Clarence’s owners plan to reopen at new location

Teresa and Jerry Collins, owners of Clarence’s Drive-In, said they are optimistic about reopening their restaurant as soon as possible. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Clarence’s Drive-In offered more than a menu with a wide variety of high-quality food. The restaurant was like a second home to many of the employees, and a popular hangout spot where customers knew they would be served by friendly, familiar faces.

Those in Unicoi County and surrounding areas are deeply saddened by the loss of the well-known eatery after the building was destroyed in an accidental fire that began around 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 14. The cause of the fire was determined to be from an asphalt sealing company that was using a propane torch to get rid of grass and debris in cracks in the parking lot.

“I had the fire marshal come in and he did meet with the company that was doing the sealing for the parking lot and he determined the fire started at the bottom of the door that lead into the bar section of the restaurant,” Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said. “It was a smoldering fire is what the marshall said, and it was a slow burner. The hottest spot, or the origin of the fire, was determined because there was nothing left in that area.”

The fire marshall brought in a full team as well as a dog that was able to detect any potential accelerants. According to Hensley, since the fire was deemed accidental there will be no criminal charges filed. 

Teresa and Jerry Collins are the current owners of Clarence’s Drive-in, but the restaurant has been in Teresa’s family long before she became the owner. The iconic restaurant, formerly known as “Engles,” was owned by Clyde Engle until Clarence Tapp, Teresa’s uncle, purchased the diner in 1969.

Lawrence Haun, Teresa’s uncle, and Walter Garland, her father, became co-owners and her aunt ran the restaurant for years. Both Garland and Haun were former Unicoi County sheriffs, and when Haun retired, Teresa and Jerry became co-owners with her father before her father’s retirement when they gained sole ownership.

“We have a lot of the same people that come to Clarence’s, and a lot of our customers come every day,” Teresa Collins said. “We have a lot of support from the community and a lot of regulars you really get attached to because you’re talking to them everyday, and so this loss has been hard for them and for us.”

Sheriff Hensley said that Clarence’s was a landmark, not just for Unicoi County, but for the whole Tri-Cities region. He has been eating there since the 1970s when he was a deputy, and he said that next to his mother’s, they had the best biscuits and gravy he had ever eaten.

“There were many times we’d be eating and we’d get a call and have to leave and they would hold our food and warm it back up for us when we had a chance to come back,” he said. “They just had very good people and service … There’s not many places like that around. It’s a bad loss for everyone in Unicoi.”

After the Collins purchased the diner they began expanding the menu and started serving their famous breakfasts all day, which was very well received among their customers. Their menu provided something for everyone – whether you were vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, a self-proclaimed carnivore, or anything in between.

“We’ve added some vegetarian and gluten free options to keep up with everyone’s needs. We have handmade vegan beet and kidney bean burgers and black bean burgers,” said Collins. “They’re both pretty popular because no one really makes them from scratch like that. We really try to have something for everyone.”

With so many options on their menu, a hospitable atmosphere and widespread popularity, Clarence’s was an ideal place for people to meet up with friends and family. Spencer Blevins, a local Unicoi County resident, said it was nice to know that he was supporting a family run restaurant when he ate there.

“I had been going there for as long as I could remember, and a lot of people had their first dates there,” he said. “Most everyone came there from all over to eat their breakfast. They had clientele from Johnson City and all over. Their banana split was a meal itself, and the hamburgers were great too … their food was unbeatable.”

According to Josh Bradley, a Carter County resident, it wasn’t uncommon to see multiple classic cars in the parking lot as people prepared to attend the Erwin Autorama or other car shows. He dined on their hamburger steak with gravy dinner multiple times. 

“A lot of people would meet there before or after the Erwin Autorama or other car shows,” Bradley said. “One of my favorite memories there was enjoying a meal with my parents shortly before my mother passed away.”   

The staff at Clarence’s were just as loyal as the customers. Collins said that she has several employees that have worked there for over five years, and one employee has been with the restaurant for over 40 years. They currently have 20 employees, but the numbers varies according to the season.   

“The Red Cross is actually helping one employee with several children, and county economic development reached out for support,” Collins said. “There’s been a lot of people offering to help with fundraisers and that really is very appreciated.”

Amy Devercelly, a former employee at Clarence’s, started a GoFundMe fundraising page to assist the employees during this difficult time. Devercelly said her younger brother and his girlfriend, who have two small children together, are current employees at Clarence’s, and like many of the other workers they feel lost not knowing what their next step will be.

