Centenary United Methodist Church to celebrate 110th anniversary

The congregation of Centenary United Methodist Church invites the community to join them in celebrating the church’s 110th anniversary on Sunday, Sept. 8. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

This weekend, one area church will be holding a celebration that has been more than a century in the making.

Centenary United Methodist Church, 203 North Elm Ave., Erwin, will hold a 110th Congregational Anniversary Celebration on Sunday, Sept. 8, at 11 a.m. The celebration will also recognize the anniversary of the current chapel, which will be celebrating 100 years this year. “This has been a year in the making. Harry Lewis, our evangelism committee chair, really wanted this project,” Centenary United Methodist representative Kathy Jones said. “Our congregation is 110 years old, but our building is 100 years old, so this will be a dual celebration.”

Jones, who has been a member of the Centenary congregation for 18 years, told The Erwin Record that members of Centenary range in all ages and longevity with the church.

“In comparison to many in the congregation, I’m considered a newcomer,” Jones said. “Some of our older members have been here for more than 45 years. This is just a very special congregation inside of a very special church.”

Reverend Kimberly Isley is excited to host the event.

“Hopefully everyone in the community will attend,” Isley said. “Even people who don’t attend Centenary regularly, can come out and help us celebrate the historic event. “We hope that everyone that has been involved with and touched by the annual Good Friday event that we and the Unicoi Ministers Association put on will attend.”

According to Isley, Three Rivers District Superintendent Lori Jo (L.J.) Cranford will be speaking and music will be provided by The Appalachian Trail Bluegrass Band.

“Cranford has been a United Methodist Pastor for around 25 years, and some in this area may remember when she was the pastor at Sulphur Springs United Methodist Church prior to becoming the district superintendent,” Isley said.

Isley, who has been the pastor at Centenary United Methodist since 2014, acknowledged that the congregation has worked hard to display the historical value of the church in the community. “This will be a historical event, and our congregation has worked hard to find items to display during the event,” Isley said. “Everyone is encouraged to come check out the exhibits and enjoy lunch with us after the guest speaker.”

According to Jones, Centenary takes pride in giving back to the community.

“We have been a presence in the community for many years and we have always been a church that you could look to help out with whatever is going on in the community,” Jones said. “For many years we had a Relay For Life team that raised several thousand dollars for the area Relay For Life. We have a very active Women’s Methodist Group that reaches out to work with several organizations. We also are very active in the Habitat for Humanity builds in Unicoi County.”

Jones acknowledged that following the 110th Congregational Anniversary Celebration, the church will focus on events for the upcoming Unicoi County Apple Festival.

“Our youth park cars here at the church, and proceeds help them go to the Resurrection event in Pigeon Forge every year,” Jones said. “The Methodist Women group will be doing our annual bake sale here in the chapel of Centenary United Methodist Church. We will have hot apple pies, in fact, some people from out of town come in just for the calm of our chapel.”

Everyone is welcome to attend the 110th Congregational Anniversary Celebration, on Sunday, Sept. 8, at 11 a.m. or if you can’t make it and would love to attend a typical Sunday Service, feel free to drop by on any Sunday at 9:45 a.m. for Sunday School or at 10:55 a.m. for services.

“We encourage everybody to attend any time,” Jones said.

For more information, please follow Centenary United Methodist Church on Facebook.

Sassafras Moon Festival to be held Saturday, Sept. 7

HERBalachia graduates, pictured from left, Micky Morton, who owns Love Roots Farm; Lesley Setchim, who owns Appalachian Alchemy; Ralph Crawford, a retired Eastman engineer; Taylor Tucker a mother of three and owner of her own herbal business; and Sarah Devault, who is the nursing manager at a local hospital. (Contributed photo)

By Richard Rourk

There is a unique and free family festival coming to Erwin next weekend.

The Sassafras Moon Herbal Festival began as a vision to restore and preserve the herbal traditions and plants in Southern Appalachian.

“The Sassafras Moon Herbal Festival is a one-day celebration of herbalism for our community and it came about as the natural growth of interest in the use of herbal medicines has grown in our area in the last few years,” HERBalachia founder Michelle Bouton told The Erwin Record. “While HERBalachia’s Herbalist Lifestyle Program has been very successful in the past few years, I want to reach out to those who may not have financial means to allow them to attend herbal classes.”

Bouton wanted to be sure that HERBalachia’s festival is a free event. “I was determined from its inception that ‘SassyFest,’ as it has affectionately become known, be free to all who want to attend and I hope to find other avenues to offer this valuable information to others in future,” Bouton said. “I want Unicoi County to become known for its unique natural resource, and hope that the people here can use those more to add to health, and maybe even start new businesses based on herbals.”

According to Bouton, the festival is the result of grants.

“Through grant support from Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) and Central Appalachian Network (CAN), this festival will allow locals to come together and learn more about growing, harvesting, and use of native herbs,” Bouton said. “CAN awarded HERBalachia the grant to get the festival started and assisted me in getting training for fundraising and community development, and ASD served as our nonprofit fiscal sponsor for the grant, I have to give thanks to both of them.”

Bouton acknowledged that the festival will have something for everybody.

“The festival will offer vendors of all types, including herbal soaps, teas and artwork, as well as native plants for sale,” Bouton said. “Throughout the day, free presentations on a variety of topics related to herb growing and environmental stewardship of at-risk plants will be offered by local residents such as Joe Hollis of Mountain Gardens, Jeannie Dunn of Red Moon Herbs, and Chester Crain, ginseng specialist.”

According to Bouton, Sassafras Moon Herbal Festival will be beneficial to beginners and experts alike.

We will have nine free presentations by experts in the herbal field, from creating more fertile soils to raise herbs to understand how we can both continue our local tradition of ginseng harvesting but also make sure the plants are being replenished so it can be removed from the ‘at-risk’ species list,” Bouton said. “Many of our vendors will be offering interactive activities, such as tasting herbal foods to making their own bath products to take home and we will also have an area dedicated to herbal education opportunities in our area as well as United Plant Savers and Herbalists Without Borders, two of the most important herbal conservation organizations in the U.S.”

Bolton sees this festival a vital event for the community.

“I feel this event is important because herbalism is a pathway to connecting people in our area back to nature and our backyards and when we care about what is outside our doors, we take an active role in protecting that, meaning we are less willing to spray Roundup on our yard or dump our trash in the creek,” Bouton said. “East Tennessee has some of the most amazing biodiversity on the planet, and I believe if we learn more about that, value it, and take pride in it, it will be better for our health and our economy.”

According to Bouton, the Unicoi County area has long been known as a cradle of herbalism in the United States due to its amazing biodiversity, which rivals that of the Amazon as local  Appalachian root diggers provided around 75 percent of the crude herbs for medicine trade in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s.

“So many people have stories of their mamaw or papaw taking them into the woods to teach them about herbs, but the information on these plants and their usage is all but forgotten,” Bouton said.

