Industrial Development Board to consider impact of new retail project in Erwin

By Kendal Groner

The Industrial Development Board of Unicoi County issued a notice last week regarding a special meeting and public hearing that will be held on Monday, July 23, at 4 p.m.

The purpose of this meeting is to discuss an economic impact plan regarding a proposed commercial development along the intersection of North Industrial Drive and Jonesborough Road.

“We have been working on this deal since March,” said Tyler Engle, executive director for the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County.

The proposed economic impact plan will be submitted to the Unicoi County Commission and to the Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen. If the plan is approved by both governing bodies, tax incremental revenues would become available to the Industrial Development Board to promote economic development, pay eligible project costs, or pay debt service on bonds or other obligations related to the project.

“The bond board has to consider a $600,000 tax increment finance package and so that will be considered by the Industrial Development Board, and then if that’s approved, that measure will go to both the Town of Erwin and Unicoi County,” Engle said.

Tax incremental financing is utilized as a public financing method in which municipalities will divert tax revenue increases from a specific area towards some sort of public improvement or economic development project.

“The way I describe it, there will be no change in collection to the base tax, the amount being received by county and city right now will not change whatsoever,” Engle said “What will happen, if the package is approved, the amount by which the value of the property is increasing, the difference in the improvement and the base value, that’s the amount that will fund the note.”

In regards to the potential development project on the approximately 6-acre tract of land behind Pal’s restaurant, Engle was unable to reveal the name of the developer. However, when asked about the economic impact of the project, he stated “a pretty substantial amount” is likely to be invested.

“The public dollars that are going to be used for the increment that’s committed to this project isn’t going to go and build someone a store, this is committed to public improvements such as water lines, sewer lines, utility lines, roads and sidewalks,” Engle said. “This is really important public infrastructure that belongs to the public. These are publicly-owned things we are improving.”

In the specific location, Engle said the board has had preliminary dealings with a few interested developers; however, this is the first serious project in recent years.

“We are really intentional and careful when we commit public dollars to anything,” said Engle. “When we are helping the company, we always look at job totals and payroll totals. We anticipate a strong, positive impact both in terms of jobs and in terms of net sales tax.”

The offices of the Industrial Development Board where the July 23 meeting will take place are located at 100 North Main Ave. in Erwin.

Erwin Farmers Market opens for season

Unicoi resident Tomy Bennett became a vendor at the Erwin Farmers Market for the first time this year. He is pictured with the beets, potatoes and squash he brought to sell. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

It’s that time of year again – the time when farmers markets all across the country are buzzing with customers, eager to pick up their farm fresh produce perfect for outdoor grilling, refreshing summer salads, baked goods and much more.

The Town of Erwin kicked off its farmers market season on July 3 as small crowds came and went throughout the evening to see what their local growers had to offer. Now in its third year, the market is coordinated by RISE Erwin young professional group. Jamie Rice, president of RISE Erwin and communications specialist for the Town of Erwin, spoke about the importance of allowing people to become more connected to their food and where it comes from.

“I think knowing where your food comes from has really taken a front seat to our food culture in a way,” Rice said. “We don’t want things that have been shipped thousands of miles and we don’t always know where our food comes from or whether it’s full of preservatives or sprays of pesticides. It’s so nice to be face to face with the grower.”

By purchasing produce at the market, Rice said customers have the opportunity to get to know the farmer and also ask them about their farm, its location and what kind of farming practices they utilize.

“It creates a sort of intimacy with where your food comes from,” she said. “Most of us don’t have gardens in our backyards anymore and so this is the next best thing. Even the farmers can give you tips and tricks on how to cook the produce they are selling.”

Rice said getting to witness the camaraderie of the vendors and the community – all while helping to support a healthy lifestyle – is one of the most exciting parts of market season taking off again.

“It’s more than just getting your fruits and vegetables, it’s about developing those relationships,” she said.

Kale, swiss chard, onions, potatoes, cucumbers, beets, mushrooms, fresh eggs, local meat, canned goods and refreshing summer drinks were all available at the market last week. In addition to the food vendors, several craft vendors were selling items such as handcrafted jewelry, bath bombs, clothing, decorating items and live plants.

“Everybody was really happy with the turnout and we had a great turnout in vendors,” Rice said.

“When we first started we only had two or three vendors and now we have around 15. We’ve pretty much tripled in size.”

To fend off some of the summer heat, RISE Erwin set up a small mister station alongside the market, something Rice said they will definitely continue using.

“The kids and the grownups both loved that and I think that will be a hit the rest of the summer,” Rice said.

Aside from shopping, market attendees can also check out the local food trucks, attend a yoga class and participate in some of the many activities planned to help foster a happy and healthy community.

Each week, yoga classes taught by Bret Forney with the YMCA and other activities, such as a community bike ride organized by RISE Erwin, a splash dance facilitated by the Erwin Fire Department, learning opportunities with the health department, and face painting and barrel trains, are all planned to take place in the coming weeks.

“We’re really happy that the health department is going to sponsor one of those activities each month,” said Rice. “I think they will be doing some nutrition and cooking type demonstrations. It’s all a really fun time.”

The Erwin Farmers Market is held on Tuesdays from 5-8 p.m. in the Unicoi County Courthouse parking lot. For more information about the market, contact riseerwin@gmail.com, or call 743-6231 or 423-220-7624.

Unicoi County Relay For Life, ACS announce new Festival of Hope

(Contributed photo)

From Staff Reports

In August, Unicoi County residents will join together in the inaugural Festival of Hope. It all starts on Aug. 25 at the traditional Relay For Life of Unicoi County to help the American Cancer Society attack cancer from every angle. This year’s Relay For Life event will feature traditional elements, as well as new which will lead to a week full of events that everyone in the community can participate in.

“We are so excited about this year and our new Festival of Hope in Unicoi County,” said Jessica Poff, community development manager for the American Cancer Society. “We are all looking forward to bringing the entire county together through different events throughout the week that will have something for everyone. We are thankful for the support of our community and volunteers to make this possible and we can’t wait to see it come to fruition.”

The American Cancer Society is the cause fighting cancer on every front; standing shoulder to shoulder with cancer patients and those supporting them. Funds raised help the American Cancer Society attack cancer in dozens of ways, each of them critical to achieving a world without cancer – from developing breakthrough therapies to building supportive communities, from providing empowering resources to deploying activists to raise awareness.

The Festival of Hope will feature community-wide awareness activities in addition to the track event. The Sunday focus will be faith-based and feature a community church service and a huge benefit concert with award winning Christian artist, Building 429. Tickets for the concert may be purchased at itickets.com and feature general admission as well as reserved seating.  During the week, events such as a Unicoi County High School volleyball game, Caregiver Café and children’s activities, “Passport To Hope” celebrity waiter event at The Bramble, a barbecue and cornhole tournament night, and more before the week ends at the UCHS football game on Friday night.

The annual Survivor Luncheon is scheduled for Sunday, July 8, at 1 p.m. at Unicoi United Methodist Church. Anyone who has ever heard the words “you have cancer” and a guest are invited to attend. An R.S.V.P. is requested by calling Tina at 743-9136.

In addition to the support of the community, the Festival of Hope is also supported by many local businesses and organizations. To find out how you can get involved, please contact Poff at jessica.poff@cancer.org or visit www.RelayForLife.org/UnicoiTN. Together, we can beat our biggest rival.

MedicOne only company to respond to county’s RFP for ambulance service

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch addresses the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee during a meeting held on June 20. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Concerns regarding the county’s ambulance service have been expressed and discussed by both Town of Erwin and Unicoi County officials over the past several months amidst numerous complaints of long wait times, insufficient staffing and too few ambulances.

After the Town of Erwin was unable to garner enough support to create its own ambulance service, the task of addressing the issue fell into the hands of the county, prompting officials to explore the idea of creating a municipally-owned service or accepting a bid from a contracted provider.

However, after the county put out a request for proposals for ambulance service providers to bid on, the only response came from MedicOne, the county’s current service provider that is awarded a $132,000 yearly subsidy and has been accused of incurring several contract violations.

“We put out requests for proposals that were due today, and we sent them out to several companies,” said Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch during the June 20 meeting. “The only ones who responded were MedicOne.”

Abingdon Ambulance Service, American Medical Response, Lifeguard Ambulance Service, Shoals Ambulance and Bristol Ambulance EMS were a few of the companies that received the RFPs, prompting several Unicoi County commissioners to ask why only one bid was received.

“This is the same thing that happened last time,” Lynch said. “We had folks that were interested, but when it came down to crunch time, they didn’t bid.”

MedicOne submitted two proposals, with the first proposal requiring a $225,000 yearly subsidy, or a monthly rate of $18,750. In the first proposal, MedicOne agrees to provide two 24-hour advanced life support (ALS) ambulances and one 12-hour basic life support (BLS) ambulance for seven days a week.

In the second proposal, MedicOne is requesting an annual subsidy of $350,000 a year, or a monthly rate of $29,166.67. In the second proposal, they agree to provide two 24-hour ALS ambulances and one 24-hour BLS ambulance seven days a week.

“That’s an extra $125,000 for an additional 12 hours a day,” Lynch pointed out.

Also during the meeting, Unicoi County Commissioner and Ambulance Committee Chairman Jason Harris asked if the county provided MedicOne with a station would the price come down. Jimmy Erwin, MedicOne operations manager in Unicoi County, said the cost could come down if the county provided them with a station. MedicOne currently pays $1,500 a month to lease its current building off of Exit 36.

It is stipulated in the RFP that the service must be stationed one-and-a-half miles from the Harris Hollow exit and Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley asked if MedicOne was awarded the contract if they would be in the same location

“I don’t see why we wouldn’t be,” Erwin said about staying in the same location.

MedicOne currently has a total of 26 employees including Erwin, with five full-time paramedics, seven full-time advanced EMTs, nine part-time paramedics, and four part-time EMTs.

“They are keeping the shifts covered,” Erwin said. “One of the things that drew some more part-timers in the last little bit was increasing the salaries. MedicOne is competitive at the high end of the area now.”

Currently, full-time paramedics make $14 an hour for 24-hour shifts and advanced EMTs make $12.50 an hour for 24-hour shifts – rates that Erwin said were at or above surrounding counties.

When asked how often a third truck is required, Erwin said it depends on the day and call volume. He said they currently have five trucks in the county, as soon as one is certified by the state inspector.

“A lot of times there’s confusion about how many trucks we have, but we always have two trucks,” Erwin said. “That’s not to say that we can’t get three, four or five calls at a time though.”

Unicoi County Commissioner Loren Thomas inquired about consequences for contract violations in the request for proposal.

“The attorney was concerned if there was a lot of language in there, it would deter bids,” said  Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice. “Especially in a rural area, you can’t penalize a provider for response times.”

“I don’t see in this RFP any penalty clauses,” Lynch said. “That’s not to say that if we go through with this, that we couldn’t negotiate.”

Thomas asked about instances where there aren’t enough ambulances available and questioned how much more it could cost to have three ALS ambulances instead of using a BLS as the third truck, which is primarily just utilized for transports.