“When all was said and done it was a great place to work, and my coworkers were like family to me,” Devercelly said. “I wanted to start this GoFundMe page to help the employees, because I know that if I was still working there I would hope someone would do the same for me.”

A few Johnson City restaurants have offered jobs to some of the employees, and Collins said that their employees have even offered to help them get a new building ready once the time comes.

“I’m contacting churches and different places to see if they can help by donating food boxes,” said Devercelly. “Thanksgiving is coming up and people can help by giving. If I’ve only raised $10 or $100, then at least I can say thank you Lord for giving me the opportunity to help someone in need.”

Devercelly actually drove by Clarence’s around 9 p.m. on Tuesday before the fire started, but little did she know it would be the last time she would see the restaurant intact.

“No one would write fire insurance because the building was so old, but the paving company was insured,” Collins said. “We have found a new place to lease. I don’t know an exact date, and I’m not sure what all needs to be done to the building, but I’m hoping we will be back up and running before too long.”

Collins said they will be leasing the former La Meza Mexican restaurant building located at 3615 Unicoi Drive, just down the road from their previous spot. They would like to get back into business as soon as possible for their employees, and they have intentions of rebuilding Clarence’s on its former lot while they lease out the new location temporarily.

Despite the heartbreaking fire, which Collins described as a bad situation all around, she harbors no hard feelings towards the asphalt paving company. In fact, the workers for the company have been customers at Clarence’s for a while.

She described the Unicoi Volunteer Fire Department as doing an amazing job and was in disbelief that there wasn’t more damage done to neighboring buildings.

“The company said they had done this for years, and it was just an accident,” she said. “My husband was talking to one of the workers, and he just kept apologizing. My husband shook his hand and he said ‘you know it was an accident, it’s okay.’ They’re very personable nice guys, and if I needed something paved I’d probably have them do it again.” 

To donate to the GoFundMe page for the Clarence’s employees, visit You can contact Amy Devercelly via phone at 251-9323 or via email at

Animal shelter halts intakes – for now

By Kendal Groner

Following investigations into the Carter County Animal Shelter and disease outbreaks at the Hawkins County Humane Society, the Unicoi County Animal Shelter has seen high intake numbers that has put a strain on their resources, staff and facility.

On Thursday, Nov. 9, the Unicoi County Animal Welfare Board met to discuss ways to reduce the number of animals in their facility as well as how they can cut shelter costs and raise much-needed funds. With 193 cats and 45 dogs already at their facility, the shelter has decided to not accept anymore animals for the time being.

“I don’t see us being able to house and care for the number of animals we’ve been taking in,” said Joann Tatro, chairman of the Animal Welfare Board. “Our biggest issue now is the number of animals we have in house and how to care for them.”

They shelter took in 2,100 animals the first year they opened and have since been able to successfully whittle that number down each year. However, the board is concerned that at the rate they’ve been receiving animals they could end up with more than 2,000 animals a year again.

“Our spay and neuter programs were working; it’s just the influx of animals from other counties that’s burdening our shelter,” said Billy Harkins, Animal Welfare Board member.

The board discussed having a goal for the next three months to significantly reduce the number of animals in their facility. In the last month the shelter has received 103 animals, but they have also moved 138 animals out.

“We really move out a lot of animals for a shelter of our size, but it’s the number of animals coming in that’s the issue,” said Jessica Rogers, Unicoi County Animal Shelter director.

Rogers said that it was hard to determine exactly how many animals they can house because some spaces can house multiple puppies or kittens, but only one or two adult animals. With only eight employees, the large number of animals is demanding on the staff as well as the facility.

“I don’t think we’ll ever have another shelter, and the physical shape of the shelter is a concern for me,” said Linda Mathes, Animal Welfare Board member.

The $9,284 deficit of the shelter brought about a lengthy discussion of how to cut costs and save money. The deficit represents the amount that has been overspent from July up until now.

“According to our budget, we haven’t brought in the income that we would have expected to by this point,” Tatro said.

They shelter has about $17,000 in the bank and owes close to that same amount as a result of their multiple overhead costs – mostly from veterinary costs.

“We’re going to have to pick and choose what we pay, but we can only pay half. We can’t let this keep snowballing .. .this needs to be a priority for all of us as a team,” said Tatro.