To help keep these old traditions from dying out, Bouton started HERBalachia in Erwin in 2016 to provide the local community with knowledge of using what is growing in their back yard to boost health and prevent disease, as it has been done for hundreds of years in this area. “HERBalachia’s recent ‘Foraging Wild Foods’ workshop held at Erwin Outdoor Supply drew about 50 attendees, and brought students interested in learning about wild foods from as far as Knoxville,” Bouton said.

Now in its fourth year of programming, HERBalachia offers classes such as plant ID walks held in fields and woods, as well as hands-on medicine making classes teach students to create their own home apothecary of tinctures, teas, salves, lotions, and syrups.

“Due to high levels of interest by local medical providers, HERBalachia partnered with ETSU College of Nursing to offer Continuing Education Credits for their Advanced Herbals series of classes,” Bouton said.

Town of Erwin Communications Specialist Jamie Rice is excited to have HERBalachia and Sassafras Moon Herbal Festival in Erwin.

“The Town of Erwin is so proud to help sponsor and promote this festival,” Rice said. “It truly embodies the magic that lies within our mountains, and there has already been a great response on social media.”

Union Street Taproom Owner Michael Baker is also excited to be a part of the festival.

“We will be opening at 10 a.m. and we will be serving beermosas,” Baker said. “We will have three speakers throughout the day.”

For those interested in attending the first-ever Sassafras Moon Herbal Festival, more information can be found at HERBalachia.com or the HERBalachia Facebook page. The event will be held Saturday, Sept 7, from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. and is free to all.

Senator Blackburn discusses healthcare, economy during visit to Erwin

U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn speaks to lunch attendees alongside State Representative David Hawk at The Bramble on Friday, Aug. 16. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn made a stop in Unicoi County on Friday, Aug.16, to speak at a luncheon held at The Bramble and sponsored by the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce.

Blackburn was in town touring Nuclear Fuel Services and was the grand marshall of the Bass Pro Shop NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday, Aug. 17.

At Friday’s luncheon, Blackburn laid out her plans for rural development, trade, the economy and healthcare.

Blackburn, who was given questions by State Representative David Hawk, laid out what she believes is vital to strengthening rural development.

“High-speed internet is the key to rural development,” Blackburn said. “You cannot have 21st-century education, healthcare or law enforcement without high-speed internet.”

Blackburn, who chairs a newly-formed technology task force, called 21st-century warfare one that will be fought through cyberspace.

According to Blackburn, there are two items holding up a trade agreement with China.

“Intellectual property protections and a Chinese telecommunications company named Huawei are two issues holding up a China trade agreement,” Blackburn said. “Our innovators deserve to be paid and recognized for their contribution.”

In regards to Huawei, Blackburn explained that the issue runs deeper than just intellectual property theft.

“Huawei is the state-run telephone company and they embed spyware in their products; this makes them vulnerable to hackers,” Blackburn said.

Blackburn then shifted the conversation to the economy.

“I am proud to say that Tennessee’s unemployment rate is at 3.4 percent and the wage growth is up 5 percent in the state, and this is all because of the President’s tax break,” Blackburn said. “Our goal is to make these tax cuts permanent; they currently run out in 2025.”

Blackburn told the crowd of close to 70, that she is adamant about making the tax breaks permanent.

“We are trying to speed the clock up a little bit on these tax cuts since the growth has been phenomenal,” Blackburn said. “When you have less taxation, less government and less regulation, it leads to more growth.”

Blackburn then turned to healthcare, specifically rural healthcare.

“It really bothers me rural health care is shrinking, so I came up with a rural health agenda,” Blackburn said. “I am working on three separate bills that will bring more healthcare professionals to rural areas, fund a healthcare renovations fund to provide grants to repair older rural healthcare facilities and to increase telehealth availability to rural areas.”

Blackburn also asked those in attendance to share their concerns. Unicoi County Register of Deeds Debbie Tittle pointed out that Unicoi County is struggling for taxable land due to the county being made up of more than 60 percent U.S. Forestry land.

“We have a wonderful county, but we need more money we need more federal grants,” Tittle said. Blackburn nodded in agreement.

Before she left, Blackburn had praise for NFS.

“The work at NFS is important to Oak Ridge, Y12, Arnold air, which is testing our autonomous vehicles; it’s important to our vehicles and our Navy,” Blackburn said. ”NFS is vital to economic growth and our future.”

Awaiting Blackburn outside the luncheon was a group of protesters holding signs and asking questions. Blackburn did not answer any questions protestors asked as she entered and exited The Bramble.

Local Democrats stage protest during Blackburn’s visit

More than two dozen peaceful protesters lined the corner of North Main Avenue and Gay Street, on Friday, Aug. 16, to oppose U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn’s visit to Erwin. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn was met with more than two dozen peaceful protestors as she visited Unicoi County on Friday, Aug. 16.

Members of Unicoi County, Washington County and Sullivan County’s Democratic Parties were on hand to welcome Blackburn with signs that read “Truth Matters,” “Marsha, Donald’s Darling” and “Have You No Shame,” among others.

“We are here to let Marsha know our opinions on climate change, education, and gun control,” Unicoi County resident Brunhilde Tober-Myer said.

Unicoi County resident Rebecca Cummings said she took offense to Blackburn’s support of President Trump during the release of the Mueller Report.

“Marsha claims that Trump was exonerated,” Cummings said. “She needs to retract that statement.”

Unicoi County residents Bill and Judy Beckman were in attendance and felt the need to address the issue of the federal debt among many other issues.

“We are here to bring to the forefront several issues including the huge increase in the federal debt, dishonesty and corruption in politics, especially where Citizens United is involved,” Bill said. “Campaign finance reform is a huge issue. Racism is a huge issue. Dividing the nation is a huge issue and Medicare for All is a huge issue.”

Judy agreed.

“We have never been so divided,” Judy added.

Some signs held by the protesters were very personal. For Sarah Eberle of Johnson City, her sign had pictures of who she is out protesting for.

“I have three beautiful granddaughters and I don’t want to leave them a bad, nasty world,” Eberle said.

For 27-year-old Unicoi County resident Gerald Burke the reason to protest was for his children.

“I want to take responsibility for my community,” Burke said. “I see values that are not reflective to the community around me and I want to exercise my voice. My children have inspired me to get involved. They are going to inherit this community from me and I want to leave it better than when I found it.”

For Daisney LaCroix, the need for the youth to be represented is important.

“I’m here because these issues matter to me and my generation, and I came out to support those who are pushing for our voice to be heard,” LaCroix said. “If I could speak to Senator Blackburn, I would tell her, ‘You are a woman, you should understand that the Heartbeat Bill doesn’t protect women at all, period, it never will, especially young women and children that are victims’.”

Unicoi County resident Jim Priesmeyer fought the heat to bring awareness to the opioid and gun crises in America.

“I’m a gun owner myself, but it seems to me we have an under armed police force and an over-armed civilian population, and that needs to turn around,” Priesmeyer said. “I would say to Senator Blackburn we need an incremental plan to bring enforcement to our gun control laws, something needs to be done.”

Despite not getting any response from Sen. Blackburn during the Aug. 16 visit, the crowd felt accomplished by the number of protestors that attended the rally and the number of thumbs up and waves the group received by passersby.

