Bartley told the board her family is looking to invest in Erwin’s downtown area by opening a business there. Part of that business model, Bartley said, includes a restaurant that has evening hours and serves wine and beer.

“I think that something we might not be discussing is how this ordinance would directly impact a restaurant,” Bartley said. “It’s not just drinking on the streets. It’s actually having something that’s out here. The building we’re looking at has a patio area outside. All of that is relevant to this ordinance, and I don’t think bringing in a restaurant like that or even a similar establishment is going to necessarily bring debauchery and drunkenness. You can look at any number of restaurants that serve alcohol, and you don’t constantly have drunks pouring out of those doors like you would at a seedy bar, and I don’t think that’s the image we’re trying to really create here with these ordinance changes. It’s more about bringing in new options for commerce and economic development, which I personally believe is important.”

Several members of the BMA also shared their thoughts on the code amendments prior to their vote. Alderman Mark Lafever said he feels strongly about the potential economic benefits amending the ordinances could have. While he said he appreciated those who turned out to voice their opposition, Lafever said he feels amending the ordinances would be acting in the best interest of the town as a whole, adding the changes also have much support in the community.

“My family has been devastated, too, by the loss of a job, and if we don’t do something in this town to fix that, to entice people to come to our town, we’re all going to be looking for a place to go,” Lafever said.

Alderwoman Rachelle Hyder-Shurtz attempted to calm some who expressed safety concerns by telling those in attendance that businesses setting up beer tents during special events are responsible for patrons leaving the tents.

“So who cuts these people off? The bartenders cut these people off, because if they allow them to leave that tent and they do get out and they get in a car wreck, it’s on (the business) and they do get sued for that,” she said. “So you can’t go down and drink yourself into a stupor, and we always have the police force there, as well, in these permitted areas.”

When questioned by a member of the audience, Alderman Virgil Moore, who serves as a deacon at First Baptist Church in Erwin, said he has no issue with the changes to the ordinances.

“I support this. I don’t have any reason to change my mind,” Moore said. “I want to see growth downtown.”

The ordinances are set to go into effect 10 days from their passage on second and final reading.

• • •

In other business, the board approved the second and final reading of an update to the town’s building codes to bring these codes in compliance with the state’s minimum codes. The town had been operating under the 2006 codes, but the state of Tennessee previously adopted the 2012 codes. The town was required to update its codes to match those of the state.

The board also tabled its consideration of an application of economic incentive. Engle told the board Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch had requested the item be tabled until a joint meeting of the JEDB, Erwin BMA and Unicoi County Commission could be arranged to review the program.

Strawberry Festival to be held May 20

From Staff Reports

A Town of Unicoi tradition returns this weekend.

The 15th Annual Wayne Scott Strawberry Festival will be held on Saturday, May 20, on the grounds of Unicoi Elementary School from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Enjoy delicious strawberries from Scotts Farms, along with great local food vendors, live music for everyone’s taste, a Miss Strawberry Festival pageant, a Strawberry Recipe Contest, inflatables, kid’s games, a corn hole tournament and handmade craft vendors.

To reach the fairgrounds take Exit 32 off Interstate 26 and follow the signs.

The festival event schedule is as follows:

• 10-10:05 a.m. – Opening Ceremonies

• 10 a.m. – Cornhole Tournament

• 10:05-11:05 a.m. – Miss and Mr. Strawberry Festival Pageant

• 11:05-11:30 a.m. – Gay Whitt School of Dance

• 11 a.m. to Noon – Recipe Contest

• 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. – North Ridge Community Church Band

• Noon to 12:30 p.m. – Cake Walk

• 12:30 p.m. – Recipe Contest Winners Announced

• 1-2 p.m. – Bluegrass Outlaws

• 2:30-3:30 p.m. – Boots on the Ground

• 3:30-4 p.m. – Cake Walk

• 4-5 p.m. – Dreamcatcher

Before the festival officially kicks off, the annual Strawberry Festival Parade will begin at 9 a.m. on Saturday. The parade route will run from Unicoi Funeral Home and proceed down Unicoi Drive and end at Unicoi Elementary School on Massachusetts Avenue.

