Regional Report Western October 2010

 In 2010-10

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Foes want region to stay out of the road

It has been a pet project of Georgia congressmen for years, but the idea of an interstate highway linking Knoxville, Tenn., and Savannah, Ga., rubs many in North Carolina the wrong way. At least seven Tar Heel counties that would be directly affected have turned thumbs down. So have a number of small towns that dot the region. But the federal government is going ahead with a $1.3 million study of possible routes, costs and environmental consequences. “All it would take is one prominent backer, one powerful champion,” says Asheville resident Jim Grode, executive director of WaysSouth, an advocacy group that opposes the project.

The final route of what’s commonly called Interstate 3 would likely use existing roads where feasible, and Grode expects it to run along or near U.S. 441 west of Cherokee through some of the state’s most rugged and pristine terrain, including the Cherokee and Nantahala national forests. Supporters include commercial interests such as developers and logistics companies and manufacturers in Georgia and eastern Tennessee, which say it would give them better access to ports. But in North Carolina, even some business groups have reservations. Fletcher-based AdvantageWest Economic Development Group has not taken a position, but CEO Scott Hamilton says he is concerned I-3 might divert highway funds from other projects, such as widening U.S. 19/23 from Madison through Mitchell and Yancey counties, upgrading I-26 near Asheville and completing Corridor K, primarily U.S. 74 from Asheville to Chattanooga. “Those are a lot of projects already under way, and some have already been delayed.”

Grode’s group warns that I-3 would be expensive. He says it cost $21 million a mile to build I-26 through the mountains north of Asheville — it was completed in 2006 — compared with about $5 million a mile for stretches of I-73/74 in the gentler Piedmont. For his group, other concerns trump cost. For example, the region is known for pyritic rock, which leaches acid into streams and rivers when disturbed. The mountain economy, he says, is heavily based on tourism, which includes such drawing cards as trout fishing. An interstate, he adds, would bypass small towns, spawning interchange and access-road commerce. That would have both business and cultural impacts. “They tend to draw business away from historic downtowns,” he says. “And a lot of people are in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee precisely because they don’t want to be in Atlanta or Charlotte.”

Duke Energy withdrew plans to build an electrical substation near a site sacred to the Cherokee tribe (Regional report, July). The Charlotte-based utility has two alternatives in Swain County and will pick one by the end of the year. The tribe considers the Kituwah mound its birthplace.

FLETCHERContinental Teves plans to add 100 workers at its local brake-caliper plant, increasing employment to about 430. The German auto-parts maker has begun hiring about 10 to 15 workers a month.

OLD FORT — The Ethan Allen factory began adding 90 jobs. They will pay an average of $26,645; the McDowell County average is $27,768. The Danbury, Conn.-based furniture maker will employ nearly 1,400 here and in Maiden.

LENOIR — Attracted by a Google data center, Dacentec will open one that will employ 20 within three years. The company’s parent is India-based Zenith Infotech, which has a U.S. headquarters in Pittsburgh. The jobs will pay $35,000 to $55,000 a year.

WATERVILLE — Work on westbound Interstate 40 near the Tennessee line will wrap up this month, about a year after a massive rock slide closed the highway. Both eastbound lanes and one westbound lane opened in late April.

ASHEVILLE — The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority agreed to pay $2 million toward improvements at the Asheville Civic Center. The city had promised $5.5 million in improvements to attract the Southern Conference basketball tournament for three years beginning in 2012.

BOONE — With a 62% majority, Watauga County residents voted down a proposed quarter-cent sales tax increase. It would have generated $1.9 million a year for a recreation center and other projects.

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