County DHS office to reopen

Luann Hendren and contractor Doug Bowman look over blueprints for the remodel of her building at 724 Ohio Ave. Once completed, the facility will again be home to the  Tennessee Department of Human Services as well as provide an office space for the Tennessee Highway Patrol. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

Luann Hendren and contractor Doug Bowman look over blueprints for the remodel of her building at 724 Ohio Ave. Once completed, the facility will again be home to the Tennessee Department of Human Services as well as provide an office space for the Tennessee Highway Patrol. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

All it took, according to Luann Hendren, was a little patience, some fortitude, and a willingness to work things out.

“We all had a talk about that, ‘Let’s let the past be the past and start moving forward and let’s get this done,’” she said. “It truly does take a team to make it happen.”

This collaboration between Hendren and state officials has resulted in the return of the Tennessee Department of Human Services office to its former location in Unicoi County after more than a year away.

The office, Hendren said, is anticipated to open around the first of June if not sooner. Renovations to the building the DHS is set to once again occupy are ongoing, and Hendren expects this work to be completed by the middle of this month. From there, it will be up to the state to choose  what color of paint, carpet and tiling they want to see in the office.

“We’re less than a month away of being finished,” Hendren said.

The DHS vacated the office building on Ohio Avenue in late January 2016 after more than two decades at the location. Hendren, who owns the building which was leased to the state, said the state’s decision to temporarily relocate the Unicoi County office to Johnson City stemmed from a lease issue.

Hendren said she was seeking a long-term lease from the state which would allow her to complete upgrades on the building, adding that significant improvement work had not been completed on the structure in more than 20 years. The state, however, seemed content to pay rent on a month-to-month basis after the lease it signed years prior had expired.

“I think they thought that maybe they could find some place that was better or they wanted to see how it would work to merge the Johnson City office and their Washington County office and the Unicoi County office,” Hendren said, “and they decided it did not work.”

Hendren was approached by members of the community who relayed to her that the DHS was interested in returning to its former location in Unicoi County and would be interested in working out an agreement with Hendren.

After receiving this information, Hendren reached out to the state last fall.

“Some members of the community came to me and said, ‘You know, the state’s not happy in Johnson City, the people aren’t happy in Johnson City, do you think you could work something out with the state, would you be willing to let them come back?’” Hendren said. “And I said, ‘Sure,’ so I reached out to them and they called me back, basically, and we started working on it from there.”

Hendren also reached out to State Sen. Rusty Crowe to help expedite the DHS’ return to Unicoi County. Without Crowe’s work, the return would not have been possible, Hendren said.

Hendren added state officials were “very accommodating” throughout the process and willing to make concessions to make the DHS return happen.

“It just took some negotiating with the state,” she said. “We both had to get on the same page and play ball. I wanted one thing, they wanted another, so we just kind of had to put our needs together and pick what we could work out and work it out.”

The state signed a new 10-year lease with Hendren on Jan. 23, the same day Crowe and State Rep. John Holsclaw jointly announced the impending reopening of the Unicoi County DHS office.

This lease, Hendren said, is made up of a 5-year guaranteed period and an option that would allow Hendren to seek a 5-year renewal from the state at the end of the first four years.

“We’re thrilled that they’re going to be back,” Hendren said. “They needed to kind of have some time to look around and see what their options were, as I did, too, and then we both realized, ‘Hey, we’re each other’s best option.’”

Renovation work to prepare the building for the DHS’ return began in early February. This work, which is being completed by Bowman & Sons Construction, has thus far included the installation of new petitions and new walls for conference rooms and office. The Johnson City-based Bishop Roofing put a new roof on the structure, and Newman Heat & Air also worked on the office.

“Once the lease was signed, the ball started rolling,” Hendren said.

Hendren said the office will be one of the nicest, if not the nicest, DHS offices in the state of Tennessee. She said other work has included the installation of new doors and security upgrades, adding the building will be energy efficient.

“We’ve got a nice, new, beautiful state-of-the-art building,” Hendren said, “and it’s going to be fantastic for both the community and the employees. All the way around, everybody wins.”

Hendren described the DHS as a “great tenant,” but this agency will not be the only one to occupy the renovated space. Around 2,800 square feet of the 3,600 square-foot building will be occupied by the DHS, while the remaining space will be occupied by the Tennessee Highway Patrol. Hendren said this move came about after the Tennessee Department of Safety contacted her to see if she had additional space due to the THP’s loss of its space at Erwin Town Hall.

“So I contacted the state and said, ‘Hey, the Department of Safety just contacted me,’ so then everybody got together and said, ‘Let’s get this thing moving and make it happen,’” Hendren said.

In October, 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.

“So the Department of Safety is on one side, and the Department of Human Services is on the other, so we basically just had to remove and rearrange some walls, we moved a bathroom, and we had to move a conference room, some things like that, but the building is practically brand new,” Hendren said. “It has a new roof. It has central heating and air. It has new walls. They’ll have new carpet, new paint, new tile, new cubicles, all that stuff.”

The building that will now house the two agencies was constructed in 1974 and was initially owned by Hendren’s father. For a number of years, the location served primarily as a service station. A florist was located in space adjacent to the service station.

After the service station closed in the mid-1990s, the DHS began its stay in the building, signing a new lease in 2001.

Hendren, who walked the construction site as the structure was built and worked in the convenience store it once housed, is pleased to see that the building will have a continued purpose in the community.

“That building’s very sentimental to me, so I want it to be productive and good-looking and serve the needs of the community,” she said. “That’s why it’s here – to have a community presence.”

The building previously housed the local Department of Children’s Services, but this agency will not be accommodated in the building once it reopens, Hendren said, as the state had advised it requires less square footage than before for the DHS office.

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.

The need for services and programs offered through DHS is great in Unicoi County. She said Doug Bowman with Bowman & Sons Construction advised her that, despite it being closed for more than a year, several people still stop by the Ohio Avenue location daily hoping to get help. Hendren added a number of those who rely on DHS programs lack the resources to travel to Johnson City.

“I’m just glad to get it done so the community doesn’t have to travel anymore and that they get their office back,” Hendren said.

All that stands between the reopening of the building, returning a convenient place for locals needing the services of the DHS, is a few finishing touches.

“It’s going to be something that not only can I be proud of, but the state and the citizens of Unicoi County can also be proud of,” Hendren said.

Mountain Harvest Kitchen nears completion

The Mountain Harvest Kitchen in Unicoi is taking shape. The anticipated completion date is April 26. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

The Mountain Harvest Kitchen in Unicoi is taking shape. The anticipated completion date is April 26. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

The prep work is nearly complete and, after a few ingredients are added in, things should be cooking in the Town of Unicoi’s Mountain Harvest Kitchen.

Town of Unicoi City Recorder Mike Housewright said the anticipated completion date for the project is April 26, adding that around 85 percent of major construction has been completed.

Armstrong Construction has been working since October to renovate the building, which was purchased by the town in early 2014, that will serve as the Mountain Harvest Kitchen’s home.

So far, contractors have completely renovated the exterior and interior of the 4,000 square-foot facility. The kitchen’s walk-in freezer and dry storage areas are in place. Electrical is now in, and block pouring has been completed, Housewright said.

Remaining work includes the installation of some ductwork, the epoxying of the kitchen’s slab flooring, and the installation of heat and air units. Housewright said other remaining work includes finishing the director’s office and onsite grading around the building.

A driveway that connects the back of the kitchen to the cul-de-sac at Unicoi Village Place must also be built, Housewright said. This will allow for the easier drop-off of supplies and deliveries.

In September, the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen accepted a nearly $685,000 bid from the Kingsport-based Armstrong Construction to complete construction on the second and final phase of the kitchen project. This phase includes the necessary additions and alterations needed to bring the structure to a commercial-grade kitchen.

Some equipment that will find its way into the Mountain Harvest Kitchen was previously purchased by the town, but the majority of kitchen equipment is out to bid at this time, Housewright said. That bid is set to close out in early April.

“So we will be contracting with vendors to get the bulk of the equipment in at the end of April,” Housewright said. “As Armstrong is completing their work, we’ll have equipment going in.”

This equipment, Housewright added, should be sufficient for basic kitchen operations.

Additional equipment will be acquired through subsequent bids. Housewright said these bids will likely be let out over the course of this summer.

“That will be for more specialized equipment, things of that nature,” he said.

Town officials are hoping to have the kitchen ready for public use sometime in May or early June, Housewright said. However, this timeline may be contingent on the hiring of a director for the Mountain Harvest Kitchen.

“One major component is going to be the availability or the hiring of an onsite director,” Housewright said. “When we know who our director is, we’ll better know what that timeline is.”

Interviews for the director’s post are ongoing, and there is no timetable for town officials to select the individual who will oversee day-to-day operations of the kitchen as, Housewright said, they want to make sure they have the right person for the job.

“We’re looking at a huge project that has taken a lot of capital and a lot of time and a lot of input from the community,” Housewright said. “We’ve got to make sure that a project of that magnitude that we put it in the right hands.”

While there is plenty of work remaining, Housewright said the kitchen project has come along well thus far. He commended Armstrong Construction for its work.

“The building, really the whole end of that street, that cul-de-sac, has transformed by the work that they’ve done,” he said.

The Town of Unicoi also expects to soon begin recouping funding it has put toward the Mountain Harvest Kitchen project. The bulk of the project, Housewright said, was funded through federal grant monies. As a stipulation of the grant contract, the town was required to first do a “spend out,” in which it had to pay construction costs and other costs associated with the project upfront. Once the project reached the 25 percent completion mark, the town became eligible for reimbursements from the grant.

Housewright said the project hit the 25 percent completion mark around six weeks to a month ago, at which time the First Tennessee Development District, which is administering the grant for the town, began billing the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

“Those expenses that we’ve paid out will begin to come back in,” Housewright said.

Town officials expect to receive reimbursements totaling around $400,000 when all is said and done. This amount represents around 58 percent of the current estimated total project cost of $685,000.

“They’re still building and they’re still giving us invoices, so we don’t know what that total project cost is,” Housewright said. “But, if everything comes in as predicted – and Armstrong’s been great to work with, everything’s been very predictable, very as anticipated –- then we can expect a reimbursement of around $400,000.”

The Mountain Harvest Kitchen project was first envisioned around a decade ago. Town of Unicoi officials have viewed the project as a business incubator, as users will be able to sell the food prepared or produce canned within the facility. The kitchen, once complete, is set to include the aforementioned dry storage area, walk-in freezer and office space along with food processing areas with commercial-sized equipment, a research and development lab, and a receiving area.

Entrepreneurial training opportunities, as well as demonstrations and other classes, will also be offered to kitchen users. Housewright said some of events have already been scheduled for the month of May.

“One of the primary reasons I took this job and pursued this job was this particular project,” Housewright said. “I came from a job where I was working with startups and working with new businesses, so it seemed like a great place to go where I could kind of continue that.”

According to a release issued by the Town of Unicoi in October after it was announced the project had received more than $350,000 in grant funding through former President Barack Obama’s administration’s Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization Initiative, the Mountain Harvest Kitchen Incubator & Entrepreneurial Training Program will serve a nine-county region in northeast Tennessee and northwest North Carolina, create 30 new businesses and 60 new jobs, serve more than 90 trainees, and leverage $1.2 million in private investment.

Housewright lauded the efforts of the town’s Mountain Harvest Kitchen Committee, whose members Housewright said have worked diligently to bring the vision of the kitchen to reality.

“They’ve really put in, from my understanding, the better part of 10 years into planning this thing,” Housewright said.

Body from N.C. murder case found in Unicoi County

By Keeli Parkey

Working with the Mitchell County Sheriff’s Office, members of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department and other agencies found the body of a North Carolina woman in the Iron Mountain area of Limestone Cove in Unicoi County on Friday, March 24, Sheriff Mike Hensley told The Erwin Record.

According to Donald Street, Mitchell County sheriff, the body was believed to be that of 45-year-old Sarah Denise Riddle. Street said that on March 17, Cecil Scott Byrd, pled guilty in Mitchell County court for the 2015 murders of 49-year-old Lisa Ann Robbins and Riddle. Byrd was also sentenced on that day to serve two life sentences without the possibility of parole for the murders.

Street said between the dates of Sept. 28 and Oct. 22, 2015, Byrd was charged with first degree in the deaths of Riddle and Robbins. Street said Riddle’s death occurred on either Oct. 21 or Oct. 22, 2015. He described Riddle as an “acquaintance” of Byrd’s. Robbins lived with Byrd and her murder reportedly occurred between Sept. 28 and Oct. 4, 2015, according to Street.

“We first received a report that Robbins was missing,” Street said. “We were trying to locate her and we went and talked to him. He let us search the residence and we found some odd stuff going on, but we weren’t able to pin anything down. Then, just days later we get another report of another missing person. … As the investigation unfolded, it led directly to Byrd’s involvement. He did confess to both murders after he was taken into custody.”

The sheriff also said that during the initial investigation, Byrd told officers he had disposed of Riddle’s body at a local trash collection site.

“The body had been burnt and he said he disposed of it there in trash bags,” Street added.

Following the sentencing on March 17, Byrd was interviewed in the presence of his state-appointed attorneys by an agent with the North Carolina Bureau of Investigation and told officers where to find Riddle’s body in Unicoi County, Street said.

“We, at that time, wanted to interview him again,” Street added. “After receiving two life sentences we thought he would be truthful on anything he knew. In the end, he didn’t have much to lose. … During the re-interview, he said he had taken (Riddle’s) body and dumped the ashes and bones on top of Iron Mountain on the Tennessee side. And, he told officers where to locate it.”

Using what Byrd told them, law enforcement officials went to the location and found Riddle’s remains on March 24.

“Today, we recovered body parts and evidence consistent with what Byrd told Mitchell County officers on Iron Mountain,” Sheriff Mike Hensley said. “We combed the area and we found containers that matched the description of what he said he put the body in. We found them over an embankment.”

The remains will be sent for DNA testing to confirm the identification, Hensley also said.

Both Hensley and Street said the discovery of the body brings closure to Riddle’s family.

“We contacted the mother of Ms. Riddle today and informed her of our discovery,” Street said on Friday. “At least this brings closure for the sadness they are no doubt going through. It is so sad that a family had to go through something like this.”

Erwin BMA discusses variety of topics

By Brad Hicks

From tax collections and grant opportunities to walking trails and economic development incentives, a myriad of projects and initiatives was discussed during a Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen work session held Monday, March 13, at Erwin Town Hall.

Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said that projected revenues currently look good overall.

Hensley said that as of Feb. 28, the town has collected just shy of 55 percent of the total revenues officials had projected for the 2016-17 fiscal year. She said the reason this number is not greater is that payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, have not yet been taken into account.

Those providing PILOT to the town have until June 30 to do so. The most significant provider of PILOT to Erwin is Erwin Utilities, from which Town Recorder Glenn Rosenoff said the town is set to receive around $590,000. Hensley said with PILOT taken into account, the town is ahead of its projected revenues.

As of Feb. 28, the town has collected 90.9 percent of the amount projected for the current fiscal year, Hensley said. However, she added more payments have been made since the last day of February and the collection of delinquent property taxes is more than 170 percent above the projected amount.