“I’m so proud of Erwin and Unicoi County right now,” Unicoi County resident Jamie Rainey said.

Erwin man arrested after 7-hour standoff with police

Stephen Honeycutt

By Richard Rourk

Officers from Erwin Police Department, Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department, Johnson City Police Department and Washington County SWAT, joined forces to apprehend a wanted Tri-Cities man following a standoff that lasted several hours on Tuesday, Aug. 21.

According to Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley, officers from Erwin Police Department noticed Stephen Honeycutt, 41, 136 Rutter Lane, Erwin, speeding on Carolina Avenue. 

“Yesterday afternoon, at approximately 2 p.m., the Erwin Police Department clocked a speeding vehicle on Carolina Avenue,” Hensley told The Erwin Record. “The suspect did not stop and led the officers to a residence on Chestoa Pike. The suspect pulled out what appeared to be hunting rifles and entered the residence from the back.”

The residence was the home of Honeycutt’s ex-girlfriend, and she was able to escape the residence when Honeycutt entered, according to the sheriff.

Honeycutt, who was originally wanted on aggravated criminal trespassing and theft charges stemming from an incident where Honeycutt allegedly kicked in the door at the same residence a week prior, barricaded himself in the house. 

“Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson and I were on the scene and we were able to make our way in the residence with Honeycutt,” Hensley said. “He had several weapons including a .38 pistol.”

According to Hensley, JCPD and Washington County SWAT were called in as well as Rev. Craig Shelton, as he knew the suspect, to start negotiations. 

“We negotiated with the suspect for approximately seven hours,” Hensley said. “The suspect placed the pistol on his lap, and he was shot with a non-lethal bean bag and we were able to end the standoff without injury.”

Honeycutt was taken into custody around 9 p.m. 

Hensley said he was thankful that the incident had a good outcome. 

“I just want to thank the community for their patience while we set up a perimeter and took the necessary measures to resolve the issue,” Hensley said. “I want to thank everyone that prayed for the officers and the suspect. I’d also like to thank Washington County Sheriff Ed Graybeal, Johnson City Police Chief Karl Turner and all the officers who did an amazing job of responding.” 

According to Hensley, situations like these can be resolved because these organizations work together. 

“We trained with these officers and we have a good relationship with these agencies, and if you have a seven-hour standoff, you need help,” Hensley said.

In addition to the previous trespassing and theft charges, Honeycutt picked up more trespassing and theft charges, along with aggravated domestic assault, aggravated burglary, evading arrest and vandalism charges, according to Hensley.

That’s a wrap: Capitol Theater closes

After suffering damage during a snowstorm last winter, Capitol Cinema I & II in downtown Erwin will not reopen, according to its owner. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Due to weather damage, Capitol Cinema I & II in downtown Erwin is closing its doors for good.

“The roof support was compromised in December 2018 during the heavy snowfall we had,” owner Jan Bradley said. “We’ve had several engineers look at the roof and the cost of repair far exceeds the number of patrons who attend movies here, thus making it unfeasible to fund the repair for keeping it solely as a theatre.”

The theater has been a part of Erwin for eight decades

“The Capitol Theatre opened its doors in September 1940, contrary to some reports that it opened in 1935,” Bradley said. “It was one of several theatres owned by our late grandfather, Earle Hendren.”

Bradley acknowledged that the theater has always been a family-owned business.

“After (Earle’s) passing in 1962, Daddy took it over and remained owner until his untimely death in 2005,” Bradley said. “It was a single-screen movie house until Daddy renovated it in the 1980s and enclosed the balcony to make it a twin-screen theatre, renaming it ‘Capitol Cinema I & II’.”

Not only has the theater provided entertainment and joy for the community, it has also been a source of pride for Bradley and her family.

“Movies and popcorn have always run in my blood,” she said. “I have always said the first solid food I ate was popcorn. From the time I was 7 years old I have worked in some capacity at either the Holiday Drive-In or the Capitol.”

A lifetime of memories has been made since the theater started serving the community in the 1940s. According to Bradley, the theater has seen many of the greatest movies grace the Capitol’s screens.

“There are so many memorable movies to list, but classics like ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘The Ten Commandments’ stand out during daddy’s time, and then ‘Walk the Line’ which was the reopening premier in November 2005, after daddy passed and our first extensive renovation,” Bradley said. “Of course all of the Marvel and DC Comic movies were fun to show, as were the ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Twilight’ series.”

Bradley is very proud of what the theater has meant for so many people over the years.

“I am most proud of the fact that the Capitol has been a constant part of downtown Erwin for close to 80 years, and under the same family ownership for three generations,” Bradley said.

With the theater closing, Bradley said she hopes the building will be a place that the community will still be able to gather in the future.

“It is my hope that someone or some foundation will look at the potential of the building as a multi-purpose facility for the citizens of Erwin and Unicoi County,” Bradley said. “Theatre business for the small-town independent theatre owner has been on the decline over the past several years. Televisions are larger and more affordable than ever and streaming services are attractive for families and they afford them the option of staying home for entertainment.”

According to Bradley, the hometown theater has a hard time competing with other competitive markets.

“Going to the movies is just one part of a night out, without other activities to attend, our competition ultimately won,” Bradley said.

Bradley acknowledged that she will miss the theater dearly.

“I will miss seeing our loyal patrons that have supported the theatre over the years and remained true to seeing a movie in Erwin as opposed to attending one in a competitive market,” Bradley said. “It is because of these loyal patrons that the theatre has been able to remain open for as long as it has.”

Bradley and her family are thankful for the many patrons that have visited the theater over the years.

“I want to say thank you for the many years of support the citizens have bestowed upon Capitol Cinema,” Bradley said. “As heartbreaking as it is to them, they need to understand that this was an agonizing decision for our entire family to make, one that did not come easy.”

Bradley also expressed appreciation for the employees that have been the backbone of the business.

“I want to thank our loyal employees that have been a part of the theatre during its run, especially those who have been with me during my ownership,” Bradley said. “Without their loyalty and dedication, we would not have been able to remain open for as long as we did. Ticket sales drive the theatre business and without those sales, there is no business.”

According to Bradley, refunds for all gift certificate holders will be given by going to the theater box office on Thursday, Aug. 8, from 6-8 p.m. and on Saturday, Aug. 10, from 10 a.m. until noon. Customers are asked to bring their gift card with them to verify the balance.

40-cent property tax hike looms in Erwin

By Richard Rourk

The Town of Erwin could be facing a 40-cent property tax increase.

The Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen have been meeting for the past few weeks to work on the 2019-20 budget. During the workshops, it was discovered that the town is looking at an approximate $650,000 shortfall, which according to Mayor Doris Hensley, would result in the tax hike for city residents.

“It was very agonizing, but we are trying to focus on the long-term fixes – those improvements that are going to be here for the next 10-20 years,” Hensley said.

The 40-cent tax increase would bring the Town of Erwin’s tax rate up to $1.862 per every $100 of assessed property value. The current rate is $1.462.