The board currently owes $7,000 to Robinson Animal Clinic and they still haven’t received the bill for October yet. The board approved the financial report and agreed to pay close to $8,000 worth of their incurred expenses.

It takes the shelter three months to receive the Robinson’s vet bill, which has had unauthorized or incorrect charges in the past. Tatro noted that it’s difficult to go back after three months and remember every charge that was made.

“We are going to start getting individual animal invoices. Beginning in January we will get individual animal invoices sent to us every two weeks,” Rogers said. “We’ll remember what we’ve done in those two weeks.”

They will also start using a fixed price sheet for all services so there are no surprises when they receive their bill.

“We need to track this to see if this gives us substantial savings over time, because it seems like it might,” said Harkins.

The board agreed the halt of any medical services for the months of November and December in an effort to cut costs.

“We’ll be euthanizing more animals unfortunately, but it will help us by saving on those medical costs,” said Rogers.

The cost of vaccines, medications and microchips also posed a concern for the members of the board. The shelter has already spent hundreds of dollars on vaccines and medications for this year, and it’s not that the vaccines themselves are expensive, but the fact that they have had so many animals to vaccinate.

“Since we won’t be taking in any new animals, we can refrain from buying any more vaccines or medications until we use everything we have,” said Tatro.

With three trays of cat vaccines, which contains 25 doses, and almost two trays of dog vaccines, plus a gift of 90 dog vaccines they recently received from the University of Tennessee, Rogers felt they had an ample supply to last through the rest of the year.

After discussing the costs of microchipping, which is about $10 per animal, the board decided to hold off on microchipping unless someone is paying the full adoption fee. At discounted adoption fees, usually around $45 at adoption events, they are losing money after factoring in the microchipping cost.

The Unicoi County Animal Shelter will be hosting the following upcoming fundraising events:

• Nov. 20 – Fatz Spirit Night at Fatz Cafe in Elizabethton from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

• Nov. 25 – Yoga, Kittens and Coffee at Downtown Yoga in Johnson City from 2-3 p.m.

• Dec. 2 – East TN Jeep Club Fundraiser at East Coast Wings in Kingsport at 1 p.m.

• Dec. 2 – Holiday Fundraiser at Main Street Cafe in Jonesborough

• Dec. 9 – 5th Annual Christmas Cookie Extravaganza at Fizz Soda Bar in Johnson City from 1-7 p.m.

• Dec. 16 – Shelter Open House.

UCMH employees celebrate new hospital

Paulette Edwards, who has worked at UCMH for more than 50 years, was the first to sign the beam, which will be the last put in place during construction of the new UCMH. (Erwin Record Staff Photos by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

On Thursday, Nov. 2, some of the most senior employees at Unicoi County Memorial Hospital (UCMH) took time out of their day to sign the final construction beam that will be placed on the new hospital that has been under construction since the groundbreaking ceremony on July 26 of this year.

Mountain States Health Alliance (MSHA) acquired UCMH in 2013, and has since worked diligently with local officials and stakeholders to ensure the completion of the new 40,000-square-foot facility, located at 2030 Temple Hill Road, which is expected to be completed in fall of 2018. 

“This is a very exciting thing. This will be the final beam that will be placed on the new hospital next week. You guys are kicking this off, and this is a big deal,” Corey Paulson, director of Marketing and Communications, Southeast Market for MSHA, told the UCMH employees. “You all have spent a lot of years at this hospital and have loved it and taken great care of it. We thank you so much for your loyalty and your commitment.”

A total of 11 hospital staff members, all of whom have been employees at the hospital for at least a decade, participated in signing the beam before the rest of the staff was given the chance to later on in the week.

The beam was signed by the following employees: Christine Lloyd who has worked at UCMH for 27 years and works with long-term care; Debra Randolph who has worked there for 17.5 years and works with food service; Gail Buchanan who has worked there for 32.5 years and is with environmental services; Diane Miller who has worked there for 21 years and is with environmental services; Lesa Buchanan who has worked there for 26 years and is with patient access; Elaine Frazier who has worked there for 36 years and is with patient access; Michelle Buchanan who has worked there for 36 years and is with materials management; Gary Peterson who has been there for 32 years and is with engineering; Susan Hensley who has worked there for 26 years and works in the emergency room; Jerome Jackson who has worked there for 29 years and is the manager for respiratory services; and Paulette Edwards who has worked there for over 50 years and works in materials management.

