By Curtis Carden
Despite 2015 dealing a pair of blows to the county, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch is hopeful about the coming year.
Im fairly optimistic Unicoi County can come back and get to where we once were, Lynch told The Erwin Record at the end of December. Unicoi County is a community of faith and a community that helps one another … weve got the spunk to come back from this to better ourselves as a whole heading into the new year.
CSX Transportation announced during the month of October that traffic reduction would occur across the East Coast, which led to approximately 300 workers from the Erwin terminal being furloughed.
It was amazing to see the community come together after the CSX disaster, Lynch said. It was a devastating blow to Unicoi County and the area, really. We had an overwhelming turnout for the first town meeting after the announcement with different people looking to see where they could help out and find out the total effect of the decision … Then there was outpouring of support following the meeting, including the prayer service that weekend.
Lynch said the meetings with CSX will continue into the new year to find out the overall effect of the job reduction and the number of workers still looking for employment.
The county did receive a positive support line thanks to the installation of the Workforce Center, provided by the state. The center is located on Main Avenue at the ETSU extension office across the road from the Unicoi County Gas Utility District office.
I encourage anyone from the community, from CSX or not, to stop by the center for job assistance, Lynch said. The amount of feedback from the center goes to the state and helps with funding to assist people from the community.
The center has already instituted a free three-semester chemistry course, offered by Northeast State Community College. Workers from CSX receive top priority, but the opportunity is open to other individuals with the deadline for applying set for this weekend. Classes will be taught at Unicoi County High School.
The center also provides assistance to workers making transitions to different facilities on the CSX line.
A rumor that CSX traffic could return to the levels of previous years is most likely not realistic. Lynch said the decline in coal traffic and the emergence of natural gas could limit the potential of rail traffic returning to previous levels.
The mayor did add that idea still lurks that CSX could lease out property and, after properly restoring one of the shops near the Erwin location, a handful of jobs could potentially return to the area.
It wouldnt be like the jobs as before, Lynch said, but it would still be jobs coming back to the area.
Another industry in Unicoi County that has received headlines as of late is NN Ball & Roller, located near Unicoi County High School. The facility is reportedly planning a move out of Erwin due to the company wanting visibility from the highway.
As far as news from the company, Lynch said current rumors floating around are just that, rumors. No official news has been made by the company and the county is in play for NN to stay. One location idea which received traction is that the company could transition to property near the Dry Creek area, which is within the county limits.
Different locations across the county are also in play for different industries, according to Lynch. Along with the Dry Creek area, Lynch added that the Morgan Insulation property, former Hoover Ball area, and another area located in Erwin are different sites that could provide suitable space for potential suitors.
Theres been interest at each site, Lynch said. I know the town of Erwin has shown the Morgan Insulation building to several interested businesses.
The mayor also added the county being labeled as a distress county allows the area to be up for support from the state to help attract industry.
As the county searches for new businesses and keeping current industry within the area, tourism looks to continue to grow, thanks in part to the recent work underway at Rocky Fork State Park. Lynch said that Gov. Bill Haslam has made it apparent that before his term is up that he wants to give the final green light for the park in the Flag Pond community.
Plans at the park for 2016 include working on the infrastructure, including a water line that currently could be supported by grant opportunities the county is applying for this year.
Along with the water line, TDOT and local officials are going to be working on the roadways into the park and the parking to allow better access for the park.
Tourism can be a big factor for the county, Lynch said. It isnt an industry, but the trickle down effect from the park can allow more tourists to come to the area, shop at our businesses, eat at our restaurants and attract industry into the area.
Plans are underway for the coming year to address jail issues in the county, including the potential of combining both jails at the Jackson Love Highway location.
Lynch said combining the facilities could help ease the financial burden on the county because the county would not have to fund two separate jail administrations and operations.
Thats some of the things you run into with good law enforcement, Lynch said. We also receive people due to our location near the Tri-Cities and being near I-26.
Lynch added that he hopes to speak with the architect the county previously met with for plans on a bigger jail at the Jackson Love location that would provide enough space and properly to facilitate a staff, security and inmates.