According to the 2019-20 proposed budget, the Town of Erwin will have total expenditures of approximately $7.4 million, which is an increase from the 2018-19 budget expenditures of $6.3 million.

Without the 40-cent property tax increase, proposed revenues amounted to approximately $6.75 million, leading to the $650,000 shortfall. The tax increase will make up that difference, officials say.

Town of Erwin City Recorder Glenn Rosenoff acknowledged that several necessary items led to the increased expenditures and budget shortfall.

“We have two new police officers with full benefits, a brand new police vehicle, brand new fire truck, rescue truck, new gear for our first responders, and the various infrastructure upgrades that are catching up to us,” Rosenoff said. “We had two officers that were added at the end of last year, but it’s a new fiscal year and you have the two new police officers that are receiving benefits and with gear, equipment and automobile you are looking at a ballpark figure of a couple of hundred thousand dollars upfront, with a recurring cost of $100,000 plus, yearly.” Rosenoff said that Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) suggested the hiring of two officers a few years ago.

The town also hired one full-time parks department employee that will assist with mowing and trails in the summer and street upkeep in the winter.

“This is a position that has remained vacant for four years,” Hensley said.

According to Rosenoff, funds are being used to bring businesses and jobs into the town.

“We are spending money, but everything is driven to promote economic development,” Rosenoff said. “We are hoping for new jobs. We are hoping for our citizens to take those new jobs.

“The infrastructure improvements include capital projects for Fishery Park, which will cost an estimated $14,660.65 for the 2019-20 budget year, and road repaving projects, Elm Street and others, that will cost an estimated $507,637 for the 2019-20 budget year,” Rosenoff added.

According to the proposed budget, the estimated costs for capital projects will be $2,033,555.76 for the 2019-20 budget year. That is a $763,080.76 increase from the 2018-19 capital projects budget of $1,270,275.

“In regards to Fishery Park, infrastructure there is not adequate, and we want our citizens to have a park that is a destination for them. We would love to have that park be a regional destination,” Rosenoff said. “Everything we do is to attract business and sales tax money, so we can create jobs, because they are very important to us and we want to keep these jobs here.”

This year’s budget presented the Town of Erwin with a dilemma, according to Rosenoff.

“We are slowly increasing local tax sales, but we do not have surpluses yet,” he said. “We are spending more money for economic development to market Erwin to attract retail recruitment. We are investing a whole lot in ourselves to improve the area.”

According to the proposed 2019-20 budget, the Town of Erwin is investing $25,000 into the Unicoi Joint Economic Development Board to utilize the services of the Buxton Group, a company that uses geo mapping information to recruit national businesses to the area.

“When you look at property taxes as the number one source of revenues, then you compare it to just staying with the times, police and fire alone exceeds the amount of property taxes we were receiving,” Rosenoff said.

According to Rosenoff, it is vital to the citizens for the Town of Erwin to have a strong police department and fire department.

“Our police department needs to be efficient, they need to be effective and they need to have the latest technology to be responsive and they are very responsive,” Rosenoff said. “We need to equip our fire department to fight fires, but also to give the town an excellent ISO rating to help relieve home insurance costs. These are things that potential businesses look for when relocating.”

Hensley agreed Rosenoff.

“We really had to prioritize our equipment – our fire truck our rescue truck – not only to protect the citizens and property here, but also to give us a better ISO rating,” Hensley said. “It just seems that we have ignored our equipment for so long, that it was costing us more to repair them rather than just replace them, so we knew it was time to replace them.”

According to Hensley, the town tries to keep vehicles for up to eight years.

According to Rosenoff, the town is focused on prioritizing infrastructure and equipment for the town in the future, as well as preparing for more economic growth.

“We are constantly working to improve infrastructure, everything physical above ground and everything physical below ground you don’t see, we are looking to improve,” Rosenoff said. “We can’t send someone to scout Erwin and expect them to bring a business to town if the infrastructure is poor.”

Rosenoff acknowledged that the Town of Erwin prides itself on taking care of its employees as well.

“We spend nearly $700,000 in benefits towards retirement and healthcare. The town contributes 100 percent to retirement for all employees and 93 percent of total healthcare for our employees,” Rosenoff said. “Taxpayers should know we try hard to retain our great employees that make the town so special.”

According to Hensley, paying for benefits for the employees is crucial in keeping the town functioning.

“It’s very important to keep the people we have. The employees we have are already trained and certified and they know the area. In the long run that saves the town time and money,” Hensley said. “We have a 3 percent salary increase for employees in this year’s proposed budget. We have hard-working employees, loyal employees and they are dedicated and passionate about their town, we definitely want to keep them.”

The Town of Erwin BMA is expected to vote on the first reading of the proposed 2019-20 budget at its Monday, Aug. 12, meeting. The meeting will be held at Erwin Town Hall and will begin at 5:30 p.m. The BMA will hold a second reading vote at a later date to finalize the budget.

Food City’s Erwin store officially opens

A ribbon cutting for the new Food City store in Erwin was held on Tuesday, July 30. The store officially opened for business on Wednesday, July 31. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

From Staff Reports

“This is the result of a collaboration of the Town of Erwin and Unicoi County,” Food City CEO Steve Smith said during the Tuesday, July 30, ribbon cutting of the new Food City store in Erwin. “We are excited.”

Food City officially opened its doors to shoppers on Wednesday, July 31, at 8 a.m. The new store includes an in-store bakery/deli, complete with a hot food bar and café seating area. Full-service meat and seafood departments will offer pre-marinated and seasoned oven ready products, plus a complete selection of top-quality meats that are all-natural with no solutions added, including Certified Angus Beef. In-house meat cutters will hand-cut steaks and fresh meat to order. 

Expanded grocery, frozen food and produce departments will offer a complete selection of gourmet, international and specialty items. Rapid checkout service will be provided by six traditional check-out lanes, one express lane and four self-check-outs. 

For added convenience, the store will include a Food City pharmacy, equipped with a drive-thru for greater ease in prescription services, a Food City Gas n’ Go and GoCart curbside pick-up, which allows customers to shop online at foodcity.com and pick-up their order when they arrive at the store. 

Commission grants permission to rescue squad to operate in county

Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely addresses the Unicoi County Commission on Monday, July 22. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

The creation of the Unicoi County Rescue Squad took a major step forward during the Unicoi County Commission meeting that took place at the Unicoi County Courthouse on Monday, July 22.

The commission voted unanimously to allow the Unicoi County Rescue Squad to operate inside the county limits as long as the rescue squad follows EMS state guidelines. The motion to approve the request was made by Unicoi County Commissioner Todd Wilcox and was seconded by Unicoi County Commissioner Stephen Hendrix.

The next hurdle for the rescue squad to overcome is approval by Washington County/Johnson City EMS, the ambulance provider for Unicoi County; however, according to Wilcox, that hurdle has been cleared.

“Washington County/Johnson City EMS Executive Director Dan Wheeley is on board as long as the rescue squad follows state guidelines,” Wilcox said. “They (the Unicoi County Rescue Squad) are chartered and clearing this commission allows them to go forward and start fundraising efforts.”