“More than anything we’re just excited,” Paulson said. “In about a year from now we will be moving into the new facility, and I truly hope you all are excited for it. It may be a bit of a bittersweet moment, but just know that you all had a hand in this.”

Paulette Edwards has been an employee of UCMH since 1964, and her position with materials management requires her to take care of all of the department supply needs by stocking anything the doctors may need in order to ensure everything runs smoothly when they meet with patients.

She works closely with long-term care and ensures the efficiency of the hospital by carefully managing inventory, refilling crash carts, and procuring items such as blood pressure cuffs and medications.

“I loved it from the beginning,” said Edwards. “I feel like we have done something special, and when I say ‘we’ I mean I have really worked with a lot of special people in the past.

“This is just the number one place for me to be, and I felt like we were doing something good. You have people’s lives in your hands with this job.”

Some of her fondest memories involve working with different staff members as she has seen the hospital grow and change over the years. She says she has worked under some wonderful administrators and talented surgeons in her time at the hospital.

“I’ve seen it grow and change so much,” she said. “You kind of have to change as the world changes with medicare and insurance. We have a lot of really good people here at the hospital and in the community.”

Edwards expressed her excitement for getting everything set up once the new facility is completed. Once finished, the new facility will offer patients the same services offered by the current UCMH, which includes diagnostic imaging and laboratory services.

There will be updated equipment along with 20 beds – 10 for the hospital’s emergency room and 10 for inpatient services – as well as a 24-hour emergency department and inpatient acute-care services.

“I just never wanted to go anywhere else,” Edwards said. “I felt like this was the right place for me. I’ve never doubted what I’ve done. We work as a team to do the best that we can.”

As someone who has grown up in Erwin, Edwards sees the dedication of the UCMH staff as a reflection of the cohesiveness of the community as a whole.

“I love our little town,” she said. “It really is special here to me. It’s a great place to raise a family. We have a good school system, hospital, fire department … everything just runs so well. Everyone really works together, and that’s what it takes to manage a town.”

Statue auction raises thousands of dollars for elephant sanctuary

The elephant statues that have decorated downtown Erwin in recent months were auctioned off on Saturday, Oct. 21, at The Gathering Place Park. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Efforts to remove the dark stain that the hanging of Mary the circus elephant in 1916 cast over the Town of Erwin continued this past weekend. On Oct. 21, the fiberglass elephants that had been on display throughout downtown in recent months were auctioned off at The Gathering Place Park.

The auction was a follow-up event to the Elephant Revival that took place last month, a series of events sponsored by RISE Erwin, a community organization, to raise funds for The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. The fiberglass elephants came from the Elephant Parade Organization in Denmark, and each of the eight elephants had a separate artist and local sponsor.

“We are very fortunate to have been able to get these fiberglass molds and elephants here,” said Kristin Anders, RISE Erwin member. “They actually use the statues over there to raise awareness for ivory tusking.”

Before the elephants were auctioned off, those attending the event had the chance to check out local food trucks, enjoy entertainment provided by ETSU’s bluegrass faculty and bid on the elephant murals that were painted by Unicoi County High School students and displayed at The Elephant Revival.

“I don’t know if you guys realize that when you woke up this morning you were going to be a part of a story that started 100 years ago, and it was a story that’s stuck with our town and it’s been tragic and dark,” Jamie Rice, RISE Erwin president said to the crowd. “But just the fact that you guys are here, you’re bringing that story into the light and you’re helping us bring wonderful, colorful expressions of who Erwin really is.”

Kimball Sterling, a local auctioneer who volunteered his services for the event, enticed bidders with much enthusiasm and charisma. Five elephant murals were sold for $275, $250, $225 and the last two sold together for $300, raising $1050 from the murals alone. Next, was the much anticipated bidding process for the elephant statues.

“This is the first elephant auction in town, 25 years from now these could be worth a fortune,” Sterling told the bidders. “You guys have done a really professional job on these elephant statues and you should be proud of the artists and your town for letting this happen. These are great pieces of art.”

One of the statues was purchased outright as a private donation from a local resident and donated to the Town of Erwin. The other statues were purchased by Johnson City residents, a Kingsport resident, a Unicoi County farm and a Tri-Cities art collector who purchased two elephants.