“Barney Fife” will be the parade’s grand marshall this year.

Jericho Shrine, pageant winners, Unicoi County High School ROTC, Tennessee Division of Forestry, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Johnson City Twirlettes, vintage vehicles, antique tractors, fire and rescue, and Mary the Town Cow, plus many others will be in this year’s lineup.

For more information, about the 15th Annual Wayne Scott Strawberry Festival, call. 735-0517 or visit www.facebook.com/townofunicoitn.

Great Outdoors Festival is May 6

By Brad Hicks

The second annual Erwin Great Outdoors Festival, an event showcasing the opportunities for outdoor recreation available throughout Unicoi County, will be held this Saturday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. in downtown Erwin.

The event, presented by the Town of Erwin, will feature a variety of nature-inspired vendors and demonstrations and will be held along Main Avenue near the Unicoi County Courthouse.

“Whether you are digging in your own garden, hiking the Appalachian Trail, or rafting the Nolichucky River, this nature inspired festival has something for you,” a release announcing the event states.

Vendors on hand will offer a variety of crafts and items, including lawn furniture, birdhouses, pottery and yard art, as well as various annuals and perennials.

The Overmountain Chapter of Trout Unlimited and Project Healing Waters will be sponsoring several interactive demonstrations and special events throughout the day. These two groups are also sponsoring a showing of the International Fly Fishing Film Festival at 3:30 p.m. at Capitol Theatre.

According to its website, the International Fly Fishing Film Festival consists of short and feature-length films produced by professional filmmakers from around the world “showcasing the passion, lifestyle and culture of fly fishing.”

While the Erwin Great Outdoors Festival is free to attend, tickets for the International Fly Fishing Film Festival are $12.

This year’s festival will feature an “8 o’clock Block.” This block will be along Main Avenue from Tucker Street to Gay Street and will feature music, food vendors, some craft vendors and the Johnson City Brewing Company beer tent.

There will also be live music throughout the festival. The Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band will take the stage at 10:30 a.m., Andrew Scotchie and the River Rats will perform at noon, Porch 40 will begin its performance at 1:30 p.m., The Company Stores will begin playing at 3:30 p.m., Greg Forbes will take the stage at 5:30 p.m., and KarahAnn Kiser will perform beginning at 6:45 p.m.

The Erwin Great Outdoors Festival will also feature a free kids zone, which will include painting, planting and kayaking and fishing demonstrations, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. along Main Avenue.

The Erwin Trunk Project public art project will also make its debut along Main Avenue during the Erwin Great Outdoors Festival. Through this project, eight fiberglass elephant statues were purchased prior to last year’s Erwin Elephant Revival event and painted by regional artists.

The painted statues will remain on display in downtown Erwin throughout the summer and, later this year, will be auctioned off, with proceeds going to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee located in Hohenwald.

Major sponsors of Erwin Great Outdoors Festival are Cumulus Broadcasting, Waste Management and Bristol Event Parking and Campground.

For more information on the Erwin Great Outdoors Festival, contact Erwin Communications Specialist Jamie Rice at 743-6231 or communications@erwintn.org.

NRC says NFS facility operated safety, some express doubts

NFS President Joel Duling, left, responds to the license performance review. Also pictured is NFS Director of Safety and Safeguards Richard Freudenberger. (Erwin Record Staff Photos by Brad Hicks)

NFS President Joel Duling, left, responds to the license performance review. Also pictured is NFS Director of Safety and Safeguards Richard Freudenberger. (Erwin Record Staff Photos by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

Representatives from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were in Erwin last week to discuss Nuclear Fuel Services’ most recent performance review – an assessment which found that none of the program areas at NFS needed improvement.

But some feel that neither NFS nor the federal agency charged with its oversight is doing all that is necessary to protect the health and safety of the public.

A public meeting was held Thursday, April 20, at Erwin Town Hall for NRC staff members to cover the licensee performance review with NFS management. This review covered the two-year period from Jan.1, 2015, to Dec. 31, 2016. To complete the review, the NRC assessed several NFS areas including safety operations, radiological controls, facility support and safeguards.