“If you’re going to have to just pay an extra dollar and a half an hour to have the paramedic … it’s not a huge cost increase to go with the ALS instead of the BLS,” Thomas asked. “Why not have an ALS available as the third truck in case, for instance, the first two trucks are on calls and say a heart attack call comes in.”

Erwin said he was unable to answer what the exact cost difference would be and also stated that the training for the advanced EMTs prepares them to handle most calls, with only a “small portion” requiring paramedics.

When Thomas asked Erwin how many scheduled transports they average per day, he was told that only one or two scheduled transports are made per week, but discharges that require transports can come with only an hour or two notice.

Mosley asked if Erwin had an estimate of how many transports were made to Johnson City or Washington County.

“We do transport out and we’ll even transport sometimes, if we have the extra truck, we’ll transport one from there to Greene County or Carter County if no one else can get it and they’re Unicoi County residents,” Erwin said.

Despite Erwin’s statements about the additional ambulance and increased staffing, Unicoi County Commissioner Gene Wilson was still adamant that the county should steer clear of entering into another agreement with MedicOne.

“My recommendation, the way MedicOne has treated Unicoi County, is the county needs to go on their own,” Wilson said. “As much trouble as we’ve had, it’s time for the county to wake up and do something. I voted for them when they first came here and I regret it.”

Lynch pointed out that the county still had the option of starting its own ambulance service and added that Jim Reeves, CEO of MedicOne, promised him a “smooth transition.”

“We’re just putting out a feeler just to see how much it would cost,” said Lynch.

Mosley said since Erwin became director last year he believes issues with MedicOne have been improving.

“We’ve had our biggest complaints in the last three years,” Wilson said.

Erwin said the majority of the complaints have centered around personnel issues, which he said was a regional issue that MedicOne has been able to overcome by increasing pay.

“The citizens thought that we could withhold money from these people for not performing as they should and the bottom line was, it was either black or white, you either have them or you don’t,” Lynch said. “If we had gotten rid of them we would have been in a mess.”

Lynch said his recommendation was to sit down with MedicOne and establish ramifications for contract violations. 

“The biggest thing to me is the taxpayers are paying for a service that they weren’t getting,” Harris said. “So I think they should’ve been fined something for not providing.”

Thomas described MedicOne’s service as “smooth” the first four years, which he attributed to the building and utilities they were provided, along with the $180,000 subsidy as opposed to the current $132,000 subsidy.

“That’s when it started going downhill,” Thomas said. “On top of that, there was a paramedic shortage and in the contract we didn’t have penalties.”

Unicoi County Commissioner Glenn White said he would rather pay $225,000 for a contracted service such as MedicOne, as opposed to the estimated $1.4 million he believes it could cost for the county to start their own service.

“You’re not going to get better service unless you pay more,” White said. “You get what you pay for. To me, since they’re here and if we can get back to what we were doing with them in the first contract, it’s going to save the county a tremendous amount of money.”

Johnny Day, who is running as an Independent candidate for county mayor in the August election, mentioned that yearly operational costs for a county-run ambulance service could be higher than anticipated. Day referenced the approximately $350,000 budget gap that was projected by the Town of Erwin when they were exploring the possibility of creating their own service.

“It’s much easier to work with a contractor and hold their feet to the fire, but it needs to be in the contract,” Day said. “Once you birth that baby and buy all that equipment and set yourself up, the taxpayers are going to eat us alive if we screw this up.”

While Day was concerned about the costs of the county starting its own service, Harris pointed out that the county can still potentially access the $440,000 Community Development Block Grant that was awarded to the Town of Erwin, along with money from the sale of Unicoi County Memorial Hospital to Mountain States Health Alliance, in addition to funds from the Hospital Foundation to start a new service.

“To me, if we were ever going to start our own service … now is the time to do it,” Harris said.

Thomas said his issue with MedicOne over the last four years has been the “weak” contract and said that in moving forward they need to make sure they are able to “hold their feet to the fire” whenever a violation occurs.

“This ambulance issue is the most important thing, period, that we will deal with,” Thomas said. “We need to get it right.”

The committee concluded their meeting with an agreement to meet with MedicOne and discuss the ramifications of contract violations.

Still flying: F.L.I.G.H.T. Foundation reaches milestone

Several local and state officials came out to celebrate the F.L.I.G.H.T Foundation flying its 10,000th student. Pictured, from left, are George Huddleston Jr., Tennessee aeronautics commissioner; W. T. Daniels, Greeneville mayor; Jerry O’Connor, CEO of Impact Plastics; State Representative David Hawk; Col. Tom Reeves, former U.S. Army member; Bill Powley, founder of the F.L.I.G.H.T Foundation; State Senator Rusty Crowe; the three Greene County AFJROTC cadets who soared into the air – Jeremy Hankins, George Rapp and Isaac Michalenko; and Daryl Brady, field service representative for congressman Phil Roe. (Contributed photo)

By Kendal Groner

The F.L.I.G.H.T (Flight Lesson Instructional Grants Helping Teens) Foundation continues to aim high, evidenced by the nonprofit’s celebration on Saturday, June 16, for the milestone of flying its 10,000th student.

Air Force Lieutenant Bill Powley, F-4, A-7, F-16 fighter pilot and Vietnam veteran who founded the F.L.I.G.H.T. Foundation, was joined by local and state legislators as three students from Greene County High School soared into the air this weekend.

“We had a great time,” Powley said about the memorable day. “Everyone was so positive and upbeat.”

The program has roots in Unicoi County after the program was approved to be part of the Air Force JROTC curriculum at Unicoi County High School before it moved into the Sullivan County High School in 2001. While serving as a JROTC instructor at UCHS, Powley came up with the idea to offer students the opportunity to fly as an exciting recruitment strategy.

Out of the 10,000 students that have flown with the F.L.I.G.H.T. program, Powley has flown more than 7,500 of them personally.

The program proves the sky is the limit for enthusiastic students in more than 20 high schools and, on average, provides the opportunity for 500 to 600 students to fly each year.

“The idea of this program was to build an infrastructure of people who love aviation and understand the meaning of airports in the state,” Powley said. “If you have flown in this program, you are probably a fan of flying, aviation and airports.”

Since 1996, more than 150 students have earned their solo wings and 14 students have earned their private pilot’s license since 2002.

“I just soloed my 166 student Sunday morning, so it was a good weekend for me,” Powley said.

The F.L.I.G.H.T. Foundation is responsible for sending eight students to the Air Force Academy, three to West Point, one to the Naval Academy and one to Purdue, along with several others who have gone on to attend flight schools in the region. 

“I would say we send more kids to careers in flying than football players that go into sports careers,” said Powley, who was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame for the program.

In 2010, the program was recognized as the top aerospace science program in the nation among high schools, rising high above the other 10,000 in the nation.

“It’s taken lots of passion, persistence, and miles on my vehicle,” Powley laughed.

He initially funded the program by flying for an hour with three students in Unicoi County and during that time they would take photographs of various properties before compiling a portfolio of aerial shots for the owners.

“I raised $8,000 that way from 80 portfolios over the years,” said Powley.

In the first nine years of the program, Powley was able to fly 250 students, averaging 27 per year. After gaining the attention of NASA and acquiring a grant, he has been able to fly 9,750 students over the last 17 years.

“Grant funding was key,” Powley said about maintaining the program.

After receiving the initial grant from NASA, the Tennessee Aeronautics Division sponsored the program for the last 18 years.

“They have basically sponsored 9,750 of the kids,” Powley said about the Tennessee Aeronautics Division. “It seems like every solo student wants to go on and become a pilot, so that’s pretty cool. Now if we get more funding, we can actually satisfy a lot of dreams for kids to become professional pilots because we do a 50 percent scholarship for them.”

Powley said he expects that the 14 pilots the program has already produced will double in number over the next two or three years.

The F.L.I.G.H.T. Foundation typically flies out of the Greeneville, Tri-Cities, Chattanooga or Dallas Bay airports. Usually, three students fly at a time, although Powley recalls having 14 flights in one day with about 40 students.

“A typical trip would be Unicoi County or anybody else bringing maybe 21 to 27 kids to the airport, so I’d have seven to eight flights which takes about three hours,” Powley explained.

The program is offered to students of all grade levels as long as they are enrolled in a JROTC program. In some cases, Powley said students get to fly several times by staying in the program all four years of their high school career.

“Part of the plan is they get a 15 to 20 minute flight and if they do that over four years they get an hour to hour and a half,” he said. “It keeps them motivated, so hopefully by the time they’re 17 or 18 they get excited and want to get their pilot’s license.”

With a pilot shortage, Powley said it is important to provide motivation for students to pursue careers in aviation, and also noted that for many of the students, the program provides them with their first opportunity to be on a plane. 

Some of Powley’s most touching moments with the program come from reading the assigned journal entries he gives to the students. He commonly finds entries that read ‘this is the first time I’ve ever gotten to fly’, and ‘that’s the neatest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

“I don’t think you can excite someone any more than that,” he said.

Powley also thanked many of the F.L.I.G.H.T. Foundation contributors such as the Aeronautics Division, countless individuals from Unicoi County, Gerald O’ Connor, CEO of Impact Plastics,  and philanthropist and businessman Scott Niswonger and FedEx.

After just recently celebrating his 100th solo student, Powley said a future goal he will aspire towards will be to have his 200th solo student take flight.

“That’s a huge milestone,” he said. “After that, maybe another 15,000 students in the next eight years or so.”

Unicoi County School System creates ‘book bus’ to inspire summer learning

Read to be Ready summer camp children are pictured in front of the book bus along with the individuals who helped bring the project to life during the mobile literacy unit’s launch event at Unicoi County Middle School on June 6. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Children in the Unicoi County School System now have more opportunities to continue learning over the summer months thanks to the book bus, a mobile literacy unit that will give children the opportunity to socialize, hear stories, check out books and enjoy a lunch.

In the June 5 Unicoi County Board of Education meeting, the board heard an update on the aptly-named Aspire Book Bus from Jenifer Lingerfelt, elementary curriculum supervisor and former kindergarten teacher who led the efforts to make the book bus become a reality.

“I want to really brag on Mrs. Lingerfelt and a lot of folks played a large part in this,” John English, director of schools said about the book bus. “I can tell you firsthand, watching her take this from the very beginning with her wheels turning and her mind turning on the vision she had for it, it’s just been amazing. I think about the opportunity our kids are going to have this summer because of her work and the work of others; it makes me really proud.”

From her experience in the school system, Lingerfelt has seen firsthand the importance of students remaining avid readers and staying enthusiastic about learning during those summer months when they are away from the classroom.

“We know that access to books over the summer is critical for kids and in research it’s known as the ‘summer slide’ and it’s just a time in the year where kids are away from books sometimes unless they’re visiting libraries,” she said. “This bus is all about a lot of people coming together to help the kids.”

