The foundation of the tightly woven mountain community was rocked to its very core as news swept through the county like wild fire of the triple murder of three prominent Ashe County men at a tree farm on the North Carolina and Virginia state line last January.
After months of collecting evidence and testimony, Virginia state prosecutors have begun to move past the preliminary stage of a trial that is slated to last at least three weeks, defendant Frederick Hammer’s attorneys have stated. Currently, a Jan. 9 court date has been set in Hammer’s case at which time an actual trial date may be set.
The case of former Jefferson attorney Michelle Shepherd will also take center stage in Ashe County this year. Shepherd was indicted in July by the Ashe County Grand Jury on 26 class C felonies for alleged fraud involving more than $3.3 million taken from local people.
She is scheduled to appear before the North Carolina Superior Court on March 9.
As the nation’s sagging economy continues to struggle to stabilize itself, the impact of the nation’s economic turmoil can be seen in the faces of Ashe County citizens who have been affected in some way by the recent wave of plant and company closures.
With a gloomy economic forecast set by financial gurus, many citizens began to ponder their very own job security and if other businesses will fall prey to America’s reeling economy. Employees from the Leviton plants and Catawissa Lumber have already felt the sting of job losses. Altogether, approximately 300 to 350 Ashe County workers have been left unemployed due to plant closings.
Despite the national and local economy’s downward spiral, Ashe County’s Director of Economic Development Pat Mitchell believes the economy will stabilize in the second half of 2009. Mitchell’s economic forecast stems in part from the fact that in the past the national economy has rebounded when new leadership and administration comes into power.
“I think when new leadership comes in, it helps to spur a new hope in people,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell believes that with the new turnover of offices at the state and national level, a new aura of confidence and stability will be instilled within the average American worker. Mitchell also foresees new faces in the administration sector of the state government including new secretaries in the departments of transportation and commerce, bringing about new changes to the state economy.
Although 2008 has left many Ashe County workers unemployed, the worst may be behind us. Mitchell disclosed that she has not seen any other indicators that other businesses or companies will have plans to cease or diminish operations. In fact, the G.E.... plant in West Jefferson is expected to see a resurgence of opened positions following the current trend of “flatness.”
The news is not all doom and gloom in Ashe, as several community enhancement projects are already well underway to better serve individuals and businesses in Ashe County for years to come. One of the county’s most notable undertakings is the airport expansion project which will increase the length of the runway to make room for the arrival of corporate jets that will be an enticement to larger corporations to explore the possibility of relocating to the community, aiding the ailing local economy. Additional aircraft hangers will also be implemented into the facility. According to County Manager Dan McMillan, the project is currently on hold as county officials are waiting to receive state and federal funds to begin groundbreaking on the enhancement project which could begin as early as this spring. Altogether, the expansion project is expected to cost approximately $9 million, McMillan said.
Last week, the North Carolina Department of Transportation announced that its representatives will be touring the airport within the next few weeks to inspect the facilities and determine what other renovations will be necessary. The county is scheduled to receive appropriation money from the NCDOT aviation division from the FFA in the amount of $2.5 million in either February or March for the purpose of airport upgrades. Mt. Airy’s was the only other facility in North Carolina to receive such funds, McMillan said.
Avid readers will have a new haven by July of this year as crews are beginning to conclude the Ashe County Library expansion project. To date, construction crews have already completed the installation of the building’s windows and are putting the finishing touches on the roof so crews can work through the winter months. Crews are also working diligently to finish the buildings infrastructure including framed walls with sheetrock. The new facility will more than double the size of the library and increase shelf capacity by 50 percent, allowing the library’s present collection to grow. In the past, the only way staff could provide additional space for new books was to physically remove a selection on the shelves, meaning that the library’s growth was virtually nonexistent.
The overall expansion project did not come easily. Various fundraisers and a few generous gifts from local businesses helped the library proceed along with construction without any major financial setbacks. The “Bricks for Books” program and a sizeable contribution from First Citizens Bank have helped the dream of an updated facility a reality for the people of Ashe County.
As Ashe County moves into a new year, it is important to remember that one can not move forward without discovering the past as that is the message Don Long of the Ashe County Historical Society is trying to convey to all Ashe countians. Ashe County has lacked a historical center where all citizens can come and unearth the county’s illustrious history. Currently, all citizens can come and view some of the area’s relics at the Museum of Ashe County History which is located opposite of the 1904 Ashe County Courthouse. The currently renovated courthouse will be the future home of the museum as crews from Architectural Restoration LLC are working diligently to finish the courthouse renovation while paying particularly close attention to historical accuracy. It is the hope of Long to have the museum relocated from its temporary position to the ground floor of the courthouse by April, although he has not ruled potential delays out of the equation.
“I’m bit of an optimist,” Long admits.
Crews have already re-plastered the courthouse walls, their original 1904 condition, and have repaired the building’s deteriorating ceiling as well as the installation of new windows. Long disclosed that he will be moving the artifacts from the museum across the street into the courthouse’s refinished rooms as they become available.
Transportation issues will also be on the minds of officials in the new year. After two postponements, the expansion project for Highway 221 can now move into the design phase. Originally, expansion on the stretch of highway that runs from Jefferson to the Ashe and Watauga county line was scheduled to begin in 2010 but plans for construction have now been pushed back to sometime in 2012. According to McMillan, the NCDOT will be examining proposals for highway construction and lane placement plans over the course of the next 8 to 10 months. It is the hope of the NCDOT to obtain a right-of-way for the highway between Baldwin and the Watauga County line by 2012. Division 11 of the NCDOT has already obtained the necessary right-of-way for construction between Baldwin and Jefferson.
Altogether, the total funding approved project will cost roughly $68 million. McMillan cited that additional funding for the project may be coming with the recently approved economic stimulus package. The project is currently on top of NCDOT Division 11’s State Transportation Improvement Program which will oversee the improvement of highways in Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Caldwell, Surry, Watauga, Wilkes, and Yadkin counties.