The NRC issued a letter to NFS detailing the results of the review on March 8.

Charlie Stancil, who served as NRC’s senior resident inspector at NFS during the assessment period, said the NRC completed approximately 40 routine inspections, which included around 3,300 hours of direct observation and evaluation, of NFS programs and processes over the two-year review period.

Several enforcement issues were documented during the review period, Stancil said.

“The NRC evaluated multiple plant issues during the period, and some resulted in the issuance of violations,” Stancil said.

Six enforcement issues were noted in the area of safety operations, two were noted in the radiological controls area, and one issue was noted in the facility support area. Stancil said each of the violations was classified as Severity Level IV violations. A Severity Level I is the highest classification a violation can be given by the NRC, and the agency has the discretion to assign civil penalties to violations.

The issues noted in the assessment included the circumvention of safety-related components, failure to maintain records of inspection, testing and maintenance of fire protection systems and components, and failure to treat mixed waste.

“Each of these violations required NFS to evaluate and implement corrective actions,” Stancil said. “NRC, in turn, the inspectors will review these corrective actions and assess the disposition of the violation and then close the violations”

None of the performance issues from the closed violations rose to the level of an area needing improvement, or ANI. As Marvin Sykes from the NRC explained, a ANI is defined as a performance trend significant enough to require additional licensee attention and NRC oversight. Sykes said ANI may be identified as a single significant or security significant issue, a significant recurring issue, or three or more issues with common themes that require substantive corrective actions to prevent recurrence.

Three issues noted the safety operations area remain open, but one may be closed during an upcoming May inspection and the other two are in the enforcement process and awaiting an NRC decision on the enforcement, Stancil said.

Still, the NRC determined that the local facility operated safely during the performance review period.

“NFS continues to conduct licensed activities safely and securely, protecting public health and the environment,” Stancil said as he provided the results of the review. “No specific performance weaknesses or trends or areas needing improvement were identified. In fact, the number of areas needing improvement have been zero for the last two assessment periods, and that’s a four-year interim.”

However, Stancil said the absence of ANI does not mean that performance in the areas assessed need no further enhancement.

“Early detection with comprehensive corrective actions to address these performance issues are key to sustaining safe and secure operations and performance as we move forward,” he said.

NFS President Joel Duling said his company is “dedicated to self-identification of issues and prompt reporting of events to the NRC if they occur.”

“During the previous licensee performance review in 2015, we talked about how we plan to keep learning from and building on our past improvements,” Duling said. “I believe we’ve delivered on that plan, and performance in 2015 and 2016 showed a decrease in frequency, as well as a reduction in radiological risk to our employees, and continued strong industrial safety performance.”

In June, NFS will hit nearly 5 million hours without a lost-time accident, Duling said, adding this would be an all-time record for the company.

“During the review period, NFS not only maintained a safe and secure work environment but also implemented programs and processes that will drive continued improvement into the future,” Duling said. “As you know, that’s one of our mottos – ‘Continuous improvement, continuous journey.’ We are never satisfied with where we’re at. We’re always looking to get better.” 

Improvement efforts at NFS include continued implementation of the company’s safety culture, focusing on operator training, enhancements to procedures to improve consistency and implementation, and realignment of NFS’ waste management programs to improve control and oversight, Duling said.

“These efforts have resulted in safe, secure, reliable operations at NFS and support our continued improvement into the future,” he said.

NFS Director of Operations Mike McKinnon said 2016 was NFS’ best year in its 60-year history from an industrial safety perspective, adding the company has not had a lost-time injury since 2013.

“This is reflective of the engagement of our employees in ensuring focus of safety during all of their work activities,” McKinnon said.

Richard Freudenberger, NFS director of safety and safeguards, said radiological exposure to NFS employees continues to be low and that doses are well below regulatory limits while continuing to decrease each year. He said all liquid and gaseous effluence from the facility are monitored, adding NRC and state standards continue to be met. Freudenberger also said additional infrastructure improvements to enhance safety at the facility are in progress this year, and the company’s five-year plan for facilities has been updated to support continued site improvement.

