A look ahead to 2017

By Jesse Campbell - jcampbell@civitasmedia.com

WEST JEFFERSON-Do you remember the opening sequence from the blockbuster hit Titanic when our female protagonist, Rose, began to recall the fateful day when the doomed vessel sunk?

“It’s been 84 years,” she said as her memory and the silver screen shifted to a distant time and void.

Or maybe the recurring nightmare Bill Murray faced in “Groundhog Day,” when this doomed period of morbidity and isolation refused to relent.

Well for many people, 2016 has had that same feeling of perpetual face-palming and complete exasperation as this year has worn on.

A turbulent political season, the death of beloved celebrities and the smothering inevitability that we, as a species, might have finally reached our evolutionary peak has been a sobering experience to say the least.

Fortunately, there is some good news to the unraveling silver lining holding together this Hindenburg of a year.

2016 is almost over and a fresh start awaits.

And while hindsight is 20/20, the Jefferson Post is defying the past in compiling a preview of what lies ahead in a new year. It’s not all bright and sunny – this is the newspaper industry after all – but hopefully you’ll glean enough feel good bits and pieces to feel optimistic about the year ahead. Soon enough, 2016 will just be a number and a distant memory.

There’s a new sheriff in town

You’d be lying if you said that you saw the sudden retirement of Sheriff James Williams coming. He’s held onto the post for a solid decade with little opposition. In fact, he ran unopposed in 2010. How does the contest for one of the county’s most coveted and highest ranking positions elicit not even token resistance from the area’s more popular political parties? He’s been a popular man, to say the least, unless you are on the wrong side of the law and have made a pilgrimage to the Williams Motel. By the way, the county’s recently constructed jail has served as a revenue builder for the county as Williams has used the facility to house inmates from overcrowded jails across the region.

Before Williams left, however, he issued a succession plan that includes the promotion of Chief Deputy Bucky Absher. That plan has drawn the ire and interest of two local challengers, who feel they would be the best man for the job. Williams’ plan will remain intact until commissioners’ formal appoint a new sheriff. They are expected to discuss and possibly vote on the matter during the Jan. 3 board meeting.

Hoppin’ into court

One of the county’s most closely followed criminal cases – the officer involved shooting of Dallas Shatley – made regional headlines following the indictment of former ACSO Deputy Josh Hopkins on second degree murder charges.

Hopkins became a fan favorite on the hit reality TV show “Southern Justice,” which focused on the day-to-day work of local sheriff’s deputies. Hopkins was also involved in the controversial 2012 shooting of Mark Houck. He was eventually cleared of any wrong doing in that case. Hopkins, who resides in Johnson City, Tenn., is due back in Ashe County Superior Court on Feb. 6.

New infrastructure

With the coming elimination of a few debt service payments, county officials feel as if they are in prime position to tackle some other “must haves” for the county’s populous.

School and county officials are now eyeing ground breaking on a site for a new middle school in Jefferson. The county has also agreed to partner with Wilkes Community College in seeking out a new home for the Ashe Campus. No concrete plans have been solidified in those discussions. 2017 could prove to be the year when most headway is made on the project. Several prospects, such as the empty Jefferson Station building, have made their way into the conversation, but these ideas have only gauged casual interest from the powers at be.

For several years, the county has explored the idea of constructing a fire training center facility. If nothing else, the “Two-Mile Fire” on Paul Goodman Road in November could prove to be the final impetus to give the project a little momentum.

U.S. 221 widening continues

Let’s not forget about one of the county’s most expansive and expensive ongoing projects: the widening of U.S. 221 from Deep Gap to Jefferson. Those monstrous piles of mountain and dirt are slowly being worn down to make room for a four-wide highway that should alleviate traffic congestion and hopefully vehicle fatalities. That stretch of highway has been a nightmare motorists as of late as several accidents, including one fatal incident on Black Friday, has kept rescue squad crew members closely guarding their scanners as they dread that next call.

And while the project’s completion might seem a lifetime away, motorists can take solace in the fact that highway officials believes sections of the roadway are already more than past the half-way mark.

Steam from asphalt plant debate continues

Speaking of fresh asphalt and taking the high road, a classic battle of environmentalists and businesses clashing over the right of progress and conservation is playing out in Glendale Springs.

Following two moratoriums, several seemingly never ending planning board discussions on new restrictions for a polluting industries ordinance and a few appeal hearings, the end of the Appalachian Materials asphalt plant debacle appears far to be over.

Although the county has adopted an official ordinance to address industries such as asphalt plants, the question remains, will AM be allowed to construct a plant in an abandoned quarry in the Glendale Springs community?

In late 2016, the county’s board of adjustments ruled the planning department erred in denying a polluting industries permit to AM. While the road to final construction could be rocky – with a an appeal process at a higher court pending – this persisting question could finally be answered in 2017.

A Clearer Vision

Ashe Vision, a loose confederation of business and civic leaders tasked with shaping what the county may look like in the years ahead, is beginning to formulate a plan of action on how to retain the county’s treasures while luring new ones.

The proactive community approach has already caught the attention of several community leaders. They’ve had planning sessions throughout the previous year to focus on long-term planning on how to better sell the county to potential visitors and employers. The group is worth keeping your eye on in 2017.

Airport upgrades

The once small and unassuming Ashe County Airport is beginning to play up to its aspirations. Following a lengthy runway extension, airport officials are looking to complete the newly spruced look with a new runway lighting system in the spring. Two taxi lanes and the accompanying apron also received a fresh coat of asphalt.

By Jesse Campbell


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