“Ella” sponsored by Lois B. Shults-Davis and painted by Russ Bradley was auctioned off at $2,100;

“Gaia” sponsored by the Town of Erwin and painted by Stacy Jones was auctioned off at $2,000;

“Nammu” sponsored by Capitol Cinemas I & II and painted by J Frank Stewart was auctioned off at $3,100;

“Sir Elephant” sponsored by Paul and Missy Farnor and painted by the UCHS Art Department was auctioned off at $3,100;

“Tarra” sponsored by Janet Ayers & Joyce Schwenke and painted by Laura Lavinder was privately donated to the town;

“Peel, Hebrew for Elephant” sponsored by the Town of Erwin and painted by Debbie Stoia was auctioned off at $1,900;

“Habbi: My Little Dear” sponsored by the Town of Erwin and painted by Ginger Naseri was auctioned off at $2,100;

“Iris” sponsored by the Town of Erwin and painted by Valerie Bradley was auctioned off at $1,600.

After RISE Erwin reimburses the Town of Erwin for their original investment, the rest of the money raised from the auction and the Elephant Revival will go straight to the Elephant Sanctuary. According to Rice, the amount of funds raised this year will be much higher than last year.

“I’m still kind of in shock from how well the auction went,” she said. “My estimate is $11,000 or $12,000 will go straight to the sanctuary. We might have even more than that once we factor in the luau tickets we sold and other smaller items that have been sold.”

County man charged in double murder case

By Keeli Parkey

“It’s a sad situation. I hate it for the children and the family. … When you have something like this happen in the community, it does affect everyone.”

That was the sentiment expressed by Sheriff Mike Hensley when discussing the murder of two sisters last week in south Unicoi County.

According to Hensley, law enforcement was notified about “a man with a gun” around 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 11, on Lower Higgins Creek Road.

“While we were on our way to the scene, 911 dispatch receives another call that two women had been shot on Lower Higgins Creek Road,” Hensley said. “Myself, Chief Deputy Frank Rogers and another deputy arrived at the residence. We discovered two female victims who were dead with gunshot wounds to the head.”

The victims have been identified as sisters Donna K. Jones, 34, and Amy B. Jones, 29. Hensley said Donna was the mother of five children. They have been placed in the care of family members.

“There was a witness there who gave me information about the suspect and a description of the suspect’s vehicle. I immediately notified dispatch to release the information to everyone locally and in the surrounding states, including Mitchell County, Yancey County and Madison County in North Carolina, for them to be on the lookout for this suspect and the vehicle. I also called the TBI (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation) and requested their assistance.”

The suspect was identified as Clyde William Banner, 63, of 293 Lower Higgins Creek Road.

“We sealed off the crime scene and I took a verbal statement from the witness,” Hensley said. “She said she came through the backdoor of the residence and saw the suspect and heard him shoot the two girls. He was standing in the living room with the shotgun. She immediately fled out the backdoor. He followed her to the backdoor screaming, ‘I’ll kill every (expletive) one of you’.”

The witness told Hensley that Banner got in a Chevrolet pickup with primer red paint and left the property, traveling down Lower Higgins Creek Road toward Old Asheville Highway. Hensley immediately relayed the information to Unicoi County dispatchers who began sharing it with surrounding law enforcement agencies, including those in North Carolina. County schools in the area were also placed on lockdown as a precaution.

“We received information that (Banner) sometimes visited Madison County and had a friend in Yancey County,” Hensley said. “I immediately called Sheriff Buddy Harwood in Madison County to be on the lookout. Officers went to the stateline at Devil’s Fork and Sam’s Gap. We notified Yancey County Sheriff’s Department and they sent officers to a residence there that he frequented. Mitchell County also setup officers on the roads coming into their county. We were also told he could be going to Cocke County. They were called and were looking for the suspect.

“We were also told it was a possibility that he might take his own life,” Hensley continued. “We were told that he might drive onto a side road somewhere. The TWRA (Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency) sent additional officers into Unicoi County to patrol some of the back roads to see if they could spot the vehicle. We notified park rangers at Rocky Fork State Park to be on the lookout for the suspect.”

As the search continued, local investigators went to banks in the county, according to Hensley.

“Investigators discovered that he had a debit card, which we flagged so if that card was used anywhere we would be notified,” Hensley said. “While I was patrolling some of the roads looking for the suspect, I was notified that the card had been used in a store in Madison County. I immediately contacted Sheriff Harwood. He and other deputies headed to the store where the card was used.”

