Town of Unicoi BMA approves creation of police department

The Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved the creation of a police force for the town on Monday, July 15. Pictured from left, Alderwoman Wanda Wilson Radford, Vice Mayor Doug Hopson, Mayor Johnny Lynch, Alderman Jeff Linville and Alderwoman Kathy Bullen. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

The Town of Unicoi moved one step further to establishing a police department.

On Monday, July 15, the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted 4-1 to approve a resolution to create the police department. Vice Mayor Doug Hopson, Mayor Johnny Lynch, Alderwoman Wanda Radford and Alderman Jeff Linville voted to approve the resolution following a motion from Linville and a second by Hopson. Alderwoman Kathy Bullen was the sole vote against the resolution.

During Monday’s meeting, Bullen questioned if Sunshine Laws were broken by the Town of Unicoi in seeking the resolution. Sunshine Laws state that a law requires certain proceedings of government agencies to be open or available to the public.

“This sounds like a lot of work was done before we had an official vote on this matter,” Bullen said. “I find it odd we have a police cruiser in the parking lot of town hall before we vote on a resolution to pursue a police officer.”

Interim City Recorder Larry Rea disagreed with Bullen.

“The official purchase of the cruiser will occur only after the resolution passes,” Rea said.

Hopson, who seconded the request to approve the resolution and voted to approve the resolution calling for establishing a police force, addressed the public of why he approved the resolution.

“We are not just doing this for a speed trap,” Hopson said. “We are trying to get an officer to enforce ordinances. We want to clean up these dilapidated buildings.”

No citizens signed up to speak at the meeting either in favor of or in opposition to the police department. According to Lynch, the Town of Unicoi is currently accepting applications and will start the interviewing process for the police officer in the coming weeks.

“There is no set time frame,” Lynch said. “We still have a few things to work out. After we hire an officer we will need to make sure that we can get established on the Unicoi County 911 dispatch’s frequency.”

The Town of Unicoi budgeted $101,928 to fund a full-time police officer and cruiser for the town in the proposed 2019-20 budget.

“I will work with them just like we work with the Town of Erwin,” Sheriff Mike Hensley told The Erwin Record on Monday. “We are in this together. I’m short-handed as it is, so the more officers we have, the better.”

• • •

In a final order of business on Monday, the BMA voted unanimously to approve a bid of $38,194.66 from KaTom, a restaurant supply company, to purchase a dough shooter, bread slicer, various processors, storage units and shelving for coolers to be used at the Mountain Harvest Kitchen.

Ambulance service takeover on schedule

Washington County/Johnson City EMS Executive Director Dan Wheeley announces a July 15 takeover date to the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

It was announced during the July 3, Unicoi County Ambulance Committee meeting that Washington County/Johnson City EMS will officially take over ambulance service in Unicoi County on Monday, July 15. It was also revealed that Washington County/Johnson City EMS Lieutenant and Training Coordinator Adam Copas will serve as Director of Operations for Washington County/Johnson City EMS in Unicoi County.

Copas said he is excited to serve Unicoi County.

“We are going to establish an excellent standard of work and build for the future,” Copas said. Washington County/Johnson City EMS Executive Director Dan Wheeley is also ready to serve the community.

“We are excited that we can help, and long term we hope that the county can establish their own service,” Wheeley said. “We are working on the transition now. We are currently hiring and looking at the logistics of serving Unicoi.”

During last week’s meeting, Wheeley addressed concerns about the pay difference for employees that will be coming to Washington County/Johnson City EMS from MedicOne.

“Our original proposal was based on our pay and benefits,” Wheeley said.

According to the interlocal agreement, Washington County/Johnson City EMS will provide and maintain adequate and sufficiently trained staff that possess all required licenses and certifications. Washington County/Johnson City EMS will provide two advanced life-support paramedic ambulance units 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. In addition, Washington County/Johnson City EMS will provide one staffed basic life support ambulance for 10 hours a day, five days a week. This basic life support ambulance will run Monday through Friday. Unicoi County will pay a subsidy of $218,677, that covers all services and employee pay.

The concerns about pay was brought to Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely.

“We had some employees concerned about starting rate of pay on the hourly rate,” Evely said. “We do understand that Washington County has better rates on insurance and a state retirement plan.”

According to Wheeley, his staff has crunched the numbers and for nine employees to transition from MedicOne, the county’s previous ambulance service provider, to Washington County/Johnson City EMS and maintaining existing pay rates it could cost roughly $20,000. “Worst case scenario with nine employees to keep them at the same spot it with be roughly $20,000 more,” Wheeley said.

Wheeley acknowledged that Washington County/Johnson City EMS’ pay is on par with other ambulance services in the region.

“There was a study three years ago and everybody in the region is pretty comparable, in regards to pay,” Wheeley said.

Ambulance Committee Chairman and Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley announced that there are only five employees who plan to stay in Unicoi County as it moves from MedicOne to Washington County/Johnson City EMS.

“There are only five looking to move over, so by those numbers we are looking at around $12,000-13,000 to keep those five employees pay what it is now,” Mosley said.

During last week’s meeting, Unicoi County Commissioner Glenn White made a motion to present the proposed $13,000 to be paid by Unicoi County at the next Unicoi County Commission meeting on July 22.

“These employees have been through a lot,” White said.

Town of Erwin Vice Mayor Mark Lafever, who also serves on the ambulance committee, seconded the motion.

“I want to see what’s best for the county, and we (Erwin) are with you on this one,” Lafever said. The committee voted unanimously to send the request to keep the five employees’ pay the same before the full commission during the July 22 meeting.

National businesses eye county

Pictured from left, Town of Unicoi Communications and Programs Ashley Shelton, Unicoi County Hospital Administrator Eric Carroll, Town of Erwin City Recorder Glenn Rosenoff and Unicoi County Joint Economic Development Board Executive Director Tyler Engle listen to Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership CEO Mitch Miller give an update on regionalism. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

As the budget year comes to a close for the Unicoi County Joint Economic Development Board (JEDB,) the board begins to turn its focus to the future.

According to JEDB Executive Director Tyler Engle, there are five nationally known businesses looking to locate to Unicoi County. Engle announced these opportunities, which include restaurants and retail stores, during the June 26 JEDB meeting held at SquareOne in Erwin.

“I can’t give any names at this time, but we do have five businesses we are looking at,” Engle told The Erwin Record.

According to Engle, the five are just a handful of businesses that Buxton, a company that utilizes geohistory to provide recruitment information to possible retailers and restaurants for its clients, has contacted.

“(Buxton has) a list of 20 businesses that would fit well in Unicoi County, but we chose to go with five right now, because five is a good number for one year,” Engle said.

The JEDB agreed to a contract to pay Buxton $50,000 a year for their services for three years during a meeting in March.

Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership CEO Mitch Miller acknowledged that the JEDB was on pace with the region in economic growth.

“Economic development is a patient game,” Miller said.

According to Engle, Unicoi County will be looking to bring in more industry as well, with the pad ready former Morgan Insulation Site on Second Street in Erwin nearing completion.

“We look forward to the economic energy it will bring,” Engle said.

According to JEDB President Lee Brown, the former Morgan Insulation site is only lacking gravel fill to be officially pad ready.

“My hope is that there are 6-8 industrial properties in the county for development in the near future,” Engle said.

•••

With focus on future industry, Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said she would like to see the JEDB do something special for the industries that are currently in the county.

“I recommend that we have an industrial appreciation lunch,” Hensley said. “We used to do that and it was a way to get out of the office and relax. If we could do that and show them how much they mean to our community, that would be good.”

Engle acknowledged that the board is always looking at ways to honor the industries in Unicoi County.

“We are working very closely to look at our existing industries, those employees are the ones that are paying taxes to keep this county going,” Engle said.

According to Miller, Unicoi County has one of the top weekly and bi-weekly wages in the area. “Unicoi County has the second highest weekly wage, only to Kingsport,” Miller said. “Tyler (Engle) believes in regionalism; that’s the kind of partnership you have to have.”

According to Engle, an area that is of concern for the JEDB is residential growth.

“The market is bound up constrained and tight,” Engle said.

Engle said he hopes that the JEDB can shift focus on how to free up new residential spaces. “We are looking to apply incentives for new housing and help developers identify land for purchase,” Engle said. “We are one of six communities in America that have been chosen to work in Workforce Housing workshops.”

According to Brown, that is a big deal for Unicoi County.

“They know we will follow up on things; that is why we were selected,” Brown said.

Town of Erwin City Recorder Glenn Rosenoff agreed with Brown.

“We are taking expert advice and recommendations and are completing them,” Rosenoff said. “These meetings we tell you about are happening every day.”

Brown also said that the JEDB must stay on track with current projects.