Recent developments may aid the town in meeting the mark set for the wholesale liquor tax, Rosenoff said. The Food Lion on North Main Avenue has begun selling wine, and a package store also located on North Main Avenue may open its doors next month. During its regular Monday meeting, the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved wine sales permits for the Roadrunner convenience store located on Jonesborough Road and the Scotchman convenience store located on North Main Avenue.

Business taxes are falling below the mark, but Hensley said the town collects the biggest portion of those at the end of this month. Still, she said the recent closure of Erwin Motors may lead to a reduction in business tax collections.


Possible upcoming expenditures discussed during Monday’s work session include new police cars for the Erwin Police Department and a fire truck for the Erwin Fire Department. Hensley said the town has utilized only 47.1 percent of its projected expenditures for the current fiscal year, so the town is “on schedule” in that area.

Hensley said officials have decided not to pursue the proposed Downtown Connector Trail project due to right-of-way issues along South Main Avenue. She also discussed the difficulties the town has experienced in attempting to complete its proposed Linear Trail extension project, an undertaking that has been in the works for around six years.

This trail project calls for the construction of a tunnel under a portion of the railroad that would allow the trail to be extended to Fishery Park. When the project plan was originally approved by the state, an 8 percent grade was required. Erwin officials have said the state has recently stated a 5 percent grade is now required.

Rosenoff said the grade change would cause the cost of the project to go from around $458,000 to approximately $777,000.

“That’s too much, in my opinion, for us to have to do unless we can get more money,” Hensley said.

Rosenoff said he is checking with the Tennessee Department of Transportation to see if the grant funding previously awarded for the Downtown Connector Trail can be used toward the Linear Trail extension. This funding, with some additional monies, would allow the town to complete the tunnel and trail extension to the park, Hensley said.

• • •

Economic development incentives that the town could offer were also a topic of discussion. Hensley said Town Attorney Thomas Seeley III is working with Nashville-based attorney Tom Trent to see if the town could use tax-increment financing should an industry set up shop in Erwin.

Tax-increment financing, or TIF, is a tool in which governments or economic development agencies can issues bonds to pay for redevelopment projects that contain public value. Essentially, a TIF allows governments to fund community developments with future tax revenues.

Rosenoff said the Downtown Erwin Redevelopment Loan Program is set to launch on May 1 and has already garnered some interest. The DERLP is a fund to assist small business owners and property owners with purchasing or renovating downtown property or to purchase equipment for the direct purpose of business creation, expansion or retention.

The DERLP would be created through lending institutions each contributing $25,000. Rosenoff said three local banks – Bank of Tennessee, Mountain Commerce Bank and First Tennessee Bank – have each committed to an initial plan to each contribute the $25,000 for the first and second years of the DERLP.

The DERLP would be administered by the Northeast Tennessee Economic Development Corporation, which is part of the FTDD. Participating lending institutions would make a zero percent, 10-year loan to the NETEDC to fund the loan program. The NETEDC would manage the loan fund and produce income from the fund interest, loan interest and fee income of the program.

The contributions from the banks participating in the DERLP would essentially create a $75,000 pool of money per year. Those wishing to renovate or purchase equipment for their existing downtown businesses or those wishing to purchase property in the district could then apply to NETEDC to seek a loan of up to $25,000. The loans are open to for-profit and nonprofit businesses, governmental agencies, partnerships and individuals. The funding may be used to improve commercial or mixed residential property located within the Downtown Redevelopment area as defined by the loan program, meaning the money could be used to purchase equipment, a property in its entirety or a portion of it, exterior improvements, and interior renovations.

The loans offered through the DERLP would have an interest rate of around 4 percent, Rosenoff said previously. He also said participation in the loan program would not interfere with the ability for an existing or prospective property owner to seek additional funding through conventional commercial loans but would offer a better rate than is typically seen in such loans.

• • •

There has been some interest in the town-owned Morgan Insulation property. A developer previously approached the town to propose housing mixed-use businesses at the site.

This proposal was also discussed during the Feb. 13 meeting of the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen. At that time, Rosenoff said that according to the developer’s idea, the site would serve as a location for mixed-use businesses, with cargo containers near the front to the property possibly housing commercial businesses. Existing facilities near the rear of the property could be repurposed to house manufacturing.

Hensley said Monday the town had not yet received additional information it was seeking from the developer on the proposed undertaking.

Hensley also said LPG Ventures has asked the town to rethink its stance on its proposed venture, something the town would be willing to do if it receives the information requested from developers.

This project was discussed by the Erwin Planning Commission during its Jan. 25 meeting. John Baanders, president of LPG Ventures, and investment partner David Eastin were seeking the commission’s approval of a concept site plan for the property facility.

Baanders told the planning commission the project would involve the construction of a propane distribution facility on approximately 5.8 acres of property along North Industrial Drive owned by CSX Transportation. Through the project, two aboveground 30,000-gallon propane storage tanks would have been installed on the site, and the ability to unload railcars and load distribution trucks onsite would have been implemented. Baanders said railcars would be used to transport propane gas to the storage tanks. The gas would then be transferred to the tanks for holding. From the tanks, the gas would be transferred to distribution trucks, which would transport the propane to retailers throughout the area.

Baanders said the terminal would be operated by a local partner, who wished to remain anonymous until the project moved forward, and employee three full-time workers, with additional seasonal workers staffed during the peak months of winter. He said the venture would represent a $2 million investment on the site, and full property taxes would be paid once the terminal is established, as the partners would not seek any type of tax incentive to construct in Erwin. Eastin said the partners involved in the project intended to purchase the property from CSX.

The facility would follow guidelines outlined by the National Fire Protection Association, and the facility would be equipped with shutdown systems and other state-of-the-art emergency equipment, Baanders told the planning commission in January. Baanders and Eastin further stated no gas would be vented into the atmosphere as a result of the facility’s operations as no vapors would be present during the connection and disconnection of transfer hoses.

Baanders said storage tanks of the size proposed for the site would required more than 1,100 gallon of water per minute to cool in the event of a catastrophic event. He added the facility would rely on the Erwin Fire Department to provide protection.

But local officials expressed concerns. Erwin Fire Department Chief Darren Bailey said he would like to see the development partners install water monitors and a fire pump to bolster protection, adding the EFD lacks the infrastructure necessary to cool the tanks should an event occur.

The Erwin Planning Commission tabled its consideration of the site plan in January. Since then, town officials sent correspondence to the developers seeking more information on fire protection, but Rosenoff said the developers did not address the safety concerns town officials share.

Still, Rosenoff said CSX would like to see the venture established, as it would bring 600 to 1,000 railcars per year into the local rail yard.

• • •

A developer is continuing work to renovate the former Elm Street School on Elm Avenue into a residential development, and Hensley said others have expressed interest in constructing housing in other areas around Erwin, including the green space across from Erwin Utilities.

Rosenoff said the town did not receive a facades grant it was pursuing for the current fiscal year, but will review the application later this year to resubmit for the grant in the future.

The town must also locate additional qualifiers for the HOME Grant it received last year.

The HOME Program is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and administered in part in Tennessee by the Tennessee Housing Development Agency.

THDA officials were in Erwin on July 12 to present a total of $750,000 to the mayors of Erwin and Unicoi County. The THDA awarded a $250,000 in HOME Program grant funding to the town of Erwin.

The funding is to be used to renovate single-family homes in the within the town limits, and the program benefits low-income families and individuals who could not have otherwise afforded to complete residential rehabilitation projects.

Each home selected under the program will receive up to $40,000 for rehabilitation to bring it up to code. Financial assistance for home repairs is provided to those selected for the program in the form of a deferred grant that is forgivable at 20 percent per year if the homeowner remains in compliance.

• • •

Hensley said it may be June or July before the town receives word on Community Development Block Grant funding it is pursuing to establish a municipally-operated ambulance services providers.

During its Feb. 13 meeting, the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved a resolution authorizing Hensley to request up to $300,000 in CDBG funds for the 2017 fiscal year for the purpose of establishing an ambulance service.

Although Hensley said MedicOne, the county’s current ambulances services provider, has made recent strides, including the bringing in of additional personnel, the acquisition of a new base for its local operations, and the renewal of its bond with the county for an additional two years, she said the town continues to receive complaints regarding the company, primarily from local nursing homes awaiting patient transports following hospital discharges.

Bandaged: Officials, MedicOne mend relationship, decide to move forward with contract

Jimmy Erwin, MedicOne’s recently hired operations manager for Unicoi County, speaks to the Unicoi County commissioners at their Feb. 27 meeting. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

Jimmy Erwin, MedicOne’s recently hired operations manager for Unicoi County, speaks to the Unicoi County commissioners at their Feb. 27 meeting. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

The late musician Frank Zappa is credited with having said “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”

The recent norm for MedicOne Medical Response, according to county officials, has been its continued failure to meet the obligations outlined in its contract with Unicoi County. Because of the company’s inability to remain in compliance, local officials have met numerous times over the past several months to discuss MedicOne’s future in Unicoi County and explore the feasibility of establishing a county-operated ambulance service.

But Jimmy Erwin, recently hired to serve as MedicOne’s operations manager for Unicoi County, said recent changes have led to much progress in the past couple of weeks. And county officials, impressed by what they heard Monday, have opted to hold off on any action concerning the status of MedicOne’s contract.

The Unicoi County Commission’s Ambulance Committee on Monday, Feb. 27, heard from Erwin, who provided an update on steps the county’s current ambulance services provider has recently taken to meet to its contractual obligations and other moves on the horizon.

“We’ve not stopped and, in two more weeks, we’ll have more done,” Erwin said.

The purpose of Monday’s meeting was for the Ambulance Committee to make a recommendation to the full Unicoi County Commission – slated to meet later in the evening – on the action it should take relative to MedicOne’s contract. Possible actions could have included voting to give the company more time to meet its obligations or moving forward with the establishment of a county-run service.

On Feb. 10, the county sent a letter to MedicOne outlining issues local officials have expressed exist with its local operations. MedicOne quickly responded with a letter of its own, in which the company outlined the steps it has taken or intends to take to comply with its contract. 

MedicOne on Feb. 14 announced it had hired Erwin to serve as operations manager for its Unicoi County operation. Erwin, a 17-year veteran of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department, completed his tenure with the sheriff’s department on Friday.

Erwin told members of the Ambulance Committee he is committed to bringing local operations back into contractual compliance.

“MedicOne was in total violation,” Erwin told the Ambulance Committee. “That’s one of the reasons why I took the job on the 10th. Unicoi County residents deserve better than what they are getting from the service.

“MedicOne is a very large corporation, and they have the capability to provide everything that was required in the contract and even more and, as the operations manager for Unicoi County, I’ll see that they provide what’s required by the contract, and it’s my goal to exceed the contract,” Erwin continued.

Erwin said the two deficiencies most often pointed out by county officials were the local available ambulances in the county and a lack of personnel to work on the ambulances.

Erwin said since he was hired by MedicOne on Feb. 10, the company has worked on hiring two additional paramedics, adding the local part-time staff has become more active which has allowed MedicOne to cover its shifts. Erwin said since he was brought onboard, there has not been a need for an ambulance service provider from outside Unicoi County to enter its boundaries for patient transports.

“And we have not had a call since where an ambulance wasn’t available,” Erwin added.

Erwin said the staffing shortage remains an issue, but it is being addressed. He said MedicOne intends to bring up one of its paramedics staffed in the Memphis area to work in Unicoi County, adding another paramedic brought in from the Morristown area will complete training this week to begin working from the ambulances. He said the company has also received six more applications, and MedicOne officials hope to begin the interview process soon. The goal, Erwin said, a couple of additional paramedics hired within the coming weeks.

The county’s most recent contract with MedicOne requires that four ambulance trucks be stationed in the county, but Erwin said there were only two in the county when he was hired. Erwin told the Ambulance Committee that since his hire, MedicOne has brought one of trucks up from Nashville and repairs on another have been completed, bringing the local fleet back up to the required four.

Per the contract, two ambulances are to be available locally 24 hours per day and a third truck is to run during times of peak call volumes. In the past week, MedicOne has begun running this third day truck as needed, Erwin said.

“We’re going to run it Monday, Wednesday and Friday and see if we can’t get the call volume up to our non-convalescent calls,” Erwin said.

MedicOne plans to purchase a new truck in March, and Erwin said this new truck will allow the company to drop its oldest ambulance from the local fleet.

Along with a new ambulance, MedicOne has also located a new base for its local operations, Erwin said. He said the company has acquired property at 1501 N. Main Ave. – located just off Exit 36 and directly across from the former Wendy’s restaurant and property previously purchased by MedicOne to construct a new station. This former residence will serve as MedicOne’s local office, crew living quarters and supply house.
Erwin said the company is looking at putting up some “yard barns” to house its ambulances and keep them out of the elements.

Erwin said MedicOne hopes to be in the new station within the next two weeks.

Per MedicOne’s current contract with Unicoi County, the company was to construct a centralized station within one mile of Exit 36. But, since that contract took effect in April 2015, the company has maintained its local base of operations on property owned by Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch. Crews have recently been stationed at a local motel.

Erwin said the new base should also aid in personnel recruitment.

“Right now, with the living conditions, office conditions, it’s been really hard to get anything done,” Erwin said. “The last thing we want to do is bring someone into the old house where we are right now. After about another week, week-and-a-half, we’ll have everything moved and the employees can be proud of what they’ve got. And when we bring someone in and show them what we’ve got to offer, they’ll be more apt to come work for us and provide service for the county.”

Commissioner Gene Wilson suggested that the county’s Building and Grounds Committee soon meet to explore the county purchasing land for an ambulance station, adding the property could be used for this purpose whether the county retains the services of MedicOne or decides to start its own service.

Erwin said communications have also been an issue in the past, but he intends to solve this by sending weekly correspondence to members of the Unicoi County Commission to let them know how things are going and of any issues that may arise.

Erwin also commended the work put in by current MedicOne employees, who he said have continued to work through “rough” and uncertain conditions and have been of the “utmost help” in turning the situation around.

“MedicOne will continue to meet the contract and provide the service for the people,” Erwin said.

Commissioner Jason Harris, who chairs the Ambulance Committee, was among those present during the committee’s meeting who expressed gratitude for Erwin’s efforts. Harris said it sounded like much has been accomplished in a short time.

“I’d just like to say I appreciate what you’ve done,” Harris said to Erwin. “If we had done this less than two years ago, we wouldn’t be sitting here now.”

But Harris said county officials must continue to keep an eye on the future. He said Unicoi County cannot allow any lapses in MedicOne’s service to continue as it has in the past.

“I still think we need to be looking at the future on the ambulance service, what we’re going to do two years from now when this contract’s out,” Harris said. “So I think the (Unicoi County Ambulance Study Task Force) needs to still meet occasionally to be looking at if we’re still going to be moving forward or what they city’s going to do or looking at a building. We just need to still be looking at the future.”

The Ambulance Committee recommended tabling any action concerning MedicOne’s contract, opting instead to meet again in around 30 days to see where the company stands with regards to its relocation, the hiring of additional paramedics, and to discuss any additional progress. The full County Commission voted to follow this recommendation.

“I think we’re back on track now with what we signed up for two years ago,” Wilson said.

During Monday’s meeting of the full County Commission, Erwin apologized on behalf of MedicOne for the deficiencies while reiterating such issues will be a thing of the past.

“From here on out, we will meet and exceed the contract with Unicoi County,” Erwin said. “The people and citizens of Unicoi County come first, and we’re going to do what’s right for Unicoi County.”