Wheeley could not be reached by The Erwin Record for confirmation.

Following the meeting, Unicoi County Rescue Squad Lieutenant AEMT Jim Hady spoke to The Erwin Record about the organization.

“This allows us to start fundraising efforts,” Hady said. “It will be a long road. We will not start overnight. We are not looking to interfere with the ambulance service. We are looking to work with them and fill a hole in medical care.”

In March, Captain/AEMT Adam Blankenship announced the chartering and establishment of the Unicoi County Rescue Squad, Inc. According to the squad’s charter, the mission of the new rescue squad is to provide medical response (assisting EMS) and rescue services to the citizens of all communities in Unicoi County, the Town of Erwin and Town of Unicoi.

Along with fundraising, the newly chartered rescue squad will be seeking to get licensed by John Dabbs, regional coordinator for EMS Licensing.

“We also have to come up with funding to get insured,” Hady said.

• • •

The commission also took steps to find a home for the ambulance service. Washington County/Johnson City EMS officially took over as the county’s ambulance service provider on July 15.

On Monday, the panel voted unanimously to allow Evely and Unicoi County Attorney Doug Shults to engage in negotiations with the property owner Kathryn Mitchel Phillips for the property at 1501 North Main Avenue, in Erwin for a month-to-month lease.

The property currently houses Unicoi County’s ambulance service – Washington County/Johnson City EMS. The motion to allow Evely and Shults to negotiate a contract with the property owner and bring the contract back for the commission to vote on during the called Aug. 6 meeting was made by White and was seconded by Jamie Harris.

“We need to know what we are looking at before we sign a contract,” Jamie Harris said.

The commission also voted to follow a recommendation by the Unicoi County Building and Grounds Committee to negotiate with the Unicoi County Memorial Hospital Health, Inc. Board to lease property at the former Unicoi County Memorial Hospital building for the ambulance service.

The property, which is now home to Unicoi County Christian Care Center, includes two suites and a stand-alone garage on the back of the building that could house the ambulance service.

• • •

Moving on, the commission voted to add several more items to the special called commission budget meeting scheduled for Aug. 6.

The first item was a motion to table the request to pay four employees the difference in pay that they received by transferring from MedicOne to Washington County/Johnson City EMS. The Unicoi County Ambulance Committee voted unanimously on July 3 to propose that Unicoi County cover the loss of hourly pay that the four employees that stayed with MedicOne and transferred over to Washington County/Johnson City EMS would accrue by moving services. The proposed cost for the county to cover the pay difference for the employees would be roughly $13,000 for the year.

On July 22, Unicoi County Commissioner Marie Rice pointed out that the revenues accrued by the new ambulance service may cover the costs.

“Revenues from the ambulance service may be higher than expected to cover that cost,” she said.

Hendrix agreed.

“We would only assume the costs if there is a debt,” Hendrix said.

Unicoi County Commissioner Glenn White was adamant that the commission get the numbers right and pay the employees and he made a motion to table the vote until the Aug. 6 special called meeting. This extra time will allow Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely to retrieve the most up to date numbers.

“They have been through so much and have been so loyal, we need to pay them,” White said. Marie Rice seconded the motion to allow Evely to present the information to the commission on Aug. 6.

Town of Unicoi BMA approves creation of police department

The Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved the creation of a police force for the town on Monday, July 15. Pictured from left, Alderwoman Wanda Wilson Radford, Vice Mayor Doug Hopson, Mayor Johnny Lynch, Alderman Jeff Linville and Alderwoman Kathy Bullen. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

The Town of Unicoi moved one step further to establishing a police department.

On Monday, July 15, the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted 4-1 to approve a resolution to create the police department. Vice Mayor Doug Hopson, Mayor Johnny Lynch, Alderwoman Wanda Radford and Alderman Jeff Linville voted to approve the resolution following a motion from Linville and a second by Hopson. Alderwoman Kathy Bullen was the sole vote against the resolution.

During Monday’s meeting, Bullen questioned if Sunshine Laws were broken by the Town of Unicoi in seeking the resolution. Sunshine Laws state that a law requires certain proceedings of government agencies to be open or available to the public.

“This sounds like a lot of work was done before we had an official vote on this matter,” Bullen said. “I find it odd we have a police cruiser in the parking lot of town hall before we vote on a resolution to pursue a police officer.”

Interim City Recorder Larry Rea disagreed with Bullen.

“The official purchase of the cruiser will occur only after the resolution passes,” Rea said.

Hopson, who seconded the request to approve the resolution and voted to approve the resolution calling for establishing a police force, addressed the public of why he approved the resolution.

“We are not just doing this for a speed trap,” Hopson said. “We are trying to get an officer to enforce ordinances. We want to clean up these dilapidated buildings.”

No citizens signed up to speak at the meeting either in favor of or in opposition to the police department. According to Lynch, the Town of Unicoi is currently accepting applications and will start the interviewing process for the police officer in the coming weeks.

“There is no set time frame,” Lynch said. “We still have a few things to work out. After we hire an officer we will need to make sure that we can get established on the Unicoi County 911 dispatch’s frequency.”

The Town of Unicoi budgeted $101,928 to fund a full-time police officer and cruiser for the town in the proposed 2019-20 budget.

“I will work with them just like we work with the Town of Erwin,” Sheriff Mike Hensley told The Erwin Record on Monday. “We are in this together. I’m short-handed as it is, so the more officers we have, the better.”

• • •

In a final order of business on Monday, the BMA voted unanimously to approve a bid of $38,194.66 from KaTom, a restaurant supply company, to purchase a dough shooter, bread slicer, various processors, storage units and shelving for coolers to be used at the Mountain Harvest Kitchen.

Ambulance service takeover on schedule

Washington County/Johnson City EMS Executive Director Dan Wheeley announces a July 15 takeover date to the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

It was announced during the July 3, Unicoi County Ambulance Committee meeting that Washington County/Johnson City EMS will officially take over ambulance service in Unicoi County on Monday, July 15. It was also revealed that Washington County/Johnson City EMS Lieutenant and Training Coordinator Adam Copas will serve as Director of Operations for Washington County/Johnson City EMS in Unicoi County.

Copas said he is excited to serve Unicoi County.

“We are going to establish an excellent standard of work and build for the future,” Copas said. Washington County/Johnson City EMS Executive Director Dan Wheeley is also ready to serve the community.

“We are excited that we can help, and long term we hope that the county can establish their own service,” Wheeley said. “We are working on the transition now. We are currently hiring and looking at the logistics of serving Unicoi.”

During last week’s meeting, Wheeley addressed concerns about the pay difference for employees that will be coming to Washington County/Johnson City EMS from MedicOne.

“Our original proposal was based on our pay and benefits,” Wheeley said.

According to the interlocal agreement, Washington County/Johnson City EMS will provide and maintain adequate and sufficiently trained staff that possess all required licenses and certifications. Washington County/Johnson City EMS will provide two advanced life-support paramedic ambulance units 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. In addition, Washington County/Johnson City EMS will provide one staffed basic life support ambulance for 10 hours a day, five days a week. This basic life support ambulance will run Monday through Friday. Unicoi County will pay a subsidy of $218,677, that covers all services and employee pay.