Banner’s vehicle was spotted by an off-duty firefighter who had heard about the search on his scanner, according to Hensley.

“He spotted the vehicle, called law enforcement, followed the car and stayed on the phone with law enforcement in Madison County until they stopped him,” Hensley said. “They were there within minutes.”

Banner was taken into custody without incident in less than four hours after the murders were discovered, Hensley said. He was taken to the Madison County Sheriff’s Office.

“We obtained a search warrant for his truck,” Hensley said. “We searched the vehicle and found a weapon; it was not the one described to us by the witness as being used in the murders.”

Banner was brought back to Unicoi County on Wednesday evening. What led Banner to allegedly commit the murders is still under investigation, according to Hensley.

The investigation revealed that Banner lived in the residence where the murders took place with the victims and their mother, Teresa Jones. Hensley said that the night before the murders Banner went to the home of Debbie Jones, Teresa’s sister who lives next door, and asked to borrow a shotgun.

“He borrowed the shotgun on the pretense of going squirrel hunting,” Hensley said. “Before the murder happened, Teresa, who helps operate the dump site at Lower Higgins Creek, called her sister at home and asked her sister to go get the shotgun because Banner ‘wasn’t acting right this morning’ and she ‘didn’t feel comfortable’ that he had the gun. Debbie agreed to that. After receiving that phone call, she walked from her house to the residence and that is when she heard him fire the shotgun and observed him with the shotgun.”

Hensley credits teamwork as the reason Banner was quickly apprehended.

“It took everybody working together,” he said. “I am glad we were able to get him in custody as quickly as we did. It was teamwork that got him in custody. When something like this happens, it takes everyone working together.

“I cannot say enough about our 911 dispatchers. They were constantly in contact with surrounding counties relaying the information. It took a team effort. Everyone did a great job. I can’t say enough about them.”

Banner was charged with two counts of first-degree murder. He was arraigned in Unicoi County court on Thursday, Oct. 12. As of The Erwin Record’s press deadline, he remained in jail. He is scheduled to appear in court again on Nov. 16. 

Clyde William Banner (Contributed photo)

Student’s artwork reaches Stan Lee

Humberto Mendoza with a photo of Stan Lee taken by Summer Hughes, a school counselor at Love Chapel Elementary. Lee is holding a drawing of Mendoza’s that Hughes presented him at Dragoncon. (Contributed photo)

By Kendal Groner

Sometimes superheroes don’t wear capes.

Summer Hughes, a school counselor at Love Chapel Elementary School, forged a strong bond with Humberto Mendoza, 10, after discovering a shared interest in superheroes.

“It all started last year when Humberto asked me if I had seen the Dr. Strange movie,” Hughes said. “I remember telling him that I was planning on seeing it that weekend, and he better not spoil it for me.”

According to Hughes, Humberto was very shy at first, but came out of his shell some once they started talking superheroes. Humberto said that he was a little surprised to learn that Hughes, who he has known since kindergarten, was a devoted superhero fan too.

Humberto’s love of superheroes, especially Spiderman, coupled with a strong artistic talent has led him to make several superhero drawings.

“I’ve always been drawing Spiderman,” Humberto said. “One day I just grabbed a pencil and started drawing.”

Humberto’s mother, Teresa Lopez, said that both she and her husband have done some drawing as well. Humberto and his siblings, Bryon Mendoza, Jared Mendoza and David Mendoza, share artistic abilities and also a love for video games and superheroes.

Over the years, Hughes has taken notice of Humberto’s drawing ability and when she learned that Stan Lee, the famous comic book author, would be present at a Dragoncon event she was attending, she immediately thought of Humberto.

“My first thought was that I had to get some of Humberto’s drawings to Stan Lee,” she said. “I didn’t tell him what it was for, but I asked Humberto to draw me a picture.”

Humberto said he knew that she was going to Dragoncon and thought that it might have something to do with Stan Lee.

“I wanted to draw all of the superheroes at first,” Humberto said. “But I finally just decided to draw Spiderman.”

When Hughes and her daughter, Alleea Shell, arrived at the Dragoncon event in Atlanta, they weren’t certain that they would be able to reach Stan Lee with Humberto’s artwork. However, Hughes was determined to try.

