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WCC: Ashe Campus expansion project breaks ground following years of planning

WEST JEFFERSON — Ashe County elected officials and community members gathered alongside the Wilkes Community College Board of Trustees and administrators at the future site of the WCC: Ashe Campus expansion for a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday, Aug. 8.

“This is about growing a stronger future for Ashe County,” Chris Robinson, WCC vice president of workforce development and community, said. “This building is about students — first, last and always.”

The two-story, 36,000 square-foot expansion will increase opportunities for students in Ashe County, featuring new computer labs, more classroom space, a healthcare simulation lab and other cutting-edge technology, according to a release from WCC. The expansion will also include a separate cosmetology wing, an outdoor learning area and a 1,400- square-foot meeting space for the community to reserve.

Expected to be completed in 2021, the $12 million expansion project has been in its early stages of development for several years. In November 2018, the county commissioners committed up to $8 million in county funding for the project, in addition to the $3 million being provided by bond money from WCC, Ashe Post and Times previously reported.

The ceremony commenced with remarks from WCC President Jeff Cox, who thanked the many people in attendance, including the Ashe County Board of Commissioners, West Jefferson and Jefferson aldermen, members of the Ashe County Board of Education, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kitty Honeycutt and Sheriff B. Phil Howell.

“We’re thrilled to be here and see this project get started,” Cox said.

WCC Board of Trustees member Hobie Davis announced during the ceremony that $964,000 of the remaining $1 million for the expansion project has been raised through individual donors.

Following the announcement, Blue Ridge Energy CEO Doug Johnson presented a $150,000 check for the expansion to the WCC Board of Trustees, allowing the project to reach its goal for funding.

Robinson, who serves as the director of the expansion project, has been involved with the Ashe Campus of WCC for more than two decades. In his time, he said his plan has always been to double the size of the Ashe Campus. Now, he said, that goal has come to fruition.

“It’s a great day for the college, but I can’t stress how much it means to this community,” Robinson said. “This is home to me.”

Both the Town of West Jefferson and Jefferson have each allocated funds for the expansion of the Ashe Campus. Jefferson Alderman Charles Caudill, who attended the Ashe Campus of WCC in the 1970s and spent some years as a teacher at the college, said he was excited to see the project begin.

“This is the future of Ashe County right here,” Caudill said. “The biggest problem that we have in the mountains is we export our greatest asset, and that’s our young, brightest people. This is a way to keep some of those good, smart, intelligent folks here.”

Bailey Witherspoon, a student of WCC, will receive her associate’s degree exclusively through the WCC: Ashe Campus in December and is planning to attend Appalachian State University in the spring.

“With the expansion of the Ashe Campus, more students just like me will be able to achieve their goals of higher education,” Witherspoon said. “For many people living in such a rural area, driving to main campus creates a financial burden. This expansion will create so many opportunities for our area.”

Both McNeil and Larry Dix of the board of commissioners noted many of the benefits the expansion will have on the county for those of all ages through job-specific workforce development.

“Hopefully people can walk out of here and go to work,” McNeil said. “They can walk out of here with a skill and contribute to the community.”

Dix added that Ashe County enjoys a low unemployment rate but lacks an adequate number of skilled, in-county workers for available jobs. Through the Ashe Campus expansion, companies such as G.E. Aviation will no longer have to search out of county for workers, he said.

“They’ll stay here, they’ll work here and they’ll raise their families here,” Dix said.

Students at Ashe County High School and Ashe Early College will also be able to use the new facilities once the project is completed, Robinson said.

“We stand on the success of our students,” Robinson said. “We will not let you down.”

Cyclists tackle 30th annual Blue Ridge Brutal, raise funds for Ashe Civic Center

ASHE COUNTY — Cyclists from across the state traversed the roads of Ashe County for the 30th annual Blue Ridge Brutal, sponsored by the Ashe County Arts Council, on Saturday, Aug. 10.

More than 330 riders lined Mount Jefferson Road early Saturday morning before the start of the challenge at 8 a.m. Cyclists chose between three different ride lengths — 56, 72 and 102 miles, meandering through some of the toughest roads and most scenic locations in the county.

Six rest stops were placed along the routes for riders to catch their breath and refuel, providing water, fruit and other snacks. Rest stops were sponsored by organizations and businesses in the community, such as Ashe Memorial Hospital, Glendale Springs Volunteer Fire Department, Screen Specialty Shop and more.

For the third year, Chuck Mantooth was first to finish the 56-mile ride with his quickest time yet, crossing the finish line in front of the Ashe Civic Center with a time of 2:44:22.54.

“It was smooth from the beginning,” Mantooth said. “The weather was absolutely perfect, so it was a good ride.”

Despite the addition of a new road to the 56-mile route and having to deal with a broken gear during the ride, Mantooth said he was excited to beat his two previous times.

“It was great,” Mantooth said.

Earning first place in the women’s 56-mile ride and second place overall was Laura Calvin. Calvin said this year was her second time participating in the Blue Ridge Brutal, and she was excited to finish first out of the other women participating in the 56-mile ride.

Calvin said she had planned to participate in last year’s challenge, but encountered an unexpected turn in the months leading up to the event.

“Last year while I was training I got hit by a car and was badly injured, but I came through, and everything worked out,” Calvin said. “This was such an awesome ride.”

In third place overall for the 56-mile ride was Mike Grabiec. This year marked his first time tackling the Brutal, and after catching his breath, he headed back out on the road to begin his ascent of Mount Jefferson for the post-ride challenge.