“We can’t ask others to invest in our community if we don’t,” Brown said. “Now’s the time to invest in our future.”

One of the current projects is a traffic light to go in on Second Street at the Taco Bell and Bojangles entrance in time for the new Food City store, which is slated to open in late July. “There is a temporary signal ordered and will be operational before Food City opens; everything is on track,” Rosenoff said. “Work will start on infrastructure for the permanent traffic signal while the temporary signal is up.”

In a last order of business, JEDB Treasurer Rob Stromberg announced that the JEDB currently has $89,000 in the bank as of the end of the third quarter of the budget year, which ended in March.

NFS employees complete community service projects

One NFS Day of Volunteering group packed food boxes for Good Samaritan Ministries. The group includes, pictured from left, back row, Candi Blair, Brian Faidley, Heath Shook, Jeff Morgan, Christopher Pendleton and Sarah Whicker; front row, Olivia Jones, Mary Pendleton, Natalie Coley, Kelly Grieger, Bel Grieger and Katie Jones. (Contributed)

By Richard Rourk

Nuclear Fuel Service (NFS) continued its history of working with the community in Unicoi County and throughout the region as the company held its Second Annual Day of Volunteering on Saturday, June 22.

More than 200 employees and 27 teams from NFS served in local communities on Saturday. The teams volunteered at schools and charitable organizations, and completed projects such as building a new trail at Rocky Fork State Park, staining the wooden bridges on the Erwin Linear Trail, packing food boxes at Good Samaritan Ministries and building shelves at CHIPS thrift store.

NFS President John Stewart said he is proud of the work that his staff did for the Second Annual Day of Volunteering.

“Day of Volunteering helps NFS and our employees give back to the communities that have supported our site for more than 60 years,” Stewart said. “Day of Volunteering also provides an opportunity for our employees to engage with each other.”

Stewart saw the commeradiere as bonus to the Day of Volunteering.

“Several of the teams met for breakfast, and they talked about the project, but they also talked about their families and their lives away from NFS,” Stewart said.

The fellowship did not end there.

“Then they worked side-by-side on a project that will help others,” Stewart said. “This type of interaction builds a stronger team atmosphere when they are at NFS.”

NFS allowed the employees to select the projects with the understanding that some type of work would be done.

“Donating goods to an organization is great, but giving your time to do the hands-on work is often more valuable,” Stewart said. “NFS purchased the supplies needed for the projects, but knowing that we are helping others and strengthening our team is priceless. I wish we could do more of this.”

Six teams worked at the Erwin Linear Trail. NFS also had a team at the CHIPS thrift store building shelves and sorting donations, and teams at Love Chapel Elementary building a sensory garden and landscaping. NFS had one group at the Erwin Health Care Center that collected books and games. This group also spent time on Saturday visiting with the residents, playing games and just talking. NFS even had a team replacing windows at historic Walnut Mountain Church, which is about 45 minutes from Elizabethton.

NFS had one team that has worked for two months to crochet and knit baby blankets, hats and booties for Niswonger Children’s Hospital. They had more than 45 blankets that were delivered.

Several of NFS’ teams started working earlier last week because Saturday’s forecast called for rain. A team at East Tennessee Christian Home did their prep work Thursday night and finished up Sunday night. The team working at Love Chapel Elementary School also worked Sunday night.

Unicoi County Animal Shelter Director Kevin King was very thankful for the work that NFS employees put in at the shelter.

“I would like to thank NFS for thinking of the animals,” King said. “It’s so wonderful they chose to help us.”

According to King, the volunteers were able to clean the facility, but the volunteering did not stop there.

“We were able to get new benches outside,” King said. “They cleaned the inside and helped do some landscaping outside. They walked every dog in the shelter. We appreciate everything they did and it meant a lot to us.”

Town of Erwin Communications Director Jamie Rice was so thankful for NFS employees for volunteering their time to area projects.

“They are absolutely amazing,” Rice said. “We are so thankful to have such caring community partners.” Rice said.

Town of Erwin Public Works Director Tim Bailey was impressed with the work that the volunteers accomplished.

“The engineers, especially the young engineers, really took charge on the Linear Trail,” Bailey said. “They did an amazing job.”

NFS worked on projects at CHIPS (Change is Possible) in Erwin, Children’s Advocacy Center of Sullivan County in Blountville, Erwin Linear Trail in Erwin, Good Samaritan Ministries in Johnson City, Happy Valley High School in Elizabethton, Love Chapel Elementary School in Erwin, Nurturing Neighbors in Erwin, Rocky Fork State Park in Flag Pond, Ronald McDonald House in Johnson City, Second Harvest Food Bank in Kingsport, Unicoi County Animal Shelter in Erwin and Washington County Boys and Girls Club in Johnson City.

According to NFS Communications Manager Laura Bailey, the annual event will take place again next summer and NFS is always looking to grow the number of teams and projects.

Downtown mural brings ‘cheerful excitement’ to Erwin

A volunteer puts the finishing touches on a mural that stretches from Union Street to Gay Street along Nolichucky Avenue in Erwin. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Downtown Erwin recently set itself apart from neighboring towns with a mural that spreads a whole block. Now located on Nolichucky Avenue between Union Street and Gay Street is a vibrant piece of art.

According to Town of Erwin Communications Specialist Jamie Rice, the mural is meant to show the excitement of the new downtown.

“This mural was really meant to bring cheerful excitement to an otherwise neglected part of our downtown,” Rice said. “Nolichucky Avenue really has not had as much attention as it deserves.” According to Rice, the area was due for a facelift.

“The skate park, library and two art studios both call this neglected street home and we really wanted to bring attention to this part of downtown,” Rice said. “It has been on my to-do list for three years, and the Tennessee Arts Commission Grant has finally helped make this dream a reality.”

Rice acknowledged that the art piece serves another purpose.

“Another positive outcome is that it has slowed traffic, making it safer for the families visiting the skate park and library,” Rice said.

According to Rice, the mural was a way to continue riding the wave of community projects that make Erwin unique.

“After observing the boost in community spirit from other public art projects, such as the Elephant Revival and the Yarn Bomb, the Town of Erwin applied to the Tennessee Art Commission for a grant to add more permanent public art downtown,” Rice said. “We wanted a project that could involve all age ranges and demographics of the community. We have had volunteers as young as 5 years old and it has been amazing to see such community support.”

According to Rice, the inspiration for the mural came from a familiar source.

“I saw a small version of this paint the pavement project in an online Strong Towns article and we decided to put our own Erwin twist on it,” Rice said.

Strongest Towns is a website that features exceptional towns, and Erwin was chosen for the websites bracket-style competition that took place in March. Erwin finished in the Elite Eight of the annual competition.

Rice said that Unicoi County High School art teacher Annette Tipton took the project and ran with it.

“Annette Tipton has been an instrumental figure in the public art movement in our town and she is always up for a challenge,” Rice said. “Her class has helped on numerous downtown actives, including painting two elephants, and the wildly popular Peanuts characters that were displayed last Halloween.”

Rice is thankful for Tipton’s efforts.

“Normally my conversations always start with her, ‘I have this crazy idea …’ And her response is always, ‘Yeah we can do it, no problem’,” Rice said. “She is amazing.”

Rice was also thankful for all the hard work and support the Town of Erwin puts into the downtown projects.

“This is definitely a first for our town, and I am so thankful that the Board of Mayor and Alderman took a chance on something completely new,” Rice said. “Our leaders are always searching for ways to engage the entire community and I think they are so thrilled with the result.”

According to Rice, there were more than 75 gallons of paint and four, 12-hour days worked by more than 50 volunteers to make the dream a reality.

To keep up with other projects, follow RISE Erwin, ThisisErwin and the Town of Erwin on Facebook.

Banner sentenced to life in prison

Clyde Banner waits to hear his sentence after pleading guilty before the Honorable Judge Lisa Rice on Monday. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Clyde William Banner stood trial on two counts of murder on Monday, June 10, before the Honorable Judge Lisa Rice for the alleged murders of sisters Donna K. Jones, 34, and Amy B. Jones, 29, on Oct. 11, 2017.

On that day, Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley and other officers responded to a call on Lower Higgins Creek Road. Upon arrival, they found that both female victims were dead with gunshot wounds to the head.

Following the shooting, Banner reportedly fled to Madison County, North Carolina, where he was apprehended by officers with Madison County Sheriff’s Office. Although the UCSD did find a weapon during a search of Banner’s truck, they did not find the weapon described as being the murder weapon. The murder weapon was a shotgun, and according to Banner during testimony given on June 10, he threw the shotgun into the river following the shooting.

Banner pleaded guilty to the charges of first degree murder and second degree murder in the shooting deaths of both Donna, who was the mother of five children, and Amy Jones. When asked by Rice why he shot the Jones sisters, Banner explained that it was to get back at their mother.