“With our investments in the community and our facility, NFS is positioned well for sustained safe operations into the future,” Duling said, “but we’re on a journey, as I opened with, and we will always strive for continuous improvement as we safely provide high-quality nuclear fuel for our nation. NFS is truly good people doing good work, and they take that to heart.”

NRC licensee performance reviews occur biennially, and a new assessment period for NFS began on Jan. 1 and will conclude Dec. 31, 2018.

• • •

Following the business portion of Thursday’s meeting, NRC staff remained on hand to field questions from the public in attendance. One observer who spoke voiced concerns over prior events and the safety culture at NFS, another voiced concerns about the impact environmental factors and natural disasters could have on the facility, and another attendee questioned effluence from the Erwin plant.

But all of those who spoke during the question and answer portion of Thursday’s meeting questioned the NRC’s decision to end the study it was in the process of conducting to assess the cancer risk around several NRC-licensed facilities.

The NRC announced in October 2012 that it would be sponsoring a pilot cancer risk study to be completed by the National Academy of Sciences at seven NRC-licensed facility to determine the feasibility of extending the study to include additional reactor and fuel cycle sites across the country. NFS was one of the seven facilities to be included in the pilot study.

The pilot study marked the first step in updating a nearly 30-year-old study completed by the National Institute of Health’s National Cancer Institute that examined cancer risks for populations in counties with nuclear facilities. This study, completed in 1990, found no increased risk of death from cancer for people living near nuclear facilities and has served as the NRC’s primary source of information when discussing with the public cancer mortality risks in areas containing nuclear power facilities.

In September 2015, the NRC announced it was ceasing work on the NAS pilot study. According to a press release issued at that time, the NRC determined that continuing the work was impractical, given the amount of time and resources needed coupled with the NRC’s budgetary constraints.

“We’re balancing the desire to provide updated answers on cancer risk with our responsibility to use Congressionally-provided funds as wisely as possible,” Brian Sheron, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, stated in 2015. “The NAS estimates it would be at least the end of the decade before they would possibly have answers for us, and the costs of completing the study were prohibitively high.”

Meeting attendee Barbara O’Neal said she was disappointed by the NRC’s decision to end the study. Kevin Ramsey with the NRC said the initial estimates for the study was that it would take more than four years and more than $8 million to complete. Alternate proposals were developed to lower the cost and timeframe, Ramsey said.

“But I think the thing that really kind of made the commission decide not to proceed was when they asked the medical professionals if they thought that if we spent this time and energy if we were going to get useful results,” Ramsey said. “The answer was basically ‘No’.”

Jonesborough resident Linda Modica called the decision a “breach of trust.”

“That was the second sucker punch you gave us after granting this company a 25-year extension to their license now that’s 60-years-old, truly decrepit, and then you drop the cancer study,” Modica said, referencing the NRC’s 2012 decision to renew NFS’ operating license for another 25 years. “So I can’t say I’ve got a whole lot of trust or that you have earned any trust.”

Erwin’s Buzz Davies said he has personally documented a group of more than 800 people in Unicoi County and into North Carolina in which the cancer density was 50 percent.

“It doesn’t take an $8 million study for you to tell that release of (uranium hexafluoride) can cause serious injury to the people in the area,” Davies said.

Johnson City resident Karen Robbins said she was attending her first public meeting held by the NRC to discuss NFS’ performance, but she felt compelled to attend to share her thoughts on the decision to cease the cancer risk study.

“Eight-million dollars for 60 years of existence, and that hasn’t been done before?” Robbins said. “I think you owe it to the people of Erwin, the people of Unicoi County and everybody that lives along this Nolichucky River.”

Limestone Cove residents make case for cell tower

Limestone Cove residents sign a petition requesting a cell phone tower be located in the community,  primarily for safety measures. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

Limestone Cove residents sign a petition requesting a cell phone tower be located in the community, primarily for safety measures. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

The residents of Limestone Cove want to be heard.