Last July, Lingerfelt met with Abby Graves, community engagement director for the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation and Lottie Ryans, director of Workforce Initiatives for the First Tennessee Development District, to discuss partnerships and seed money to start developing the mobile literacy unit.

“Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) donated $5,000 for our start-up fund and the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation and the First Tennessee Development District (FTDD) partnered with Unicoi County Schools to write the grant,” Lingerfelt said.

After the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation, an early literacy non-profit based in Nashville, received the grant, they approached Unicoi County to see if the school system would be interested in coming up with a way to reach children during the summer and keep them engaged with reading and learning.

“They have taken this idea and ran with it and made it something amazing,” Graves said. “It’s so much more than what I ever dreamed it would be.”

Ryan said that one of her favorite parts about the book bus is seeing the excitement and creativity members of the local school system have brought to the program.

“Jenifer and the team here have done a phenomenal job,” said Ryans, whose focus is on workforce and literacy. “There are so many positive benefits to having this program in place. We know that being able to enhance literacy skills will improve their reading which will improve graduation rates, which will improve employment rates.”

To make the bus, which is filled with the newest technology to assist children in their learning, Tommy Clouse, transportation supervisor for Unicoi County Schools, found a decommissioned school bus they could convert.

“He found us a big, beautiful bus and the maintenance department retrofitted the bus,” Lingerfelt said. “They pulled out all of the seats and then added the book shelving and the furniture, it’s all custom built.”

Tim Ledford with the transportation department, along with Herman Tipton and Norman Hardin from the maintenance department, all donated their time and energy into the bus’s transformation.

“They brought it to life,” Lingerfelt said. “Then we have our technology department under the direction of Bruce Tolley, his team are the ones who put the technology aspects on the bus, so we have Wifi, computers, a smart TV and a sound system.”

The bus already has 12 planned stops in July, where children can enjoy a storytime and lunch, and also check out award-winning books off of the “Read to Be Ready” suggested book list. Community book drives at Food Lion, Clinchfield Federal Credit Union and the local library will allow people to donate books that will then be used as giveaway books for the children.

“The Read to be Ready Summer Camp teachers will work the 12 stops, but we’re also partnering with our local Imagination Library and many of the retired teachers are in that organization, so we’re hoping that they will work some of those stops with us,” Lingerfelt said. “We have some of our favorite teachers from when we were growing up that made a big impact on all of our lives and we would just like to reconnect with them.”

In June, Lingerfelt said they will be taking the bus to several “sneak peek” locations and also plans to work with RISE Erwin young professionals group to work some of the Saturday events they have planned.

“Taking the bus out and seeing the kids get on the bus is by far one of the most fun things I’ve done this year,” she said.

Along with the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation, FTDD and ARC, other partners who have supported the development of the bus include: Workforce & Literacy Initiatives, Second Harvest, Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce Leadership Team, Unicoi County Public Library, Clinchfield Federal Credit Union, Unicoi County Read to Be Ready Summer Camp, Unicoi County Volunteer PreK Program, the Erwin Monday Club and the Unicoi County Imagination Library.

The book bus’s first few stops next month will be on July 2 at Whispering Meadows at 10:30 a.m. and Unicoi Elementary at noon. On July 3, the bus will be at the YMCA at 9:45 a.m, Railroad Street at 11 a.m. and Rock Creek Elementary at 12:15 p.m. On July 6, it will be at the former Flag Pond school at 10:30 a.m. and Evergreen Church at noon.

To stay updated on the Aspire Book Bus stops, visit unicoicountyschools.com.

• • •

In other business during the Unicoi County Board of Education meeting, the board unanimously approved the following on their consent agenda:

• Donations of $20, $65, and $1,018.90 from Nuclear Fuel Service employees for Adopt-A-School Program;

• HOSA to Dallas on June 25 to July 2, 2018, for HOSA International Conference;

• Unicoi County High School 2018 golf schedule and 2018 girls soccer schedule;

• An amendment of $126,575 to the 2018-19 General Purpose Budget for life insurance, medical insurance, dental insurance and instructional supplies and materials.

Southeastern Autorama brings together car enthusiasts, community

Joey Bailey, president of the Southeastern Autorama Club, and his wife, Chrissy Bailey, pose in front of their 1958 Chevrolet during the Autorama on June 2. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Anyone around downtown Erwin this past Saturday could hear the roaring of engines that echoed down Main Avenue as hundreds of car lovers came to put some of their most prized possessions on display for the 58th Southeastern Autorama.

With clear skies that held back rain until the end of the event, large crowds could be seen walking the streets on June 2 as they admired each automobile and the efforts taken to keep them in pristine condition.

“I think the area weather affected it a little bit, but other than that we’re pretty happy with what we have going on here today,” said Joey Bailey, president of the Southeastern Autorama Club.

Bailey, who owns a 1950 Chevrolet truck himself, said there were at least 136 cars present on Saturday. Two standouts for him were a 1957 Chevrolet and a 1969 Camaro.

“The hardest part is keeping someone else from hitting them,” Bailey laughed, explaining the efforts that go into maintaining older cars. “You have to keep them clean, make sure all of the fluids are changed and topped off.”

Although for car enthusiasts, any maintenance is a small price to pay for being able to keep the history-rich cars running.

“I love the camaraderie of everyone who attends,” Bailey said about the event. “Everyone’s friendly and easy to get along with.”

Food trucks and a few craft vendors were present at the Autorama, and door prizes were handed out throughout the day. Along with a 50/50 drawing for $290, various items such as car wash kits, water hoses, a hammock, two side grinders and a socket set were given away as prizes.

Mike McIntosh, owner of Model A Mac’s, attended the event with his fiance, Melissa Peterson, and a 1930 Model A Ford Coupe guarded by a life-size sign of Popcorn Sutton.

“We actually knew Popcorn Sutton, he used to buy his Model A parts from me and my dad,” McIntosh said. “He would give dad some moonshine from time to time and trade it for Model A Parts.”

McIntosh bought the coupe from around the Hickory Tree area near Bristol about five years ago when the former owner decided to sell. 

“I was the lucky recipient,” said McIntosh. “It’s all original, of course, and you can tell it’s never been restored. I have done some mechanical work to get it rideable on the highway.”

McIntosh and Peterson utilize an umbrella as a makeshift roof when they drive it during inclement weather.

“If it rains, I’m ready,” said McIntosh as he held a makeshift umbrella for the roof

“We’ve actually done that before,” Peterson added. “We used the umbrella during the Fiddleheads Festival when it started pouring the rain.”

Besides their love for one another, both Peterson and McIntosh are passionate about antique cars. In fact, Peterson’s engagement ring was a lock washer off a 1931 Roadster. On June 16, the pair will host a cruise-in with live music from 3-5 p.m. at the Erwin National Guard Armory before they wed one another.

“We’re opening it to everybody,” said Peterson. “We are so excited.”

Ben McNabb, the owner of Steel Rails Coffeehouse, was also present at the Autorama where he displayed his yellow 1967 Chrysler Newport Convertible that he nicknamed Marilyn.

“I’ve been at the Autorama a lot, but I’ve only had cars here the last two years,” McNabb said. “It’s neat seeing all of our old friends.”

He also said this area in particular is brimming with car enthusiasts, and he enjoys attending an event that allows so many car owners to show off their vehicles.

“You don’t realize how many great cars are in this town and how many people that have a love for cars and a love for history,” McNabb said. “When you come to something like this and you look at these tags, it’s amazing to see how many are from Unicoi County.”

While many car showers were from Unicoi County, some events goers came from neighboring states to enjoy the day. Clifton Honeycutt came from Mars Hill, North Carolina, with his 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, which was recognized as one of the top 25 cars during the Autorama.

“I love old cars and I love this town,” said Honeycutt, who sold a 1971 GTO convertible to buy the Bel Air. “It’s in perfect condition.”

Honeycutt purchased the car in Kentucky and shared a funny story about the vehicle’s history.

“Two little boys were playing in this hay barn in Tennessee somewhere, they felt something hard under this haystack and this car was under it,” he said. “They pulled it out and restored it and that’s why it’s in such good shape.”

At the end of the Autorama, right as the rain started to roll in, the awards for Best Antique and Best in Show were announced. Best Antique went to Charlie Miller for a 1953 Chevy Pickup. Best in Show went to Doug Carico for his 1974 Bronco.

“It feels awesome; I was so happy to win,” Carico said about his Best in Show award. “I was surprised because there’s a whole lot of nice cars here.”

Carico, who also owns a 1965 Mercury Comet, said he has been a fan of Broncos since he was about five years old.

“About 20 years ago I found this one in Roanoke and I bought it and used it as an everyday driver for about four years and then it started smoking and leaking oil.”

He parked the Bronco in his garage, where he said his wife actually used it to store Christmas ornaments until he decided to restore it once the value started to appreciate.

“My son was about 14 at the time and I thought about restoring it for him to drive when he turned 16, and the more I got into it, I thought there’s no way I’m giving him this Bronco,” he laughed.

Over the past two years, Carico said if he’s got a free weekend you can usually find him at a car show.

“This one last year was one of my favorites and I’m definitely glad I came back,” said Carico.

George Hatcher remembered for service to nation, railroad, community

By Kendal Gron

George Hatcher, who passed away on Monday, May 20, is remembered as a humble and kind man who lived life to the fullest. (File Photo)

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This Memorial Day marked the passing of George Hatcher, a member of the famous Erwin Nine and a respected Clinchfield railroader, who captured the heart of the community he loved and served.

Born October 14, 1920, Hatcher grew up in the Canah Chapel community of Erwin and was known as a football star at the local high school and college level before he followed his brother, Ed, and went to work for the railroad in 1941. He worked as the fireman for the Clinchfield No. 1, while his brother Ed worked as an engineer.

Mark Stevens, who first got to know Hatcher while he was publisher of The Erwin Record for 13 years, learned more about the rich and exciting lives of the Hatcher brothers while writing “The Clinchfield No. 1: Tennessee’s Legendary Steam Engine,” a book he co-authored with Alf Peoples.

“They were both picked specifically to do that because they were so good at their job,” Stevens said, taking note of the widespread media coverage that surrounded the steam engine. “They were both outgoing and able to talk to people and make them feel welcome. It was just the perfect public relations piece for the railroad and they were the perfect spokespeople. They looked the part, they were the part and they were just great people.”

After his first six months on the railroad, Hatcher enlisted with the U.S. Army Air Corps in June 1942, and in January of 1943 he left to serve in World War II, followed by his brother shortly after. Hatcher became an icon to the area for more than just his railroad service when he was recognized as a member of the Erwin Nine, a group of nine men from the same small community who served in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Although none served together and were all shot down at different times and in different locations, out of the more than 50 Nazi German prison camps, all ended up at the same one. After Hatcher and his fellow prisoners were freed from their captors, he came home to Erwin and thrust himself back into the railroad work that he knew and loved.

“It was an honor to haul whoever was on board,” Hatcher is quoted saying in Steven’s and Peoples’ book. “It was such an exciting time for the people who got to ride. All the time I worked on that steam engine I never had any regrets.”