The concerns about pay was brought to Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely.

“We had some employees concerned about starting rate of pay on the hourly rate,” Evely said. “We do understand that Washington County has better rates on insurance and a state retirement plan.”

According to Wheeley, his staff has crunched the numbers and for nine employees to transition from MedicOne, the county’s previous ambulance service provider, to Washington County/Johnson City EMS and maintaining existing pay rates it could cost roughly $20,000. “Worst case scenario with nine employees to keep them at the same spot it with be roughly $20,000 more,” Wheeley said.

Wheeley acknowledged that Washington County/Johnson City EMS’ pay is on par with other ambulance services in the region.

“There was a study three years ago and everybody in the region is pretty comparable, in regards to pay,” Wheeley said.

Ambulance Committee Chairman and Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley announced that there are only five employees who plan to stay in Unicoi County as it moves from MedicOne to Washington County/Johnson City EMS.

“There are only five looking to move over, so by those numbers we are looking at around $12,000-13,000 to keep those five employees pay what it is now,” Mosley said.

During last week’s meeting, Unicoi County Commissioner Glenn White made a motion to present the proposed $13,000 to be paid by Unicoi County at the next Unicoi County Commission meeting on July 22.

“These employees have been through a lot,” White said.

Town of Erwin Vice Mayor Mark Lafever, who also serves on the ambulance committee, seconded the motion.

“I want to see what’s best for the county, and we (Erwin) are with you on this one,” Lafever said. The committee voted unanimously to send the request to keep the five employees’ pay the same before the full commission during the July 22 meeting.

National businesses eye county

Pictured from left, Town of Unicoi Communications and Programs Ashley Shelton, Unicoi County Hospital Administrator Eric Carroll, Town of Erwin City Recorder Glenn Rosenoff and Unicoi County Joint Economic Development Board Executive Director Tyler Engle listen to Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership CEO Mitch Miller give an update on regionalism. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

As the budget year comes to a close for the Unicoi County Joint Economic Development Board (JEDB,) the board begins to turn its focus to the future.

According to JEDB Executive Director Tyler Engle, there are five nationally known businesses looking to locate to Unicoi County. Engle announced these opportunities, which include restaurants and retail stores, during the June 26 JEDB meeting held at SquareOne in Erwin.

“I can’t give any names at this time, but we do have five businesses we are looking at,” Engle told The Erwin Record.

According to Engle, the five are just a handful of businesses that Buxton, a company that utilizes geohistory to provide recruitment information to possible retailers and restaurants for its clients, has contacted.

“(Buxton has) a list of 20 businesses that would fit well in Unicoi County, but we chose to go with five right now, because five is a good number for one year,” Engle said.

The JEDB agreed to a contract to pay Buxton $50,000 a year for their services for three years during a meeting in March.

Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership CEO Mitch Miller acknowledged that the JEDB was on pace with the region in economic growth.

“Economic development is a patient game,” Miller said.

According to Engle, Unicoi County will be looking to bring in more industry as well, with the pad ready former Morgan Insulation Site on Second Street in Erwin nearing completion.

“We look forward to the economic energy it will bring,” Engle said.

According to JEDB President Lee Brown, the former Morgan Insulation site is only lacking gravel fill to be officially pad ready.

“My hope is that there are 6-8 industrial properties in the county for development in the near future,” Engle said.

•••

With focus on future industry, Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said she would like to see the JEDB do something special for the industries that are currently in the county.

“I recommend that we have an industrial appreciation lunch,” Hensley said. “We used to do that and it was a way to get out of the office and relax. If we could do that and show them how much they mean to our community, that would be good.”

Engle acknowledged that the board is always looking at ways to honor the industries in Unicoi County.

“We are working very closely to look at our existing industries, those employees are the ones that are paying taxes to keep this county going,” Engle said.

According to Miller, Unicoi County has one of the top weekly and bi-weekly wages in the area. “Unicoi County has the second highest weekly wage, only to Kingsport,” Miller said. “Tyler (Engle) believes in regionalism; that’s the kind of partnership you have to have.”

According to Engle, an area that is of concern for the JEDB is residential growth.

“The market is bound up constrained and tight,” Engle said.

Engle said he hopes that the JEDB can shift focus on how to free up new residential spaces. “We are looking to apply incentives for new housing and help developers identify land for purchase,” Engle said. “We are one of six communities in America that have been chosen to work in Workforce Housing workshops.”

According to Brown, that is a big deal for Unicoi County.

“They know we will follow up on things; that is why we were selected,” Brown said.

Town of Erwin City Recorder Glenn Rosenoff agreed with Brown.

“We are taking expert advice and recommendations and are completing them,” Rosenoff said. “These meetings we tell you about are happening every day.”

Brown also said that the JEDB must stay on track with current projects.

“We can’t ask others to invest in our community if we don’t,” Brown said. “Now’s the time to invest in our future.”

One of the current projects is a traffic light to go in on Second Street at the Taco Bell and Bojangles entrance in time for the new Food City store, which is slated to open in late July. “There is a temporary signal ordered and will be operational before Food City opens; everything is on track,” Rosenoff said. “Work will start on infrastructure for the permanent traffic signal while the temporary signal is up.”

In a last order of business, JEDB Treasurer Rob Stromberg announced that the JEDB currently has $89,000 in the bank as of the end of the third quarter of the budget year, which ended in March.

NFS employees complete community service projects

One NFS Day of Volunteering group packed food boxes for Good Samaritan Ministries. The group includes, pictured from left, back row, Candi Blair, Brian Faidley, Heath Shook, Jeff Morgan, Christopher Pendleton and Sarah Whicker; front row, Olivia Jones, Mary Pendleton, Natalie Coley, Kelly Grieger, Bel Grieger and Katie Jones. (Contributed)

By Richard Rourk

Nuclear Fuel Service (NFS) continued its history of working with the community in Unicoi County and throughout the region as the company held its Second Annual Day of Volunteering on Saturday, June 22.

More than 200 employees and 27 teams from NFS served in local communities on Saturday. The teams volunteered at schools and charitable organizations, and completed projects such as building a new trail at Rocky Fork State Park, staining the wooden bridges on the Erwin Linear Trail, packing food boxes at Good Samaritan Ministries and building shelves at CHIPS thrift store.

NFS President John Stewart said he is proud of the work that his staff did for the Second Annual Day of Volunteering.

“Day of Volunteering helps NFS and our employees give back to the communities that have supported our site for more than 60 years,” Stewart said. “Day of Volunteering also provides an opportunity for our employees to engage with each other.”

Stewart saw the commeradiere as bonus to the Day of Volunteering.

“Several of the teams met for breakfast, and they talked about the project, but they also talked about their families and their lives away from NFS,” Stewart said.

The fellowship did not end there.

“Then they worked side-by-side on a project that will help others,” Stewart said. “This type of interaction builds a stronger team atmosphere when they are at NFS.”