On Monday, April 17, a small but passionate contingent of the community’s citizenry gathered at the Limestone Cove Community Center to discuss cellular phone coverage – or the virtual complete lack thereof – within the Limestone Cove area.

County officials have been made aware of the situation. Petitions have circulated and remain open to those wishing to sign. These actions, along with Monday’s meeting, are part of an ongoing effort by members of the Limestone Cove community to see the installation of a cell phone tower in the area.

While she said the convenience of neighbors being able to reach one another on their cell phones would be nice, Karen Lance, a Limestone Cove resident and organizer of Monday’s meeting, said this is not the driving force behind the community’s call to arms.

“The safety is the main concern for the majority of us,” Lance said.

Lance said cell service within the community is spotty at best and nonexistent at worst. Signal bars – regardless of provider – drop at the waste convenience center located on Tennessee Highway 107, the main thoroughfare through Limestone Cove. From that center, a reliable signal cannot be found until one has passed Buladean, N.C., Lance said.

But Lance said there are things Limestone Cove residents can try to help get a signal. Pacing back and forth in open areas sometimes results in a weak signal, she said. Some residents can open their windows and contort their phones to just the right angle to perhaps get a bar.

“The majority of people cannot get it,” Lance said of cell phone service.

Still, Lance said, most people who live in Limestone Cove own a cell phone. However, she said those looking to use them often have to stop at Jones Hardware, located at the intersection of 107 and Unicoi Drive just before entering Limestone Cove, to make their calls.

The majority of individuals attending Monday’s meeting had their own stories to share about how the community’s lack of cell service has adversely impacted others or themselves.

Limestone Cove is a heavily forested region of Unicoi County and, as such, the possibility of striking wildlife while traveling in and out of the community is increased, especially at night or when conditions are unfavorable.

Alisa Hensley knows this all too well.

While traveling through Limestone Cove last January, Hensley struck a deer. Fortunately for Hensley, she resides in the community and was able to get her car home, contact authorities and report the accident.

But the situation, Hensley said, could have been much worse. She said Limestone Cove is not a community that’s rife with businesses, meaning those who experience car trouble or are involved in accidents cannot walk into a nearby establishment to seek assistance.

“I mean, I wouldn’t have to walk all that far to go to somebody’s house that I know but, at the same time, there are people who travel through here and don’t have that community outreach,” Hensley said.

And Hensley has realized firsthand the effect the poor cell signal can have on emergency responders. She and her fiancé both serve with the Limestone Cove Volunteer Fire Department. Emergency radios emit heavy static in Limestone Cove, Hensley said, adding the cell phone issue prevents emergency officials from reaching one another. She said while crews are en route to the scene of an emergency, new information provided after the initial report may be lost due to the lack of cell service.

“Once we get the information, if somebody were to update us, we couldn’t even hear it,” Hensley said.

Karen Crutchley recalled her own recent emergency. And while everything worked out, Crutchley, like Hensley, said her situation could have been much worse.

Crutchley said her emergency situation occurred around 6 a.m. on July 26, 2016. Her husband Kyle had just left for work.

“He walked out the door, and whenever he walked out the door I stood up,” Crutchley said. “Whenever I stood up from the bed, my water broke.”

By that point, Crutchley said it was impossible for her to make her way through her home and out the front door in an attempt to stop her husband before he left. The situation forced Crutchley to walk into her bathroom – which happens to be the room where she has the best cell signal – open a window to search for a signal and contact her aunt who lives down the road.

“It connects and drops, connects and drops, like 10 times,” Crutchley said of her call attempts.

The phone, Crutchley said, would ring once before the call dropped. After receiving repeated one-ring calls, Crutchley’s aunt, Karen Goebel, recognized her niece was in need of help. Goebel rushed to Crutchley’s home to assist her.

“I still couldn’t get ahold of my husband because he was going out of the cove. He didn’t have any service. I couldn’t call him to stop him,” Crutchley said. “So I called my husband’s boss once we got to where we could call, once we got out of the cove, and I told his boss, I said, ‘Hey, as soon Kyle gets there, turn him around’.”