Peoples worked on the railroad for close to 50 years, five of which were right alongside the Hatcher brothers. He recalls the exuberance and skill that George used to do his work and mentor others along the way.

“He was always good to me and helped me long before I got on the railroad,” People’s said. “I never thought about it until George brought it up the other day, but he said ‘we had a lot of fun on that passenger train didn’t we?’ He never fussed or complained, he was always happy and having fun.”

Hatcher is described by those who had the pleasure to meet him as “humble,” “always willing to help,” “great at everything he did,” “a go getter,” “kind,” “energetic” and “happy”.

“It really is sad that George has passed on, but he had an immensely great life, and he lived life to the fullest,” Stevens said. “Everything he did, he put in 100 percent.”

‘Unique’ Unicoi event celebrates community

Hannah Rice and Jessica Presser stayed busy selling buckets of fresh strawberries during the 16th annual Wayne Scott Strawberry Festival on May 19. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

For many years now, strawberries and Unicoi County have gone hand in hand, creating a frenzy of excitement each year when the bright red berries are in season. On Saturday, May 19, the Town of Unicoi once again celebrated its love for all things strawberry with the 16th annual Wayne Scott Strawberry Festival held outside of Unicoi Elementary School.

“For 50 years, maybe more than that, folks have been coming to this area to get strawberries … it goes that far back,” said Johnny Lynch, Town of Unicoi mayor. “I think everything has gone really well this year. The biggest thing is everyone has gotten to get together and old friends get to get together again. That’s what these festivals are all about.”

Lynch noted the increase in vendors at the festival this year; they were selling a wide array of handmade, artisan products. He also said, despite a few intermittent droplets of rain, he was very pleased with this year’s turnout.

Aside from the multitude of arts and crafts vendors, several food vendors could be found selling hamburgers, hot dogs, tacos, barbecue, and, of course, an array of sweets such as strawberry shortcake, strawberry sundaes, chocolate covered strawberries and more.

“That’s what is unique about it. We have kept the old-timey flavor of a festival by having local groups and local talent perform and the food vendors are all churches and nonprofits,” said Lynch. “It gives them an opportunity to raise funds for their particular organizations.”

This year’s festival included a Miss Strawberry Pageant, cake walks, and performances by the bands Turkey Creek, Wayne Keplinger & Friends and Rockingham Road.

There was also a recipe contest sponsored by the Mountain Harvest Kitchen where Holly Clark won first place for a strawberry flan recipe. Gloria Clark won second place for a strawberry dream cake and Grynd Staff won third place for strawberry dumplings.

The main vendor attraction was, of course, the Scott’s Farm strawberry stand, which stayed covered up with business throughout the day as customers happily walked away with their buckets of strawberries.

Scott’s Farms was originally started by Wayne Scott in 1959 after he retired as a school teacher to pursue farming full time. Since Wayne Scott’s passing in 2008, two of his five sons now own and operate the farm.

“I grew up on the farm and I went to school at Virginia Tech and was gone for a few years, but I came back. I always knew I’d farm in some capacity,” said Steve Scott, who now runs the farm with his brother, David.

The farm continues to remain a family affair, with Scott’s two sons now joining the efforts to keep it a success. Along with strawberries and tomatoes, which are their major crops, the farm also sells green beans, sweet corn and a variety of other vegetables at their market in the Town of Unicoi.

“There are a few smaller farms on the river, but around here we are probably the biggest ones left,” said Scott  “My mother and father worked really hard to build this farm and we’re lucky to have had the opportunity to do what we’ve done. Next year, the farm will have been in business for 60 years. I’m just trying to keep it going.”

Lynch said thanks to individuals such as the Scotts, the Unicoi area has established a reputation as an agricultural entity, which has lead to the creation of many agricultural-related jobs over the years.

“We had some individuals that were entrepreneurial in nature and they started small. I remember when Wayne Scott was my agriculture teacher in high school,” Lynch said.

To this day, Lynch said he still recalls the small strawberry patch that Scott started out with behind his house and how it has now developed into one of the most well-known businesses in the area.

“He was a very important member of this community and we recognize him each year by calling this festival the Wayne Scott Strawberry Festival,” Lynch said. “It has been, and continues to be, a great success.”

Tasty tradition continues: Flag Pond Ruritan hosts annual Ramp Festival

Donald Shelton, left, and Ed Sparks, right, stayed busy selling bundles of ramps to enthusiastic customers during Saturday’s 33rd annual Ramp Festival. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

For many of those in Appalachian communities, the blooming flowers and warming temperatures that are indicative of springtime also represent the arrival of the highly-celebrated ramp season. A member of the lily family, these wild edibles, which are stronger than a leek and more pungent than a scallion, are native to the forests of eastern North America and hold cultural significance for many communities.

Flag Pond once again demonstrated its status as a close-knit community and love for its Appalachian heritage with the 33rd Annual Ramp Festival sponsored by the Flag Pond Ruritan Club and held at the Old Flag Pond school on Saturday, May 12.

“I’m tickled to death with the turnout this year and plus we had pretty weather this year,” said Richard Waldrop, Flag Pond Ruritan Club president, who estimated that the festival had well over 700 attendees.

Several vendors attended the festival, selling handmade jewelry and other items, flower arrangements, essential oils and more. Live music was played throughout the day with performances from the Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band, Spivey Mountain Boys and the Flag Ponders.

On the menu for the day was soup beans, bacon, coleslaw, cornbread, fried taters and, of course, plenty of ramps. There were also homemade desserts and the option of hamburgers or hot dogs for those who found the strong ramp flavor to be overpowering.

“We went last Saturday and dug ramps and then we went last Tuesday and dug,” Waldrop said. “We hop on the back of a truck and go to the mountains to dig.”

Waldrop estimated that they harvested well over 40 pounds of ramps for the festival and said the best way to eat them is with fried taters.

Putting on the annual event takes teamwork, according to Waldrop.

“We couldn’t put it on if it wasn’t for the volunteers,” he said.

Waldrop also said several volunteers come together to make the festival a reality and contribute in various ways such as collecting ramps, cooking and promoting the large event.

Eddie Farmer, Unicoi County resident, has been cooking at the Ramp Festival for more than 30 years.

“I’ve been here since 6:30 a.m. this morning cooking,” Farmer said during the festival on Saturday. “The festival is just a really good thing for the community and we try to give back in different ways.”

For those who really took a liking to their ramp meal, ramps were available for sale, allowing many excited event goers to purchase their own bundles to take home and prepare.

Ed Sparks and Donald Shelton returned to the Ramp Festival for the 10th year to sell some ramps they had harvested.

“I’ve been eating them for about 65 years,” said Shelton. “I went to school here (Flag Pond School) in 1950. There’s plenty of ramps here if you go in the mountains … they grow in higher elevations”

Sparks and Shelton stayed busy as plenty of festival goers were eager to purchase a bundle of ramps that they could take home and cook up on their own.

“Ramps can be hard to get, but we like to do it for the Ruritan,” said Sparks. “We like the company, music and food at the festival.”

While the Ramp Festival was attended by countless locals to the Flag Pond area, there were attendees from neighboring counties and some who traveled more than a couple of hours to take part in the memorable event.

Johnson City residents Jeff and Delores Moore attended the festival for the first time this year and were eager to try the foraged delicacy for the first time.

“It’s a great festival and I didn’t know anything about ramps before attending the festival,” said Delores.

Jeff said he greatly enjoyed the memory room in the school, a bit of a time capsule that allowed people to learn about the history of the Flag Pond Community, the Ruritan club, and of course ramps.

“That is really awesome,” Jeff said about the room. “I didn’t know there was so much history and cultural significance associated with ramps.”

One of the main attractions at the festival was a memory room in which an informational video put together by East Tennessee State University showed ramps being foraged and how to prepare them.

Laurie Handshu, who traveled all the way from Nashville to attend the event, said she fell in love with ramps after she tried them for the first time in college.

“I fell in love, it was love at first stink,” Handshu said about her first experience trying ramps many years ago. “I lived here a long time ago, about 20 years ago, and I would always come to the festival every year.”

Handshu said she was happy to be back in Flag Pond for the day and described the festival as a “wonderful” event.

“It’s everything it should be,” she said.

While the penetrating aroma of ramps can be a deterrent for some, Handshu said it’s part of the fun of eating them and added that she enjoys other “stinky” foods such as garlic and onions. Waldrop also commented on the powerful smell ramps leave on their consumers and shared a few stories of his own experiences.

“When I was a young’un we’d eat them then go to school and they’d kick us out on the street,” said Waldrop, who recently had a comical encounter during a roadblock after he had eaten some ramps. “I pulled up and the state trooper said ‘are you drinking?”

Waldrop told the officer no, however she did share that she had indulged in quite a few ramps that day.

“‘Get out of there’ he said … he didn’t even check my driver’s license,” Waldrop laughed.

For attendees at the festival, any concerns of bad breath were thrown out the window as people chowed down on platefuls of ramps all throughout the day.

Before the event was over, a ramp eating contest was held and last year’s winner once again proved to have a true liking for ramps. Jasmine Shelton is still the reigning champion of the youth and adult class of the contest and was able to eat 15 ramps in one minute this year.

“This festival is special because it shows that we’re a close community here and everyone knows everybody,” said Waldrop. “We couldn’t do all of this without our neighbors and friends.”

Great Outdoors Festival draws largest crowd yet

Representatives from Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium drew crowds to the kid’s zone of the Great Outdoors Festival as they held demonstrations with birds of prey. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Despite the forecasted weather conditions, there were dry skies and warm temperatures awaiting event attendees who flocked to downtown Erwin for the Great Outdoors Festival on Saturday, May 5. The third annual festival was orchestrated by the community group RISE Erwin, and organizers deemed this year’s event as the most successful one yet with estimated attendance numbers between 4,000 to 5,000.

Along with dozens of outdoor-themed vendors, the festival provided a popular music lineup, a kids zone full of multiple activities, a mobile skate park, food trucks, a craft beer tent, live animal demonstrations with Bays Mountain, and the presentation of the International Fly Fishing Film Festival.

“Our food trucks sold out by 3:30 p.m.,” said Jamie Rice, RISE Erwin president and communications coordinator for the Town of Erwin. “The weather definitely helped a lot; last year’s event was pretty much rained out and this year when we went to bed on Friday night we were thinking it was going to be the same outcome, but when we woke up and there was no rain, we were so thankful.”

Rice said the festival was strategically planned to coincide with numerous hikers passing through Unicoi County as they come off of the Appalachian Trail.

“I think everyone was really appreciative of the efforts that have been made to highlight Unicoi County and the outdoor opportunities that are available here,” she said. “We had so many hikers, which is the reason we do the festival when we do it. That’s a huge win for us when people get back on that trail and tell everyone what a great experience they had in Erwin.”

Food trucks present at the festival included Joe Bill’s Kitchen, Bite, Opie’s Pizza Wagon and Italian ice and kettle corn vendors. The extensive variety of vendors could be found selling everything from pottery, jewelry and handmade body products to knives, outdoor apparel and clothing. Vendors were also offering massages and selling live plants, in addition to the various booths set up to represent community organizations.

