WEST JEFFERSON — After much deliberation, West Jefferson Mayor Dale Baldwin has decided to not run again for his position.
Baldwin has been mayor since 2011, previously serving in the post from 1997-2007. He also served as a member of the board of aldermen from 1967-1977, 1985-1989 and a brief, nine-month stint after an appointment in April, 1997.
Baldwin said the decision was not easy, but it was time for him to move on from the role.
“I’ve given it a lot of thought. November will be a full 18 years, and it’s time I hang it up,” Baldwin said. He said he’ll miss being mayor, but felt it was the right time to let someone else fill the seat.
Baldwin said he has received a lot of good help in his time as mayor, with five town managers, including current manager Brantley Price, and many aldermen who cared for the town. In his time as a town official, Baldwin has overseen the town’s growth from a single square-mile footprint to the creation of the GE plant, the founding of Christmas in July and West Jefferson’s rise as a tourism destination in the High Country.
“It’s been a tremendous growth, it really has,” Baldwin said. “By no means am I taking credit for it, I was mayor, but we had a good board and good employees. We’ve done good and I hope it continues.”
As of presstime, only former West Jefferson Alderman Tom Hartman has filed to fill the vacancy.
WEST JEFFERSON — With crowds congregating up and down Backstreet, downtown West Jefferson bustled with Christmas cheer during the 33rd annual Christmas in July Festival July 5 and 6.
After an opening ceremony and concert the afternoon of Friday, July 5, some 5,000 festivalgoers turned out to celebrate Ashe County’s nation-leading Fraser fir industry and the Christmas season a few months early Saturday, July 6, according to Wesley Barker, a member of the festival’s organizing committee.
“It rained some, kind of put a damper on things Friday, and it rained just a little bit on Saturday, but it cleared up and I think the crowds were good,” Barker said. “I think it was maybe a little less than last year, but it was still a very good turnout.”
For the festival, Backstreet and surrounding streets were lined with two live music stages, Ashe County Farmers Market vendors and handmade crafts sellers, community groups, candied and fried festival food chefs, bouncy houses, Santa and Mrs. Claus, street performers and other assorted interests and oddities.
Ashe County Farmers Market vendors reported increased sales compared to last year’s Christmas in July Festival, Barker said.
In the heat of a High Country summer Saturday afternoon, smoke filled the air as Civil War gray coats bellowed cannon-fire at a Yankee encampment across West Jefferson Park while spectators cheered from beneath the lawn’s shady old oak trees. The Civil War reenactors were popular throughout the Christmas in July festival as usual, Barker said.
Festivalgoers elected Fraser fir tree #5, grown at Gardner Tree Farms, as the best in show Christmas Tree for the 2019 People’s Choice Christmas tree competition — see a separate story in this week’s Ashe Post & Times for more on the competition.
“The festival formed to promote the Ashe County Christmas tree industry,” Barker said. “The first festival was in 1987, and it’s always had the focus of promoting the tree industry — each year it seems like we become more and more popular for Christmas trees across the nation.”
According to the inaugural Christmas in July Festival official program and yearbook dated July 3-5, 1987, there were 650 Ashe County growers who harvested 335,000 Christmas trees worth $6 million in 1986.
For comparison, the Ashe County Christmas tree industry was valued at $95 million in 2018, up $5 million from the year before, according to the Ashe County Cooperative Extension.
“Ashe County produces more Christmas trees than any other county in the United States,” the 2019 Ashe County Farmland Preservation Plan said. “Approximately three million trees are harvested each year.”
Planning for the 34rd annual Christmas in July Festival will begin in January 2020, Barker said. Expanding the festival grounds to once again include Jefferson Avenue in downtown West Jefferson has been discussed and will likely be a topic of discussion for next year’s Christmas in July Festival, according to Barker.
“I wouldn’t ever rule it out,” Barker said. “It’s really a logistical thing — that’s a discussion for the town, the committee and the merchants.”
