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BOC meets to hear analysis of economic impact of Ashe Industrial Park and discuss COVID-19 updates

JEFFERSON — The Ashe County Board of Commissioners met in regular session on May 18 at 9 a.m. at Ashe County Courthouse to discuss the economic impact of the new Ashe Industrial Park and discuss COVID-19 updates.

The meeting was not open to the public, but was available in livestream on the Ashe County Government website.

This meeting and all previous meetings can be assessed at by clicking the “Commissioners” tab on the website and then clicking the tab labeled “Meeting Agendas, Minutes and Videos” from the drop-down menu.

There were no public comments at this meeting.

Crystal Morphis, president of Creative Economic Development Consulting provided the economic analysis of the proposed Ashe Industrial Park.

Morphis said the proposed business park is almost 42 acres with about 39 acres in the site plan.

She and her team modeled what would happen if a manufacturer built a building on each one of the five lots and estimated the building range to be about about 10,000 square feet of building per acre.

“We know we could get more building on there, but sometimes there are limitations in terms of topography and want to have plenty of room for parking and then expansion of those buildings as well,” Morphis said.

They also identified some potential sectors of manufacturers including another ambulance manufacturer, electrical equipment, surgical devices or advanced textiles.

“There’s probably going to be a lot of medical-related manufacturing moved back to the U.S over the next year or two,” Morphis said.

According to Morphis, there is a one-time benefit of constructing the facilities. The employment directly involved in construction would be almost 300 employees, which would be a value of about $36-37 million, in the value of those buildings.

Morphis said the one-time impact and total economic value to Ashe County if the proposed buildings were built would be about $49 million.

Once the facility is built and people are working in those facilities, the jobs will be on-going and paychecks will last. According to Morphis, there is an estimated direct employment of about 322 jobs in the five buildings.

“Again, those paychecks will ripple through the economy and some portion of that money will stay in Ashe County,” Morphis said.

According to Morphis, taking into consideration the people who work in the park and the ripple effect, there is an estimated 575 jobs which can be a result of the five lots being developed.

Emergency Management Coordinator Patty Gambill provided an update on COVID-19.

Gambill said one of the first four positive cases in Ashe County is experiencing some ongoing issues. There have been no hospitalizations or deaths in any Ashe County residents as a result of the virus.

There has only been one case in the county that has been identified as community spread, which means the public health has been unable to identify where the individual contracted the virus.

Gambill said the health department is looking at setting up some mobile testing sites for the county. The test sites will not be testing asymptomatic people, unless they are close contacts of known positive cases or are frontline workers.

During the commissioner comments section Paula Perry congratulated the Class of 2020.

“I’d just like to say congratulations to all the seniors this year, sorry you didn’t have your graduation the way you had planned and thought you would when you started kindergarten and couldn’t wait to graduate,” Perry said. “We’re just thankful that you made it and that you can look forward to your future.”

Commissioner William Sands said everyone has a lot to be thankful for during this time.

“We’re going to have to have a change of lifestyle, from the way we lived two or three months ago, I don’t know how long this will go on but I’m not encouraged that it will be in a short period of time,” Sands said. “We need to very much keep the distance we’re talking about, do the precautions that have been stated to us, also don’t go out anymore than you have to.”

Commissioner Larry Dix spoke about the “Be the Light” event at Ashe County High School.

“I was really pleased to see a lot of cars come through, I stood out there with a sign honoring some of the senior players,” Dix said. “At least there was some recognition for them. We just had to be creative this year.”

Vice-chairman Larry Rhodes also congratulated the seniors and said everything they have learned thus far is appreciated.

“Again, we hope you have a blessed future, we will keep you in our minds and we hope that things in your future can be for you to either remain or return to Ashe County,” Rhodes said.

Chairman Todd McNeill congratulated both high school and college graduates.

“It’s not the way you imagined it but it doesn’t take away from the hard work you’ve put in over the years,” McNeill said.

He also said the people of Ashe County are fortunate to live in the area, especially in times like this.

He shared something his 6-year old daughter said to him.

“I’m glad to live where we do, you know, these people that are having to quarantine in these big towns she said, they don’t even have any grass to play in,” McNeill said of his daughter’s recollection.

Although, people living in larger cities may have grass, McNeill said it was the point behind the comment that was worth a mention.

“Even at her young age, she understands how lucky we are,” McNeill said.

The next regularly scheduled meeting of the BOC will be June 1.


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Special drive-by celebration honors seniors in JROTC program

JEFFERSON — A special drive-by celebration for seniors in the JROTC program at Ashe County High School was held at the Ashe County Courthouse Circle on May 15. There was a large turnout as parents, family members, friends and community members came out to celebrate and recognize these seniors in a special way.

The event was organized by two JROTC parents, Cara Elliott and April Sullivan. The Ashe County Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff B. Phil Howell helped organize and sponsor the event.