As cyclists whizzed across the finish line, they were met with music from the Appalachian Mountain Girls, catering provided by Sweet Aromas Bakery and Cafe and craft beer from Boondocks Brewing.

“I thought everything was really nicely done,” Arts Council Executive Director Jeff Fissel said. “The entire event was pretty exemplary on all fronts.”

Fissel added that he was impressed with the distance riders covered and how quickly they completed the challenge, and said he was pleased with the amount of help the event received from volunteers. In total, Arts Council Program Director Rebecca Williams said 150 volunteers helped with the event.

“What a cool way to showcase the county,” Fissel said. “There were so many people from the community who came together — from companies to volunteers and committee members — without that collaboration, the whole thing really can’t happen.”

Proceeds from the event went directly to the support of the Ashe Civic Center, which hosts fundraisers, benefits, beauty pageants, dance recitals, musicals, theater shows and a number of other events for the community.

Fissel said the total amount of funds raised should be made available by next week.

Safe Schools Committee discusses active shooter drill

WEST JEFFERSON — The Ashe County Safe Schools Committee held its third meeting Tuesday, Aug. 6, in the media center of Ashe County High School, hearing updates on the active shooter drill held at ACHS.

Those in attendance, including first responders, student representatives from ACS, administrators and directors, heard a summary of the active shooter response drill held on Saturday, Aug. 3, from Chief Deputy Danny Houck and Emergency Management Director Patty Gambill.

“There are a lot of moving parts to an active shooter drill,” Houck said. “Our main goal is to have shooters eliminated and all wounded transported within the first hour, and in this last drill, we learned a lot of things. We did some things very well, and we learned a lot of things that we can work on.”

Houck said one of the most important lessons learned during the drill was keeping entrance and exit routes open during the event of an active shooter is absolutely key, which depends heavily on fire departments to block intersections so that victims can be transported quickly to the hospital.

“Overall, it went really well,” Gambill said. “The officers made entry quickly. They were very aggressive in taking down the shooters. They escorted wounded out of the building. The fire department was in place to block the roads, and EMS transported multiple patients in ambulances.”

In total, Gambill said the drill lasted 57 minutes.

Gambill added that the biggest takeaway from the drill was the need for more inter-agency training between the school system, sheriff’s office, police and fire departments, EMS and the hospital.

“We don’t always know what the other department has planned,” Gambill said. “There are already plans in place, but we just need to finely tune them a little bit.”

Superintendent Phyllis Yates added that ACS held a directors meeting Aug. 6, discussing what exactly needs to be stored within a school’s black box. Yates said the directors came to the conclusion that a master key, floor plans, medical needs and a class list should be held within the box and updated every nine weeks.

Also during the meeting, Sheriff B. Phil Howell discussed how the sheriff’s office handles threat assessments and investigations.

“It is a fine balance we’re trying to find,” Howell said in relation to ways of sharing information about an active threat while the investigation is ongoing. He added that the sheriff’s office is developing a small team to work with ACS in outlining a plan for releasing information.

During the meeting, the board of education shared remarks with those in attendance, as well as Yates and other ACS directors.

“Safety is very important in our schools,” board of education Chairman C.B. Jones said. “In Ashe County Schools, on a lot of projects it seems like we’re the cutting edge.”

Technology Director Amy Walker reported during the meeting that Ashe County Schools would be conducting its annual audit of all panic buttons between Aug. 8 and 13. The final test at ACHS was completed on Tuesday, Aug. 13, and Walker said in an email that “testing went very well at all schools.”

For more information about safety measures at ACS, visit

Splash for the Cash raises more than $7,000 for New River cleanups

JEFFERSON — New River Conservancy’s annual Splash for the Cash raised $7,460 for future cleanup efforts along the New, according to the nonprofit land trust.

Splash for the Cash 2019 raised about $1,000 more than in 2018, according to NRC Outreach Coordinator Summer Rich.

The fundraiser’s contributors — 25 in total — floated the river from Zaloo’s Canoes to New River State Park Wagoner Access on a sunny Saturday afternoon July 27. After the float, lunch was provided by Smoky Mountain BBQ, and prizes were raffled off to participants.

According to Rich, Becky and Dan Gilbert won the raffle grand prize — a guided fishing trip with Mountain True’s Watauga Riverkeeper, Andy Hill.

Carl Gaile, Andy Guion and Jon Parker also won raffle prizes, including gift cards from Lost Province Brewing Co., beans from Hatchet Coffee and outdoor gear from REI, according to Rich.

“Thanks for coming out and getting dirty for clean water,” Rich said.

Funds raised during Splash for the Cash help enable the conservancy to fund volunteer New River cleanup initiatives, according to NRC Restoration Director Chelsea Blount.

“River cleanups are community-driven and community funded, and we can’t do this work without local support,” Blount said in July. “Splash for the Cash is our chance to raise money for river cleanup efforts for the entire year.”

Event sponsors include Parker’s Electrical Service & Contracting Company, McDonald’s of West Jefferson, The Hotel Tavern, WKSK the Farm, Shatley Springs, New River Brewing, Boondocks, Capital Development Services, Carolina Timberworks, West Jefferson Chevrolet, Parsons Farm Supply, SkyLine SkyBest, Zaloo’s Canoes, Kayaks & Tubes, K&K Stitch & Screen, M-Prints and Virginia Eagle, according to Rich.