Alan and Nancy Stegall attended the event for the first time as pottery vendors and said they were “absolutely loving the festival.”

The Stegalls were selling their handmade pottery, which consisted mostly of coffee and tea mugs in vibrant hues of cool earthy green and blue tones, some with intricate designs and others that were monogrammed with names.

“We got hooked on pottery in college,” said Nancy Stegall, who was previously a registered nurse before pursuing pottery full time in 1983.

Ten years later, her husband, who has a 20-year military career, also began making pottery full time. For the Stegalls, being able to do something every day that they love while spending time with one another makes for a fulfilling career.

“That was the biggest attraction,” said Stegall.

This was also the first year that Northeast Tennessee Outdoors set up as a vendor at the festival. Northeast Tennessee Outdoors was selling outdoor-themed shirts, decals and outdoor-themed hats. The new business continues to grow through social media alone, where they also post informational videos related to outdoor activities.

“We’ve been selling an Appalachian trailblazer shirt and one with our logo on it,” said Katie Linkous, who started the business with her husband, Eric. “You can show where you’re from with our stuff.” 

On the company’s Facebook and Instagram pages, you can find various videos on the topics of hunting and fishing, as well as reviews on different sporting products. 

“If we go on a hike we always try to get online and let people know what the trail was like and if it’s suitable for kids and things like that,” said Linkous, who added they had a great time selling at the festival.

After festival attendees made their way past the foods trucks, musical stage and vendors that lined North Main Street, they entered the kid’s zone located on Main Avenue between Gay and Love streets. The kid’s zone included an archery course, target practice with a pellet gun, a petting zoo and two new editions this year – live animal demonstrations by Bays Mountain and catch and release trout pools supplied by Bass Pro Shops and stocked with rainbow trout from the National Fish Hatchery.

Small crowds gathered around Bays Mountain volunteers as they presented rescued birds of prey such as a Red Tailed Hawk and Great Horned Owl. Onlookers had the opportunity to learn facts about the birds and their impressive natural abilities.

Rice said the new additions were organized by RISE Erwin members Kristen Anders and Juan Villaba, who sought to kick the kid’s zone up a notch this year with the Bass Pro Shop sponsorship and live animal demonstrations.

“Those were huge additions that both the kids and adults enjoyed and we really appreciate their efforts,” said Rice.

Rice added that Trout Unlimited, which presented the International Fly Fishing Film Festival at Capital Cinemas around midday, was very pleased with the turnout and happy to bring awareness to their organization with the film. 

“Hopefully they will have some new members because of the outdoor festival,” she said.

About every couple of hours a new band performed at the festival and this year’s lineup included the Ripple, Folk Soul Revival, Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band, Anabelle’s Curse and 49 Winchester.

“It was definitely probably the best lineup we’ve had in the three years,” Rice said. “I mean we had people drive three hours to come and see Folk Song Revival and we were really pleased for the turnout they brought to the festival.”

Rice said she believes each time an outdoor- or nature-inspired event is hosted in Erwin, it draws needed attention to the area and its array of outdoor-themed assets.

Recently, Rice said the festival was mentioned in Blue Ridge Outdoor Magazine and a professor from Maryville College took notice of Erwin and Saturday’s festival.

“Two of those professors actually came to Erwin and spoke to the mayor about their outdoor program,” she said.

Rice also said the college is currently interested in sending students to Erwin and Unicoi County to help work with the area in conjunction with their outdoor program.

“It’s a feather in our cap each time we’re mentioned,” said Rice. “You never know what opportunities that may bring … our hope is the more times we’re mentioned, maybe a small business that’s outdoor-related will come to want and fill a store shop downtown.”

‘Addiction can last a lifetime’: Officials discuss opioid crisis at community forum

Christy Smith, Unicoi County Prevention Coalition director, left, directs questions towards a panel of experts during an informational opioid forum held on April 26. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

A Community Opioid Forum held on Thursday, April 26, at Calvary Baptist Church gave attendees an opportunity to learn facts about the opioid epidemic and what local resources are available, in addition to hearing from a panel of experts.

The event was hosted by the Unicoi County Prevention Coalition, the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, and the Washington, Unicoi and Johnson (WUJ) County Medical Alliance.

The panel of experts consisted of: Dr. David Kirschke, Northeast Regional Health officer for the Tennessee Department of Health; Regan Tilson, Town of Erwin police chief; Mike Hensley, Unicoi County sheriff, Angie Hagaman, Diversity Promoting Institutions Drug Abuse Research Project (DIDARP) director; Dr. Paul Jett, physician with Ballad Health; and Angela Murray, director of Corporate and Community development for Watauga Recovery Centers.

“It is our hope that these meetings will continue to educate the public about the opioid epidemic and direct individuals to recovery resources in their area,” said Terry Geraci, president-elect of the WUJ Medical Alliance.

The forum began with an informational video by the American Medical Alliance (AMA) that provided statistics and background information on the growing epidemic.

With an average of 44 people dying each day in the United States from an opioid overdose, many addicts switch to heroin after their supply of pills runs out, according to the AMA. This troubling public health crisis impacts individuals from all classes and walks of life.

Following the video presentation, Christy Smith, director for the Unicoi County Prevention Coalition, began directing questions to the panel of experts and first asked them to differentiate between dependence and addiction.

“When we think about addiction we typically think about people misusing the medication in ways other than intended,” said Dr. Jett.

Jett said that dependence is actually a natural cycle for any opioid use, even as directed by a doctor, and stopping use abruptly will likely lead to at least some withdrawal symptoms. Addiction is characterized by compulsive behavior, continued abuse of drugs, and persistent changes in brain structure.

“If untreated, addiction can last a lifetime,” said Smith. “According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are three factors that contribute to opioid addiction: genetics, environment, and opportunity.”

After being in recovery for 11 years for opioid addiction, Murray said that all three factors played a role in her addiction.

“I do have addiction in my family, for sure,” she said. “Because I was always a business owner and worked for myself, I had a perfect opportunity to use without people knowing.”

Murray said she grew up with chronic migraines and after being treated with several medications that failed to alleviate her pain, she was told her only option for pain relief was hydrocodone.

“The more I used, the better I felt and the more I used, the more I needed,” said Murray. “I became dependent and then full-blown addicted.”

According to statistics shared by the Unicoi County Prevention Coalition, there is a 40 percent increased risk that an individual will become addicted to opioids if a first-degree relative also suffers from opioid addiction.

Environmental factors that contribute to opioid addiction include: availability of opioids; perceived risk of opioids (the coalition found that 75 percent of high school students perceive heroin as dangerous, but only 40 percent perceive prescription opioids as dangerous); psychological stressors; learned coping mechanisms; and traumatic life experiences.

“Substance Abuse and Misuse Statistics from the Tennessee Department of Health show that for every 100,000 deaths in Unicoi County, 28 are caused by drug poisoning and this is higher than both the Tennessee and national average,” said Smith.

In 2016, there were six overdose deaths in Unicoi County, five of which were from opioids. That same year, a total of 32,610 opioid prescriptions were written in the county, or approximately 1,840 prescriptions per 1,000 people.

Around 127 pills are prescribed every year for each person in Unicoi County, according to research by the coalition.

“Most people that fatally overdose in our area are between the ages of 25 and 54,” said Dr. Kirschke. “In our region, we’ve had one or two child or teenage deaths, although non-fatal overdoses in teens are increasing.”

Smith said the coalition conducted a survey on drug use and attitudes towards drug use among sixth, eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders in Unicoi County schools.

“We found in Unicoi County, the average age of the first use of a prescription drug not prescribed to them is 13,” Smith said.

According to the survey, 51 percent of those who used prescription drugs not prescribed to them in the last 30 days obtained them from a relative, friend or someone they knew for free; 17 percent got it from a relative, friend or someone they knew without asking; and 18 percent purchased them from the internet.

Town of Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson said the number of DUIs have almost doubled in the last few years and the majority are not from alcohol, but abused substances.

“Years ago it was alcohol, but this day and time it’s prescription drugs,” said Mike Hensley, Unicoi County sheriff. “It presents a problem for us when we pull someone over and they’re on something, but they have a prescription for it.”

Tilson said officers go through extensive training to determine if someone is under the influence of an illicit substance and added that each DUI arrest can take two or more hours of an officer’s time.

Kirschke also talked about Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or when a child is birthed from a mother who is addicted to opioids.

“Basically, it’s become somewhat of an epidemic, especially in East Tennessee,” he said. “It seems like many of the child fatalities, especially infant deaths, a lot of them are from neonatal abstinence syndrome.”

Dr. Jett also said that the East Tennessee region has a rate of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome that is 10 times higher compared to the rest of the nation.

“We are leading the way with a lot of bad things,” he said.

• • •

The panel discussed what spurred the opioid epidemic, and pointed to events back in the 1980s and 1990s that acted as a catalyst for increased use of pain medications. Oxycontin was first introduced by Purdue Pharmaceuticals in 1996.

“We started to judge hospitals by how satisfied people were with their pain levels,” said Kirschke. “There was a time period during which physicians were basically graded with how well they treated pain … doctors’ hands were almost tied.”

Hagaman and Murray spoke on the varied treatments available for opioid addiction that include abstinence-based outpatient treatment, more intensive outpatient treatment, inpatient treatment which typically lasts 30 days and medication-assisted therapy.

“There are all sorts of different types of treatments out there and it’s going to be different for each person,” said Murray.

Smith said, unfortunately, many of the treatment programs don’t last long enough and can lead to relapse. She said goals of recovery include: reduced mortality, improved social function, decreased or discontinued drug use and improved quality of life.

Kirschner also mentioned Naloxone, the antidote to opioid overdose that is available in nasal sprays and injectable forms.

“It reverses the effects of the opioid,” he said. “You can get it from most pharmacies without a prescription and many clinics offer it for free.”

Unused medications can be disposed of at the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department or the Erwin Police Department.

In Unicoi County, CHIPs offers “Living Free” – a faith-based recovery meeting on Thursdays at 9 a.m. For more information, call 743-0022.

Family support meetings are offered in Johnson City at Covenant Presbyterian Church on Mondays at 7 p.m., Tuesdays at 7 p.m, and Thursdays at noon. Harrison Christian Church offers a meeting on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. and Watauga Avenue Presbyterian Church on Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.

First Christian Church in Erwin offers an AA meeting on Thursdays at 6 p.m.

To connect to more resources in the region or to learn more about the Unicoi County Prevention Coalition, contact Christy Smith at 735-8407.

Unicoi County Republican Primary: Evely wins mayoral race, Hensley wins sheriff’s race

By Kendal Groner

The results for the 2018 Unicoi County May 1 Republican Primary are as follows.

For Unicoi County Mayor, Garland “Bubba” Evely won the highest number of votes. Evely received 1,821 votes. Incumbent Greg Lynch received 1,301 votes.