Those participating in the drive-by began lining up in their cars at the parking lot behind Hardees at 5:30 p.m. At 6 p.m. the line of cars, escorted by the Sheriff’s Office made its way up Government Circle Road adjacent to Burger King before circling around to the front of the courthouse where the cadets were lined up on the sidewalk.

Once they made their way to the front of the courthouse, people in their cars waved, cheered and held signs congratulating the seniors. Some cars were decked out with American Flags and balloons and had messages written in window marker.

JROTC cadets who were present were Drake Elliott, Faith Greer, Dylan Little, Alex Faw, Bethany Bare, Montana Rose, Zac Somers, Morgan Liszka, Savannah Lewis, Torin Potter, Dixie Barker, Sarah Culp and Richard Osborne.

The 13 JROTC seniors present lined up, spaced 6 feet apart, on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse and were directed by Adam Elliott.

Prior to lining up, the cadets gathered around Howell as he presented them each with a gift which contained a picture frame with a tassel holder.

Parents of cadets were allowed to park their vehicle after circling around the courthouse as the cadets were given a professional photo opportunity by Brian Blanco, administrative coordinator at ASCO.


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Ashe numbers continue to climb

ASHE COUNTY — While the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) had been trickling into Ashe County, the county has seen a spike, jumping up to 23 active cases, as of press time.

After the first case confirmed in the county by AppHealthCare April 3, the number of confirmed cases grew to five by April 29. In the three weeks that have followed, the number has gone up by nearly five times as many, with 28 total now confirmed for Ashe.

In a release to the public, AppHealthCare encouraged those who attended a funeral service operated by Boone Family Funeral Home or visited the establishment between March 19 through April 2 to contact public health staff by calling the AppHealthCare office in Ashe at (336) 246-9449 for an interview to determine whether or not guidance about the possible need for self-quarantine would be required.

As of Monday, May 18, there have been 188 COVID-19 tests done in Ashe, according to AppHealthCare. The organization added they are also monitoring 31 individuals in the county, as of press time.

On May 18, there were 19,445 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in North Carolina, with 682 dead, according to NCDHHS. This includes 11 confirmed cases in Watauga County, three active, and 12 in Alleghany County, with six active, according to AppHealthCare. Presumptive and confirmed positive cases are in all counties across the state, except for Avery.

Organizations from the international to the local level are encouraging people who feel sick or are symptomatic to stay home and receive medical treatment.

In a series of executive orders beginning March 14, Gov. Roy Cooper closed schools, limited the size of gatherings, instituted a stay-at-home order, shut down non-essential businesses, limited the capacity of businesses still in operation and barred dining in at restaurants.

Cooper began the reopening process with an executive order that took effect Friday, May 8.

Under Phase 1, most businesses can open, retail stores can open at 50 percent capacity, parks and trails are encouraged to reopen, close-contact businesses (such as gyms, salons and movie theaters) will remain closed, restaurants will continue to be open for takeout and delivery only, and gatherings are still limited to 10 people, but gathering outdoors with friends is allowed.

The order removes the distinction between essential and non-essential businesses. Retail businesses allowed to open at 50 percent capacity will be required to direct customers to stand six feet apart, perform frequent cleanings, provide hand sanitizer when available, screen workers for symptoms and more. The order allows people to leave their homes for commercial activity at any business that is open.

Government

Ashe County declared a state of emergency March 22. The county was followed by the towns of West Jefferson, Jefferson and Lansing.

An amendment to the county’s state of emergency declaration shortly after banned short-term rentals in the county, with the goal being a reduction in travel by non-residents. The amendment expired May 8, and was not extended.

The Ashe County Courthouse will remain open as usual, but residents are encouraged to take advantage of online resources or to call the needed office. The county also announced they would be limiting the number of visitors to 10 at a time.

The Ashe County Airport will remain open, but no public visitors are allowed. The landfill and convenience sites will remain open to the public.

West Jefferson government is closed to the public. Utility payments can still be made via the drop box located inside the first set of double doors at Town Hall using check, correct change or mail payments, and other business with the town, where possible, can be done by calling the town offices at (336) 246-3551 during normal business hours.

At the Jefferson Board of Aldermen meeting March 16, the board voted unanimously to close Jefferson Town Hall to the public. As in West Jefferson, Jefferson Town Hall will continue to operate and fulfill its normal duties, and can be reached at (336) 846-9368.

According to Lansing Town Clerk Marcy Little, Lansing Town Hall has been closed. She added it is being recommended people do things over the phone at (336) 384-3938 or via the drop box located out front. The town also closed the public restrooms in the Lansing Creeper Trail Park.

Meanwhile, meetings of local government boards including different boards of aldermen and the Ashe County Board of Commissioners have seen their meetings canceled or changed to being electronic.

Healthcare

On March 12, Ashe Memorial Hospital’s expanded visitor restrictions went into effect. The hospital asks that those who are not members of a patient’s immediate family refrain from visiting unless absolutely necessary, regardless of the visitor’s age or health status.