“I did it to hurt Teresa (Jones),” Banner said.

During the trial on Monday, Rice explained the charges and sentencing procedures to Banner. Rice handed down the verdict of life imprisonment for first degree murder. For the charge of second degree murder, Banner faces up to an additional 60 years in a federal penitentiary. Banner agreed to serve life imprisonment for the first degree murder charge and an additional 45 percent of the 60 years for the second degree murder charge under his plea of guilty.

Rice explained that Banner would likely spend the rest of his life in custody.

“You understand that you will more than likely spend the rest of your life in prison?” Rice asked. Banner nodded and replied, “yes.”

During the hearing, Banner admitted to shooting Donna Jones first and then shooting Amy Jones.

“This is just tragic, all around,” Rice said.

Hensley agreed.

“It’s been a sad situation for everyone,” Hensley said. “Our prayers go out to both families.”

Hensley praised all the officers that worked the case and acknowledged that the close working relationship with Madison County allowed Banner’s swift arrest.

Community gathers to honor Whitson

Unicoi County celebrated Gavin Whitson’s successful run on “Survivor: Edge of Extinction” with a special event held in downtown Erwin on Friday, May 31. During the event, Whitson, who recently finished in second place on the hit CBS show, signed autographs and posed for photos with fans. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Unicoi County came out to celebrate local celebrity and Survivor contestant Gavin Whitson on Friday, May 31. The Gathering Place in Erwin was filled with excited residents to officially welcome Whitson back to Erwin since his appearance on the hit show, “Survivor: Edge of Extinction.”

Whitson and his wife, Carly Whitson, were on hand to speak to residents and to take photos and sign autographs. While downtown, the Whitsons took time to speak to The Erwin Record about their Survivor experience and what the community support means to them.

“The support I have been shown since the show ended has been amazing,” Gavin, who came in second place on the show, said. “Everyone that has approached me has told me how proud they are, and they think I should have won, which is always nice to hear.”

Carly, who got to join her husband in Fiji and appear on the hit show, also was excited about the experience.

“For me, one of my hopes for Gavin and his experience was that he would make the family visit,” Carly said. “Leading up to the time of going was very stressful on my end because it was a lot of going into the unknown. CBS really left us in the dark, so we never knew what was going on in the game so I didn’t find out I was going for sure until I got a text around 3 a.m. Monday morning for a 9 a.m. flight on the same Monday morning.”

According to Carly, being in Fiji was a once in a lifetime experience.

“My time in Fiji was unbelievable,” she said. “I traveled halfway across the world by myself and that’s something I will never forget, but the highlight of the experience was being able to compete on the family visit challenge with Gavin. That hadn’t happened since season 20 of Survivor, and I was so thankful we were chosen for the reward.”

Carly said that in her short time on the island, she got a full Survivor experience.

“I loved having that extra time with Gavin because I got to see what the true Survivor camp life was like,” Carly added. “I got to see where he slept, the small cups they ate their rice out of. I feel like I got the true survivor experience and I am forever thankful for that.”

Since “Survivor: Edge of Extinction” aired, the Whitsons are learning to adapt to the newfound fame.

“Since I got back from the finale I have been recognized a lot more and I thought it would be the other way around and people would recognize me more while the show was airing,” Gavin said. “Within the Tri-Cities area, I have been recognized everywhere I have been so far, which still feels weird to me.”

Carly also explained what it was like being famous in a small town.

“I think everyone in town already knew who we were, but it is really neat when we are out somewhere and someone recognizes Gavin and then they look at me and say ‘Oh, I saw you also’,” Carly said. “This has happened in places like South Carolina and even Disneyland.”

For the Whitsons, family life is getting back to normal since “Survivor: Edge of Extinction” aired.

“I would say for the most part everything is back to normal outside of the small events Gavin is participating in,” Carly said. “Outside of that, home life is completely back to normal and I am very thankful for that.”

For Carly, the getting back to normal part of life has provided time for reflection.

“The timeline in general from all of these huge events has made the past year fly by and it’s hard to believe now that it’s been a year since we’ve gotten married and we are getting close to the time that I left for Fiji nearly a year ago,” Carly said.

For Gavin, being back has allowed him to pick up where he left off.

“Since I got back from the finale I have been doing the same thing I did last summer and the summer before that,” Gavin said. “I have been running a summer camp, enjoying time with family and eating my weight in ice cream.”

Gavin has found time for a new business opportunity.

“I have started a T-shirt company,” Gavin said. “I am running a small online shop via Etsy called Walt Whitson.”

Like Survivor, opening a T-shirt shop is one of Gavin’s dreams.

“Once I got home from Survivor I realized that I needed to find a new dream and I had also realized I can truly do anything I want as long as I put in the time and effort,” Gavin said. “If there’s one thing I love more than Survivor it’s going on vacations to places like Disney World.” It was trips to Disney World and Gavin’s love of pop culture that inspires his clothing line.

“Being able to chase my dream of being on Survivor inspired me to start making theme park and pop culture inspired T-shirts for people like me to wear on their next vacations,” he said. “I will have a booth at the Apple Festival this year and I am working on some special stuff for it. I think the items I will have at the Apple Festival will really be stuff the community will enjoy.”

Gavin said he still takes pride in representing Erwin.

“I love downtown Erwin right now,” he added. “It is in the best shape I have ever seen it and there are now so many things to do. Once the Capitol Cinema opens back up, I might not ever have to go to Johnson City again.”

Gavin said he has noticed the changes that occurred while he was gone.

“I really can’t believe how much Erwin has changed in such a short amount of time and that just shows how much great leadership we have here and the amount of people here who want to make Erwin a better place for future generations,” he added.

As far as what is next for the Whitsons, they are open for the next great adventure, even if that means another run on Survivor.

“Like most great things in life, there isn’t a plan, like Survivor, so we are just going to enjoy life and see what happens next,” Carly said.

The Whitsons were honored by the community during Friday’s celebration. Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amanda Delp welcomed Gavin and Carly to the event.

“On behalf of the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Directors I want to thank everyone for coming out and to thank Gavin for representing Unicoi County so well on the show, we are still Team Gavin all the way,” Delp said.

Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley agreed with Delp.

“Gavin is one of Erwin’s finest,” Hensley said. “We are so proud of what he has done. He has brought national recognition to Erwin; he has shown the nation what Unicoi County and Erwin are made of.”

Southeastern Autorama cruising to Erwin on Saturday

Autos of all kinds will line the streets of downtown Erwin when the Southeastern Autorama cruises into town on Saturday, June 8. (Erwin Record File Photo)

By Richard Rourk

On Saturday, June 8, downtown Erwin will be the site for gearheads who appreciate the artwork and craftsmanship of automobiles when the 59th Annual Southeastern Autorama cruises into town. The event, which is hosted by Southeastern Autorama Tennessee, will be free and family-friendly.

According to Southeastern Autorama Tennessee member and former Apple Town Bagel owner Keldon Clapp, Southeastern Autorama is a car club based in Unicoi County and is the oldest continually running car show in Tennessee since 1960. According to Clapp, Conrad Beam and Jim Hobbs created the club in 1960. The Southeastern Autorama Tennessee motto is simple. “We are brothers and sisters driving, tinkering and talking about cars and trucks while preserving automotive history and helping our community,” Clapp said.

The historic car show will feature something for everyone.

“We will have gift bags, door prizes, and a 50/50 raffle,” Clapp said.

Food for the event will be from Ken Packer and Krazzy Dogz Catering & Packer’s Lemonade. “We have always had The Hot Dog Guy out of Greenville, but unfortunately he had a scheduling conflict so we are thankful for Ken (Packer) stepping in,” Clapp said.

There will also be musical entertainment.

“We will have a stage set up with some bluegrass and good old rock and roll,” Clapp said. “We will have some good music for everyone.”

Clapp acknowledged that many non-automotive vendors will join the usual automotive vendors at the event.

“I know the Unicoi County Animal Shelter will be there with some pups and cats, along with information,” Clapp said.

The 59th Annual Southeastern Autorama welcomes all makes and models of vehicles.

“Anyone who wants to enter their vehicle is encouraged to show up at 8 a.m. on Saturday, June 8, to get registered,” Clapp said. “Once someone is registered they are on our mailing list for future events. There is no fee.”

According to Clapp, there will be cars from Asheville, Nashville, Knoxville, Atlanta, as well as plenty of local cars at the event.

“We are bringing cars in from a pretty wide range,” Clapp said. “Mike McIntosh will be bringing in some Model Ts and Model As.”

According to Clapp, there could be as many as 300 automobiles on display at the annual event. Some of the cars that will be featured during the 59th Annual Southeastern Autorama aren’t exactly even considered cars.