Following Monday’s Ambulance Committee meeting, Erwin said the committee’s course of action was the one he had hoped for.

“Everything kind of went the way I was hoping,” he said. “I wanted to show the County Commission that MedicOne does care about the county. With the inability to meet the contract needs, MedicOne it seems like has been the bad person in all this. There’s been a lot of issues. There’s no one person to blame, there’s just been a lot of things that’s happened.”

• • •

Meanwhile, the Town of Erwin is pursuing steps to establish its own ambulance service. During its Feb. 13 meeting, the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved a resolution authorizing Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley to request up to $300,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds for the 2017 for the purpose of establishing an ambulance service.

During Monday’s meeting of the Erwin BMA, Hensley announced the number of surveys required as part of the grant application have been completed and the grant application has been submitted.

Erwin said he has not yet spoken with officials with the Town of Erwin, but he said MedicOne will work with the town whether it chooses to continue its interlocal agreement with the county that extends ambulance services to the town or the town opts to strike out on its own.

“We want to let them know that we are going to meet the contract needs that’s with the county, and we’re going to fill the need for the city, too,” Erwin said. “If they continue to go, we hope we can work with them whichever way we can in a positive manner.”

MedicOne has served as Unicoi County’s ambulance services provider since 2011 when its initial contract was approved by the Unicoi County Commission.

As the April 2015 expiration of this contract approached, county officials began meeting to discuss the company’s future in the county, with some officials expressing concern that the county could no longer afford the company’s $180,000 annual subsidy.

In January 2015, the Ambulance Committee recommended putting the county’s ambulance services contract back out for bid. MedicOne was the only company to submit a bid by the February 2015 deadline, with the company seeking a $132,000 yearly subsidy from the county. This bid was later approved, and a new four-year contract with MedicOne took effect on April 1, 2015.

TBI: Man dies of stab wounds, girlfriend charged with murder

Ricina B. Patrick faces first-degree murder charges in the stabbing death of 55-year-old Ricky Lynn Price. (Photo contributed by law enforcement)

Ricina B. Patrick faces first-degree murder charges in the stabbing death of 55-year-old Ricky Lynn Price. (Photo contributed by law enforcement)

By Brad Hicks

A joint investigation by special agents with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department resulted in the Monday arrest of an Erwin woman on murder charges, the TBI announced Monday evening.

Ricina B. Patrick, 29, was arrested by TBI special agents on Monday, Feb. 27, evening and charged with first-degree murder. She was booked into the Unicoi County Jail, where she is currently being held on a $500,000 bond, according to the TBI.

According to a statement issued Monday by the TBI, at the request of District Attorney General Tony Clark, special agents from the TBI joined UCSD detectives in investigating the Monday death of 55-year-old Ricky Lynn Price.

At approximately 10 a.m. Monday, officers with the sheriff’s department and Erwin Police Department responded to the report of a stabbing at a home in the 300 block of Tipton Street in Erwin, according to the TBI.

“Upon arrival, Price was located at a neighbor’s home suffering from apparent stab wounds,” a release issued Monday evening by the TBI states. “Price was transported to the hospital, where he later died.”

During the course of the investigation, authorities developed information leading to Patrick, the victim’s girlfriend, as the individual responsible for the crime, according to the TBI.

The alleged crime scene on Tipton Street was taped off on Monday as investigators processed the scene, and the nearby Unicoi County High School and Unicoi County Middle School were briefly put on lockdown.

Mountain States, Wellmont hospitals implementing visitation restrictions due to widespread flu activity

From Staff Reports

With influenza activity in the Tri-Cities region at widespread levels, the region’s health systems are urging the public to take precautions to protect the most vulnerable members of the community.  All of the hospitals operated by Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System have put in place visitation restrictions in order to protect patients.

The health systems are asking anyone younger than 12 and anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms refrain from visiting patients in the hospital at this time.

Flu-like symptoms include cough, fever, body aches, headache, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, chills and fatigue.

During the week of Jan. 29 through Feb. 4, Mountain States hospitals recorded 86 positive flu cases. The following week, Feb. 5 through 11, that number nearly doubled to 167 positive cases. Wellmont hospitals diagnosed 60 positive flu cases from Jan. 30-Feb. 5, and the number grew to 91 cases from Feb. 6-12.

“We are definitely beginning to encounter the peak of flu season,” said Jamie Swift, Mountain States corporate director of infection prevention. “These numbers are higher than anything we saw last year; for comparison, the highest peak for Mountain States during the 2015-2016 season was 118 cases in one week. This week, we started out Sunday with 38 cases in our emergency departments, so we’re anticipating that flu activity will be even higher than last week.”

With flu actively circulating in the community, everyone is encouraged to take extra precautions to stop the spread of infection.

“Wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your nose, mouth and eyes, and please – stay home if you are ill,” said Dr. Gail Stanley, an infectious disease physician at Bristol Regional Medical Center. “People can spread the flu for up to 24 hours before they start to show symptoms, and they can continue to be contagious for a full week after the onset of symptoms – sometimes even longer with children.”

Prior to implementing restricted visitation, Wellmont and Mountain States hospitals were already employing a number of other precautions, including providing masks at each entrance and registration area and designating separate waiting areas for patients experiencing fever or respiratory symptoms.

“Our emergency departments and urgent care centers are always available for people when they are vulnerable. Because of the high volumes, it is likely wait times may increase during this spike in flu-related activity,” Dr. Stanley said. “If individuals have certain health conditions (i.e., pregnancy, weakened immune systems or people with medical conditions like asthma, diabetes or lung disorders), we encourage them to contact their physician if they start to experience any symptoms.”

To further protect children in the community, Niswonger Children’s Hospital offers the following tips:

  • Children who have a fever should be kept home from school or daycare.
  • A child who has a fever that lasts longer than 72 hours should see his or her doctor.
  • If a child has difficulty breathing or looks very ill, he or she should receive medical care right away.
  • Children younger than 2 with chronic medical conditions like asthma should see their doctor at the first sign of a flu-like illness.
  • Children should not go back to school or daycare until they have been fever-free for 24 hours without the help of fever-reducing medication.

For both children and adults, it’s not too late to get a flu vaccine, Swift said.

“The vaccine is still strongly recommended, especially for vulnerable populations like children, pregnant women and the elderly,” she said. “Even if you catch the flu before the vaccine has a chance to take full effect, it can still lessen the severity of your illness and hopefully prevent serious complications.”

Officials say MedicOne still not meeting obligations

By Brad Hicks

Ken Tipton, local operations manager for MedicOne, addresses the Ambulance Committee of Unicioi County to provide an update on where the company stands on meeting the demands outlined by the Unicoi County Commission. Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice is pictured at right. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

Ken Tipton, local operations manager for MedicOne, addresses the Ambulance Committee of Unicioi County to provide an update on where the company stands on meeting the demands outlined by the Unicoi County Commission. Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice is pictured at right. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

Members of the Unicoi County Commission’s Ambulance Committee and other local officials over the past two months have not seen the improvement from MedicOne Medical Response they had hoped to, and more insight into the future of the county’s current ambulances services should come by the end of this month.

The Ambulance Committee met on Tuesday, Jan. 17, to hear the steps MedicOne has taken since November to meet the obligations outlined in its most recent contract with Unicoi County and continue its discussions of the company’s local performance.

Last week’s meeting served as a followup to a Nov. 16 meeting of the Ambulance Committee, during which local officials provided MedicOne CEO Jim Reeves the opportunity to address issues officials have stated exist with the company’s Unicoi County operations, including a lack of available ambulances, staffing shortage and the company’s lack of movement toward the construction of a new station.

The Ambulance Committee in November opted to provide MedicOne with additional time to address these issues and work to comply with the obligations outlined in the company’s current contract with Unicoi County.

The committee was set to again meet last week with Reeves to ascertain information on the progress made, but Ambulance Committee Chairman Jason Harris said Reeves had advised he was unable to attend. Ken Tipton, local operations manager for MedicOne, acted in Reeves’ stead and told county officials MedicOne’s inability to meet the stipulations of the contract boils down to a shortage of staffing.

“There’s just nobody to hire,” Tipton said.

And while MedicOne recognizes the problem, a solution is elusive, Tipton said. Tipton told officials MedicOne has increased its advertising of available positions, upped its sign-on bonus from $1,500 to $3,000, offers pay comparable to or higher than surrounding counties, and has offered to cover relocation costs for employees. Still, Tipton said applications are sparse, and Harris said MedicOne is currently two paramedics short in Unicoi County, doubling the number the company was short when the Ambulance Committee last met in November.

This staffing shortage, Tipton said, has hindered MedicOne’s ability to consistently keep a third truck running in Unicoi County. Harris previously said the county’s contract with MedicOne stipulates that the company is to staff two advanced life support paramedic ambulance units 24 hours per day. The third truck, a basic life support unit, is to be available during high volume call periods.

During the Jan. 17 meeting, Harris asked Tipton what he thinks could be done to increase staffing so that a paramedic is staffed on every ambulance and to get the third truck running consistently.

“I honestly don’t know what the resolution is,” Tipton responded. “I post ads everywhere. I don’t know how to get employees. I don’t.”

Part of the staffing issues may lie with the state’s more stringent regulations pertaining to ambulance employee education, Tipton said. In November, Reeves told the Ambulance Committee it now takes around 300 hours of core education for someone to become an advanced emergency medical technician. Reeves said the state of Tennessee now requires ambulance employees to have at least this AEMT certification, something Reeves said takes one year of full-time education to achieve.

“It’s not just a Unicoi problem. It is a statewide issue,” Tipton said of the staffing shortage.

MedicOne’s most recent contract with the county also stipulated that the company was to operate from a centralized station located within one mile of Exit 36. Instead, the company has since worked from property owned by Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch. The company previously purchased property along North Main Avenue to construct the station, but Reeves said previously that bringing this site up to regulations was not feasible for MedicOne.

Tipton said last week that MedicOne had located property in Erwin for its Unicoi County station, but he said it will likely be April before the move could take place.

Around 30 minutes into the nearly one-hour meeting, Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley queried the Ambulance Committee on how much longer officials can ask the same questions of and receive the same responses from MedicOne, further asking if fellow officials were going to continue with the company as is or explore an alternative “to provide adequate service for our folks.”

“All I’m hearing is why they’re not able to fulfill their contract,” Hensley said. “I haven’t heard a plan B.”

Hensley has previously stated that the town of Erwin is willing to establish its own ambulance service without the county’s involvement if the service offered to the town’s residents does not improve. She has also applied for a grant that, if awarded, would allow the purchase an ambulance. Officials discussed the possible pursuit of additional grant funding during last week’s meeting.

And other officials present also voiced frustration concerning the process to this point.

“I think we’re wasting our time,” said Unicoi County Commissioner Kenneth Garland. “I think we need to go with plan B and discuss it.”

Harris said he is in favor of further exploring the feasibility of a county-operated ambulance service.

“For now, until we can get moving forward on that, we need to try to find a way to get this back up to the way it’s supposed to be, at least by what the contract says,” Harris said. “I know last meeting we said we’re going to look two months from now, but we ain’t in no better shape two months ago than we are now. Really, actually, we’re probably a little bit worse than we were two months ago. On the shortage of paramedics, we were short one and now we’re short two. The call volume, where we’re having to get ambulances out of Washington County or Carter County, seems like it’s picked up even more in the last two months than what it has in the past. I heard that they’ve been running routine calls over here now to the nursing homes and stuff like that.”

Harris added the benefits offered by a government-operated ambulance service could help draw employees, helping to address the staffing issue.

Unicoi County attorney Doug Shults interjected, advising officials that their discussion was sounding like “deliberation.” Last Tuesday’s meeting was originally advertised to be held at Unicoi County Courthouse, but the venue was changed to Erwin Town Hall. Shults suggested that another meeting be scheduled, with the time and location advertised.

“At this point in time, before you begin the actual deliberation, I think we’ve probably got some notice issues because, as I understand it, the notice was for a different venue and now we’ve moved the venue and, really, we shouldn’t be deliberating as a committee because we’re not in the place we gave the public notice we would be,” Shults said.

This led to discussion of when officials should next meet to continue talks concerning MedicOne. Harris proposed an early February meeting of the Unicoi County Ambulance Study Task Force, a separate entity from the county’s Ambulance Committee formed in August to explore the feasibility of establishing a county-operated ambulance service. Some officials expressed their desire to see discussions resume sooner.

“I think it’s urgent that we get on with this,” Hensley said.

A meeting of the Unicoi County Ambulance Study Task Force was then scheduled for Jan. 31. That meeting will begin at 2 p.m. and will be held at Erwin Town Hall. Several officials said they would like the Task Force next week to decide on how to proceed.

The urgency officials feel the situation warrants primarily has to do with the status of MedicOne’s contract with Unicoi County. The contract is set to expire in 2019, and Hensley said if local officials decide to establish a government-operated ambulance service, the venture could take around two years to get started.

“If the problems get, I mean, they seem like they’ve got a little bit worse, but if they keep going the way they’re going, we’re going to have to move forward before this two years is out,” Harris said.

MedicOne has served as Unicoi County’s ambulance services provider since 2011 when its initial contract was approved by the Unicoi County Commission. As the April 2015 expiration of this contract approached, county officials began meeting to discuss the company’s future in the county, with some officials expressing concern that the county could no longer afford the company’s $180,000 annual subsidy.

In January 2015, the Ambulance Committee recommended putting the county’s ambulance services contract back out for bid. MedicOne was the only company to submit a bid by the February 2015 deadline, with the company seeking a $132,000 yearly subsidy from the county. This bid was later approved, and a new four-year contract with MedicOne took effect on April 1, 2015.

Sheriff says more officers needed, Commission takes no action

By Brad Hicks

It could be weeks or even months before the Unicoi County Commission begins discussions concerning the county’s 2017-18 fiscal year budget, but Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said an issue his department is currently facing cannot wait.

Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley addresses the Unicoi County Commision to seek funding for additional officers. The sheriff said increase in call volume and loss of officers has put his department in need. Hensley said at least three more officers are needed to provide adequate coverage. The Commission opted to discuss the matter further at a later date. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley addresses the Unicoi County Commision to seek funding for additional officers. The sheriff said increase in call volume and loss of officers has put his department in need. Hensley said at least three more officers are needed to provide adequate coverage. The Commission opted to discuss the matter further at a later date. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

Hensley spoke to the County Commission during the panel’s Monday meeting, imploring commissioners to consider extending funding in the middle of the current fiscal year for additional officers.

The sheriff said the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department continues to lose officers due to high insurance costs and lower wages than pay offered by other law enforcement agencies and other professions. This personnel loss, Hensley said, has coincided with an increase in the department’s call volume.

“We are dedicated to the county, but we can only do so much with what we’ve got to do with,” Hensley said.

The UCSD currently staffs three officers per shift, but Hensley said at least three more officers are needed to provide adequate coverage. This would allow the department to scheduled four officers per shift.

The cost of each new deputy would be around $40,000, Hensley said. He said he has already spoken with previously-certified officers who may be interested in coming to work for the department, adding their previous certification would eliminate training expenses.

“Do I know what the answer is? Yes. I need three more deputies,” Hensley said. “Do you have the money to give me in the middle of the budget year? I don’t know.”