It just so happened that they arrived an hour before Stan Lee was scheduled and no one was in line. After explaining to security that she wasn’t there for an autograph, but just wanted to give Stan Lee a gift, they gave her permission to approach the legend.

“I put the picture in front of Stan Lee, and he started to sign it. I stopped him and told him that I wasn’t there for an autograph and that I just wanted to give him a drawing,” she said. “He was so confused at first.”

After she explained to Lee that she was an elementary school counselor from Tennessee and that one of her students was his biggest fan, she was surprised at what Lee asked her to do next.

It’s a rule that no photographs can be taken unless someone has paid for an autograph, but Hughes was asked to take out her phone. With trembling hands she dug into her purse.

“My hands were shaking so bad that the fellow there with Stan took my phone from me and recorded a video of Stan saying ‘Thank you’ to Humberto for the picture,” she said.

The video of Stan Lee thanking Humberto has received over one million views so far.

“I am very, very proud of Humberto, and I was very surprised when I heard about all of this,” said Teresa Lopez.

Lopez and Hughes were both shocked at the attention Humberto’s story has received.

“Today I heard his entire class ask him for an autograph,” Hughes said.

Humberto is looking forward to taking art classes in middles school and high school and possibly joining a Cosplay Club later on. He has continued to draw more superheroes, especially Spiderman, his favorite.

Hughes overheard Stan Lee being asked what his favorite superhero was at one of the panels she attended. It turns out that Spiderman is his favorite too.

Record seeks photos for 2018 calendar

By Keeli Parkey

The Erwin Record is now accepting entries for its annual “Images of Unicoi County Calendar.”

“I am pleased to announce that we are going to publish the calendar again this year,” Publisher Lisa Whaley said. “It is so nice to see local residents and businesses enjoying this publication throughout the year. I encourage everyone to submit entries for the calendar. We would love to feature your photos of life in the Valley Beautiful.”

All photos must have been taken in Unicoi County.

Entries should be emailed to with a brief description of the photo, as well as the name of the photographer and the names of any individuals in the photo.

Photos can also be dropped off at The Erwin Record office at 218 Gay St. in downtown Erwin.

The deadline for photo entries is 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 1.

UCSD assisting Washington County in search for missing woman

Washington County Sheriff Ed Graybeal, left, and Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley discuss the search for a missing Telford woman on Thursday morning. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

From Staff Reports

The Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department is providing support to a fellow agency’s search for a missing Telford woman.

Around 9 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 21, Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley met with Washington County Sheriff Ed Graybeal to provide 4-wheelers and chainsaws to Washington County Sheriff’s Office deputies for their use in searching Fire Tower Road and the surrounding area for Lisa Cloyd.

“We talked to her family a couple times this week,” Graybeal said. “They believe, like us, that she is deceased and it was the result of a domestic situation that happened that was probably an accident. We are following up on any and all leads that we can follow up with to see if we can find her remains and give her family closure.”

Graybeal said Fire Tower Road in Washington County is currently closed; this prompted his department to call Hensley for assistance in accessing the road from Unicoi County.

“We are going to look and see what we can find,” Graybeal added. “It’s just a sad situation and we want to get closure for the family. We are doing everything we can do. I appreciate (Sheriff Hensley) being here with us and sharing equipment. He knows more about these mountains than anybody. … It is going to be a hard trip, but we have to go up there and see what we can find.”

Hensley said the search area would be in rough terrain and expected that due to recent high winds fallen trees could block the searchers’ path.

“We have a good working relationship,” Hensley said of his experience with the WCSO. “That is crucial. Being a sheriff you have to have good working relationships with other counties, sheriffs and chiefs of police.”

Family members last heard from Cloyd in July; she was officially reported missing to the WCSO during the first week of August. Graybeal said Thursday during a press conference held prior to the start of the search that his department has previously searched the Nolichucky River looking for Cloyd and clues about her disappearance.

Graybeal also said officers had approached Cloyd’s husband, Curtis Cloyd, last month and attempted to interview him about his wife. However, he reportedly pulled a gun on the officers and ran away from the location. Curtis was eventually located in an abandoned house on Miller Road in Washington County where he locked himself inside. This led to a standoff with WCSO officials that eventually led to his suicide.

“He was our best lead,” Graybeal said. “We were just trying to talk to him and he took his own life.”

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 or by emailing

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 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 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, 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

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.