For Unicoi County Sheriff, Michael K. Hensley received the highest number of votes. Hensley received 1,955 votes, Jimmy K. Erwin received 805 votes, and Robert Bryan Mccurry received 429 votes.

For Unicoi County Commission District 1, Loren Thomas, Jamie Harris and Marie Shelton Rice were the three candidates who received the highest number of votes and won seats on the panel. Thomas received 545 votes, Harris received 516 votes and Rice received 457 votes.

Other candidates Damon Wilson received 393 votes, Gene Wilson received 307 votes and Eddie Bolton received 272 votes.

For Unicoi County Commission District 2, Jason Harris, Glenn White and Matthew K. Rice were the three candidates who received the highest number of votes. Harris received 580 votes, White received 560 votes and Rice received 553 votes.

Other candidates Kenneth E. Garland received 371 votes and Michael H. Harris received 355 votes.

For Unicoi County Commission District 3, Todd Wilcox, Stephen Hendrix and John W. Mosley were the three candidates who received the highest number of votes. Wilcox received 707 votes, Hendrix received 520 votes, and Mosley received 413 votes.

Other candidates Bridget R Peters received 393 votes and Billy R. Harkins Jr. received 351 votes.

Paul Berry ran uncontested for County Trustee and received 2,898 votes. Darren C. Shelton ran uncontested for Circuit Court Clerk and received 2,842 votes. Mitzi Bowen ran uncontested for County Clerk and received 2,854 votes. Debbie McInturff Tittle ran uncontested for Register of Deeds and received 2,846 votes. Terry Haynes ran uncontested for Superintendent of Roads and received 2,761 votes. Arthur Metcalf ran uncontested for Constable in District 1 and received 857 votes. Wayne Edwards ran uncontested for Constable in District 2 and received 861 votes. Timmy Lewis ran uncontested for Constable in District 3 and received 874 votes.

In the Aug. 2 Unicoi County General Election, Evely, the winner of the Republican Primary race for county mayor, will face independent candidates John Day and Richard G. Preston.

In the race for seats on the County Commission in District 2, the winners of the May primary – Jason Harris, Glenn White and Matthew Rice – will face independent candidates Rob Martin and Lisa Brewington White.

The results of the May 1 primary are unofficial until they are certified by the Unicoi County Election Commission. For a full story of the primary, including interviews with winners, pick up a copy of the May 9 issue of The Erwin Record.

 

Industrial Development Board OKs agreement to pave way for new shopping center

The Unicoi County Industrial Development Board discusses potential development opportunities within the county. The board is currently working to build an incentive package for an interested developer. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

During the Wednesday, April 18, meeting of the Unicoi County Industrial Development Board, the board unanimously approved an agreement with special counsel to represent them in connection with a proposed tax increment incentive that will assist with the development of a shopping center in Unicoi County.

The Knoxville based law firm, Bass Berry & Sims will represent the board as their client and the developer, a large regional retailer, will be responsible for paying the legal fees.

“We’re not spending any money and we’re not giving anything away … this is just to develop the incentive package,” said Tyler Engle, executive director of the Unicoi County Joint Economic Development Board and Industrial Development Board member. “It’s very important for everyone to understand that there is no agreement or contract, we have just agreed for Bass Berry & Simms to develop the initial offering.”

The proposed development would occur on Second Street in Erwin; however, Engle asked that the name of the developer be kept confidential until they are further along in the development process in order to prevent the prospective deal from being hindered in any way.

“It has very strong potential and the clients are excited,” said Engle. “We are very pleased and that’s one reason we are really asking for everyone to be patient. We think it will be a really great development that everyone will be pleased with.” 

According to the agreement, Bass Berry & Simms will perform the following duties: assist the board in preparing an economic impact plan that would authorize the proposed incentive; draft the basic agreement governing the incentive; prepare and review necessary documents; assist the board in seeking approvals from other governmental authorities; review legal issues related to the structure of the incentive; and, subject to the completion of proceedings, render their legal opinion of the tax increment note.

Industrial Development Board Vice President Garland “Bubba” Evely asked whether or not the board would be the ones determining what the incentive package will be.

“Yes, and we hope to have that done rather quickly,” said Engle. “The developer is on an aggressive timeline.”

Board member Ted Hopson made a motion to approve the proposal as written and it was seconded by board member James Mumpower before it unanimously passed.

“I think this could be a great deal, provided they go through with it,” said Evely.

• • •

In other business, Engle said the Joint Economic Development Board is working with counterparts from Washington County and Carter County to identify new industrial sites.

“We have all worked together to identify large-scale tracts that would be appropriate for industrial development and we are working on that list,” he said.

He also said they have already enlisted the help of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and will also be working with the State Department of Economic and Community Development.

“That’s a regional project and we are very pleased with how that long-range planning venture is coming along,” said Engle. “We’re not focusing just on Unicoi County or Johnson City, but we are building a regional economy so we can all be strong together.”

To date, a total of $1 million has been spent on the former Morgan Insulation Property Second Street, a potential large industrial site, in preparation of future developers.

“We actually have an agent in Germany right now representing the property and we have this property in front of interested parties all the time,” Engle said. “We’re sharing these characteristics of the property and the information as it’s appropriate to interested users.”

Just last week, Engle said the Joint Economic Development Board met with individuals to craft the best marketing strategies for the site. 

“Because we’ve taken steps to invest in our property resources, I think that pushes us on down the road,” said Engle.

Unicoi County Commission votes to issue RFP for ambulance service

By Kendal Groner

While it is still being determined whether or not Unicoi County can use the $440,000 Community Development Block Grant allocated to the Town of Erwin for the purchase of ambulances that would be used to create a locally-operated service, county officials met to discuss proposed changes to the request for proposal (RFP) that MedicOne, the county’s current ambulance provider, had bid on.

Following the April 20 meeting of the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee, the Unicoi County Commission voted to issue out the RFPs on May 8 during its meeting on Monday, April 23.

Until the First Tennessee Development District finishes a round of surveys to determine whether the county can use the block grant, officials felt it would be prudent to go ahead and see what service offers they receive from other ambulance providers, seeing as MedicOne was the only company that bid four years ago.

“We’ve got several different ones (RFPs) from other counties that we’ve been looking at,” said Jason Harris, Ambulance Committee chairman, during the April 20 meeting.

After dissatisfaction with long wait times and not enough ambulances, one of the major issues the county has faced is being unable to penalize the company due to the weak wording of the contract and RFP.

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said he has been looking at RFPs and contracts from Marion County, Knox County and Sequatchie County, which has a population similar to that of Unicoi County.

“The problem is, the more stuff we put in there, the less likely we are to get bidders and the more likely we are to get high bidders,” said Lynch.

Unicoi County Commissioner Glenn White asked if the main issue with MedicOne’s service had been a lack of vehicles.

“We have the vehicles, but not the staffing,” said Lynch.

Ed Herndon, Unicoi County Emergency Management Services director, said all ambulance service providers across the country are having similar problems. Bobby Westberry, senior account executive for Lifeguard Ambulance Service, attended the meeting and confirmed that staffing is an issue across the board and even though pay increases have helped, they haven’t solved the problem.

With MedicOne’s contract not expiring until April of 2019, County Attorney Doug Shults pointed out that the time frame might be an issue for some ambulance service providers.

“You’re asking people to make proposals a year ahead of time,” said Shults. “I’m not in the ambulance business, but that might make me hesitant.”

White asked about the possibility of going ahead and terminating the contract with MedicOne, but Lynch felt it was best to leave the contract as is and allow MedicOne to place a bid if they choose to do so.

“It’s also within our right to write a refusal of any bid,” said Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice.

Westberry with Lifeguard Ambulance service, which has Tennessee locations in Nashville, Humphrey’s County, Knoxville and Spring Hill, said an established ambulance service with facilities available could be ready within 60 days.

“But just in my opinion, with a year out projection a lot of things can change,” Westberry said. “We definitely do have interest here (placing a bid for service) and it’s in our wheelhouse … as long as it’s sensible.”

Commissioner Gene Wilson asked why Lifeguard didn’t bid four years ago and Westberry said the climate of the company was considerably different at that time.

Next, the board began discussing changes they could make to the current RFP to attract a satisfactory service.

“We want to get the wheels rolling in the next two months that it will take us to get the surveys for the grant going,” said Lynch.

The board discussed changing the required time for notice of withdrawing services, the amount of the subsidy provided to the company, the number of required ambulances and how many years and miles the ambulances would be good for.

The original RFP required the company to provide a 60-day notice if they intended to end their services; however, the board felt it would be better for the county to stipulate that the company had to provide a 120-day notice.

As opposed to having two locations, the board suggested just having one central location as home to the service within 1.5 miles of the Harris Hollow exit because the majority of ambulance calls originate from within the Town of Erwin.

“I think roughly 49 percent of our population is in or around Erwin also,” said Herndon.

The current RFP calls for two advanced life support ambulances running 24/7, with one basic life support ambulance for peak times.

“I think if we did create our own service, the idea had been to have three ambulances running full time,” said Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley.

The board recommended having the two advanced life support ambulances running 24/7 along with a basic life support ambulance that runs for 12 hours a day as opposed to the vague wording of “peak times.”

They also included that a company may wish to include a backup ambulance, in case one ambulance went down for maintenance reasons.

“They would basically be in violation of their contract if one went down,” Rice said.

For the advanced life support ambulances, the original RFP allowed them to be used for four years, up to 200,000 miles. The board suggested changing it to four years and 250,000 miles because ambulances are required to go through state inspections.

“The key is a good maintenance program,” Wilson said.

Lynch suggested a $200,000 performance bond as opposed to $150,000 due to the fact that he said it could cost up to $2,000 a day if the county had to rely on services from neighboring counties.

“The biggest thing is going to be determining how to word the penalty with the contract,” said Rice.

Instead of stipulating what response times should be, Lynch suggested having a periodic review of response times and Rice also mentioned that since they would have to subsidize any ambulance company they enter into a contract with, there should be an expectation that a financial statement of revenue is provided.

The board discussed penalties for violations of the proposed contract, such as not having enough ambulances available, and Harris said most RFPs he looked at, called for a penalty of up to $5,000 per violation.

Unicoi County Commissioner and Ambulance Committee member Kenneth Garland suggested issuing a warning for the first violation and then penalizing subsequent violations.

“Everyone is going to make mistakes once in awhile,” Garland said.

During the county commission meeting on Monday, commissioners also discussed voting to purchase property to build an ambulance station in the Harris Hollow Area of exit 36.

However, Wilson felt it would be unwise to confine the ambulance station to that area when he said he had heard from a few people on the south end of the county with potential property.

Commissioner Loren Thomas agreed and said he would like it to be better researched on what the best central location would be.

“Somebody needs to do a study,” said Thomas.

Thomas made a motion to table any further action regarding the purchase of property to construct an ambulance station until the Building and Grounds Committee is able to complete a study.

“We need to meet quickly so any of this available land doesn’t go away,” said Harris.