Unicoi County is nearly seven months into the 2016-17 fiscal year. The Unicoi County Commission approved the county’s overall budget back in August, and expenses related to the sheriff’s department, including operation of the county’s two jail facilities, represents around $3 million of the county’s approximately $7 million budget.

Hensley’s request for the County Commission to consider providing more than $100,000 during the midst of the 2016-17 fiscal year prompted questions from several commissioners. Commissioner Kenneth Garland asked why Hensley previously trimmed two positions from his department and to explain how the approximately $100,000 used to fund these positions was utilized.

Hensley said he abandoned the two positions to prevent a countywide property tax increase. He said the money that funded these positions last year was used in the 2016-17 fiscal year to boost the pay of UCSD employees in an effort to keep them from leaving the department for better wages.

Commissioner Todd Wilcox said he understands the UCSD’s budget has increased approximately $750,000 over the four years since Hensley has been the county’s sheriff and asked Hensley if that is the case. Hensley responded he would have to look at the numbers.

“I have tried my very best to keep a conservative budget for the County Commission,” Hensley said. “There are things beyond my control but I have to do them.”

Commissioner Glenn White said the “first order” of a government is to provide for the protection of its citizenry.

“So we’re going to have to do something,” White said.

The sheriff said he has already approached officials with Unicoi County Schools to inquire if the schools system could offer financial assistance with the school resource officers the UCSD staffs. Hensley said he has also spoken with the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen to see if the town could help. Hensley said he expects to hear back from these entities soon.

In response to a question from White, who asked the sheriff what it would mean for the county if the UCSD’s current staff size was unchanged, Hensley said failing to acquire the additional officers would compromise the safety of Unicoi County.

“You’re putting lives in danger,” Hensley said. “You’re putting the county in danger. You’re putting my deputies in danger.”

No action was taken Monday. Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice said the commission can discuss the matter further in the future.

“We can look at this at another time and discuss it more,” Rice said.

• • •

Garland, who chairs the County Commission’s Solid Waste Committee, also broached what he called the “pitiful” conditions at the county’s waste convenience center located on Industrial Drive. The commissioner said the center is “messy” even by a dumpsite’s standards, with refuse scattered about the property.

“If we don’t do something about it by next month, I’m going to call the state and see what they can do about it,” Garland said.

After some discussion, the commission opted to draft a letter to the center’s operator, giving him 30 days to clean up the site.

Record takes look back at first half of 2016


CSX announces closure of W.Va. offices

In a press release sent to The Erwin Record and other media outlets, CSX announced the closing of administrative offices in Huntington, W.Va., a move that followed similar moves in Erwin and in Corbin, Ky.

“As CSX (Nasdaq: CSX) continues to match its network resources to business demand and drive additional efficiency, the company announced today that it is consolidating its operations administration from 10 divisions to nine divisions and closing the administrative offices at Huntington, West Virginia,” the press release said.

The administrative responsibilities previously assigned to the Huntington offices were reassigned to divisions in Atlanta, Baltimore, Florence, Great Lakes and Louisville, the company also reported.

Board of Education unanimously votes to remove Christian flag

In a unanimous vote, the Unicoi County Board of Education voted to donate the Christian flag previously on display in its boardroom to the Unicoi County Ministerial Association.

The vote, which took place in front of a large crowd during a meeting of the board on Jan. 21, officially addressed a request that the flag be removed from the boardroom issued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) in November 2015.

In November, the FFRF sent a letter to Director of Schools John English and the board and requested the removal of the flag.

“The Christian flag being displayed during public school board meetings unabashedly created the perception of government endorsement of Christianity,” FFRF staff attorney Rebecca Markert stated in the letter. “The display of this Christian flag is a brazen affront to the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. …”

“Over the past couple of months there has been significant debate and discussion regarding the Christian flag that stands alongside the American flag behind us,” English said during the January meeting. “This flag has stood there largely unnoticed for many, many years as a quiet symbol of the values many citizens in our community share. Accordingly, most of us were surprised when someone voiced an objection to this flag in early November.”

English then said he and the board have consulted with their attorney, Scott Bennett of the Chattanooga firm Leitner & Williams, and other organizations regarding the issue on several occasions.

“We have come to understand that while the (Christian) flag represents a faith shared by most of this community, according to federal law no governmental entity is allowed to endorse a particular religious viewpoint under our system of government,” English continued. “We, as members of the Unicoi County Board of Education, have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the state of Tennessee.

“As a result, while we as individuals strongly affirm our commitment to those things that the Christian flag represents, we as governmental officials recognize that this flag can only be displayed by individuals of this community who have rights of freedom of expression and can legally enjoy to exercise that freedom, especially when it comes to religion,” English continued. “Accordingly, it seems most fitting that we should donate it to people in this community who can and will fly this flag in exercise of those individual rights.”

Voting in favor of donating the flag were board members Tyler Engle, Garland “Bubba” Evely, Cathy Thomas, Steve Willis, Ruth Gaines and Lisa White.

Following the vote, English officially presented the Christian flag to Rev. Noah Taylor, pastor of Evergreen Freewill Baptist Church and president of the Unicoi County Ministerial Association.

Baker resigns as Erwin alderman

Citing a possible conflict of interest created by a new job, Michael Baker resigned his post as an alderman for the town of Erwin.

Baker announced his resignation during a meeting of the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen on  Jan. 25 at Town Hall.

In a letter sent to Mayor Doris Hensley, Baker states: “I regret to inform you but effective at the adjournment of our Jan. 25, 2016, Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting I will no longer be an alderman for the town of Erwin.

“The reason for my resignation is I have accepted a position with a company that does a great deal of business with the town of Erwin,” Baker continues in the letter. “I feel that it would be against our Code of Ethics and a conflict of interest if I were to be employed by this business and be on the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.”


Production company to county to create great balls of fire

From sinkholes to explosions, the former Love Chapel Elementary building continued to see it’s fair share of excitement during February 2016.

The building, recently renovated into Quantum Ascension Studios, saw a handful of special effects taking place last week as RodyPolis, a special effects company based out of Johnson City, participated in a weeklong $60,000 special effects project for the company’s ActionVFX.

RodyPolis utilized the goal of ActionVFX, which the company will open under the RodyPolis umbrella, as a one-stop-shop of sorts for filmmakers and visual effects artist to purchase stock effects, ranging from fireballs, explosions and bullets.

RodyPolis also utilized the efforts of the Red Epic Dragon camera, normally used for feature films and television shows. The company leased the camera which retails for over $45,000, not including the lens.

The company’s goal is to create the best explosion, fire, fireball and smoke stock footage packs, according to its company’s website. A Kickstarter campaign was created to raise additional funding and the project steamrolled by raising $59,309 from 446 backers to get the project underway.

Children injured in Unicoi house fire

An 8-year-old female was injured in a fire that completely destroyed a Unicoi home on Feb. 7.

Sheriff Mike Hensley told The Erwin Record the girl suffered severe burns in the fire, which was first reported around 1:30 a.m. Hensley said 11 individuals were in the home when the fire was discovered by an elderly female.

“She was sleeping on the couch and woke up to use the restroom,” Hensley said. “When she returned, the couch was on fire.”

The woman immediately notified the other occupants of the home and they exited the structure.

A Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department deputy was on Unicoi Drive when the call was dispatched and he arrived within moments, Hensley said.

“When the officer arrived, the home was completely engulfed in flames,” Hensley added. “It was a chaotic scene.”

After exiting the home, the 8-year-old female attempted to go back inside the burning house to retrieve a toy, according to Hensley.

“She ran back to the house and a 10-year-old boy tried to stop her,” he added. “Both children were then severely burned.”

Lafever appointed as Erwin alderman

Mark Lafever was appointed to the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen on Feb. 8 following a nomination by Mayor Doris Hensley, which was unanimously approved by the BMA. Lafever will join the board to serve the unexpired term of former alderman Michael Baker, who resigned from his post in January.

“I want to thank the mayor and board for this opportunity,” Lafever told The Erwin Record. “It’s flattering they recommended me to be part of the board during this crucial time for the town. I’m excited about helping move Erwin forward for the years to come.”

Lafever has had his fair share of experience working with the town. He previously served as an alderman, being elected for terms in 2006 and 2010, before being hired as the town’s public works director. Lafever served in that post until 2015.

Board of Education unanimously approves K-5 consolidation

After three public forums, during which they received feedback from employees, parents and other stakeholders, the Unicoi County Board of Education unanimously voted to close Unicoi County Intermediate School and return all of the county’s elementary schools to Kindergarten through fifth grade (K-5) campuses during a meeting on Feb. 11.

All members of the board were present at the meeting.

“After the tremendous feedback we received at our community meetings – and I want to thank the board for making that available – I feel more strongly than I did before that this is the right move for our students and for our district,” Director of Schools John English said prior to the vote. “Beginning in the 2016-2017 school year, I recommend the board vote to close the Intermediate School and make all our elementary schools K-5 programs.”

Board member Lisa White then made a motion to approve English’s recommendation. Her motion was seconded by board member Ruth Gaines. The board then unanimously approved English’s recommendation.

MSHA approves proposal for new facility

Mountain States Health Alliance (MSHA), the health system which owns Unicoi County Memorial Hospital, announced that MSHA’s board of directors approved a proposal created by the Unicoi County community board for the new hospital.

“After 18 months of work, the local community’s visioning committee and hospital board, composed of community leaders from throughout Unicoi County, proposed a strategic vision for the new hospital,” a press release issued by MSHA on Feb. 12 stated. “This vision includes an outline for service offerings based on the assessed needs of the community looking forward.”

The proposal was made to the MSHA board of directors on Feb. 5; it was met with unanimous approval, according to the health system. Bringing a new facility to Unicoi County will be an estimated $20 million investment by MSHA. The health system has reportedly subsidized $15 million in healthcare services to the county.

The vision committee reportedly compiled a list of 10 guiding principles to serve as a guide for the creation of the new hospital, which was based on the members’ knowledge of the community and its needs. MSHA announced that based on these guiding principles the facility should be: Patient and family centered; safe and efficient; economically feasible; accessible and easy to navigate; able to optimize resources; flexible and adaptable; supportive of advanced technology; environmentally friendly; attractive to healthcare professionals; and supportive of higher education.

Peterson, interim property assessor, passes away

Following his death at age 61 on Feb. 16, Wayne Peterson, Jr., was remembered by Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch as hard-working man who served his community with pride.

“I always had a lot of respect for Wayne,” Lynch told The Erwin Record. “He was always willing to help however he could. He was a good-hearted person. He will be missed.”

Peterson was appointed by the Unicoi County Commission as the interim assessor of property in April 2015 following the resignation of Patsy Bennett. During his time leading the office, Peterson had a very positive impact, Lynch said.

“He succeeded in moving the computer system to what is compatible with the state,” Lynch said. “That was very important for the county. He made sure all of his staff was trained for their respective jobs.”


Seward, candidate for assessor, passes away,wins primary

Margaret Shelton Seward, a candidate for Unicoi County Assessor of Property on the March 1 primary ballot, died in the early hours of that morning, according to Unicoi County Clerk Mitzi Bowen. She was 53.

Seward worked as a deputy clerk in Bowen’s office for five years.

“Margaret was a wonderful person,” Bowen said. “She was very hardworking, very dedicated to her job and very dependable. I couldn’t have asked for a better employee.

“But, she was not only an employee – she was a friend and a sister. We are all family in our office.”

Bowen also offered condolences to Seward’s family.

“All of our hearts are broken,” Bowen said. “The community has lost a remarkable lady. She was dedicated to her job, to her family and to the Lord.”

Seward is the second candidate for assessor to perish in recent weeks: Wayne Peterson, Jr., died on Feb. 16 at the age of 61.

Because Seward and Peterson died following the creation of the Unicoi County Republican March 1 primary ballot, both remained on the ballot.

“Once our voting machine is set, it can’t be changed,” Unicoi County Administrator of Elections Sarah Bailey previously said.

Bailey said Tuesday that Peterson’s and Seward’s votes would be tallied and counted just like other candidates. These votes include those cast for Peterson and Seward during the early voting period which took place from Feb. 10-23.

Should Peterson or Seward win the primary, Bailey said the local Republican party will become involved.

“If he or she were to win, because it is a Republican primary, a vacancy would be declared and it would be put to the local Republican party to fill the vacancy based on their party rules,” she added.

Regal Beloit announces move of motor operations out of Shallow Ford plant

On Thursday, March 3, the Regal Beloit Corporation confirmed to The Erwin Record that the Morrill Motors plant located at Shallowford in Erwin would begin a restructuring process, which will continue for the remainder of this year. This will affect more than 100 employees as the motor division moves to other Regal locations.

In a news release issued to local media, the company stated: “Regal Beloit Corporation has informed the employees at its Erwin, Tenn., location of the company’s decision to restructure some operations at the facility. Motor production at this facility will be transferred to other Regal facilities by the end of 2016. This will affect approximately 108 employees. Consolidating this operation into existing Regal facilities will enable the company to remain globally competitive. The decision to restructure this facility is not a reflection on the efforts or performance of our employees.”

Surgical services cease at UCMH

As plans continued for the creation of the new Unicoi County Memorial Hospital (UCMH) building, Mountain States Health Alliance (MSHA), the health system that owns the county hospital, announced a reduction of services offered at both the current and future facilities.

With rumors circulating that surgical services at the current UCMH building would end, MSHA issued a statement on Tuesday, March 1, to The Erwin Record confirming surgeries will not be performed.

“While planning for construction of the new hospital, research by the hospital’s visioning committee revealed that there are only a total of 6 to 7 surgical cases per day performed on Unicoi County residents in every hospital in the region,” MSHA Corporate Director of Communications Teresa Hicks said. “Even if the hospital were able to perform 100 percent of the surgeries in its service area, the volume would not be enough to ensure the needed level of quality.

“Most surgeries for patients from Unicoi County are currently performed in Washington County at Johnson County Medical Center, Franklin Woods Community Hospital or the two ambulatory surgery centers in Johnson City,” Hicks continued.

A decrease in surgical volume at UCMH led to the change, according to Hicks, who also said that over the years that UCMH averaged less than one surgery per day at the facility.

American Job Center opens in new downtown Erwin location

The American Job Center of Unicoi County officially has a new home, nestled inside downtown Erwin.

After months of operating at the East Tennessee State University extension official located on North Main Avenue, the Center reopened its doors to the public on March 14 at 201 South Main Ave. in the former Mountain Commerce Bank building.

“This is our first day that we’ve been open,” Career Specialist Johanna Miller said. “It has already been a huge difference. To go from a one room space, sharing with ETSU, it has been exciting and neat. Tish (Oldham) was very helpful in letting us set up in her office. But it has been great to move here. We can offer training courses and other things we couldn’t offer at the other facility. I can provide those services and that’s what is going to help people get the better jobs and find employment.”

Commission appoints Kinsler as interim property assessor

The Unicoi County Commission appointed Teresa Kinsler as the interim assessor of property during a regularly scheduled meeting held on March 28 at the courthouse.

Kinsler, who has worked in the assessor’s office since 2009, will serve in an interim capacity until Aug. 31. She was sworn-in by Judge David Shults during a ceremony at the courthouse on March 29.

“It was surreal,” Kinsler said about being appointed by the Commission. “I am very happy that people know that I am doing this job to serve the county.”