JEFFERSON — In honor and celebration of his life, a memorial ceremony was held for the Honorable Mitchell L. McLean on the sixth anniversary of his passing at the Ashe County Courthouse on Wednesday, July 3.
McLean, who served as the chief district court judge of the 23rd judicial district of North Carolina, passed away on July 3, 2013, after attempting to rescue two people from a riptide current off the coast of Sunset Beach, N.C. Family, friends and colleagues of McLean gathered in the superior courtroom to share their memories and stories.
To open the ceremony, the Honorable Michael G. Duncan shared a few words with those in attendance. Duncan was appointed as the chief district court judge after McLean’s passing, and he said he learned a lot from McLean during the years.
Duncan talked about three characteristics of McLean that stood out to him: a passion for life, compassion for others and “great love.”
“He loved life,” Duncan said, “and it was important to him that others experienced that as well. He oftentimes — every time I would see him — he had a smile on his face.”
Duncan added that McLean’s passion for life was also visible through his work as a judge.
“He also had compassion,” Duncan said. “He loved people. He wanted to help people.”
Duncan continued, saying that McLean’s love for his family, friends and colleagues was a shining example for anyone who met him.
“If we could live life like Mitchell did — with a passion, with a zeal — if we could help others, and if we could love others, what an example and what a greater world this would be,” Duncan said.
Ben Hurley and Jay Vannoy, two attorneys who spent years working alongside McLean, also shared stories during the ceremony. Their friendship with McLean went beyond the walls of the courthouse, and Hurley shared in a letter many of the fond memories they made together on the golf course.
Jay Vannoy also shared stories about McLean, saying that he first met McLean when he was about 10 years old. After McLean finished law school at Wake Forest University, he returned to the High Country to work with Gary Vannoy, Jay Vannoy’s father, at his law firm.
“I was lucky that I had the pleasure for a few years before he went on the bench to practice law with him,” Vannoy said. “He loved his job because he loved to help people.”
Vannoy added that McLean’s love for helping people is what led to him jumping in the water to save Edward J. Golley on July 3, 2013. Authorities credited McLean for saving Golley’s life, though McLean and Mary Anne Gallway, who was also trapped in the riptide, lost theirs.
“He jumped in that water without even thinking because he was willing to help people,” Vannoy said. “He died a hero for it.”
Pam Barlow, clerk of Superior Court, then took the floor to share her memories of McLean. After sharing some stories, Barlow and Duncan unveiled a portrait of McLean that will now hang in the judges’ chambers alongside a declaration and resolution of appreciation by the North Carolina State Bar.
“Whereas, without hesitation or concern for his own safety, Judge McLean entered the waters in an effort to assist other swimmers in distress, in an act of his love, compassion and consideration of his fellow man,” the resolution reads.
Barlow closed by quoting John 15:13.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” Barlow read.
WEST JEFFERSON — Contract bidding for Section E of the U.S. 221 widening project was scheduled to begin in September, but has been delayed two years, according to NCDOT Division 11 Engineer Mike Pettyjohn.
While the rest of U.S. 221 continues to widen, with one section completed and three others under construction, Section E of the project — a 3.5 mile stretch from the four-way stoplight at N.C. 163 and South Jefferson Avenue in West Jefferson, to the intersection of East Main Street and Cherry Drive in Jefferson — has been delayed due to a combination of events, Pettyjohn said in an email.
“Events such as hurricanes Florence and Michael, flooding events in the mountains, Map Act settlements and project scope increases have resulted in a need to spread out project delivery … and address these additional expenditures,” Pettyjohn said. “The scheduled delay is from September 2019 to September 2021.”
Projects already under construction will continue, and NCDOT is investing more than $2 billion in new construction during the 2019-2020 fiscal year, according to Pettyjohn.
U.S. 221 Section E is estimated to cost about $21.2 million to widen into a four-lane highway, and construction was scheduled to begin in March 2020, Ashe Post & Times previously reported.
AP&T will provide further updates on the U.S. 221 widening project as they become available.