His motion was seconded by White before it unanimously passed.

“I’d like to see one central location and do it right so it benefits everyone,” said Wilson.

During the commission’s discussion on the RFPs, Garland made a motion to table the matter, but later withdrew his motion.

Thomas, who was unable to attend the Ambulance Committee meeting, did not feel the commissioners had adequate time to look over the RFPs before voting in the meeting.

“We were just handed this (RFP) as we got in … how can we vote on something we just got,” Thomas said. “He may have a point,” White said about Thomas’s remark.

Lynch said he was hoping they could “test the waters” with the RFP and get an idea of what kind of services would be interested in bidding.

“There’s still a split in Unicoi County on whether or not we should start our own or turn it over to another corporation,” he said.

Jimmy Erwin, MedicOne’s current operations manager, cautioned the commissioners that they should be fully confident with the RFP and specifications they were putting out.

“When you do this bid, put it out exactly like you want it,” he said.

Harris made a motion to place the RFPs out for bid on May 8 with a deadline of noon on June 20 to have them in the mayor’s office. The motion was seconded by Wilson before it passed, with only Thomas voting in opposition.

CASA seeks volunteers to serve as advocates for children

Melanie Feathers, CASA program coordinator for Unicoi County, and Whitney McLaughlin, executive director of CASA of Northeast Tennessee, stand behind the pinwheel garden they installed in front of the Unicoi County Courthouse in recognition of Child Abuse Prevention Month. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

On April 12, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Northeast Tennessee installed a pinwheel garden outside the Unicoi County Courthouse to recognize April as Child Abuse Prevention Month.

CASA of Northeast Tennessee has partnered with Prevent Child Abuse Tennessee to create pinwheel gardens across the Northeast Tennessee community.

“The pinwheel has kind of taken on the symbolism that each pinwheel stands for a happy, healthy child who has been served by child advocacy programs such as CASA,” said Whitney McLaughlin, executive director for CASA of Northeast Tennessee. “When you see this, you see that someone has helped a child in need and now they are better off than they were before.”

CASA, a non-profit organization, works to recruit and train community volunteers to advocate on behalf of children who are in the court system as a result of abuse or neglect to ensure they get a safe and stable home. In order to become a volunteer, individuals must be at least 21 years of age, pass a background check and interview with current CASA workers.

“We have a 35-hour training course, and during that course they learn everything from court etiquette, how to write court reports, how to interview families and cultural diversity,” McLaughlin said.

Melanie Feathers, CASA program coordinator for Unicoi County, said they also teach volunteers how to see risk factors for abuse and neglect such as substance abuse or domestic violence.

CASA advocates are appointed by juvenile court judges and each court has its own coordinator on staff that is available to support and guide volunteers while acting as a liaison to the court.

“Anytime a child comes through the juvenile court system with allegations of abuse and neglect, we are appointed to some of those cases,” said McLaughlin.

CASA of Northeast Tennessee serves Washington, Green, and Unicoi counties, and in 2017 they were able to advocate for 329 youth in the region. Of the 329 youth, approximately 60 were from Unicoi County.

Feathers said that while seeing children placed in safe and stable homes is extremely rewarding, the process can at times be difficult, which is why the volunteers and coordinators work closely to create a support system for one another.

“The most taxing emotional part is on our volunteers because they are the ones visiting with the children regularly, and who are invested in seeing these families succeed,” said Feathers. “That’s another reason the coordinator is there to be available to them … one thing we try to do is be a sounding board for them and kind of walk through what’s happened with a case so they don’t internalize it all.”

The caseload for each volunteer is generally kept small, with only one or two cases at a time so that volunteers can be as available to the children and families as possible.

“We are always recruiting more volunteers because unfortunately abuse and neglect are not going away,” McLaughlin said. “We need new fresh blood to act as the child’s voice.”

She said they see many volunteers who are retired school teachers, nurses or military personnel. Some volunteers are employed; however, they need to be able to commit to at least three to four hours per week with CASA.

No prior experience is required, and anyone interested in becoming a volunteer is encouraged to contact CASA.

“What we really want to see in people is their willingness to serve children who have fallen through the cracks,” McLaughlin said. “If you feel in your heart that you love children and want to be their voice and create change in the world, then being a volunteer with CASA will definitely fulfill that vision.”

If you are interested in learning more about CASA of Northeast Tennessee or becoming a volunteer, contact Whitney McLaughlin at 461-3500, or email mclaughling@casanetn.org.

The Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce is teaming up with CASA of Northeast Tennessee to host the 7th annual Achin’ for the Bacon 5K River Run on May 5. The cost to register is $25, and a portion of the proceeds will benefit CASA of Northeast Tennessee.

If you are interested in registering for the race, contact the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce at 743-3000.

Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band debuts first CD

Current members of the Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band and alumni gather at a recent event. (Contributed photo)

By Keeli Parkey

Waiting for a live show to enjoy the music of the Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band?

Now you don’t have to thanks to the release of the group’s first CD, entitled “Keep Travelin’ On,” which became available in December 2017.

“We appreciate all the folks that helped make this project a reality, especially our alumni members that played on the CD with us,” band sponsor Lori Ann Wright said. “The CD really represents how far the band has progressed since the first year. It was a true learning process to create the CD and a joy to get to work with previous band members.”

Current members of the Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band (UCHS BGB) are Adam Miller, Bailey Robinson, Hannah Edwards, Sarah Grace Larkey, Matthew Hatcher and Benjamin Edwards. Lucas Swinehart and Kaitlyn Rogers provide tech and public relations for the group.

Joining forces with the current UCHS BGB members to make the CD a reality were UCHS BGB alumni – Courtney Harris, Jacob Shelton, Adam Larkey, Alison Miller, Cheyenne Godsey, Craig T. Nelson, Lincoln Hensley and Troy Boone – and Ben Bateson at the East Tennessee State University recording lab.

The CD is the result of two years of hard work by Wright and the band members. In addition to practicing and planning for the recording, members also did a lot of fundraising to cover expenses. Wright said each member of the 2017 band picked two bluegrass or gospel songs available in the public domain for the set list. The band then went to work as a group to arrange each selected song. The members also chose an original song written by the 2013-14 members of the UCHS BGB on a bus ride back from student performances in Nashville and used the song’s name as the title of the album.

“The goal was to go into the studio as prepared as possible so we could make the most of our limited recording time and stay on budget,” Wright said. “The students were so invested in making the album; they treated the project as music professionals would in a studio setting. I was proud, not only of the talent they displayed, but of the mature attitude and ownership they displayed while recording.”

Wright also said the design and photography for the CD case were done by senior Kaitlyn Rogers who used regional photographs as inspiration for her design.

CDs are currently on sale in the main office at UCHS and are $15 for one and $10 for additional copies.

• • •

The UCHS BGB has several live performances on its calendar, including:

• April 13 from 5-7 p.m. – Temple Hill PTO annual Soup Bean Supper Fundraiser.

• April 14 at 6 p.m. – Annual UCHS Drama & Bluegrass Down Home Dinner Show at Farmhouse Gallery & Gardens. Tickets are available at the UCHS main office.

• April 28 at 10 a.m. – Fiddlers and Fiddleheads Festival in Unicoi.

• May 4 at 7 p.m. – Opening for Sideline at the UCHS auditorium. Tickets are now available at the UCHS main office.

• May 5 – The Great Outdoor Festival in Erwin.

• May 12 – Feed and Seed in Fletcher, North Carolina.

• May 26-27 – Dollywood in Pigeon Forge.

According to Wright, the UCHS BGB has been lucky enough to have some unique performance experiences in recent months, including local and regional gigs, as well as travel performances.

“We have enjoyed several special moments over the past year, but performing on Danny Stewart’s Bluegrass Cruise to Cozumel and performing at Bluegrass First Class in Asheville had to be our top favorite events,” said Adam Miller and Benjamin Edwards.

Five seniors – Benjamin Edwards, Adam Miller, Bailey Robinson, Matthew Hatcher and Kaitlyn Rogers – are currently part of the UCHS BGB.

“This year the band graduates five seniors and they all plan to go on to college,” Wright said. “Ben and Adam want to study at ETSU and be a part of the bluegrass program there. Bailey also plans to attend ETSU and wants to become a drama teacher. Matthew wants to study agriculture in college and hopes to use that knowledge on his farm one day. Kaitlyn, our PR person and graphic designer, plans to study graphic design and digital media at ETSU.”

Students interested in the joining the UCHS BGB are invited to audition on May 2 from 3:30-5 p.m. at UCHS. Unicoi County Middle School eighth graders or UCHS student interested in auditioning should contact Wright at wrightl@unicoischools.com.

Unicoi County officials consider starting new ambulance service

Unicoi County and Town of Erwin officials once again sat down to discuss the county’s ambulance service options during the March 21 Unicoi County Ambulance Committee meeting. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

After plans for the Town of Erwin to create a countywide ambulance service came to a halt earlier this month when the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen rejected a plan to create an interlocal agreement, Unicoi County officials must now decide how to address the inadequate service they have been receiving with their contract through MedicOne.

During the Wednesday, March 21, Unicoi County Ambulance Committee meeting the general consensus was that the county’s best option would be to create its own ambulance service rather than putting the service back out for bid.

The major obstacle for officials with the Town of Erwin and Unicoi County is trying to find a way for the county to utilize the $440,000 Community Development Block Grant that was allocated to the Town of Erwin to purchase ambulances.

After speaking with the First Tennessee Development District, the agency that administers the grant, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said there may be a way for the Town of Erwin to purchase the ambulances, then move them over to the county.

“I think it’s a good possibility that the county could move forward with the grant, or with the actual ambulances, and somehow get them into a county run ambulance service,” Lynch said.

The county can also still utilize the $250,000 for the sale of Unicoi County Memorial Hospital to Mountain States Alliance, and Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley mentioned an additional $115,000 the Hospital Foundation offered that could be paid back over time.

Lynch has been reviewing the business plan drafted by the Town of Erwin for the creation of a new ambulance service, and Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice has been conducting extensive research on the ambulance services of similar sized counties.

“I think it’s a good possibility we can break away from corporate providers for ambulance services,” Lynch said.

Ambulance Committee Chairman Jason Harris asked about a time frame for the grant, and Lynch said that it was still uncertain, but they should have a more definitive answer in the coming weeks.

“I believe that if you all create the ambulance service, we could let you use the ambulances,” said Mayor Hensley. “I don’t foresee a problem as long as you all will pay the matching fees.”

The scope of the grant states 75 percent of the ambulance’s usage must be within the Town of Erwin. However, Unicoi County Commission Gene Wilson stated that he believed close to 80 percent of all ambulance calls actually originate from within the Town of Erwin.

Hensley also stated she had inquired about the possibility of purchasing used ambulances to try and get the most out of the grant funds. She was told that as long as it was justifiable, such as ambulances with low mileage and in good condition, that it was a possibility.

“What we ought to do is apply (for the grant) in the next go round so we can get another new ambulance and upgrade or whatever if we have a used one or two,” said Rice.