Kinsler and Alan “Rocky” McInturff, who placed second in the race during the March 1 primary, were nominated for the interim position during the meeting. Prior to the nominations, the Commission and audience observed a moment of silence in memory of Wayne Peterson and Margaret Seward, the two candidates for assessor who died prior to election day. Peterson, who died in February, had served as interim assessor since April 2015. Seward, who died in the early morning hours of March 1, won the primary, creating a vacancy for the position on the August ballot.


Fire destroys hundreds of acres in Cherokee National Forest

A successful burnout allowed firefighters to almost completely contain a blaze that burned through hundreds of acres in sections of the Cherokee National Forest in Unicoi County.

“The 150-acre burnout that took place on Sunday (April 3) went well,” Deborah Walker, fire information officer and ranger with Uwharrie National Forest in North Carolina, told The Erwin Record on April 4. “The burnout moved the fire to over 300 acres, but containment is over 80 percent and we’re in the process now of having workers leave the area in the next couple of days.”

Remaining embers from the blaze, the cause of which is still under investigation, are expected to fade away this week, according to Walker. Battling the fire cost an estimated $340,000.

Top education official tours middle school

As part of a tour of schools in Northeast Tennessee, the state’s top education official visited Unicoi County Middle School on Friday, April 8.

Guided by school system officials, including Director of Schools John English, and students Bella Bogart and L.J. Phillips, Dr. Candice McQueen, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education, visited several classrooms, observed lessons and spoke with teachers and students about a variety of topics. McQueen observed a math class, a language arts class and a history class before visiting the Early Learning Center which is also located in the building.

Following the tour, McQueen said she “thoroughly enjoyed” the time she spent interacting with the students and teachers of UCMS.

“The students are very articulate and clearly have a great relationship with the teachers,” she said. “It was nice to see the integration of that relationship and how (the teachers) are thoroughly looking at their data, thoroughly trying to making improvements and trying to grow kids, but also continually trying to build those relationships.”

Unicoi County chosen for state’s Property Evaluation Program

The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (TNECD) announced in April that Unicoi County was one of a handful of counties selected for the Select Tennessee Property Evaluation Program (PEP).

“We are excited to announce the eight counties that have been selected to participate in the PEP Spring Round,” TNECD Commissioner Randy Boyd said in a press release issued to The Erwin Record. “By assisting counties across the state in evaluating and improving their sites, we can make sure these communities will be better equipped to attract potential new business and create future economic growth.”

Unicoi County submitted seven properties that will be examined by Austin Consulting, a site selection firm, to have locations prepared either for industrial expansion or new businesses entering the area.

“One of the key reasons it is so important is because we’re going to have excellent guidance from the Department of Economic and Community Development,” Tish Oldham, JEDB executive director, told The Erwin Record on April 19. “Being able to have a group like Austin Consulting come in with their experience of site selection … they’re seeing it from the perspective of someone looking for a prime spot. They’ll be able to help us dissect what we have, see where we need to go next, whether something is viable and if we’re making our investments in the best place. It’s always good to hear from someone who is talking with the private sector entities so we can work on how to make those public-private partnerships work best.”

Of the seven properties listed by the JEDB, the Dry Creek area, which has reportedly been a target for a potential expansion by NN, Inc., was listed, as was the former Morgan Insulation building and the ownerless property where CSX operated.


Top election official visits local office

In what officials said was a first for the county, the state’s top election official visited the office of the Unicoi County Election Commission on May 2.

Tennessee Administrator of Elections Mark Goins was greeted by Unicoi County Administrator of Elections Sarah Bailey and by Election Commission members Tom Reeves, who serves as chairman, Paul Monk, Roland Bailey and Marvin Rogers.

“This is historic,” Reeves said. “We have never had someone from your office visit us.”

Following a tour of the Election Commission office, Goins fielded questions from Bailey and panel members. Discussed at length the issue of schools being open on election days. Many schools, including schools in Unicoi County, are used as polling places. Goins said a bill to close schools on election days failed to pass the State Legislature during its most recent session. Instead, local school districts will be able to decide whether or not to have school on election days.

“The bill to flat out close school (on election days) did not pass,” Goins said. “… I think it is a school safety issue.”

The Election Commission members agreed.

Hensley resigns from Unicoi BMA

(From the Johnson City Press)

A short-handed Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen gave first-reading approval to a $2.4 million town budget for fiscal 2016-17 in a unanimous vote by the mayor and what is now a three-member panel of aldermen.

Absent was former Alderman Phillip Hensley, who the Johnson City Press learned after the meeting had resigned. While Hensley’s status was not discussed during Monday’s meeting, Mayor Johnny Lynch and Vice Mayor Doug Hopson confirmed Hensley’s resignation, midway through his four-year term.

Tankersley wins national titles

From the Valley Beautiful and around the country, Nolan Tankersley has seen his fair share of success on the roadways.

The Unicoi County native and East Tennessee State University cyclist added another notch to his belt by earning two first place finishes in the USA Cycling National Collegiate Championship Road Race and Criterium held in North Carolina May 13 and 14.

“It was the best of my cycling career,” Nolan told The Erwin Record. “Finishing the race and seeing my family and friends cheering me on at the finish line … I was fighting back tears.”

Nolan, along with his brother, Connor, have been on the forefront of helping the cycling scene expand locally. The home turf atmosphere, along with seeing support come for himself and other local riders over the weekend continues to show the growth of cycling in the area, Nolan said.

“My fifth grade teacher was there for the event,” he said. “It’s great to see how much cycling has grown and what it has turned into over the years.”

MSHA chooses architect, builder for new hospital

A new hospital for Unicoi County became one step closer to reality during May 26.

Mountain States Health Alliance (MSHA), the health system which owns Unicoi County Memorial Hospital (UCMH), announced that an architect and builder have been selected to build the new facility.

Earl Swennson Associates (ESA) was recently chosen as the architect and Layton Construction as the builder by the hospital’s community board and its visioning committee. Both are located in Nashville.

“This is an exciting time because we’re one step closer to having a new hospital for Unicoi County,” said Eric Carroll, AVP/administrator at Unicoi County Memorial Hospital. “We feel really good about our selection of these two firms. We’re familiar with ESA because of their experience with Mountain States, and we were very impressed with their presentation and ideas for this project. We’re right on track for a groundbreaking next spring.”

MSHA reported that ESA has designed two of its Southwest Virginia facilities – Smyth County Community Hospital and Johnston Memorial Hospital.

The new UCMH is to be located on Temple Hill Road, just off I-26 at Exit 40. MSHA closed on the purchase of this property in July 2015. As part of the agreement MSHA signed when purchasing UCMH in late 2013, the health system committed to have a new hospital in Unicoi County operational within five years. Construction of the new hospital, which is estimated to cost $20 million, is slated to begin in spring of 2017 and should open in the fall of 2018, MSHA reported.

Commissioner, former sheriff passes away

Walter Garland, a well-known Unicoi County public servant, passed away on May 27. He was 81.

Garland, who was serving as Unicoi County Commissioner representing the third district at the time of this death, was born in Burnsville, N.C., but lived his entire life in Unicoi County, according to his obituary.

“Walter always took his job as a county commissioner very seriously,” County Mayor Greg Lynch told The Erwin Record. “He was always looking out for the best interest of the taxpayers. The people who elected him were always his number one concern.”

In addition to his service on the County Commission, Garland was a former sheriff and chief deputy for the county, as well as a policeman for the town of Erwin. He also served the county through the Unicoi Ruritan Club and as a member of the county’s Civil Service board.

“I am going to miss working with him, both (in county government) and with the Ruritan Club,” Lynch said. “He was always at our functions to help us, whether it was slicing strawberries or selling hotdogs at the Strawberry Festival – Walter and his wife, Betty, were always there, always contributing. The community is going to miss him.”

Republicans choose not to place candidate on August ballot

There was to be no candidate representing the Unicoi County Republican party in the race for Unicoi County Assessor of Property on the Aug. 4 General Election ballot.

The party’s Executive Committee met May 28 at the Unicoi County Courthouse and unanimously voted not to place a candidate on the ballot; instead, allowing individuals interested in the office to run as write-in candidates.

The committee included Debbie Tittle, Terry Haynes, Mitzi Bowen, Lynn Woodruff, Kent Harris, Sarah Sellars and Jim Buchanan, who chairs the committee.

Tittle, the county’s register of deeds and the county party’s vice-chairman, motioned not to place a candidate on the ballot, saying “… I think that this is still America; it is still a democracy and this ought to be in the hands of the people. It is my opinion that we shouldn’t have a nominee and allow the people who would like to qualify as candidates for the Unicoi County assessor’s position to launch write-in campaigns. …”

Tittle’s motion was seconded by Terry Haynes, the county’s road superintendent and vice-president of the county party.

“People feel like because Wayne passed away they lost their vote,” Haynes said. “Then Margaret passed away and other people felt like they lost their vote. We had no control over that. This has never happened (in Tennessee). … In my heart, I feel like the people want to speak again.”

The committee then unanimously passed Tittle’s motion.


Ledford retires as director, committee appoints interim

The Unicoi County 911 committee addressed the vacancy created by 911 Director Patsy Ledford’s retirement during a regularly scheduled meeting in June 2016.

Ledford retired from her position that month after 23 years of work inside the county.

“I’ve done my job and worked my butt off over the years,” Ledford said during the meeting. “I’ve loved ever minute of it. 911 has been my baby, but it’s time to be with my family.”

The personnel committee branch of the emergency services group, spearheaded by Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson, discussed the process of selecting an interim during the meeting.

Tilson stated that the committee is working with a June 17 deadline to receive applications for the position and that five resumes have already been submitted. A pair of individuals have also requested information about the director spot.

“We could expect around 12 applications, if not more, by the deadline,” Tilson said. “We’ve had individuals express interest from Sevier County, Greene County, Washington County, Carter County and internally.”

After a brief discussion, the floor opened for suggestions on an interim director with Tilson nominating Robert Adams, with the Unicoi Volunteer Fire Department, due to his dispatching knowledge and work with the board.

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch agreed with Tilson’s nomination and closed the floor for any other nominations. The committee voted unanimously on the nomination, with Erwin City Recorder Glenn Rosenoff, a Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department representative and Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch not in attendance. Ledford left the meeting before the vote for Adams.

“Robert has been a great help for me,” Bill Hensley, chairman of the 911 committee, said. “I know he’ll do a great job, along with the employees.”

County mourns 20170104_a_01teen’s passing

An auto accident during the morning hours of June 10 claimed the life of Ashlie Padgett, a Unicoi County teen described as a “true friend” and a “special, special young lady.”

Director of Schools John English said Padgett graduated from Unicoi County High School last month. A three-sport athlete, she was voted on by the school’s coaches as female athlete of the year. She played basketball, softball and volleyball.

“I had the privilege of being her principal in middle school,” English said. “Without a doubt, she had the sweetest disposition of any student I have been around. She was a special, special young lady.”

English said Padgett will also be remembered for her smile.

“So many people talk about her smile,” he said. “It was absolutely infectious. It would light up any place she was.”

English also said the “unbelievable outpouring of support” for Padgett’s family is a testament to her character. “Ashlie was good to everybody,” he said. “She didn’t have any enemies. Everybody liked Ashlie.”

Crash during pursuit kills teen

One of the three Washington County teens involved in a wreck during a pursuit on June 20 by county law enforcement officers has died.

Sheriff Mike Hensley told The Erwin Record the teen, who was the lone female in the vehicle, passed away around midnight on June 21. She had been in critical condition at Johnson City Medical Center. She has been identified as 14-year-old Lacey Burton of Embreeville, Hensley said. She has also been referred to as Lacey Briggs.

The male juveniles are 14- and 15-years-old. Their names have not been released by law enforcement. The 15-year-old was the driver of the vehicle and Lacey’s brother, according to law enforcement.

The pursuit, which traveled from Unicoi County into Washington County for approximately 15 miles, began after the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department received a 911 call reporting a robbery that had allegedly occurred on Rice Creek Road in the Flag Pond community.

“At approximately 12:30 p.m. we received a 911 call,” Hensley said. “A person had been robbed and tied up in his residence. He was able to free himself and went to a deputy who lived close by and used the phone to call 911.

“A (be-on-the-lookout) was put out on the suspect’s vehicle. My chief deputy (Frank Rogers) and other officers spotted the vehicle a short time after the 911 call around Exit 40.”

Hensley said Rogers attempted to stop the vehicle, however, the driver refused to stop and exited Interstate 26 and drove down State Route 81 into Washington County. The Washington County Sheriff’s Office was notified of the pursuit, which turned right onto Cherokee Road, Hensley said.

As the vehicle, which was later identified as a 2000 Ford Ranger owned by the victim, approached the intersection of Cherokee Road and Charlie Hicks Road, the driver lost control of the truck. According to a crash report by the Tennessee Highway Patrol and shared with The Johnson City Press, “while negotiating a curve, (the truck) lost control and over corrected. As a result, (the truck) rolled several times before coming to a final rest on its top …” Burton was ejected from the vehicle. None of the passengers were wearing seatbelts, according to the THP report.

It was not until after the crash that officers learned the three suspects were teenagers, according to Hensley.

Final property evaluation report in hands of local officials

The CSX rail yard is one of the seven sites examined by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development as part of the 50-page Select Tennessee Sites Property Evaluation Program. The report, which provides local officials with suggestions for using the properties for community development and economic recruitment, was provided to the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County last week. (File photo)

The CSX rail yard is one of the seven sites examined by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development as part of the 50-page Select Tennessee Sites Property Evaluation Program. The report, which provides local officials with suggestions for using the properties for community development and economic recruitment, was provided to the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County last week. (File photo)

By Brad Hicks

A report detailing the economic development feasibility offered by several local sites is now in the hands of the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County.

Last week, board members were presented with the finalized Select Tennessee Sites Property Evaluation Program report. The 50-page report, which was approved Friday, Dec. 16, by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, outlines the “suitability of properties within the county for attracting job-creating investments,” and provides recommendations on each of the properties examined for the report, as well as suggestions on how the county can bolster community development and marketing efforts.

The seven sites included in the report are: the former Morgan Insulation site; the CSX rail yard site, which includes the car shop and office buildings; two sites in the Dry Creek area; the Erwin Public Works building; a warehouse located along Main Avenue; and Fishery Park.

“There were lots of things that stood out,” Tish Oldham, director of Community Outreach and Economic Development for East Tennessee State University and executive director of the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County, said of the report, “but I guess the most important aspect of the report was categorizing the pieces of property and looking at their strengths and then looking at the needs for each of those properties and beginning to identify how a site selector would view those pieces of property because, really, that’s the game changer.”

The findings and recommendations report was completed by Austin Consulting, a site selection support firm that was brought in by the state to conduct property assessments for the Select Tennessee PEP. According to the state, the Select Tennessee PEP was developed to expand the state’s inventory of industrial sites and existing buildings through evaluation of a community’s existing inventory “that prioritizes where investment may be most beneficial and what steps may be needed to address issues and shortcomings.”

“The purpose of this report is to provide stakeholders with an outsider’s impartial perspective into Unicoi County’s portfolio of real estate assets and associated economic development opportunities,” the report states. “The hope is that stakeholders will use these insights to focus local resources to ready properties that have the greatest potential for business attraction.”