The lack of cell coverage in Limestone Cove has prompted Goebel to implement her own safety measures. During the winter, she provides family members with information on the routes she will be traveling. She also issues the directive that if she is not home by a specific time that family members should contact the police.

Judy Gouge lives along the roadway that leads up to the Beauty Spot. Gouge said on more than one occasion, travelers taking that route, who have slipped off of the roadway, have knocked on her door asking to use her phone.

“It’s a lot of people from the mountain,” Gouge said. “They’ll either wreck or run off the road or something like that.”

And while most living there would describe Limestone Cove as “tight-knit,” this doesn’t mean neighbors are always located within close proximity.

“You just gotta pray that somebody you know passes or you can walk to the closest phone because there’s probably a 2-mile gap coming up the highway where there’s no houses, there’s no access to anything,” Crutchley said.

Many of those present for Monday’s community meeting attended the March 27 meeting of the Unicoi County Commission to seek the assistance of local officials. 

County officials have heard these calls for help and are working to answer them. Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch and County Commissioner John Mosley, who represents the county’s 3rd district which includes Limestone Cove, attended Monday’s meeting to update residents on their efforts to bring a cell tower to the community.

Lynch said he recently contacted Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge, who previously worked in the cellular phone industry. Eldridge put Lynch in contact with Alan Hill with AT&T. Lynch said Hill advised he will check with engineers from his company to see if the installation of a cell tower in the area was in its long-range pipeline.

Eldridge also put Lynch in touch with Vicki Farmer, a wireless communications professional. Farmer is in the process of conducting a feasibility study in the area, Lynch said.

Along with these contacts, Lynch said he has also discussed the matter with State Sen. Rusty Crowe, who has been working with cell service providers to bring service to unserved areas. To aid in the effort, Lynch has asked Crowe to provide updated – or at least the most recent – traffic count information for the Limestone Cove area.

“When we get that, according to Ms. Farmer, that may help in trying to convince one of the carriers to be interested enough to go onto the tower and to get a company to build a tower,” Lynch said.

In the past, cell service providers have advised county officials there are simply not enough households in the Limestone Cove area to bring about the installation of a tower, Lynch said. But Lynch said the information used in such examinations is typically the most recent U.S. Census, which took place in 2010. Lance said the community has grown significantly since that Census was completed.

However, Lynch said a company has contacted the Unicoi County Property Assessor’s Office to express interest in installing a tower somewhere along Deer Haven Drive. Lynch said the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is also working with the state in an attempt to bolster connectivity for emergency services. Through this program, AT&T, which was selected by FirstNet to complete the project, would install small towers along state and county rights-of-way in order to bring emergency communication to different areas.

“We’re not sure if it will bleed over to civilian use or not, but at least we’ll have some emergency communication if this transpires,” Lynch said.

Lynch said cell phone towers are not installed by the service carriers themselves but rather by tower construction companies. Providers then “rent” space on the tower, Lynch said. Mosley said he has not only spoken with Crowe and State Rep. John Holsclaw regarding the matter, but also with Jamie Harris from Vertical Bridge, a company that manages and operates towers. Mosley said Harris seemed “receptive” to helping those in Limestone Cove.

“It does seem like everything is moving in a positive direction,” Mosley said.

Several Limestone Cove residents have already stepped up and are willing to provide a portion of their property for the installation of a cell tower, Lance said.

Lance also said she was encouraged by the news shared Monday by Lynch and Mosley. She said a tower would not only benefit those in the community, but the multitude of motorists passing through Limestone Cove each day, as well as nearby areas of Carter County that also lack cell coverage. 

“I see there’s hope, see a ray of light where before we had not seen it,” she said.

And, just as they did last month, Lance said members of the community intend to be present during the Monday, April 24, meeting of the Unicoi County Commission to again broach Limestone Cove’s cell coverage issue.

“It’s just needed so very badly,” Lance said.

Lance said the petition calling for the installation of a tower in the community is open to any Unicoi County resident wishing to sign. Those wishing to sign may reach Lance at 743-4037. That, of course, is her landline number.