“We have everything from classic cars to modified go-karts,” Clapp said. “We like everything with a motor and four wheels; we even accept the vehicles with two wheels.”

Clapp and the Southeastern Autorama Tennessee would like to thank the community for being so supportive.

“We would like to thank the people of Erwin for supporting this,” Clapp said. “Without their support, we would just be people hanging out with cars.”

For more information, updates or to learn how to join Southeastern Autorama Tennessee, follow Southeastern Autorama Tennessee on Facebook.

Tolley receives UCHS diploma 50 years later

Keith Tolley, right, shakes the hand of Unicoi County Board of Education Chairman Tyler Engle after Tolley received his diploma during Unicoi County High School’s graduation on May 20. Tolley was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1969 and served in Vietnam, which kept him from receiving his diploma. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Approximately 200 Unicoi County High School Students reached a milestone on May 20 as the class of 2019 walked across the stage at UCHS to receive their diplomas.

Each graduate’s road to the milestone is unique. That was especially true for one man as 50 years after he left UCHS, Erwin native Keith Tolley finally received his diploma.

Tolley had just finished his junior year of high school and started working his summer job in construction, when he went home for lunch on July 15, of 1969.

“I was helping build the middle school, I went home for lunch and I noticed that I had gotten my draft letter,” Tolley said. “I went back and told my foreman that I had got drafted, and the foreman said when you get back you will always have a job here.”

As his son Jerrod Tolley has said: “Most people got handed a diploma. My father got handed an M16.”

Tolley was drafted to the Army, and was sent to Alabama for his Advanced Individual Training and then moved onto Fort Gordon, Georgia, for more training.

“After I left Georgia, I came home for a week, and then I was sent to Oakland, California,” Tolley said. “I had five and a half weeks training and they sent me to Vietnam.”

While in Vietnam, Tolley fought in Laos and Cambodia.

“It was pretty bad,” Tolley said. “I walked point for 18 months until I got wounded.”

By walking point, Tolley was the most exposed in his company.

“We were fighting, and a mortar blew up right in front of me,” Tolley said.

Tolley still has fragments in his head from the explosion. Tolley then was sent to Japan and then back to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., for a year of surgeries including a plate being placed in his head.

“The only thing that bothers me is headaches,” Tolley said.

Tolley could have been put on full disability when he returned home but decided to work.

“When I got back I worked in construction,” Tolley said. “I’m going to work as long as I can.” Tolley worked until 1991, before accepting his benefits. During his construction days, Tolley helped erect the Mall at Johnson City.

Although he had accomplished and sacrificed more than most, Tolley always sought his diploma that he missed out on. Tolley’s wife, Linda Tolley, began working with Unicoi County Director of Schools John English and Unicoi County School Board representative Lisa Saylor to push for the state to give Tolley the diploma he had earned.

“Bill Lee signed off on it, and it finally came through at the first of May,” Tolley said.

English suggested, and Tolley agreed, to walk across the stage with the graduating UCHS class of 2019.

Tolley was very touched by the show of support and is honored to receive his diploma.

“I’ve got medals from service, but that diploma outranks all of those,” Tolley said. “There were more than 3,000 people there.”

Tolley received a standing ovation as he was called up first.

Tolley had some advice for those that may be struggling with school.

“Even though it is hard to do, you can do anything you put your mind to,” Tolley said. “Stay in school; you may not see it, but that diploma is something you need in life.”

English was honored to work with the Tolley family.

“It was an absolute honor and privilege to be able to recognize and honor Mr. Tolley,” English said. “What a story. There was so much admiration and respect for Mr. Tolley and rightfully so.”

Tolley stays busy these days spending time with family and still attending veteran events.

“I got to go on the Honor Flight to Washington this year and I plan on going back next year,” Tolley said.

Tolley also attended Unicoi County’s Memorial Day Observance on Sunday, May 26.

Podcast shares Mary the Elephant’s story

NPR Podcast winners Jaxton Holly, John Gouge, Caleb Mille, and Deanna Hull receive keys to the city from Mayor Doris Hensley.(Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

A group of four students from Elizabethton High School have been named honorary citizens of the Town of Erwin and even received keys to the town.

These students earned that honor thanks to a podcast that explains the history of Murderous Mary and how the Town of Erwin has worked to turn that negative event in its past into a positive.

During the May 13 Town of Erwin BMA meeting, Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley presented EHS students Deanna Hull, Caleb Miller, Jaxton Holly and John Gouge with a key to the city. The students worked alongside teachers Alex Campbell and Tim Wasem on the podcast.

The podcast won a national contest held by NPR, which aired the podcast during its “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition” programs, on Wednesday, May 15.

Campbell explained to The Erwin Record why the students chose Erwin to be the focal point of their podcast.

“We decided that we wanted the students to choose a local history story or a local person,” Campbell said. “At first they decided they wanted to do the history of Murderous Mary, but after speaking with the mayor, and with (Erwin Communications Specialist) Jamie (Rice) the students decided to cover the topic from the past and present.”

According to Campbell, the students worked on the winning podcast for nine weeks.

“All of the podcast was so good, we thought they would do well,” Campbell said.

Campbell was impressed that students could take pride in the stories in this area.

“It built a lot of pride and appreciation between the students and the community,” Campbell said.

Rice said she was honored to be a part of the project.

“The mayor and I were approached maybe two or three months ago to help these EHS students with a project about Mary, and I don’t think either of us had any idea they were entering it into a podcast competition, especially NPR,” Rice said.

According to Rice, Hensley came into her office about two weeks ago very excited and shouting, “We won, we won, Mary won.”

“When I asked what we won, she told me about the NPR contest,” Rice said. “I was completely floored.” 

Rice said the Town of Erwin jumped at the chance to work with the students.

“We had no apprehension whatsoever,” Rice said. “I always enjoy telling our story of redemption for Mary. Had I known it had the potential to be heard by a nationwide audience, I probably would have been much more nervous.”

According to Rice, the story of Mary deserves to be told.

“Twenty-eight million listeners will hear a new elephant story, and we, as a community, do not have to hide or be ashamed of this sad event any longer,” Rice said. “A 100-year-old tragedy has been transformed into something full of life and positive outcomes, and we have significantly changed the perspective of Erwin’s relationship with elephants for future generations.”

According to Rice, the students did an amazing job.

“I am so impressed by these Elizabethton High School students, and they really had done their homework and had really great open-ended questions,” Rice said. “I loved how they used all our different voices to tell the narrative of the story.”

According to Campbell, students need more projects like this.

“It just validates that our students need projects and ways to create, and they need connections to the community,” Campbell said. “It’s like what Andrew Jackson said, ‘You give me 1,000 people from Tennessee, I’ll whip 1,000 of anyone else from anywhere in the world.’ I feel like you give me four students from Elizabethton, I can whip four students from anywhere else in America.”

For Rice, this project is one of many that she is proud of.

“I am so proud of these Elizabethton students; however, I do feel that the Unicoi County High School students played an integral role in the Erwin Elephant Revival,” Rice said. “Mrs. Lori Ann Wright’s drama students wrote, directed and performed a beautiful play in 2016 called ‘Mary’s Story,’ and I wish that every single person could see it again today.” 

The podcast is available at NPR.org.

Whitson ‘thankful’ for Survivor adventure

Erwin native Gavin Whitson was the runner-up of “Survivor: Edge of Extinction.” Whitson traveled to Los Angles for the live season final. (Photo courtesy of CBS)

By Richard Rourk

He may not have won the $1 million prize on “Survivor: Edge of Extinction,” but Erwin native Gavin Whitson is happy that he got to experience something few people ever do.

“It’s bittersweet. I hate to see this adventure end because it’s been a dream of mine. I made it 39 days, and I’m super proud of the game I played,” Whitson said. “I had the title ‘Sole Survivor’ within my grasp, so not getting it leaves a little sour taste in my mouth, but overall I’m pleased I had the opportunity to play.”

During the season finale of the popular CBS show on May 15, Whitson joined Julie Rosenberg and Chris Underwood in the final three. Whitson and Rosenberg survived 39 days outwitting, outplaying and outlasting the other 16 contestants. Underwood, who spent 26 days on Extinction Island, was able to bond with the other contestants that were voted off of the main island and won his way back into the top three. Underwood pulled a major move when he gave up immunity to face off against Rick Devens in a fire-making challenge to secure a final three spot.

At the final Tribal Council, each member of the final three pleaded their case to the jury. Devens, who Whitson saw as a threat throughout the season, was quick to acknowledge that Whitson played the perfect game of Survivor. No one ever wrote Whitson’s name down to go home at tribal.

During the live reading of the votes from the Tribal Council, it was clear that Whitson and Underwood were the top two contenders for the million dollar prize. Survivor host Jeff Probst announced that it was Underwood, who was the sole survivor and winner of the $1 million dollar prize.