Unicoi County’s application for the Select Tennessee PEP was accepted earlier this year and, in May, the exchange of community and property information was initiated between Austin Consulting and Oldham. On July 18 and July 19, Austin Consulting representative Don Schjeldahl visited Unicoi County to conduct a two-day field evaluation of the sites proposed by local officials for the Select Tennessee Sites PEP report. On July 19, Schjeldhahl presented some of his preliminary findings and recommendations to Unicoi County officials during a luncheon held at The Bramble in downtown Erwin. At that time, Schjeldhahl said 50 to 60 percent of companies looking to set up shop look to see if communities have existing properties available.

“If you don’t have an existing building, then you are immediately eliminated from 60 percent of the investment opportunities out there,” Schjeldhahl said in July.

The report states the objective of Austin Consulting in a site selection project is to “collect sufficient information about candidate properties, the community, and local and regional economies to determine if the location can adequately support a given corporate investment.”

“In the Select Tennessee Property Evaluation exercise Austin looked at Unicoi County through the lens of numerous investment types including: general manufacturing, warehousing/distribution, food processing, data center, automotive parts manufacturing, and back office/shared services operations, all of which are logical targets for the East Tennessee region and Unicoi County,” the report states.

The report further states Austin Consulting’s assessment centers on a pair of considerations – the firm’s opinion on each property’s importance to Unicoi County’s economic development future and each property’s need for attention from local leadership to ready the property for development.

“I think it is an opportunity to set priorities based upon what the industry standard is and also to balance those standards with the desires of the community,” Oldham said of the proposed actions outlined in the report. “Ultimately, anytime you’re doing planning and community development and economic development, but particularly when you’re doing planning, you need to consider what your citizens want and where they want things to go. In doing that, you also have to look at what you need to do for your economy and so, at this point, the conversation needs to be, ‘This is where opportunities are. Are we willing to commit to those opportunities and make those investments, not only for our generation but for future generations who are going to need jobs, and what kind of community do we want to have and where do we want people to be able to work?’

“So coming out of that, having goals, having specific action items to be undertaken, that’s really the next point.”

The first site for which the report offers an assessment of strengths and weaknesses, along with recommendations, is the CSX rail yard site. This nearly 55-acre site includes the locomotive maintenance shop, the office building, rail infrastructure and other land parcels.

According to the report, the CSX car shop is suitable for heavy industrial operations, offers good access with its proximity to Interstate 26, and its infrastructure capacities, such as water, sewer and natural gas, are in line with the needs of industry and commercial activities. However, the report states CSX has not offered a “clear signal” about its willingness to sell or lease the property, and rail lines running through the car shop limit use for non-rail functions. Removal of the rail may not be allowed, the report states.

The CSX office building’s architecture, functionality and location are “with the direction of redevelopment in downtown Erwin,” the report states. But there are unknowns about the building’s condition and the challenges to reuse it would present, according to the report.

As for the CSX site itself, the report states that it offers good access and that rail-oriented development on the site is possible. But the report further states the total acreage available for development is unknown, as CSX has not engaged in discussions regarding property reuse. The report adds available acreage would depend on how much rail could be removed, noting CSX would have to retain some track to support ongoing rail operations.

Consultants recommend in their report that local officials engage CSX to develop a plan for utilization of rail yard and terminal assets. It is also recommended that community efforts be focused on the CSX office. The report states officials could encourage community stakeholders to get behind a movement to redevelop the building, prepare redevelopment concepts that stimulate discussion on the reuse of the property, or explore the possibility of having the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The approximately 16-acre Morgan Insulation property is next covered by the report. As far as site strengths, consultants noted the property is served by water, sewer, electric and natural gas services that would support light industrial and commercial activities. The sites access, in particular its close proximity to Interstate 26, is also noted in the report, as is the active rail line which could serve the site.

On the weaknesses side, consultants wrote the Morgan Insulation site is long and narrow, limiting development options. It is also stated in the report that nearby commercial and retail development may not be compatible with some types of heavy industrial uses, and that demolition of the silos located on the property could delay development if such demolition is required.

Recommendations for the Morgan Insulation property include the demolition of buildings and silos onsite to enhance appeal. It is also recommended that professionals be brought in to examine the site’s geotechnical characteristics, as the completion of such studies will make the property more marketable.

The town of Erwin recently received a grant from the Tennessee Valley Authority through its InvestPrep program. Through the grant program, the town received around $250,000 which is to be used to demolish the town-owned Morgan Insulation site in order to prepare it for development. In September, the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved an agreement between the town and TVA for the InvestPrep program.

The report’s assessment of multiple properties in the Dry Creek area that make up more than 35 acres is that the land is “attractive from a development perspective,” as it is mostly flat making it more conducive to development. The sites’ proximity to the interstate and local highways is also noted, as is the access to utilities needed to support light industrial operations. This property is also isolated from incompatible land uses, according to the report.

“The site presents an attractive setting for the development of light industrial and distribution operations,” the report states.

But the report states the narrow Dry Creek Road leading into the properties does not meet modern industrial standards and would need to be upgraded. Among other weaknesses, the report states the CSX grade at Dry Creek Road and Zane Whitson Drive is unsuitable for trucks and employee vehicles, that a nearly 1-mile extension of wastewater line would be required to serve the property, and a lack of zoning in Unicoi County “will be viewed by some perspective investors as an unacceptable risk as there is no guarantee of stopping unwanted neighboring or nearby development.”

Recommendations for the Dry Creek properties, which include land on which the county’s economic development board has an option, include the development of a master plan to establish the “best development alternatives,” which could include the accommodation of one large industrial facility, several large-parcel development sites, a multi-tenant light industrial park, or a combination. Also recommended by consultants is the hiring of professionals to examine environmental conditions of the properties.

The nearly 4-acre site referred to as the “Rock Creek property” in the report is located along North Main Avenue and includes an approximately 23,000 square foot building that recently served as the office and warehouse for Steam Horse Dry Goods Co.

This property, according to the report, is well-located to draw workforce from Unicoi County and surrounding counties, with its proximity to the interstate marking it attractive for companies. The existing building on the site would also be attractive to investors looking to expand industry or establish new ones.

“The Rock Creek building provides a product to show companies interested in the area,” the report states.

While the report lists the site’s isolation from incompatible land uses and access to utilities as additional strengths, the document notes that large portions of the site and building are located in a floodplain and floodway. It also states the building’s low ceiling could limit the types of industrial and commercial operations that could use the facility, adding mechanical, electrical and lighting systems within the building would require modernization.

The report recommends that county officials continue to market the availability of the building on the Rock Creek property.

“Most location selection projects start out looking for a building,” the report states. “While the Rock Creek building has unattractive features, it may still meet the needs of a new or expanding business. At minimum, the building will bring attention to the community.”

Consultants further recommend that local officials consider using the building as an incubator for supporting startup businesses.

The report states the Erwin Public Works building is suitable for both light and heavy industrial uses, further adding that if the building were razed, the approximately 10 acres on which it was situated could be redeveloped for a single large user or a multi-tenant industrial park.

A weakness noted in the report with regards to the Erwin Public Works building pertains to its location. The report states the property is located within a neighborhood of mixed residential, commercial and industrial land uses and that neighboring residential properties may not be compatible with industrial and commercial development. The street serving the property is also narrow, the report states.

Consultants wrote that by changing the entrance of the Public Works building from Watauga Street to Carolina Avenue, conflicts created by truck and employee traffic in the neighborhood would be eliminated. Along with hiring professionals to examine the site’s environmental conditions, consultants also recommended determining the land that is developable and creating a master plan to illustrate how the land can be used.

The 22-acre Fishery Park site offers excellent access to Interstate 26, according to the report, but the presence of open water, stream beds and wetland areas on the on property would restrict site development. Another possible weakness noted in the report is the likely public opposition to the conversion of a park to an industrial or commercial development.

“Continued maintenance and enhancement of this property as a public park is recommended,” the report states.

The report also offers several general real estate recommendations. Consultants wrote county officials should work to broaden the portfolio of office and industrial buildings in Unicoi County, including the establishment of a spec building or development of a virtual spec building. It is further recommended that officials keep real estate listings up-to-date and work to ready selected sites for development.

“The Morgan Property, Dry Creek I and II, and Erwin Public Works property have the best near-term potential,” the reports states.

Oldham said she has reviewed a comprehensive plan developed by the state’s Planning Office around 2000 which noted around 30 total acres of land was being used in the town of Erwin for industry and, unless much work was done, there wouldn’t be anywhere to expand industry in and around Erwin.

The preparation of the Morgan Insulation site and the purchase of the approximately 19 acres of Dry Creek property on which the county currently has an option would more than match the amount of existing industrial land currently utilized in the community.

“I think Unicoi County will be positioned properly for the market once the Morgan building is torn down and once property in Dry Creek is purchased,” Oldham said.

Oldham said completion of the Select Tennessee Sites PEP report was the “qualifying event” necessary before the county can request funding to complete development projects, as the state does not wish to put time, money and effort into a site that’s going to require more time “to get up to speed” when state officials could be helping another community with sites that are ready for development.

“So it is to Unicoi County’s benefit to make sure everything’s ready to go because they’re going to be able to be targeted for certain investments if they’re willing to make those investments themselves,” Oldham said. “It’s not that the state’s going to come in and hand out funding. It has to be that, obviously, the commitment is there from the community in order to accomplish these goals and that their ability and willingness is there to execute on the plan.”

Now that the report is complete, the next goal would be to have a desirable site designated as a Select Tennessee Certified Site, Oldham said. This designation, Oldham added, would lead to the state prioritizing the marketing of the site.

“Once you become a Certified Site, it says to companies that are looking at the area, ‘This site is ready to go, it is shovel ready, it has been vetted by the state and others, and you’re not going to have to take as much risk on this site,’” Oldham said.

Community development recommendations spelled out in the report include further improvements to downtown Erwin, the development of gathering places to attract millennials and others who would bring next generation skills to the area, recruiting retired executives living in there to help local entrepreneurs and business startups, and embracing the story of Mary the Elephant and supporting efforts to turn the event into a positive.

Consultants also recommended that local leaders conduct a study to identify logical industry targets and develop branding and marketing targets around each one.

Erwin Utilities to receive state recognition

From Staff Reports

Erwin Utilities has earned the Commitment Award in the annual Excellence in Tennessee recognition program administered by the Tennessee Center for Performance Excellence (TNCPE). TNCPE is Tennessee’s only statewide quality program and is patterned on the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program, the national standard for recognizing role model performance through innovation, improvement, and visionary leadership. Erwin Utilities will accept the award at the 24th Annual Excellence in Tennessee Awards Banquet on March 2, 2017, at the Franklin Marriott Cool Springs.

“We are in pursuit of performance excellence, which is a journey, not an end destination.  I am extremely proud of the progress that we’ve made in a short amount of time and look forward to the next step of the journey,” said Erwin Utilities’ General Manager Lee Brown.

Erwin Utilities is a public utility provider located in Erwin, TN, delivering electric, water, wastewater, broadband Internet and voice services to the residents of Unicoi County and portions of Carter and Washington counties.

Through an annual evaluation and assessment process, TNCPE recognizes high-performing organizations that demonstrate continuous improvement and role model processes. This year, TNCPE has named 19 organizations as 2016 Award winners that represent outstanding achievement in the following industry sectors: health care, manufacturing, service, education, government, and nonprofit.

“This award represents hard work, focus, and a dedication to performance improvement,” Gov. Bill Haslam said. Erwin Utilities’s efforts to improve its processes will go beyond the walls of the workplace to touch lives throughout Tennessee.”

Organizations apply to the TNCPE program at one of four levels. As the levels increase, so does the depth and complexity of the application, which is based on the Baldrige Excellence Framework™. Since the program was founded in 1993, only 23 organizations have attained the excellence designation. One will receive the Excellence Award this year; two organizations will be honored with the Achievement Award; thirteen organizations will receive a Commitment Award; and three will receive Interest Recognition.

Commitment Awards are presented to organizations that are beginning to demonstrate commitment to, and implementation of, performance improvement principles. They have demonstrated progress by identifying and putting in place a measurement system to capture data and analyze results, and some key process improvements, which are directly attributable to a fact-based improvement process.

“This program helps organizations look at the big picture and continuously strive to implement the best practices in their industry,” said TNCPE President Katie Rawls. “But it’s not easy—organizations like Erwin Utilities are truly passionate about performance excellence and have chosen TNCPE and the Baldrige framework to help them become the best they can be.”

A full list of winners can be found on the TNCPE website

Established in 1993 as a public-private partnership, the Tennessee Center for Performance Excellence strives to promote economic development and drive organizational excellence by helping companies and organizations grow more competitive in today’s global marketplace through affordable, in-depth assessments. A statewide nonprofit, TNCPE is grounded in the Baldrige Excellence Framework—a holistic framework used by organizations across multiple industries to improve their performance and achieve sustainable results. More than 1,300 organizations have participated in and benefited from the TNCPE program. Four Tennessee businesses—Caterpillar Financial Services Corporation, Pal’s Sudden Service, Eastman Chemical Company, and Federal Express—have been honored with both the prestigious Baldrige National Quality Award and the TNCPE Excellence Award.

For more information about the Tennessee Center for Performance Excellence, contact Katie Rawls, president and CEO at

For more information on the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program, visit

For more information on Erwin Utilities, contact Lynnsey Lewis at

Locals join fire relief efforts

By Brad Hicks

Whether through monetary contributions or the donation of clothing and toiletries, there are a number of ways Unicoi Countians can help those impacted by the recent Sevier County wildfires.

First Tennessee Bank is among the businesses and organizations supporting the relief efforts. Branches across the state, such as the one located on Gay Street in Erwin, are accepting public donations to support the relief efforts of the American Red Cross.

The First Tennessee Foundation will match these contributions up to a total of $50,000. Those wishing to contribute can also mail checks payable to the American Red Cross at: Corporate Communications, First Tennessee, P.O. Box 84, Memphis, TN 38101.

“First Tennessee is deeply committed to the communities we serve and to assisting our customers and neighbors who have been affected by this tragedy,” Bryan Jordan, chairman, president and CEO of First Horizon National Corp., First Tennessee’s parent company, stated in a news release. “We are honored to be Tennessee’s bank, and we are dedicated to helping in the ongoing recovery efforts.”

Health and Home Care in Erwin is collecting items for those impacted by the wildfires. The business is collecting items such as water, non-perishable food items, diapers, baby wipes, and packs of socks and underwear. Donations will be taken through the end of this week and may be made at the local Health and Home Care office, located at 629 North Main Ave.

The items collected are set to be transported from the business to Sevier County on Friday, Dec. 9.

“We service all the area, and we do Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Sevierville, all the area, so we just wanted to help out with that,” said Shannon Hughes with Health and Home Care.

Unicoi County High School student Joseph Greene, who established the Joseph’s Helping Hands nonprofit shop located on Union Street, has partnered with Family Medical Associates to collect items. Greene said items sought include water, non-perishable food, toothpaste, diapers, baby food and pet food.

Items may be dropped off at the Family Medical Associates office, located at 108 Gay St. in Erwin. Greene said items may be dropped off at any time.

Last week, Peterson Family Healthcare collected items for the wildfire relief efforts. Items collected were transported to Sevier County late last week. Misty Lloyd with the office said Peterson Family Healthcare may hold another donation drive in the future.

