JEFFERSON — Ashe County Commissioners met with state Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Blowing Rock) and state Rep. Ray Russell (D-Boone) in the country courthouse for an informal discussion of local needs and concerns at 8 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 23.
Present on behalf of the county were Commissioners Paula Perry, Larry Dix, Vice Chairman William Sands, Chairman Todd McNeill and Acting County Manager Adam Stumb, along with other members of the county administrative office.
Topics of discussion included plans for an Ashe County livestock weighing facility, flexible school scheduling, economic development in Deep Gap, aiding small businesses and the future of state healthcare, among other interests.
Regarding the livestock facility, Ashe County Cooperative Extension Director Travis Birdsell entered the discussion to update Ballard and Russell on the preliminary planning and feasibility studies for an agricultural center with scales for weighing livestock within the county. Birdsell said the county has added its need for a livestock facility into the High Country Council of Governments’ list of future plans, and HCCOG Master Planner Kelly Coffey is working to find funding through state grants.
In an email to Ashe Post & Times, Coffey said HCCOG helped Ashe County apply for grants with the Golden LEAF Foundation and N.C. Agriculture Development & Farmland Preservation Trust Fund in December 2018, and expect to hear back about those applications in late 2019. HCCOG will also help Ashe apply for an Appalachian Regional Commission grant in the spring, according to Coffey.
“Livestock producers have expressed a real need for a facility and I hope we can get it funded,” Coffey said in the email. “The Cattlemen’s Association submitted an application to the Tobacco Trust Fund last year, but it wasn’t awarded. We’re going to talk to a representative and see if we can reapply, this time with the County as the applicant.”
According to McNeill, Ashe County livestock farmers have been losing money on their cattle because there is nowhere to weigh livestock within the county. McNeill said loading and transporting cattle to out-of-county weighing stations causes stress to the animals, causing the herd to lose weight, and the farmers to lose money as a result.
According to Birdsell, the county has yet to decide on a physical location for its future livestock facility, but McNeill mentioned that a location in Smethport has been on the county’s radar. Birdsell said room for expansion to the facility would be a good idea, with the livestock scales being a top priority, and a meeting space and commercial kitchen being secondary needs, plus other amenities for farmers who do not own livestock.
“If that’s really super important, even a long-term project, make it a priority in everything you guys are doing right now — make it a priority to find land,” Ballard said. “All that does is it really helps further support any efforts we might make in the legislature, to know that you have this property that would be ideal.”
Ballard told the county officials to reach out to her and Russell whenever grants are applied for, so they can write letters of endorsement and — hopefully — aid the grant money in finding its way to Ashe County.
With Ashe County Schools’ first semester exams being pushed back until after Christmas break this school year, Perry stressed the need for a flexible school calendar to Ballard and Russell.
Russell said the biggest opponents to statewide flexible school calendars are the N.C. Chamber of Commerce and businesses associated with the tourism industry who are concerned they will lose revenue if summers are shortened, such as summer camps.
“If you all in Ashe County want a flexible schedule bill introduced that has a serious chance of getting through, a resolution from the county commissioners would be really important,” Russell said. “Watauga has done it. I’m not sure if Avery County has done this or not.”
The best way to enact a flexible school schedule for Ashe County would be through a small, region-focused bill for counties most affected by adverse weather — Ashe, Watauga, Avery and Mitchell — rather than a sweeping, statewide change, according to Russell.
Deep Gap economic development
Working with Watauga County to develop Deep Gap along U.S. 221 at the county border was mentioned by Stumb as a forthcoming project. Russell said working together would be an important, and suggested developing information technology infrastructure in the area.
“I really think that the road project and the availability of property potentially there in the Deep Gap area gives Watauga and Ashe County an opportunity to work together on a project, and I really believe if we can do that, it’s more than doubling the chances that something actually works,” Russell said. “Lots of mountain communities across the country have really done well in their IT development — there are plenty of resources — the computer science program that I’m out of graduates 100 people a year, there are plenty of those folks who would love to stay here.”
Dix added that Ashe County has good fiber optic infrastructure, and Russell’s comments fall in line with the county’s need for a strategic plan to guide continuous future development.
Upon a question from Dix about enhancing and helping small businesses, Ballard said small business growth in Ashe County has been amazing, and a point of discussion in places like Blowing Rock, which Ashe is drawing visitors away from.
“I think people recognize the small business growth that’s definitely happened over here,” Ballard said.
Ballard said she was trying to root through the weeds of agency inconsistencies with paperwork and codes that increase the burden on business owners as they try to navigate the legalities of running a small business. According to Ballard, getting the Department of Revenue and other agencies on the same page with the citizens they oversee is a priority of hers, not necessarily from a legislative perspective, but from leadership and oversight angles.
“Even with agriculture, and even tree farmers — we pass laws, rules change, even rules within the agencies change, but lots of times they’re not really communicated out — our farmers aren’t educated on what has happened or taken place,” Ballard said. “What I’m trying to do also is think on the front end and ensure we do have little educational tools, even if its regional workshops and making sure people are going out into these areas (and informing farmers of changes).”
Russell said there were corporate tax and income tax cuts enacted at the beginning of January.
Future of state healthcare
McNeill stressed the significance of Ashe Memorial Hospital, requesting the state representatives please be mindful of its wellbeing. Ballard said her entire constituency consists of communities with rural hospitals, and she understands the hospital is a lifeline for keeping people in and coming to the county, promising to advocate for her district’s hospitals.
According to an estimate from Russell, expansion to North Carolina Medicaid could mean $500,000 in additional funding for Ashe Memorial Hospital.
“Plenty of people are saying there’s going to be — in some form — some type of Medicaid expansion that is going to happen this year,” Russell said. “I’m really hopeful, I’m hearing positive things about it. It may not be the full-blown Medicaid expansion, but there are bills that are going to be introduced right off the bat.”
In addition to these discussions, Ballard asked how the Christmas tree industry did in 2018 and asked how Ashe County’s veterans had been faring, in addition to asking about school safety — good on all fronts, according to Ashe County administration. Russell asked how funding for the new Ashe County Middle School was coming along — also fine, Stumb said — and both state legislators said there was no movement lately on the push for a nearly $2 billion school bond referendum, but they were hopeful.
Future meetings between Ashe County administrators and the county’s elected state legislators will be scheduled as time permits, the public servants agreed.