Whitson acknowledged that he would be ready if CBS called again.

“I would do it again, 100 percent, because I had the prize and it slipped through my hands. I would have something else to prove,” Whitson said. “With that being said, I would have to check with (my wife) Carly; it can’t be something I snuck up on her.”

Whitson would be open to competing with Carly on Survivor if CBS came calling for a “Blood vs. Water” edition of Survivor. If that call never comes, Whitson is happy with his adventure.

“If the opportunity never presents itself, I’m still coming out a winner,” Whitson said. “I have an amazing family and support system.”

Whitson, who became a fan favorite for many reasons including his infamous pineapple shirts, explained his wardrobe choice.

“Honestly, before Survivor, I don’t know that I ever wore anything with a pineapple on it,” Whitson said. “I decided if I’m going to Fiji, I’m going to dress like I’m going to Fiji.”

The random clothing choice took off.

“Once the show started, people who recognized me were referring to me as the ‘pineapple guy,’ so I embraced it,” Whitson said. “People have been so great and sent me pineapple flags and pineapple cups.”

Whitson opened up about the struggles on the island.

“By day 39, it felt like I was dying. I struggled to walk back to camp,” Whitson said. “To make matters worse, you were sleeping on bamboo with notches dug into your ribs, no toilet paper, and living on 100 calories of rice a day.”

During the final episode, Whitson worked diligently on a puzzle with a smile on his face, that even caught the attention of Probst, who said that was a first. Whitson explained his smile.

“I knew I was a winner for playing and was thankful for the opportunity,” Whitson said.

After spending 39 days on an island, Whitson acknowledged that he still remains friends with several castmates.

“I made several connections while I was there,” Whitson said. “Rick Devens and I have stayed in touch. It might not have showed in the game but Rick Devens and I were tight. I wanted him out of the game because I knew he could win, but he is one of the best dudes I’ve ever met.”

Whitson admits it’s a great feeling having the support from Unicoi County.

“I never thought being on Survivor would bring the community together,” Whitson said. “Just inspiring kids to do what they want in life, and to be a positive role model, has been as valuable as a million dollars to me.”

Whitson is very optimistic for whatever the future holds.

“Once I left tribal council and headed to the airport to come home, I realized that’s what I need, and enjoy life,” Whitson said. “I have a great life and my heart is full.”

Whitson was very thankful for the community and the show of support by Unicoi County.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better community to show support,” Whitson said. “At the (Union Street) taproom, I got to talk to the same people and the same kids every week, and one day those kids may be on Survivor. The support from the (Unicoi County) Chamber of Commerce has been unbelievable.”

Whitson also acknowledged his family as being such a support system.

Union Street Taproom Owner Michael Baker, who hosted weekly Survivor watch parties, was honored to host the events and get to know Whitson.

“Union Street Taproom is so proud of our hometown Survivor, Gavin Whitson,” Baker said. “It was truly an honor to host a weekly watch party in support of Gavin, as well as having him join us each week.”

Baker explained the impact that Whitson had on the community.

“The watch parties allowed families the opportunity to have dinner, meet Gavin, and watch the show every week with family and friends,” Baker said. “Union Street Taproom prides itself on being active in the community and supporting all things Unicoi County.”

Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amanda Delp, who hosted several watch parties, was also proud of Whitson’s Survivor run.

“Congratulations Gavin Whitson, you played a remarkable and memorable Survivor game,” Delp said. “Our community is so proud of you and your accomplishments.”

On Friday, May 31, starting at 6 p.m., the Chamber of Commerce will honor Whitson for his successful second place finish on Survivor. Whitson will be on hand for photographs and to sign autographs.

“We’ll have food trucks, music, games and more,” Delp said.

The event will take place in downtown Erwin at the Gathering Place Park. For updates or more information, please follow Unicoi Chamber of Commerce on Facebook or call 743-3000.

Museums open for 2019 season

The Johnson family holds up their rifle they brought to be inspected to the opening ceremony for the museums. The rifle was built around 1820. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

The Unicoi County Heritage Museum and Clinchfield Railroad Museum reopened for the season with a special event on Saturday, May 11. This year marks the 37th season for the Heritage Museum and the eighth season for the Railroad Museum.

“We’ve had tremendous turnout,” Martha Erwin, who serves as curator for both museums, said.

During the season-opening festivities, Dave Byrd and Edward Dorr were on hand to share several of their weapons. Byrd is an expert antique firearms appraiser and collector of locally made surviving rifles. Byrd shared his lifelong knowledge of early local gunsmiths that inhabited our region of Northeast Tennessee. Autographed copies of Byrd’s book titled “Gunmakers of Buffalo Valley and Greasy Cove in Unicoi County” were sold.

Dorr and Byrd examined a rifle brought in by the Johnson family from Washington County on Saturday.

“I remember that gun,” Byrd said. “I’ve tried to buy it three or four times.”

Byrd knew at first glance that the gun had belonged to Henry Johnson.

“That gun was made in 1815 or 1820,” Byrd said. “Baxter, the man who made it, was born around 1800.”

Dorr confirmed that Baxter was born in 1798.

“He fought in the War of 1812 at the age of 14,” Dorr said.

The museums feature a small scale replica of the 1925 Clinchfield Railroad Depot, meticulously hand-crafted in small detail by Scott Fowler. A front porch rocking chair from the notable Unaka Springs Hotel that was built in 1899 is also featured. The hotel was advertised and known as having the finest mineral springs in the south.

Dr. Joe Chamber’s Blue Ridge Pottery “designer series” plates, which have become highly sought after and rarely seen, will be on display for a limited time in the Blue Ridge Pottery Room. Displayed in the Quilt Room is a collection of hand-sewn quilts by highly recognized Erwin quilter, Jo Starnes.

A vintage German doll with its own velvet chair is displayed in memory honoring Erwin native and Class of 1940 member, the late Billie Marie Chapman. Also, other unique exhibits are housed in the three-story, turn of the century house museum and Clinchfield Railroad Museum.

The museums’ normal business hours are Monday through Friday from 1-5 p.m. Admission fee for both museums may be enjoyed for one price of $4 per adult and $2 per child.

The museums are located next to the Erwin National Fish Hatchery located at 529 Federal Hatchery Road, Erwin. They are available for field trips, weddings, and organizational outings. For more information, call 743-9449 or 743-8923.

Annual Strawberry Festival set for Saturday

Scott’s Strawberries will again be a featured attraction at the 17th Annual Wayne Scott Strawberry Festival on Saturday, May 18. Above, Kaylee Nicholson sells strawberries at a previous festival. (Contributed photo)

From Staff Reports

The Town of Unicoi is preparing for the 17th Annual Wayne Scott Strawberry Festival which will be held Saturday, May 18, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Unicoi Elementary School field.

“Residents looking to get involved have a number of ways to join the festivities this year,” said Communications and Programs Director Ashley Shelton. “Whether you have a talent to share, a product to sell or just want to volunteer in your community, the Strawberry Festival has it all.”

According to a press release from the Town of Unicoi, the festival will feature approximately 100 craft vendors showcasing handmade items ranging from pottery to soaps, jewelry, home decor and more. Spaces are filling up fast so anyone interested in a booth should contact the Tourist Information Center as soon as possible. Craft spaces are reserved for handmade products, though commercial products may be placed on a waiting list in the event space becomes available.

Numerous food vendors are already confirmed and will be serving hamburgers, hot dogs, fried potatoes, tacos, tamales, kettle corn, strawberry funnel cakes, homemade ice cream and many more menu items. Food vendor spaces are restricted to non-profit organizations and applications are available on the town’s website.

A Strawberry Dessert Recipe Contest will be sponsored by the Mountain Harvest Kitchen, a food incubator in the heart of Unicoi. Contestants are encouraged to dazzle the judges taste buds as they compete for first ($75), second ($50) and third ($25) place prizes.

“People just love food, they want to put their own spin on things and that’s what this contest is all about,” said Lee Manning, director of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen. “We want to see something new, something that will have us all begging for more.”

Entries will be judged on taste, appearance and creativity and must include a copy of the recipe to qualify. Contestants may submit their desserts to the kitchen’s booth between 10-11 a.m. and an awards ceremony will take place at 11:30 a.m. To register for the dessert contest, contact the Tourist Information Center prior to the festival.

In conjunction with the Wayne Scott Strawberry Festival, Little Miss Southern Sparkle Pageants will host the Miss Strawberry Festival Pageant from 9 a.m. to noon in the Unicoi Elementary School gymnasium. Those interested in participating may email Valerie Hendrix at director@southernsparklepageant@gmail.com or visit Little Miss Southern Sparkle on Facebook for more information.