Donations can be made directly to the American Red Cross for disaster relief. Donations to the organization can be made by visiting, contacting 1-800-RED CROSS, or a $10 donation may be made by texting the word REDCROSS to 90999.

On Nov. 30, Food City and Bristol Motor Speedway announced they had joined forces to host relief initiatives.

Through today (Dec. 7), Food City locations throughout east Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky will participate in a fundraising campaign. Customers wishing to make a monetary donation will be able to do so at checkout, with the contribution added to their order total. One-hundred percent of the funds raised will benefit the Sevier County relief efforts.

To kickoff the fundraising efforts, last week Food City pledged a $50,000 contribution.

“Many of our friends and neighbors have been devastated by these tragic fires, including a number of our Food City associates,” Steven C. Smith, Food City president and CEO, stated in a news release. “We have teamed up with our friends at Bristol Motor Speedway and a number of our media partners to provide some much-needed assistance with the relief efforts. We encourage our loyal customers and associates to join us in support of this critical mission.”

BMS will be collecting donations for the relief efforts from The Pinnacle Speedway in Lights via red buckets set up at holiday display’s ticket booths. This program will run through the end of the Speedway in Lights event on Saturday, Jan. 7.

“While we can’t undo the damage from wildfires, we can all play a major role in relief efforts by donating money,” Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager at BMS, stated. “Gatlinburg and Sevier County hold a special place in the hearts of NASCAR fans, Food City and all of us at Bristol Motor Speedway and Dragway. When you visit the Speedway this holiday season, we encourage you to bring along a little something extra to help our neighbors in need.”

East Tennessee State University has activated its ETSU Response website to provide information on how to help those impacted by the Sevier County wildfires.

This website, which can be found at, provides a listing of evacuation shelters in the region that are open, along with details on drop-off points where donations to aid those affected are being accepted by the American Red Cross, according to a release from the university. The site also provides links to support services for ETSU students and employees who may have been affected by the wildfires.

“The ETSU Response website has been used several times in the past to give individuals a way to provide assistance for victims of disasters both near and far, including Hurricane Matthew in October, the flooding in Louisiana in August, the shooting attack at an Orlando nightclub in June, earthquakes in Ecuador and Japan in April, the earthquake in Nepal in 2015, the tornadoes in Greene County and the tsunami in Japan in 2011, and the Millercrest Apartment fire in Johnson City and earthquake in Haiti in 2010,” ETSU officials stated in a release.

The East Tennessee Foundation, nonprofit which serves more than 25 counties throughout East Tennessee, has announced it is accepting gifts to its Neighbor to Neighbor Disaster Relief Fund.

“ETF will work to identify agencies requiring support for providing immediate relief,” a release from the organization states. “Over the coming weeks, we will meet and partner with community fire departments, rescue squads, and other community organizations to determine the need for replenishing depleted resources as a result of our regions’ recovery and rebuilding. The ETF Neighbor to Neighbor Disaster Relief Fund provides timely disaster grants to organizations where most needed and addresses the long-term recovery of our region.”

Those wishing to obtain more information on the ETF’s or to contribute to the organization may visit or visit the organization’s homepage at

According to the Associated Press, the wildfires that began in the Gatlinburg area late last month have left 14 dead as of Monday, Dec. 5, and dozens of others injured. Officials have stated that nearly 1,700 structures have been either destroyed or damaged by the fires.

Wilson remembered for service

Erwin Alderwoman Sue Jean Wilson passed away on Monday, Nov. 28. (Contributed photo)

Erwin Alderwoman Sue Jean Wilson passed away on Monday, Nov. 28. (Contributed photo)

By Brad Hicks

Outspoken. Respected. Friend.

These were among the words local officials used to describe Erwin Alderwoman Sue Jean Wilson, who died unexpectedly on Monday, Nov. 28, due to a massive heart attack, according to Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley.

Hensley said she received word of Wilson’s death at around 12:10 p.m. Monday, news that Hensley said came as a shock.

“It’s going to be a terrific loss for our community,” Hensley said.

Hensley said it is her understanding that Wilson contacted 911 at around 10 a.m. Monday to request medical assistance. MedicOne Medical Response responded to Wilson’s home to transport her to Unicoi County Memorial Hospital. Hensley said Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson assisted with the transport, driving the ambulance to the hospitals as medics worked on Wilson.

Hensley said medical personnel were unable to save Wilson at UCMH.

Along with her service on several local governing bodies, Wilson was well-known to many in the community for her many years as an educator within the Unicoi County Schools system. She worked for 17 years as a teacher and 10 years as an administrator within the local school system.

Wilson was a lifetime member of the Unicoi County Education Association, Tennessee Education Association and National Education Association. She served five years as president of the local association, as well as a term as its secretary and treasurer.

During her career in education, Wilson also served for three years as the First Congressional representative on the Tennessee Education Association’s board of directors.

It wasn’t long after her retirement that Wilson sought to serve the public through government. In 2006, Wilson ran for and won a seat on the Unicoi County Commission, representing the county’s 2nd District. Although she had never held office before, Wilson was the leading vote-getter among 2nd District candidates in that year’s race.

Wilson won her second four-year term on the County Commission in 2010. It was following that year’s election that Wilson was chosen by her fellow commissioners to chair the Unicoi County Commission. She served as the panel’s chairwoman for multiple sessions and, to Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch’s knowledge, was the first female to chair the County Commission.

“She was very outspoken in her beliefs in what she thought was right for the county and, of course, her district when she was a county commissioner,” Lynch said of Wilson. “I think that she was one, from the mayor’s perspective, who would hold your feet to the fire to make sure that things were followed through with, and she was good about checking on different issues and things like that that would come before the County Commission.”

But Wilson’s kindness also stood out to Lynch. He said around the holidays, Wilson would bring small gifts for the staff working in his office, continuing to do so after completing her second and final term on the Unicoi County Commission.

“She was a good person in that way,” Lynch said.

Lynch said Wilson was well-respected in every position she held, was interested in what was going on in the community and how it impacted local citizens, had “the pulse of the community in mind” as she took on various issues facing county government, and was trusted by Unicoi Countians due to her dedication.

“She’s been a good public servant and a good friend to a lot of people, and she certainly is going to be missed,” he said.

Along with her two terms on the Unicoi County Commission, serving from 2006 to 2014, and service on other boards and committees, Wilson also served one full term on the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen, first elected to that panel in 2012. On Nov. 8, Wilson was reelected to her second term on Erwin’s governing body and was set to be sworn in this Thursday.

“She was very interested in things going on in our community,” said Erwin Alderman Virgil Moore, who had served alongside Wilson on the Board of Mayor and Alderman since his appointment in February 2014. “She always spoke out. She didn’t keep anything back in her serving, and she was so faithful to her job and to the things that are here in our city.”

Like Hensley, Moore said he was shocked by word of Wilson’s passing. Moore further described Wilson as knowledgeable, dedicated, and someone who loved the town she represented. He added Wilson will be “greatly missed.” 

“She was just a wonderful lady to work with,” Moore said.

In the hours after her death, Wilson remained on the minds of local officials. Monday’s meeting of the Unicoi County Commission opened with a moment of silence in honor of Wilson. Hensley said Monday’s meeting of the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen was canceled out of respect for Wilson and her family.

“I think we’re still in shock,” Hensley said. “I think the community has lost a friend, a champion of the Town of Erwin, especially, and all of Unicoi County.”

Hensley said it will be up to the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen to fill Wilson’s seat on the panel.

“I hope to have a recommendation by Dec. 12, our next meeting, but that’s not in stone yet,” Hensley said. “We’ll just have to give some thought to it.”

Developer to purchase old Elm Street school building

Lee Naylor stands in front of the old Elm Street school building. Naylor has agreed to purchase the property and hopes to renovate the building into a residential development. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keith Whitson)

Lee Naylor stands in front of the old Elm Street school building. Naylor has agreed to purchase the property and hopes to renovate the building into a residential development. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keith Whitson)

By Brad Hicks

For nearly a century, what is known as the old Elm Street School has stood tall, overlooking a portion of North Elm Avenue from the hill on which it is situated.

The building was once a center of activity. For most of its first 50 years, the structure served as one of Unicoi County’s schools. For the next four decades after its use as an educational institution ended, the Elm Street School building served as the central office for the Unicoi County School system and the meeting place of the county’s Board of Education.

It has now been several years since the Elm Street School building has seen any regular usage, and the Town-of-Erwin-owned property has fallen into disrepair.

But where many perhaps see a disheveled structure with no potential, Lee Naylor sees an opportunity, and Naylor’s plan to breathe new life into the old Elm Street School cleared a major hurdle on Monday, Nov. 14.

At its Monday meeting, the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen unanimously approved a land sale agreement between the town and a group calling itself Elm Street School, LLC. Per the agreement, the town will sell the property to the group for $50,000.

And there are already plans for the Elm Street School property. Naylor said he intends to convert the former school into a residential development.

“We’re excited about the potential with the school,” Naylor said prior to the board’s vote.

Naylor, a developer with the Georgia-based PlanSouth, said he has been in Erwin over the past few years completing restoration projects around town. It was during such work that he came across the Elm Street School building.

“Having been here in Erwin now for a little while, the last several years, I kind of felt like the clock was ticking, so to speak, on the property there,” Naylor said.

Naylor said he spoke with like-minded friends and potential investors about his plans, and the Elm Street School, LLC group was established due to the excitement and belief in the property’s potential that its members shared. Naylor said he also met with town officials, who were receptive to his plans.

The group has discussed the possibility of converting the property into apartments or assisted living space, but Naylor said he has another idea for the site – to convert the Elm Street School building into a loft condominium development.

“The other routes, those are always possible and viable avenues, but I see it as a for-sale product, loft condos,” Naylor said following Monday’s meeting.

Naylor told the board the building’s three floors could be converted to house eight to 10 loft-style condominium units, each measuring 1,000 to 1,300 square feet with two bedrooms and two-and-half bathrooms.

“There’s not really anything in between here and Asheville or Johnson City, so I do feel like it’s a viable market,” Naylor said following the meeting.

Preservation of as much of the building as possible would be a priority in the development project, Naylor said. He said he does not foresee significant changes to the structure’s exterior other than the possible addition of covered parking.

“I just think it would be a shame to take it down, and I think it’s got a lot of potential,” Naylor said.

The Elm Street School was constructed in 1922 and served as a school until 1969. In 1970, the Town of Erwin began leasing the property to the Unicoi County Board of Education to serve as the local school system’s central office. The building continued to serve in this role up until a few years ago. In September 2011, the Board of Education approved a measure to purchase a building owned by Studsvik, Inc. to serve as the school system’s new central office and the school board’s meeting space.

Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said Naylor’s proposal came at the perfect time for the Elm Street School building, as town officials were discussing the possibility of demolishing the structure just days before Naylor approached them.

“I think he was an answer to our prayers,” Hensley said.

Alderwoman Sue Jean Wilson moved that the land sales agreement be approved, adding its approval would allow for the preservation of “one of the few landmarks we have left in our town.” The motion was seconded by Aldermen Mark Lafever, who commended Naylor and the group he has assembled for their efforts.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the finished product,” Lafever said.

Naylor said with the agreement’s approval, he now has 90 days to close on the property. He said the next step in the process will occur this week, when architects and structural engineers will walk the site to aid in the development of concept plans.

Naylor said he is hopeful these plans could be ready within the next couple of months and that they would be used to market the project and gauge interest in it. Naylor said if the plan receives a good response, he would like to see construction begin in the summer of 2017.

Naylor also said he is looking forward to getting started.

“It’s a fantastic project, and I hated to let it slip away,” he said.

• • •

The Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen also discussed, but took no action, on another property sale proposal.

Property owner John Marotta with Marotta Enterprises, LLC, previously submitted a proposal to the town in which it could purchase the remaining portion of the former Hoover Ball site he owns for $1.5 million. Per the proposal, Marotta offered to purchase the former Morgan Insulation site owned by the town for $450,000.

Restaurants now occupy much of the former Hoover Ball site, and the undeveloped portion of the property has been on the market for several years. The town previously purchased the Morgan Insulation property with the goal of using it as an industrial recruitment tool.

Hensley said the town recently received grant funding to demolish the Morgan Insulation site and prepare it for industrial development, adding the town has received inquiries about selling a portion of the property for retail development.

“I think that we would be better off by sticking with the Morgan Insulation property as opposed to going over to the Hoover property,” Hensley said. “Mr. Marotta has had that property for sale now for several years. I think that we just need to kind of focus on what we have right now before we take on any more property.”

No motion was made to further explore the proposal.

Agencies issue fire bans

By Brad Hicks

It was as if the fog, known to drape Unicoi County’s mountains, had descended from its elevated perch.

From Flag Pond to the Town of Unicoi, a thick haze blanketed Unicoi County on Tuesday, Nov. 8. The scent was unmistakable. Something, somewhere, was burning.

The evening before, a forest fire had been reported on property along Tumbling Creek Road, off 19-W in the south end of the county. This fire, according to officials with the U.S. Forest Service, started on around 70 acres of private property after the property’s owner dumped hot ashes from a stove in the woods near his home.

Because the blaze directly threatened nearby Cherokee National Forest land and structures in the area, the response from the U.S. Forest Service and Tennessee Division of Forestry was swift.

By the afternoon of Tuesday, Nov. 8, the Tumbling Creek fire had been 100 percent contained, halted at 47 acres. No structures were damaged. Still, there were signs of the fire’s presence. Leaves covering the woods were scorched. Stumps, foliage and the bottom of some trees were charred. Days after the fire was first reported, patches of smoke emanating from the floor of the forest could be observed.

The fire, according to Forest Service officials, could have been much worse. But, due to plenty of preparation, coordination and cooperation, the fire was held in check.

Recent dry conditions could have exacerbated the fire, according to Valerya Hyrne, support services supervisor with the Cherokee National Forest Watauga Ranger District. In mid-October, the district went on “severity” in anticipation of wildfires. Hyrne said this designation will likely continue through at least the end of this month due to an unfavorable weather forecast.

“There’s not a lot of rain or precipitation in the forecast through the end of November, so we will keep working in severity,” she said.

“Because of the drought, we have been in severity, which means that the conditions make it very likely for fire to happen,” Hyrne said. “We want to have additional resources which means additional people around in case we need help.”

According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, the region, middle Tennessee and much of western North Carolina remain in extreme drought conditions. According to the National Weather Service, Erwin has experienced less than 1 inch of precipitation over the past 30 days, well below the 2 to 3 inches normally seen this time of year.

Current conditions prompted the U.S. Forest Service on Friday to issue a fire ban for the Cherokee National Forest.

“The U.S. Forest Service is implementing a TOTAL FIRE BAN for the Cherokee National Forest in east Tennessee due to the extremely dry conditions, very high fire danger, and little chance of rain in the immediate forecast,” a notice issued by the Forest Service states.

The ban restricts the building, maintaining, attending or using a fire, charcoal or stove fire inside or outside developed recreation sites, and it restricts smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle or building, or developed recreation site, or while stopped in an area at least 3 feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable material.

“The total fire ban was necessary because of current conditions and the potential for wild fire,” Cherokee National Forest Supervisor JaSal Morris stated. “I want to remind national forest visitors that this ban applies to all areas of the Cherokee National Forest, including developed recreation areas. Your understanding and cooperation is appreciated.”