Rice said ideally she would like to see the service start with two new ambulances and two used ambulances.

“This was pretty unique, the Town of Erwin getting this Community Development Block Grant,” said Lynch. “The high scoring ones have usually been for infrastructure.”

“It’s a big leg up,” Rice said about the grant.

Bill Hensley, chairman of the Unicoi County 911 Board, said that the best cooperation he has seen between any of the governments happened between the Town of Erwin and Unicoi County in attempts to create a countywide ambulance service before the plans hit a roadblock in the Town of Erwin BMA meeting.

“Everyone was on board,” Bill Hensley said. “The silent people that stopped this are still out there … you’ll have to fight them.”

Unicoi County Commissioner Kenneth Garland said he felt the county ought to look into purchasing a piece of property and building a structure to house the ambulances.

Rice was concerned with focusing on purchasing property at the offset when they currently had locations to house them.

“I think if we were able to get a good director to run this thing, we could make it work,” said Unicoi County Commissioner Gene Wilson.

Mayor Hensley stated the reasoning for the high wages in her business plan was to attract quality workers. In her plan, paramedics would average $18 an hour, full time AEMTS would average $16 an hour, and part time AEMTS would average $13 an hour.

Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley mentioned that Johnson City pays $17.75 an hour for EMS workers, and noted that two MedicOne employees recently left Unicoi County to work there.

Wilson asked about contracting employees out to save funds, and Bill Hensley responded that it could cause issues with being able to reprimand or fire an employee who was not fulfilling their duties.

In discussing how to finance the service, Garland also stated that if funds weren’t available, the county could borrow funds for the service.

“If we’re in the black it could be its own entity … later down the road if the county had to subsidize some we could,” said Rice

Rice said that back in the 1990s Unicoi County subsidized $380,000 for ambulance services. She emphasized that she did not want to let the opportunity pass to create a new service.

“What do we have to show for the $1 million and something we’ve paid over the last years,” she asked, referencing their past with contracted ambulance services.

Lynch also reminded the committee of the past troubles the county has had with contracting ambulance services, and even mentioned an instance when one contracted company completely pulled out of their agreement, leaving the county temporarily without service.

“The history I’ve had with contracted agencies since I’ve been here has been rough,” said Lynch. “Someone said, ‘you know we don’t contract out our policeman or firefighters … why would we contract emergency medical services’.”

The committee will continue looking into the Community Development Block Grant and meeting again before next month’s Unicoi County Commission meeting.

Town of Unicoi BMA voices support for open records exemption

By Kendal Groner

During the Monday, March 19, meeting of the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen, the board passed a resolution in support of open records legislation protecting the privacy of food-based business incubator entities such as the Mountain Harvest Kitchen.

The resolution endorsed legislation in the Tennessee State Legislature that when originally filed would have “made confidential the records of a food-based business incubation service provider created by a municipality.”

However, after the executive director for the Tennessee Open Records Coalition spoke with Senator Rusty Crowe, the bill has been amended with a subdivision to specifically protect the proprietary, trade, and marketing information of those who utilize the kitchen.

“This whole issue came about because the director of the kitchen had grave concerns about folks coming in, maybe they have a novel idea or special recipe, or something unusual they want to develop,” said Town of Unicoi Attorney Lois Shults-Davis. “Based on her experience in working with the Small Business Administration and the federal government’s regulations, was that every single thing about the client’s experience was confidential.”

Shults-Davis continued by saying that Lee Manning, director of Mountain Harvest Kitchen, had concerns about offering someone these services and then their private information potentially becoming public.

It was also mentioned by Shults-Davis that there is a number of exceptions in Open Records Law that deal with similar activity and stated that the Town of Unicoi was supporting those efforts to protect that information.

“Their proprietary information is already protected,” Alderwoman Kathy Bullen said about the Tennessee Open Records Law.

Alderman Roger Cooper said he has been following the senate bill since he became aware of it, and stated that he agreed the client’s proprietary information should be protected, but his concern stemmed from the original wording of the bill.

“The original bill actually protected everything,” Cooper said. “Luckily the amended bill talks about proprietary information … it doesn’t say anything about the financial records of the kitchen.”

Cooper said he ran the resolution by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, and it was suggested to him that the resolution by the town should be clarified so it should not be misunderstood to close the records of the kitchen, which is a government entity.

“Records of the kitchen include financial records, including the names of the clients and the amount they paid to use the kitchen,” Cooper continued. “They are saying we need to add this to our resolution to remove any doubt.”

Cooper made a motion to amend the resolution to state that it does not close the records of the kitchen.

Shults-Davis felt the added amendment would not add clarity to the resolution, and expressed concerns that private information of the clients could become records of the Town of Unicoi.

“What about when it becomes part of the town’s records, that’s the issue,” Shults-Davis said.

Cooper’s motion to amend the resolution failed with himself and Bullen voting in favor. Vice-Mayor Doug Hopson, Aldermen Jeff Linville, and Mayor Johnny Lynch voted in opposition.

The original resolution supporting the bill in the Tennessee State Legislature passed with Lynch, Linville, and Hopson voting in favor. Bullen voted in opposition, and Cooper abstained.

“Let’s just wait and see what the state legislature decides,” Bullen said.

The bill was last awaiting further action on March 20 in the State Senate and Local Government Committee.

• • •

Following the discussion of the open records legislation, Cooper initiated a discussion on Tennessee Open Records Law and read an article from the Knoxville News Sentinel that stressed the importance of open records, and the need to reexamine exemptions to the law that keep information private from the public and elected officials.

Cooper mentioned that last week was Sunshine Week, an annual celebration that celebrated access to public information and highlighted the dangers of unnecessary secrecy.

“Public and elected officials have a legal right to know how an entity is being managed and how money is being spent,” he said. “Prohibiting access to public records hurts everyone. We need to see what we can do to work through this and not have this come up again.”

• • •

Security at Unicoi County Elementary School was also a topic raised by Cooper during the meeting. With 353 children and 49 adults at the school, Cooper would like to see increased security measures.

“As we have all seen, security at our schools is mandatory … we need to see what we can do to help the security at Unicoi Elementary.”

Cooper said that as elected officials, he felt their number one priority should be protecting the welfare of the citizens. He suggested that the board discuss in their upcoming retreat the possibility of putting a School Resource Officer in the school as well as a deputy on the road. Based on the estimates he had, he believed it would cost approximately $80,000 for one officer.

“We need to look at this as a challenge, because as a town we need to support our citizens … they are in our care,” said Cooper. “This is a small amount for us to invest to protect them.”

• • •

In other business, the board passed a resolution to amend the Town of Unicoi personnel policy to remove the two month probationary period before new employees can become eligible for health insurance.

New employees will now be eligible to participate beginning the first day of the month following their hire month.

The board also passed a resolution authorizing the mayor to make an application and sign necessary documentation for a Local Parks and Recreation Fund Grant in the amount of $248,000 for the construction of an amphitheater.

In order to qualify, the Town of Unicoi must be willing to provide a 50 percent match of $248,000 for a total project cost of $496,000.

The board also passed a resolution adopting the Town of Unicoi’s updated 2017 official strategic plan.

Ambulance issue in county’s hands after Erwin BMA rejects interlocal agreement

By Kendal Groner

After a motion to create a new ambulance service department failed during the March 12 meeting of the Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen, it is now up to Unicoi County officials to find a solution to the inadequate ambulance services the county has been receiving.

“I was shocked, absolutely shocked,” Doris Hensley, Town of Erwin mayor, said about last week’s meeting. “In the work session everyone was in favor or agreement that something had to be done, even one of the aldermen said we’ve got to stop pointing fingers and solve this problem.”

Inadequate staffing, long wait times, and simply not enough personnel have become common complaints by local officials against MedicOne, the ambulance service Unicoi County currently has a contract with.

Jason Harris, Unicoi County commissioner and chairman of the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee, said he would have liked to see the motion pass in the Erwin BMA meeting, which would have created an interlocal service agreement among the three municipalities.

“Once they got it up and running we could have turned it into an authority,” Harris said. “I was really hoping they could get that passed.”

Harris mentioned Washington County, Johnson City, and Jonesborough, three governments who all three work together as an ambulance authority.

“That’s what it could be turned into,” he said. “I really was hoping we could all (Unicoi County, the Town of Erwin and the Town of Unicoi) three work together on it and get something together for the people of the county.”

Mayor Hensley said that she still receives complaints about the service on a regular basis, and is concerned with how long the issue has been drawn out without agreeing on a solution.

“I had a report that a parent had to put a child in their own car and take them to the hospital … this is a scary situation,” Hensley said.

Harris could not affirm whether or not the county will pursue legal action against MedicOne for contract violations. He said officials are currently compiling data on the number of calls where an ambulance was not available or there was a considerable wait time.

“Right now I think we’re just waiting to see the 911 board and attorney … they’ve (MedicOne) had one letter sent to them before and they know they’re in violation, but they want specific dates,” Harris said.

The creation of the ambulance service had projected costs of $1,233,807. A total of $440,000 from a Community Development Block Grant, and $250,000 from the Hospital Foundation for the sale of Unicoi County Memorial Hospital to Mountain States Health Alliance was available to fund the service.

After collecting data on the number of ambulance calls over the last few years, Mayor Hensley estimated that projected revenues would run close to $1,184,000. The Hospital Foundation was also willing to provide a additional $115,000 that could be paid back over a period of time. The Town of Erwin had agreed to match an additional $115,000, with the three municipalities splitting the rest of the costs.

The $440,000 Community Development Block Grant was allocated to the Town of Erwin rather than the county. However, Mayor Hensley is still working to see if there is a way the funds can benefit the county.

“I am still working on the possibility of us buying two ambulances and keeping it in our name and letting the county use it, but I don’t know if my board will even go along with that,” Hensley stated.

If the Town of Erwin had progressed with plans to create the new ambulance service department, Unicoi County would have been responsible for $138,253, the Town of Erwin would be responsible for $47,651, and the Town of Unicoi would be responsible for $27,779.

The Unicoi County Ambulance Committee had voted to recommend to the Unicoi County Commission to provide the $138,253 in funding for the service. Unicoi County currently pays a $132,000 subsidy, or $11,000 each month, for MedicOne’s services. 

During the Town of Erwin’s BMA meeting last week, those opposed to creating the ambulance services cited a potential tax increase to cover the costs as the reasoning behind their opposition. However, Mayor Hensley said after working long and hard to come up with her financial projections, she was confident in the figures she had.

“It was all covered, we would have had a surplus,” she said. “I know the first year would have been the hardest, but everything was covered for the first year.”

With the grant money available to the Town of Erwin, Hensley felt there was a greater chance of the county having to raise taxes if they were to create their own service.

“That was one thing I didn’t get, they talked about a tax increase, but a tax increase for the county would have been much larger than one for the Town of Erwin, if there had to be one,” she said.   

On Wednesday, March 21, at 3 p.m. the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee will meet in the Unicoi County Courthouse to discuss their options in addressing the ambulance issue.