While the musical line-up is almost complete, the planning committee is always on the lookout for new talent. Local musicians who think they have what it takes to please festival audiences may submit their band for consideration to fill spots at either the Strawberry Festival or other town-sponsored events including the upcoming Farmers Market opening the end of May and Freedom Fest in July. A link to video or audio recording is required for consideration and may be emailed to recreationaide@unicoitn.net with “Performance Request” in the subject line.

The Town of Unicoi organizes the annual Strawberry Festival and is assisted through sponsorships from local businesses. Festival staff is comprised of town employees, volunteers and local emergency services. Anyone interested in sponsoring the Wayne Scott Strawberry Festival or volunteering at the event should contact the Tourist Information Center at 735-0517 or email recreationaide@unicoitn.net.

Additional information is available online at Facebook.com/TownOfUnicoi/Events or on the town’s website, UnicoiTN.net. Both pages will be updated with the festival map, musical performance schedule and vendor list when released.

Ramp Festival draws hundreds to Flag Pond

Coy Lee Harris, Celesta Shelton and Judy Harris prepare food for attendees at the 34th Annual Ramp Festival on Saturday, May 11. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

The 34th Annual Ramp Festival took place on Saturday, May 11, and despite the rain, drew record crowds.

“We sold over a thousand plates,” Friends of Rocky Fork President and Unicoi County Commissioner Marie Rice said. “We had a lot of to go boxes, as well.”

Ramps, the main attraction, sold out this year. According to the Royal Botanical Gardens, ramps are classified as a North American species of wild onion widespread across eastern Canada and the eastern United States.

According to Barbara Desso with the Flag Pond Ruritan, attendees enjoyed meals of ramp infused potatoes, bacon, cole slaw, cornbread, beans, dessert and a drink.

“Weather was no contender for the Flag Pond Ramp Festival,” Desso said.

In addition to the food, there were numerous vendors and entertainment throughout Flag Pond School. Vendors sold items such as watercolor original prints, soaps, journals, metal jewelry, kitchen utensils and wind chimes, essential oils and organic salves, bug spray, handcrafted birdhouses, wooden signs, coat racks, benches, wooden bowls and spoons, steel carving knives, coasters, wire art, Mary Kay, Avon products and vitamins, Thirty-One, handcrafted macramé jewelry, sea glass jewelry, lamps, sea glass pictures, and much more. Author Elizabeth Buttke was selling her book “Deep In The Holler,” as well as autographing copies.

The musical lineup included the Unicoi High School Band, The Dandy Line Dancers from Asheville, Sweetwater Church of God Singers, Spivey Mountain Boys, Mountain Melodies and The Flag Ponderer’s.

All proceeds from the festival will go toward community projects, scholarships, children’s Christmas gifts, Halloween party, festivals and numerous donations to other needs in Unicoi County.

“The planning for the festival begins several months in advance and would not be possible without the many volunteers that put in numerous hours of cleaning, maintenance of the grounds and children’s playset, pavilion, ordering of food and T-shirts, shopping, prepping, cooking, baking, serving, cashiers, etc.,” Desso said. “Festival goers got to enjoy the many musicians, dancers and singers throughout the day. Vendors brought their unique wares to sell and donated to the prize drawings that were held later in the day. Food was served on the lower level as well as in the gym. Vendors were also on the lower level and the majority chose to set up in the gym due to the inclement weather.”

Desso also said the Flag Pond Ruritan is appreciative of the efforts of many festival supporters.

“To each person/business sponsors/attendees that contributed in whatever way, a heartfelt thank you from the Flag Pond Ruritan Club for the time, energy and resources that have been donated,” she said. “ … Once again visitors came from many states, as well as local and nearby communities. The positive feedback with expressions of how many love the festival and look forward to it every year. Next year will be a milestone as it will be the 35th year for the festival.”

The Flag Pond Community Center, 110 School House Road, Flag Pond, will also be the site of the Fourth of July Community Parade, lawnmower races, and fireworks, which will be held on Saturday, June 29. More information will follow.

The Flag Pond Ruritan Club welcomes new members and meets every third Tuesday of the month at the Community Center (Old Flag Pond School) at 7 p.m. There will not be a meeting in May, but meetings will resume in June. For more information, contact President Richard Waldrop at 743-3430 or Vice President Judee Krom at 388-5503.

Whitson makes ‘Survivor’ final

Erwin native Gavin Whitson is one of the few players still standing in “Survivor: Edge of Extinction.” (Photo courtesy of CBS)

By Richard Rourk

The last week before a million dollar winner is announced, Erwin’s own survivor Gavin Whitson is still standing.

During the Wednesday, May 8, episode of “Survivor: Edge of Extinction” on CBS, Whitson won the reward challenge, which was for a helicopter ride to a resort in Fiji for a lunch. Whitson was allowed to bring two fellow tribemates and chose Victoria Baamonde and Lauren O’Connell. Winning this reward in past seasons of Survivor proved to be a curse as the winner was often chosen to leave during Tribal Council.

The problem for Whitson was that he had an alliance with Baamonde, O’Connell, and Aurora McCreary, and was only able to take Baamonde and O’Connell on the retreat. McCreary was left behind with Rick Devens, who has been the target of Whitson’s alliance, and Julie Rosenberg, who has sided with Devens.

To make matters worse for Whitson’s alliance, Devens has a hidden immunity idol and Devens pulled out the victory during the immunity challenge. During the Tribal Council, Devens revealed that he had the hidden immunity idol and would be willing to save Rosenberg. Devens leveraged Whitson’s alliance to turn on McCreary and vote her out of the tribe.

The final episode of “Survivor: Edge of Extinction,” which airs on CBS on Wednesday, May 15, at 8 p.m., will see a million dollar winner and Sole Survivor. The finale will see Whitson, Baamonde, O’Connell, Devens, Rosenberg, or one of the contestants stranded on Extinction Island, winning the top prize.

Union Street Taproom, 111 Union St. in downtown Erwin, will host a Survivor Watch Party. NOLI Food Truck will attend and serve their signature dishes. The watch party is family and pet-friendly, according to Union Street Taproom owner Michael Baker.

For more information and updated photos of Whitson’s time on Survivor, you can follow Team Gavin on Facebook.

For more information for upcoming events at Union Street Taproom follow Union Street Taproom on Facebook. To keep up with where the NOLI truck is going to be, follow NOLI Food Truck on Facebook and Instagram.

Washington County offers ambulance services for $218K

Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley discusses options for ambulance services. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

On Thursday, May 1, the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee met to discuss temporary options for ambulance service in Unicoi County. Unicoi County Ambulance Chairman John Mosley called the meeting to order at 1 p.m. and was joined by committee members Glenn White, Marie Rice, Mark Lafever and Jeff Linville. Linville was filling in for Town of Unicoi Mayor and committee member Johnny Lynch, who had a prior meeting to attend.

Mosley discussed the option of accepting Washington County/Johnson City EMS services temporarily, while Unicoi County officials decide if they want to create their own ambulance service or accept a bid from an outside agency for ambulance services.

“They gave an estimate on an operation plan for an interlocal agreement for one year, priced at $218,677,” Mosley said. “They can supply us 24 hours a day for seven days a week with two ALS (Advanced Life Support) ambulances, and one BLS (Basic Life Support) ambulance for five days a week, 10 hours a day, for the $218,677.”

According to Mosley, there are two options to staff the Washington County/Johnson City EMS. Mosley stated that Washington County/Johnson City EMS would take on the current MedicOne staff or Unicoi County could take on the salaries of the staff for a projected lower priced subsidy.

The committee agreed to discuss the proposal to the full Unicoi County Commission during the May 20 Unicoi County Commission meeting.

“I would recommend that the full commission meet and then any questions we may have, send those to Mr. (Dan) Wheely,” Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely said.

Unicoi County commissioner and ambulance committee member Marie Rice agreed with Evely.

“I think that is what is best to do,” Rice said. “It gives us a chance to ask questions and get the answers we need going forward.”

The committee voted unanimously to discuss the proposal with the full Unicoi County Commission at the May 20 Unicoi County Commission meeting and to have Evely and Unicoi County Attorney Doug Shults take any questions and concerns back to Washington County/Johnson City EMS following the May 20 meeting. Rice made the motion and White seconded the motion.

Prior to that May 20 meeting, the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee will meet on Monday, May 13, at 11 a.m. at the Unicoi County Courthouse. Washington County/Johnson City EMS Director of Operations Dan Wheely will be present for informational purposes.

MedicOne Operations Manager Rebecca Bach was on hand last week and wanted to discuss concerns that the current staff of MedicOne had going forward. Bach was concerned that the staff would lose money by losing overtime opportunities.

“You are going to lose a lot of talent if they cannot offer equivalent pay or overtime opportunities,” Bach said. “I think everyone is nervous.”