NFS allowed the employees to select the projects with the understanding that some type of work would be done.

“Donating goods to an organization is great, but giving your time to do the hands-on work is often more valuable,” Stewart said. “NFS purchased the supplies needed for the projects, but knowing that we are helping others and strengthening our team is priceless. I wish we could do more of this.”

Six teams worked at the Erwin Linear Trail. NFS also had a team at the CHIPS thrift store building shelves and sorting donations, and teams at Love Chapel Elementary building a sensory garden and landscaping. NFS had one group at the Erwin Health Care Center that collected books and games. This group also spent time on Saturday visiting with the residents, playing games and just talking. NFS even had a team replacing windows at historic Walnut Mountain Church, which is about 45 minutes from Elizabethton.

NFS had one team that has worked for two months to crochet and knit baby blankets, hats and booties for Niswonger Children’s Hospital. They had more than 45 blankets that were delivered.

Several of NFS’ teams started working earlier last week because Saturday’s forecast called for rain. A team at East Tennessee Christian Home did their prep work Thursday night and finished up Sunday night. The team working at Love Chapel Elementary School also worked Sunday night.

Unicoi County Animal Shelter Director Kevin King was very thankful for the work that NFS employees put in at the shelter.

“I would like to thank NFS for thinking of the animals,” King said. “It’s so wonderful they chose to help us.”

According to King, the volunteers were able to clean the facility, but the volunteering did not stop there.

“We were able to get new benches outside,” King said. “They cleaned the inside and helped do some landscaping outside. They walked every dog in the shelter. We appreciate everything they did and it meant a lot to us.”

Town of Erwin Communications Director Jamie Rice was so thankful for NFS employees for volunteering their time to area projects.

“They are absolutely amazing,” Rice said. “We are so thankful to have such caring community partners.” Rice said.

Town of Erwin Public Works Director Tim Bailey was impressed with the work that the volunteers accomplished.

“The engineers, especially the young engineers, really took charge on the Linear Trail,” Bailey said. “They did an amazing job.”

NFS worked on projects at CHIPS (Change is Possible) in Erwin, Children’s Advocacy Center of Sullivan County in Blountville, Erwin Linear Trail in Erwin, Good Samaritan Ministries in Johnson City, Happy Valley High School in Elizabethton, Love Chapel Elementary School in Erwin, Nurturing Neighbors in Erwin, Rocky Fork State Park in Flag Pond, Ronald McDonald House in Johnson City, Second Harvest Food Bank in Kingsport, Unicoi County Animal Shelter in Erwin and Washington County Boys and Girls Club in Johnson City.

According to NFS Communications Manager Laura Bailey, the annual event will take place again next summer and NFS is always looking to grow the number of teams and projects.

Downtown mural brings ‘cheerful excitement’ to Erwin

A volunteer puts the finishing touches on a mural that stretches from Union Street to Gay Street along Nolichucky Avenue in Erwin. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Downtown Erwin recently set itself apart from neighboring towns with a mural that spreads a whole block. Now located on Nolichucky Avenue between Union Street and Gay Street is a vibrant piece of art.

According to Town of Erwin Communications Specialist Jamie Rice, the mural is meant to show the excitement of the new downtown.

“This mural was really meant to bring cheerful excitement to an otherwise neglected part of our downtown,” Rice said. “Nolichucky Avenue really has not had as much attention as it deserves.” According to Rice, the area was due for a facelift.

“The skate park, library and two art studios both call this neglected street home and we really wanted to bring attention to this part of downtown,” Rice said. “It has been on my to-do list for three years, and the Tennessee Arts Commission Grant has finally helped make this dream a reality.”

Rice acknowledged that the art piece serves another purpose.

“Another positive outcome is that it has slowed traffic, making it safer for the families visiting the skate park and library,” Rice said.

According to Rice, the mural was a way to continue riding the wave of community projects that make Erwin unique.

“After observing the boost in community spirit from other public art projects, such as the Elephant Revival and the Yarn Bomb, the Town of Erwin applied to the Tennessee Art Commission for a grant to add more permanent public art downtown,” Rice said. “We wanted a project that could involve all age ranges and demographics of the community. We have had volunteers as young as 5 years old and it has been amazing to see such community support.”

According to Rice, the inspiration for the mural came from a familiar source.

“I saw a small version of this paint the pavement project in an online Strong Towns article and we decided to put our own Erwin twist on it,” Rice said.

Strongest Towns is a website that features exceptional towns, and Erwin was chosen for the websites bracket-style competition that took place in March. Erwin finished in the Elite Eight of the annual competition.

Rice said that Unicoi County High School art teacher Annette Tipton took the project and ran with it.

“Annette Tipton has been an instrumental figure in the public art movement in our town and she is always up for a challenge,” Rice said. “Her class has helped on numerous downtown actives, including painting two elephants, and the wildly popular Peanuts characters that were displayed last Halloween.”

Rice is thankful for Tipton’s efforts.

“Normally my conversations always start with her, ‘I have this crazy idea …’ And her response is always, ‘Yeah we can do it, no problem’,” Rice said. “She is amazing.”

Rice was also thankful for all the hard work and support the Town of Erwin puts into the downtown projects.

“This is definitely a first for our town, and I am so thankful that the Board of Mayor and Alderman took a chance on something completely new,” Rice said. “Our leaders are always searching for ways to engage the entire community and I think they are so thrilled with the result.”

According to Rice, there were more than 75 gallons of paint and four, 12-hour days worked by more than 50 volunteers to make the dream a reality.

To keep up with other projects, follow RISE Erwin, ThisisErwin and the Town of Erwin on Facebook.

Banner sentenced to life in prison

Clyde Banner waits to hear his sentence after pleading guilty before the Honorable Judge Lisa Rice on Monday. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Clyde William Banner stood trial on two counts of murder on Monday, June 10, before the Honorable Judge Lisa Rice for the alleged murders of sisters Donna K. Jones, 34, and Amy B. Jones, 29, on Oct. 11, 2017.

On that day, Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley and other officers responded to a call on Lower Higgins Creek Road. Upon arrival, they found that both female victims were dead with gunshot wounds to the head.

Following the shooting, Banner reportedly fled to Madison County, North Carolina, where he was apprehended by officers with Madison County Sheriff’s Office. Although the UCSD did find a weapon during a search of Banner’s truck, they did not find the weapon described as being the murder weapon. The murder weapon was a shotgun, and according to Banner during testimony given on June 10, he threw the shotgun into the river following the shooting.

Banner pleaded guilty to the charges of first degree murder and second degree murder in the shooting deaths of both Donna, who was the mother of five children, and Amy Jones. When asked by Rice why he shot the Jones sisters, Banner explained that it was to get back at their mother.

“I did it to hurt Teresa (Jones),” Banner said.

During the trial on Monday, Rice explained the charges and sentencing procedures to Banner. Rice handed down the verdict of life imprisonment for first degree murder. For the charge of second degree murder, Banner faces up to an additional 60 years in a federal penitentiary. Banner agreed to serve life imprisonment for the first degree murder charge and an additional 45 percent of the 60 years for the second degree murder charge under his plea of guilty.