On Monday, Gov. Bill Haslam declared a regional ban on burning in 51 counties in response to the ongoing drought and wildfires throughout middle and east Tennessee. Unicoi County is among the counties listed.

“Effective immediately, residents in counties covered by the regional ban are not permitted to conduct any open-air burning,” a release announcing Haslam’s declaration states. “The ban includes campfires, and burning of brush, vegetation, household waste or construction debris.”

This ban will remain in effect until Dec. 15.

According to the governor’s office, the Tennessee Division of Forestry is currently fighting 67 wildfires across approximately 16,000 acres in the Cumberland and East Tennessee districts.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, there are approximately 125 firefighters and support personnel assigned to wildfires or positioned for initial response to new fires in the Cherokee National Forest. Since March, there have been more than 70 fires that have burned more than 8,900 acres in the Cherokee National Forest or on adjacent land that posed a threat to the national forest land.

When a severity designation is issued, Forest Service officials work seven days a week, keeping an eye on conditions and prepared to respond at a moment’s notice. This time of year is also wildfire season in this part of the country, so out-of-state resources are called to Forest Service districts throughout the South to help respond to fires as they occur. In the summer, crews from this region are sometimes sent out West in anticipation of wildfires there.

These resources are obtained through a nationwide database the Forest Service maintains, which allows Forest Service districts to request fire crews and individual resources when needed.

“When we need a resource, we go to this database and we order crews,” Hyrne said. “They may be from, like, Asheville, or they may come from as far away as Oklahoma, California, depending on who or what’s available.”

Prior to the occurrence of the Tumbling Creek Fire, firefighting crews from Oklahoma, Idaho, Illinois and California all made their way to districts within the north end of the Cherokee National Forest, which runs from Cocke County north to the Virginia state line.

Crews from Oklahoma and Illinois assisted with the fire in Tumbling Creek, Hyrne said.

The majority of out-of-state resources requested to assist with fires on this end of the Cherokee National Forest are staged at the North Zone Fire Center located in the Town of Unicoi.

“They may stay or they may be moved, depending on where the need is,” Hyrne said.

But Hyrne said the Tumbling Creek fire was not the main culprit in the smoke observed throughout Unicoi County last week. More than a dozen wildfires burned in western North Carolina at the time, and smoke from those fires drifted across the state line, settling into this region on Tennessee.

“How the weather conditions were and the front moving in, that made the smoke just travel north onto us,” Hyrne said.

Wildfires have been reported throughout the state. Regionally, crews have worked to combat wildfires in Hawkins County, Carter County and Sullivan County, among others.

Fires throughout the region are also having an impact on air quality. According to, the Air Quality Index for Unicoi County is currently categorized as Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, meaning those with lung disease, older adults and children are at greater risk of experiencing the effects of the diminished air quality.

Robert Rhinehart, public information officer with the U.S. Forest Service, said that although the fire in the Tumbling Creek area was manmade, it is still categorized as a wildfire. To combat the fire, it was first observed from the air. Hyrne said a helicopter flew over the area so crews could get an idea of where the fire was going and where they should be placed to most effectively combat the fire, and to map out containment lines.

Rhinehart said fires want to burn up hill, so crews will usually work to establish a containment line across the top of a ridge and two flank lines along the left and right sides of the fire area. The fire lines may be dug out by hand using rakes, shovels or an axe-like tool known as a Pulaski. Crews may also use dozers to dig fire lines, which is a barrier scraped down to mineral soil with the goal of taking away a fire’s fuel.

Crews responding the Tumbling Creek fire were fortunate in that a dirt logging road ran through the forested area, serving as its own fire line.

Along with the installation of fire lines, crews also attempted to burn out the fire. Burn out, according to the Forest Service, is intentionally setting a fire inside a control line to either widen it or consume fuel between the edge of the fire and the control line. Essentially, this means burning up materials that would allow the wildfire to grow and spread.

“To only have to establish a line on one flank is a banner day in the neighborhood,” Rhinehart said.

Rhinehart said the Tumbling Creek fire is classified as a “surface fire,” as it was more or less contained to the ground level, scorching mostly small trees, leaves and sticks. Rhinehart said the fire did not emit as much heat as larger wildfires may and that he observed no instances of tree mortality due to the fire.

“The worst thing is it’s going to hurt wildlife habitat some and it strips the protective layer off the soil temporarily,” he said. “This time next year, it’d be pretty difficult to see where the fire actually burned.”

And because most of the leaves have already fallen from the trees, Rhinehart said there is little chance of leaves falling on the small patches still burning and initiating a “re-burn.”

Hyrne said although the Tumbling Creek fire was quickly contained, crews will continue to monitor the area, and the fire will remain staffed as long as they feel there’s the potential for fire activity.

“When it gets really dry, the issue is the organic matter in the soil,” Rhinehart said as he pointed to the unburnt section of the Tumbling Creek area across the road that served as a fire line. “The fire will burn through that organic matter underneath the surface of the soil, burn underneath the fire or in a dead root, tree root, burn underneath, come out over here three days form now an pop up over there and burn through there and just keep on going. That in itself explains why the crew is coming up here today, they came up yesterday, the came up the day before that, and they’ll probably come up tomorrow. I don’t know how many days they’ll go, but they’re going to keep coming just to make sure everything is contained here until everybody’s satisfied that there won’t be anymore problems.”

And the Forest Service’s work is not done with containment and monitoring. Hyrne said officials will later work to rehabilitate the area damaged by the Tumbling Creek fire, planting grass seeds and installing erosion controls. They will also check to ensure vegetation is taking place and monitor the soil moisture and weather and environmental factors.

“We have to go in and we have to rehabilitate the area where the fire was,” Hyrne said. “So our work is not done when we get the fire put out because of the loss of vegetation, because of the potential for erosion when, and if, we ever get any kind of rain again. We have to go in and we have to start rehab, reestablishing the vegetation in the area and putting in erosion control features in the area so that the area does not wash away whenever we get some good rain in here.”

As for the property owner, he will not face any charges for the Tumbling Creek fire, according to Nathan Waters with the Tennessee Division of Forestry.

“They looked at it and felt it truly was an accidental thing, it wasn’t on purpose,” Waters said.

Rhinehart said the long-term impact of the Tumbling Creek fire to the habitat and environment will be minimal, be he urged caution as the slightest mistake could lead to a large wildfire.

“The impact to the environment and the impact on the trees within the fire lines is minimal here, but it could have also been much worse if personnel had been limited and they didn’t get to this fire as quick as they did,” Rhinehart said.

Ambulance service cost estimated at $2.5M

By Brad Hicks

They now have an idea of the costs involved but, before county officials make any movement toward the establishment of a county-operated ambulance service, they first want to meet with the CEO of the county’s current ambulance services provider.

At its meeting on Monday, Nov. 7, – the second for the panel – the Unicoi County Ambulance Study Task Force unanimously voted to send a registered letter to MedicOne Medical Response CEO Jim Reeves to request that Reeves meet with the Unicoi County Commission’s Ambulance Committee to discuss the issues county officials have with the service being provided by MedicOne.

The letter will ask that Reeves respond within 10 days of receipt to schedule a meeting with the Ambulance Committee and that this meeting be scheduled within 30 days of the response deadline.

This vote was made after the Ambulance Study Task Force heard from John Dabbs, EMS consultant with the Tennessee Department of Health. Dabbs was also present at the Task Force’s first meeting held in early October, at which time Dabbs said he would present to the panel an estimated budget for the establishment of a county-operated service in November.

Dabbs said on Monday a rough estimate of the startup cost would be $2.5 million. This includes the cost of the service’s infrastructure, a facility with meeting space, and four ambulances – two 24-hour trucks, one to run during peak hours and a fourth to be on call.

Dabbs estimated the county-operated ambulance service’s annual budget would be a little more than $1 million. He said if the service achieved a 40 percent collection rate on its transports, it would come close to meeting its budget but some subsidy on the county’s part may be required.

The county-operated service would take a minimum of three months to establish, according to Dabbs.

The Ambulance Study Task Force was formed to explore the feasibility of a county-operated ambulance service. Its formation was discussed during the Aug. 31 meeting of the county’s Ambulance Committee. During that meeting, committee members and other local officials in attendance voiced their concerns about MedicOne, including a staffing shortage, lack of available ambulances and higher response times.

Unicoi County Commissioner Gene Wilson, during Monday’s meeting, reiterated statements he had made in prior meetings. He said MedicOne has been in violation of its latest contract “since day one,” as the company, which runs two ambulances in the county, does not make available a third ambulance during peak times and has not yet constructed a new station within Unicoi County.

“We’re going to have to bite the bullet,” Wilson said.

Others present at Monday’s meeting also expressed their concerns.

“But, regardless, the problem I have is we do not have a service that we contracted to get and one our citizens deserve and what they expect,” Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said. “As mayor, I have got to make sure that our citizens are protected. So, regardless of the money, what it’s going to cost, we’re going to provide that service for them.”

Hensley also said she is in the process of pursuing grant funding for the establishment of an ambulance service and would be willing to present the matter of an ambulance service operated by the Town of Erwin to the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen for its consideration even if the county was not onboard.

“I want to do it as quickly as I can,” Hensley said in response to Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch asking whether the town would wait for MedicOne’s current contract to expire. “I can’t wait around and have something happen to one of our citizens. We have waited at least two hours for an ambulance, and our police officers have had to go sit with them. Police officers have even had to go in the ambulance with them because they don’t have the personnel. We’ve had a police officer to actually pump the IV into a patient because they didn’t have the sufficient equipment to do it. This is not acceptable.”

Several officials said they would favor a county-operated service, even if that means having to cover a subsidy greater than the one the county currently pays to MedicOne.

“If it takes raising taxes to make this thing work, I hate taxes, but I would vote for it to protect the people,” Wilson said.

“To me, I’d as soon do our own and get away from these people from Texas who don’t care nothing about Unicoi County and, if we paid $200,000 a year, we’d have our service and have a lot better service than what we have now,” said Unicoi County Commissioner and Ambulance Study Task Force Chairman Jason Harris.

Hensley said a dependable ambulance service is needed for citizens across Unicoi County “whatever it costs.”

But Lynch said if MedicOne were to pull its ambulance out of Unicoi County before the company’s contract is up, it could prove to be even more costly. He said this would allow the county to “call the bond” on MedicOne, providing the county with $150,000. However, Lynch said it is unlikely that this funding would cover ambulance coverage expenses until the county could establish its own service, as Unicoi County would have to pay Washington County $3,000 per day to provide local coverage.

Lynch suggested that the county’s Ambulance Committee first request a meeting with Reeves so that local officials can air their grievances, possibly discuss the transition and both sides can work toward resolutions.

“We’d have to be up and running pretty fast,” Lynch said. “That’s why, setting aside all the problems we’ve had, I think we’ve got to sit down with the management of MedicOne and see if we can’t, short-term, work it out and, long-term, do whatever you want to do after this contract is over with or as soon as you all can get on your feet with a service.”

Unicoi County Commissioner Marie Rice agreed, adding this should be the first step in the process followed by officials researching how a county-operated service would be financed.

The Ambulance Study Task Force opted to hold off on scheduling another meeting until Reeves is given the chance to respond to the letter.

MedicOne has served as Unicoi County’s ambulance service provider since 2011, when its initial contract was approved by the Unicoi County Commission. As the April 2015 expiration of this contract approached, county officials began meeting to discuss the future of MedicOne in the county, with some officials expressing concern that the county could no longer afford the company’s $180,000 annual subsidy.

In January 2015, the county’s Ambulance Committee recommended putting the county’s ambulance services contract back out for bid. MedicOne was the only company to submit a bid by the February 2015 deadline, the company now seeking a $132,000 annual subsidy. This bid was later approved by the County Commission, and a new four-year contract with MedicOne took effect on April 1 of that year.

Total Fire Ban for Cherokee National Forest

CLEVELAND, TENN – The U.S. Forest Service is implementing a TOTAL FIRE BAN for the Cherokee National Forest in east Tennessee due to the extremely dry conditions, very high fire danger, and little chance of rain in the immediate forecast.

Beginning Nov. 11, the following restrictions are in place for the entire Cherokee National Forest until further notice:

  1. Building, maintaining, attending or using a fire, charcoal, or stove fire inside or outside developed recreation sites.
  2. Smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle or building, or developed recreation site, or while stopped in an area at least three (3) feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable material.
  • The use of portable lanterns, stove or heating equipment that utilizes gas or pressurized liquid fuel is allowed.

This updated order expands the restrictions issued on Oct. 29 to include restrictions in developed recreation areas and smoking in Cherokee National Forest.

Cherokee National Forest Supervisor JaSal Morris said, “The total fire ban was necessary because of current conditions and the potential for wild fires. I want to remind national forest visitors that this ban applies to all areas of the Cherokee National Forest, including developed recreation areas. Your understanding and cooperation is appreciated.”

National Forest visitors are asked to obey all state and federal fire related laws and regulations. If you see smoke or suspicious activity contact local fire or law enforcement authorities immediately.

Election Results

Unofficial Results for all local races

Town of Erwin


Doris Hensley – 1,753 votes

Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen (two open seats, four-year terms):

Gary Edwards – 1,302 votes

Rob Martin – 437 votes

Wayne Morris – 472 votes

Sue Jean Wilson – 1,009 votes

Wine in Erwin Retail Food Stores:

Yes – 1,422 votes                           No – 654 votes

Town of Unicoi


Kathy Bullen – 777 votes

Johnny Lynch – 804 votes

Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen (two open seats, four-year terms):

Doug Hopson – 860 votes

Jeff Linville – 665 votes

Jonathan Clint Miller – 424 votes

John Mosley – 534 votes

Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen (one seat, unexpired term)

Roger Cooper – 762 votes

Billy Harkins Jr – 522 votes

Wine in Unicoi Retail Food Stores:

Yes – 1,022 votes                      No – 505 votes

U.S. President votes in Unicoi County

Donald Trump – 5,666 votes

Hillary Clinton – 1,260 votes

Fire in Tumbling Creek contained

By Brad Hicks

A fire burning on roughly 70 acres of private property on Tumbling Creek Road, which started Monday evening, was contained Tuesday.

Heather Griffin, Jacob Creek Job Corps Assistant Fire Management Officer, said this fire is one of several in the region which crews with the U.S. Forest Service have responded to. Griffin said multiple personnel remain on the scene of the Tumbling Creek area wildfire.

Griffin said the fire was reported at approximately 8 p.m. Monday evening. Heavy smoke continued to blanket Unicoi County on Tuesday afternoon. Griffin said crews are also working multiple wildfires in Western North Carolina and that much of the smoke seen throughout this region is coming from those fires.

“That’s going to be what we call drift smoke, and it’s coming across the mountains and it’s laying here in this valley,” Griffin said. “We just don’t have any transport winds to move that out.”

Griffin said multiple out-of-state resources are assisting with the fires at this time. She also said the wildfires, including the one in the Tumbling Creek area, will remain staffed until there is a significant rainfall or snowfall.

Valerya Hyrne, support services supervisor with the Cherokee National Forest Watauga Ranger District, said it has been determined that the fire was caused by the property owner dumping hot ashes from a stove or fireplace on his land, which is located near the Cherokee National Forest boundary.

Hyrne also suggested that children, the elderly and those with breathing conditions remain indoors until the weather changes and the wind pushes some of the smoke out of Unicoi County.