Bach did acknowledge that the benefits package that Washington County provides are of quality.

“I understand where you are coming from, and we want to do what’s best for you, but we also have to do what’s best for the citizens of the county,” Mosley said.

County officials express opposition to student voucher bill

By Richard Rourk

A controversial bill recently passed in both the Tennessee House of Representatives and the Tennessee State Senate that would allow for student vouchers to be used in Davidson and Shelby Counties.

A school voucher, also called an education voucher in a voucher system, is a certificate of government funding for a student to attend school chosen by the student or the student’s parents. Current Tennessee House Bill 939 (HB939) and Tennessee Senate Bill 795 (SB795) propose that education funds be allocated to a voucher system.

There have been more than 50 school systems, including Unicoi County, and organizations oppose these bills. During the April Unicoi County School Board Meeting, the board voted unanimously to oppose HB939/SB795.

“I’ll tell you tonight that this bill has legs if we don’t speak out against it, and it is nothing more than an attack on public schools,” Board of Education member Steve Willis said during the April meeting.

Unicoi County Director of Schools John English recently spoke with The Erwin Record about his disappointment in the bill.

“I absolutely and wholeheartedly oppose any and all bills that divert any public tax dollars away from public education. Period,” English said. “I would say reach out to legislators and let them know how you feel about this, but having said that, many reps have said openly they were overwhelmed with emails, calls, and texts opposing these bills but voted for it anyway. So, I am not sure that makes a difference, but we have to do all we can do and that’s our avenue.”

According to English, this bill takes away from an already underfunded public school system. “Public education in Tennessee, which is presently underfunded by approximately $500 million will be even more so with this bill,” English said. “Tennessee ranks 45th in the US in public education funding, but this bill takes public dollars and invests it in private institutions, which  doesn’t have the same accountability as public education.”

English took offense to the lack of concern the representatives showed for educators.

“This is yet another example of a decision made by those not in the (teaching) profession, and most have never been, who ignored their constituents,” English said. “The gap they say they are trying to close will only be widened even further, and the lack of trust legislators have shown in administrators and public educators is very frustrating.”

English also took offense to the representatives that voted in favor of the bill, as long as it didn’t affect their districts.

“It says a lot that most who voted yes openly said they did so after assurances were made it wouldn’t impact their districts, and it says plenty about the bill,” English said. “If it’s a good thing why would people not want it in their areas? The answer is pretty clear to me.”

Board of Education Chairman Tyler Engle released the following statement to oppose the bills:

“I am writing to express my firmest opposition to the Education Savings Account plan passed by the Tennessee General Assembly’s House and Senate. As you know, the bills will now be reconciled in a conference committee. What I believe is most telling is that only a handful of the legislators representing Shelby and Davidson Counties – the only counties affected – voted in favor of this legislation.

“I have always stood for full funding of our public school system in Unicoi County and across Tennessee. The public schools do so much more than just teach reading, writing, and arithmetic today. Now, we support children in their social development, teach crucial coping skills which are often not found in the home, and create a loving, supportive atmosphere for every boy and girl, regardless of his or her starting place. It is my sincere hope that those lawmakers who voted in favor of this reckless bill will reconsider their stance.

“As students are disenrolled from the public schools, counties must make up for lost revenues. Unfortunately, this will lead to a cycle of worse performance in public schools and higher and higher taxes. Too, the household income limit of $66,000 means that the poorest Tennesseans – the very people this program was designed to assist – may become disadvantaged by it as more people become eligible.

“Further, the present bill does not require ESA (Education Savings Accounts) recipients to take the same number of tests per year as their public school peers, immediately putting public school children at a disadvantage.

Unicoi County will eventually feel the effects of this bill as public dollars (to the tune of $25 million each year) begin to flow out of the state’s general fund into the Education Savings Account system. Whether it’s through decreased grant opportunities or through increased taxes, we all know that you can’t spend more money without more income.

“The Unicoi County Board of Education took a hard-line stance on this issue at its April 16 regular session meeting. The school board passed a resolution opposing Education Savings Accounts and vouchers for private schools. The public-at-large can get involved by calling or e-mailing their elected representatives in Nashville and telling them to vote ‘no’ on any upcoming legislation related to Education Savings Accounts. If we truly wish to see Tennessee succeed, we need to fund the public school system we’ve worked so hard to build, not tear it down.

Unicoi County Commissioners passed a resolution in opposition of the bill as well during their April meeting.

“The Commission passed a resolution in opposition and I totally agree with that position,” Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely, who previously served on the Unicoi County Board of Education, said. “As I understand the current bills they only pertain to the four largest systems, but that will only expand in future years. I believe that the problems in those systems should be fixed instead of taking funding from public schools.”

Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas agreed with Evely.

“I don’t think this bill will immediately impact Unicoi County schools, but it does open the door to negatively affect funding for our school system in the future, and it was disappointing to see some of our local representatives and senators vote in favor of this bill, knowing that the school boards and county officials they represent were opposed to it,” Thomas said. “In the future, if this deal is expanded into all other Tennessee counties, it will pull a significant amount of funding away from public school systems, which will affect teacher’s pay, sports programs, and possibly increase taxes.”

Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley also argues that the bill takes away from the funding of public school systems.

“I think it hurts public schools, and I am not for it,” Mosley said. “It takes away from the public school system, which is the heartbeat of the nation.”

One county commissioner that sees how the bill affects all aspects of public schools is Unicoi County Commissioner and high school educator Glenn White.

“Vouchers are still public money, and education is not a business. In this arena children are involved,” White said. “In my opinion, let the local school boards decide what educational initiatives should be implemented.”

White took offense to the political influence that affects public schools today.

“The influence of the lobbying machine for the testing industry has persuaded the general assembly that this is the only way of accountability, which is ridiculous,” White said. “All students in high school should not be required to take the ACT test, this test is primarily for those students who plan on a four-year college education, whereas, a young man who plans on being a welder, should not be tested in this area.

“There should be two exit tests, one the ACT, then the other a CTE (career technical educational) exam that exemplifies what the student has learned,” White continued. 

Unicoi County is represented in the Tennessee General Assembly by State Senator Rusty Crowe and State Representative John Holsclaw.

Erwin Great Outdoor Festival expands for 2019

The 2019 Erwin Great Outdoors Festival will be larger than before and will include a kickoff on Friday, May 3. The festival will begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 4. (File photos)

By Richard Rourk

Spring is finally here and festival season in Unicoi County has arrived along with it. With NOLI Fest, Upper East Tennessee Fiddlers Convention and Fiddlers and Fiddleheads finished, it is time for downtown Erwin to get outdoors. On Saturday, May 4, starting at 10 a.m., the 4th Annual Great Outdoors Festival will officially be underway.

This year will also have a Friday night kickoff that partners with the First Friday events in downtown Erwin. The Friday night kickoff will be on Friday, May 3, starting at 5 p.m. The First Friday events will include the First Annual Union Street Chili Cook-Off sponsored by Erwin Outdoor Supply, a beer tent set up by Union Street Taproom, Union Street Gallery LLC will be open for business, and Movie Night with Bite Food Truck. What’s the Scoop will be hosting a Creative Canvas party and will feature free toppings. A Crystal Generation will be giving away a free small Rose Quartz with a purchase. There will also be specials from Beauty by MC and CHIPS is offering a free bracelet with purchase. There will also be live music downtown and the popular Erwin Cruise-In will be set up at the Unicoi County Courthouse parking lot.

Joining the Great Outdoors Festival this year is the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce’s Triple Threat Competition. The Triple Threat Competition pushes competitors to raft down the Nolichucky, compete on an 18-obstacle, obstacle course, run a 5K race and cross the finish line downtown.

All registered participants will receive a race shirt, racer goodie bag, Triple Threat completion medal, and free beverage compliments of Union Street Taproom. For more information, call the Chamber office at 743-3000.

Town of Erwin Communications Specialist Jamie Rice is excited at all the events planned during the Great Outdoors Festival.

“The new Gathering Place park has been redesigned and will be used for the first time, and there will be a 50 foot demo pool located on First Baptist Parking to allow paddle boarding and kayaks,” Rice said. “Cabela’s will sponsor a live trout pool. Middle Man Ministries is sponsoring a mobile skate park again, which will be at First Baptist, and Scott’s Strawberries will be bringing their first fruits of the season and ice cream.”   

According to Rice, that’s not all that will be available.

“Erwin Outdoor Supply is offering all kinds of hospitality events for the day, and there will be a doctor and veterinarian on premises, hot foot soaks, and free pancake breakfasts,” Rice said.

There will be lots of music downtown as well. My New Favorites will take the Union Street Stage at 11 a.m. and 49 Winchester will be playing downtown at 5 p.m. For more information on My New Favorites or 49 Winchester please follow their Facebook pages.

