Regional Report Western July 2010

 In 2010-07

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Tribe: Duke should bow to higher power 

Duke Energy Corp. is finding out that altering the landscape of western North Carolina can be messy business. The Charlotte-based utility had to fight opponents for five years before demolishing an 83-year-old hydroelectric dam in Dillsboro earlier this year (Regional Report, August 2009). Residents argued it was vital to tourism. Now Duke’s effort to build an electric substation and transmission towers on the Tuckasegee River in Swain County is being short-circuited by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. This time, most concerned say the odds don’t favor Duke.

“What they want to build is within just a half mile and in plain sight of Kituwah, our mother town,” says Russell Townsend, historical preservation officer of the 13,000-member tribe. Lore holds that the Cherokee great spirit handed the tribe its eternal flame there 10,000 years ago. “It’s our most sacred site. We’re disappointed Duke didn’t consult with us beforehand.”

Duke’s reply? Let’s talk. “Our focus is on working with the Eastern Band and the Swain County commissioners to identify an alternative site,” spokesman Jason Walls says. The substation and transmission towers that will replace less-conspicuous poles are needed because of rapid growth in western North Carolina. If they’re not built, the company warns, blackouts are possible.

The Cherokees criticize Duke for cultural klutziness, but they acknowledge that they have helped create the controversy. One reason more capacity is needed: growth of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel, which is in the middle of a $633 million expansion and is already the largest employer in Western North Carolina. “It’s ironic that because of that growth, our most sacred site is in jeopardy,” Townsend says. “Hopefully, we can rely on Duke’s claim that it’s a good neighbor to the tribe and work it out.”

Swain County has offered to let Duke build the substation in the county’s industrial park near Bryson City, and Duke is willing to consider alternatives, including that one. But Walls says another site would restart the engineering clock, necessitate acquiring miles of new right of way — many landowners have already expressed opposition to selling — and delay the project for years. Duke wants to finish it by summer 2011.

The state Utilities Commission is investigating complaints about Duke’s plan but hasn’t ruled, partly in hopes that Duke and the Cherokees work out a solution. Townsend says the Eastern Band is doing what it can to resolve the conflict. “We’ve been conversing with them about a better location, and we’ve looked at several plots the tribe owns that might be suitable. About 5 to 15 acres is needed. They’re evaluating them.”

SAWMILLSAdvanced Textile Solutions opened a mill that will employ 127 within three years. The company could receive up to $127,000 in state incentives, though the jobs pay an average of just $19,111 a year — well below the Caldwell County average of $29,756.

CLYDE — Former Haywood Regional Medical Center CEO David Rice sued the hospital. He says he was pressured into retiring in 2008 and was promised he would get benefits and his annual salary of $199,950 through 2009, but the payments ended April 26, 2008. The hospital denies the allegations.

MAGGIE VALLEY — A bankruptcy judge approved a bid by Al Harper, CEO and chairman of Durango, Colo.-based American Heritage Railways, to buy Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park out of bankruptcy. American Heritage Railways is the parent of The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in Bryson City.

SYLVA — About a year after it opened, Stonewall Packaging closed its factory here, putting 43 out of work. The company, which made corrugated cardboard sheets, was a joint venture of Jackson Paper Manufacturing and other investors. Sales dropped after a client canceled a big order.

Two western North Carolina conservation groups plan to merge. Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust in West Jefferson and High Country Conservancy in Boone will combine to become the Blue Ridge Conservancy. Walter Clark, who had led the Blue Ridge trust, will lead the new group.

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