Local assisted living centers Margate Health and Rehabilitation Center and Forest Ridge Assisted Living have enforced visitation restrictions to protect residents from possible exposure to COVID-19.

Margate announced they are limiting visitation, making exceptions for cases involving significant issues, emergencies and terminally ill residents.

Forest Ridge Assisted Living announced that all visitation has been restricted, at any Ridge Care Senior Living’s assisted living and memory care communities in North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia. Exceptions to these restrictions will only be made for extenuating circumstances and must be approved and scheduled by each community’s executive director. These restrictions will remain in place until further notice.

Recreation and Entertainment

The N.C. State Parks announced Elk Knob State Park, Grandfather Mountain State Park, New River State Park and Mount Jefferson State Natural Area are closed as of March 27. Grandfather Mountain announced it would reopen in a limited capacity May 15, with all ticket sales moving online.

Also closing are recreation facilities at recreation sites in the National Forests in N.C. were temporarily shut down. The closures include picnic pavilions, shooting ranges and all restrooms.

These shutdowns are in addition to previous announcements about developed campgrounds, several large developed day use areas, visitor centers and Off-Highway Vehicle trail systems, which remain temporarily shut down.

The Ashe County Public Library announced its plans to resumes limited public services on Tuesday, May 19. Initially, the building will still be closed to the public, but curbside delivery of library materials and printed items will be offered Tuesday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The Ashe County Arts Council announced they have closed the Arts Center to the public. If anyone wishes a private viewing of the exhibit on display at the time, please contact the Arts Council at (336) 846-2787. The Arts Council has canceled all events in the foreseeable future, and are hoping to find dates to reschedule to. The Ashe County Little Theatre has postponed their next production, “Who’s On First?,” with no new date yet set.

The Florence Thomas Art School announced it would be closed through June 1. The annual Flapjack Breakfast Fundraiser, all classes and scheduled events have been postponed.

Ashe County Parks and Recreation has suspended all sports leagues until further notice, refunds will be considered if leagues are eventually canceled. At the same time, Ashe Park has been closed.

In line with major sports leagues around the world, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association announced Thursday, March 12, it would suspend high school athletics until at least Monday, April 6. It was later decided to cancel the season entirely, following Cooper’s decision to cancel schools entirely April 24.

Family Central’s park office is closed but staff can be contacted at (336) 982-6185 or by email at kevinanderson@ashecountygov.com. The gym and workout room at Family Central will be closed until further notice.

Emergency Services

At the Ashe County Detention Center, new inmates are being quarantined for anywhere from 15 to 30 days upon arrival. Air filters have been added in between the Detention Center’s four pods, hopefully keeping any disease contained should it arrive.

Ashe County Sheriff’s Office deputies are now doing as much as they can remotely, and have also been instructed to avoid entering confined spaces, instead opting to conduct business outside. Sheriff Phil Howell said the ACSO still wants people to know they are in the community.

According to Ashe County Emergency Management Coordinator Patty Gambill, citizens can call (866) 462-3821 for more information.

Education

While schools have been closed since March 16, Cooper declared April 24 that the spring semester would not resume. Students have been taking classes online, while school boards at every level have been working on what is next.

For continued updates and more information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, visit www.ashepostandtimes.com.

Bailey Little contributed reporting to this story.


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breaking
Federal judge issues order temporarily blocking governor's religious service restrictions

RALEIGH — A federal judge issued an order on Saturday, May 16, that temporarily halts restrictions placed as part an executive order from NC Governor Roy Cooper that bans indoor religious congregations of more than 10 people and encourages worship meetings held with social distancing “outdoors unless impossible,” including during the current Phase One of the state’s strategic reopening.

The Hon. James C. Dever III, Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, set a hearing for May 29 following a May 15 hearing with arguments presented from Solicitor General Ryan Park, representing the governor, as well as attorneys representing the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit brought against Cooper on Thursday, May 14 by plaintiffs Berean Baptist Church, People’s Baptist Church, Inc., Dr. Ronnie Baity and Return America, Inc., contends that “the assembly for religious worship provisions in Governor Cooper’s Executive Order 138 violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by not treating religious entities and individuals equally when compared to countless non-religious entities and individuals,” according to court documents.

Cooper responded to the order through spokesperson Ford Porter in a press release, stating, “We don’t want indoor meetings to become hotspots for the virus and our health experts continue to warn that large groups sitting together inside for long periods of time are much more likely to cause the spread of COVID-19. While our office disagrees with the decision, we will not appeal, but instead urge houses of worship and their leaders to voluntarily follow public health guidance to keep their members safe.”

The full text of Judge Dever’s order is available below or can be downloaded here.

Devers order

According to court documents, the plaintiffs’ brief in support of their motion for a preliminary injunction is due on Thursday, May 21, the defendant’s response is due on Tuesday, May 26 and then the plaintiffs’ reply is due on Wednesday, May 27.