The one thing that is missing from this year’s festival is the new crop of elephants that have decorated Downtown Erwin in the past.

“We have had a little setback with the Elephant Statues this year, as our supplier in Nebraska had a terrible flood, and has gotten a few months behind,” Rice said. “There will be 20 small painted concrete elephants sprinkled all over downtown in June, with the large ones returning for 2020.”

Rice hopes everyone can come out and enjoy the festival.

“This event could not exist without the entire community pulling together to make it happen. Our most successful events are those that are driven by volunteer grassroots effort, including the Great Outdoors Festival,” Rice said. “We do not have huge donations from area sponsors, and this festival’s spirit comes from those with a passion for our natural resources and their volunteer attitude.”

According to Rice, the festival is entirely free and includes more than 30 free interactive activities for children and adults. For more information, please follow RISE ERWIN and the Town of Erwin’s Facebook pages.

Ambulance service interlocal agreement, RFPs move forward

The Unicoi County Commission voted to move forward with a possible interlocal agreement with Washington County during a meeting on Monday, April 22. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Richard Rourk

The future of ambulance service in Unicoi County was once again on the agenda for the Unicoi County Commission when the panel met on Monday, April 22, at the Unicoi County Courthouse.

During the meeting, the Commission voted unanimously to enter into discussions with Washington County EMS to develop an interlocal agreement to provide ambulance service for Unicoi County on an interim basis. The approval allows Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely, Unicoi County Ambulance Committee Chairman John Mosley, and Unicoi County Attorney Doug Shults to negotiate an interlocal agreement with Washington County EMS.

During a meeting of the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee on April 9, Washington County EMS Director Dan Wheely offered to speak to the Washington County Emergency Services Board.

“I feel we would have a desire to help in the short term, but if we are talking several months then we would require an interlocal agreement,” Wheely said during the April 9 meeting. “Again, I can’t speak for the board, but I feel we would be willing to help as long as it doesn’t take away from Washington County residents.”

After much discussion during Monday’s meeting, and several failed amendments, the Commission voted to approve to add a representative for the Town of Erwin (Mark LaFever) and Town of Unicoi (Johnny Lynch) to the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee. The amendment was made by Unicoi County Commissioner Glenn White to approve the additions of Lafever and Lynch, but decided to exclude Stacy Wigand, who is currently employed by MedicOne.

“I’m not against Stacy Wigand being on this board,” White said. “Sometimes in government it’s about compromise.”

White’s amended motion came after several amendments failed. The final vote was 6-3 with commissioners White, Todd Wilcox, Stephen Hendrix, Jason Harris, Marie Rice and Matthew Rice, who made the initial request to remove Wigand as a voting member, voting for Lafever and Lynch to be voting members of the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee. Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas, Vice Chairman Jamie Harris, and Mosley voted against the amendment.

The Unicoi County Ambulance Committee met on Tuesday, April 16, and agreed to send out request for proposals (RFPs) on May 8. Interested ambulance service providers will have until June 10 at noon to return the RFPs to the county. The ambulance committee is scheduled to meet on June 10 at 1 p.m. to review bids.

• • •

Also on Monday, the Commission next focused on and approved the resolution for Capital Projects for Unicoi County Board of Education in an amount up to $5 million, pending finalization of funding agreement between the government bodies.

During the April 10 Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee meeting, Stephens Inc. Senior Vice President of Public Finance Ashley McAnulty laid out a number of scenarios for the capital improvements plan, which includes work at Gentry Stadium and the Unicoi County High School track. According to McAnulty’s report, the county could accept roughly $5 million without a property tax increase. According to McAnulty’s report, repayment would be funded through sales tax and would be paid back in 20 years.

• • •

Shifting gears on Monday, Vice Chair Harris made a motion to waive the agenda to discuss paying the Unicoi County Solid Waste operators $500 per month to compensate for loss wages since the operators will no longer be selling items at the solid waste facilities. Mosley seconded the motion.

“We are operating in an emergency situation,” Vice Chair Harris said.

Unicoi County Commissioner Jason Harris disagreed.

“These contractors bid on these jobs,”Jason Harris said.

White agreed with the Vice Chairman.

“We are looking at two months before we rebid,” White said. “If we don’t pay them more money, they are going to walk off.”

Commissioner Marie Rice agreed with commissioner Jason Harris.

“This wasn’t a problem before – when these contractors were allowed to sell items,” Marie Rice said. “We either increase their pay or allow them to sell items again.”

The Commission voted 7-2 to pay the three contractors $500 a month for May and June. The $3,000 to cover the $500 payments will come out of the Solid Waste budget. Thomas, Jamie Harris, White, Mosley, Matthew Rice, Hendrix, and Wilcox voted for and Jason Harris and Marie Rice voted against the motion.

The bids go back out for contractors on June 1.

• • •

The Commission then got back on track to vote unanimously to approve a request by Reneau Dubberly to limit access on Temple Hill Road for Bicycle Race Time Trials on June 1.

The commission also voted unanimously to approve a resolution requesting that the State of Tennessee provide a regional inpatient treatment center for the eight county region.

During a March 8 meeting of the Unicoi County Inmate Revenue Committee, area judges suggested the commission reach out to other representatives to create a regional inpatient drug and alcohol treatment center. The idea came as a cost cutting measure for area jails.

“Eighty-five percent of the docket is drug-related and it costs half to keep a person in a rehab facility as opposed to jail,” Judge Lisa Rice said during the March 8 meeting.

Judge Stacy Street suggested that the counties of Northeast Tennessee get together and push for a regional intensive drug rehab facility.

“Judge Rice and myself have pushed Congressman Phil Roe and Senator Lamar Alexander to commit to opening a regional facility,” Street said during the March 8 meeting. “It’s time they put their money where their mouth is on this issue.”

At the time, Street suggested that area county commissions could push the state to find funding for a regional intensive inpatient rehab facility. Street backed up his comments by stating that he would send drug addicts to the rehab.

“I would love nothing more than for everyone that has a drug problem, to sentence them to a drug rehab,” Street said at the March 8 meeting.

Also on Monday, the commission approved to accept a grant from the Tennessee Department of Health from “Access to Health through Healthy Built Environment” for $20,000 to be used for a Natural Playground at the Pinnacle Tower Trailhead off Exit 32.

In a final order of business, Evely and Thomas recognized Kortney Bailey as Miss Unicoi County.

Unicoi County Commission votes to issue RFIs for ambulance service

During a meeting on Monday, April 15, the Unicoi County Commission voted to issue requests for information for ambulance service. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

The Unicoi County Commission held a special called meeting on Monday, April 15, to discuss the future of ambulance service in Unicoi County.

Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely joined Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas, Unicoi County Commission Vice Chairman Jamie Harris and Unicoi County commissioners John Mosley, Glenn White, Stephen Hendrix, Matthew Rice, Jason Harris, and Marie Rice. Unicoi County Commissioner Todd Wilcox was absent as he was on a call. Wilcox is an officer with the Town of Erwin.

The commission voted unanimously to authorize the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee to advertise for a request for information (RFI) in providing county ambulance service. The motion was made by Marie Rice and seconded by Mosley. According to Mosley, the RFIs will go out later this week and can take up to two weeks to get responses back.

The commission voted to table the authorization of the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee to advertise for request for proposals (RFP) for county ambulance services. The motion was made by Mosley and seconded by Hendrix to table the RFP discussion.

“I recommend we wait until we have sent out the RFIs,” Mosley said. “We can revisit this at the next county commission meeting.”

The Unicoi County Commission is scheduled to meet again on Monday, April 22.

The commission had to first authorize Evely to provide a notice of termination of the current interlocal agreement that the county has with both the Town of Erwin and the Town of Unicoi before moving forward with any new agreements for ambulance services. The commission voted unanimously to allow Evely to terminate the current interlocal agreement. A motion was made by White and seconded by Jamie Harris. The interlocal agreements had to be terminated due to MedicOne Medical Response’s termination of the proposed contract earlier this month.

“We are just recognizing that MedicOne isn’t going through with the contract, so we are just hitting reset,” Unicoi County Attorney Doug Shults said.

The final order of business for the commission was to ensure that the county would have ambulance service in the interim. The commission voted unanimously for the emergency provision of ambulance service by MedicOne Medical Response until a new ambulance contract has been approved by the Unicoi County Commission.

“We are just recognizing that they are here on a handshake deal,” Matthew Rice said.

Evely said after Monday’s meeting that he would be working out a temporary deal with neighboring ambulance services.

“My concentration will be working on an interlocal agreement with Washington County to provide services in the short term, for the next 90 days to 6 months,” Evely said. “We are trying to make the most of a bad situation.”