Rice explained that Banner would likely spend the rest of his life in custody.

“You understand that you will more than likely spend the rest of your life in prison?” Rice asked. Banner nodded and replied, “yes.”

During the hearing, Banner admitted to shooting Donna Jones first and then shooting Amy Jones.

“This is just tragic, all around,” Rice said.

Hensley agreed.

“It’s been a sad situation for everyone,” Hensley said. “Our prayers go out to both families.”

Hensley praised all the officers that worked the case and acknowledged that the close working relationship with Madison County allowed Banner’s swift arrest.

Community gathers to honor Whitson

Unicoi County celebrated Gavin Whitson’s successful run on “Survivor: Edge of Extinction” with a special event held in downtown Erwin on Friday, May 31. During the event, Whitson, who recently finished in second place on the hit CBS show, signed autographs and posed for photos with fans. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Unicoi County came out to celebrate local celebrity and Survivor contestant Gavin Whitson on Friday, May 31. The Gathering Place in Erwin was filled with excited residents to officially welcome Whitson back to Erwin since his appearance on the hit show, “Survivor: Edge of Extinction.”

Whitson and his wife, Carly Whitson, were on hand to speak to residents and to take photos and sign autographs. While downtown, the Whitsons took time to speak to The Erwin Record about their Survivor experience and what the community support means to them.

“The support I have been shown since the show ended has been amazing,” Gavin, who came in second place on the show, said. “Everyone that has approached me has told me how proud they are, and they think I should have won, which is always nice to hear.”

Carly, who got to join her husband in Fiji and appear on the hit show, also was excited about the experience.

“For me, one of my hopes for Gavin and his experience was that he would make the family visit,” Carly said. “Leading up to the time of going was very stressful on my end because it was a lot of going into the unknown. CBS really left us in the dark, so we never knew what was going on in the game so I didn’t find out I was going for sure until I got a text around 3 a.m. Monday morning for a 9 a.m. flight on the same Monday morning.”

According to Carly, being in Fiji was a once in a lifetime experience.

“My time in Fiji was unbelievable,” she said. “I traveled halfway across the world by myself and that’s something I will never forget, but the highlight of the experience was being able to compete on the family visit challenge with Gavin. That hadn’t happened since season 20 of Survivor, and I was so thankful we were chosen for the reward.”

Carly said that in her short time on the island, she got a full Survivor experience.

“I loved having that extra time with Gavin because I got to see what the true Survivor camp life was like,” Carly added. “I got to see where he slept, the small cups they ate their rice out of. I feel like I got the true survivor experience and I am forever thankful for that.”

Since “Survivor: Edge of Extinction” aired, the Whitsons are learning to adapt to the newfound fame.

“Since I got back from the finale I have been recognized a lot more and I thought it would be the other way around and people would recognize me more while the show was airing,” Gavin said. “Within the Tri-Cities area, I have been recognized everywhere I have been so far, which still feels weird to me.”

Carly also explained what it was like being famous in a small town.

“I think everyone in town already knew who we were, but it is really neat when we are out somewhere and someone recognizes Gavin and then they look at me and say ‘Oh, I saw you also’,” Carly said. “This has happened in places like South Carolina and even Disneyland.”

For the Whitsons, family life is getting back to normal since “Survivor: Edge of Extinction” aired.

“I would say for the most part everything is back to normal outside of the small events Gavin is participating in,” Carly said. “Outside of that, home life is completely back to normal and I am very thankful for that.”

For Carly, the getting back to normal part of life has provided time for reflection.

“The timeline in general from all of these huge events has made the past year fly by and it’s hard to believe now that it’s been a year since we’ve gotten married and we are getting close to the time that I left for Fiji nearly a year ago,” Carly said.

For Gavin, being back has allowed him to pick up where he left off.

“Since I got back from the finale I have been doing the same thing I did last summer and the summer before that,” Gavin said. “I have been running a summer camp, enjoying time with family and eating my weight in ice cream.”

Gavin has found time for a new business opportunity.

“I have started a T-shirt company,” Gavin said. “I am running a small online shop via Etsy called Walt Whitson.”

Like Survivor, opening a T-shirt shop is one of Gavin’s dreams.

“Once I got home from Survivor I realized that I needed to find a new dream and I had also realized I can truly do anything I want as long as I put in the time and effort,” Gavin said. “If there’s one thing I love more than Survivor it’s going on vacations to places like Disney World.” It was trips to Disney World and Gavin’s love of pop culture that inspires his clothing line.

“Being able to chase my dream of being on Survivor inspired me to start making theme park and pop culture inspired T-shirts for people like me to wear on their next vacations,” he said. “I will have a booth at the Apple Festival this year and I am working on some special stuff for it. I think the items I will have at the Apple Festival will really be stuff the community will enjoy.”

Gavin said he still takes pride in representing Erwin.

“I love downtown Erwin right now,” he added. “It is in the best shape I have ever seen it and there are now so many things to do. Once the Capitol Cinema opens back up, I might not ever have to go to Johnson City again.”

Gavin said he has noticed the changes that occurred while he was gone.

“I really can’t believe how much Erwin has changed in such a short amount of time and that just shows how much great leadership we have here and the amount of people here who want to make Erwin a better place for future generations,” he added.

As far as what is next for the Whitsons, they are open for the next great adventure, even if that means another run on Survivor.

“Like most great things in life, there isn’t a plan, like Survivor, so we are just going to enjoy life and see what happens next,” Carly said.

The Whitsons were honored by the community during Friday’s celebration. Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amanda Delp welcomed Gavin and Carly to the event.

“On behalf of the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Directors I want to thank everyone for coming out and to thank Gavin for representing Unicoi County so well on the show, we are still Team Gavin all the way,” Delp said.

Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley agreed with Delp.

“Gavin is one of Erwin’s finest,” Hensley said. “We are so proud of what he has done. He has brought national recognition to Erwin; he has shown the nation what Unicoi County and Erwin are made of.”

Southeastern Autorama cruising to Erwin on Saturday

Autos of all kinds will line the streets of downtown Erwin when the Southeastern Autorama cruises into town on Saturday, June 8. (Erwin Record File Photo)

By Richard Rourk

On Saturday, June 8, downtown Erwin will be the site for gearheads who appreciate the artwork and craftsmanship of automobiles when the 59th Annual Southeastern Autorama cruises into town. The event, which is hosted by Southeastern Autorama Tennessee, will be free and family-friendly.

According to Southeastern Autorama Tennessee member and former Apple Town Bagel owner Keldon Clapp, Southeastern Autorama is a car club based in Unicoi County and is the oldest continually running car show in Tennessee since 1960. According to Clapp, Conrad Beam and Jim Hobbs created the club in 1960. The Southeastern Autorama Tennessee motto is simple. “We are brothers and sisters driving, tinkering and talking about cars and trucks while preserving automotive history and helping our community,” Clapp said.

The historic car show will feature something for everyone.

“We will have gift bags, door prizes, and a 50/50 raffle,” Clapp said.

Food for the event will be from Ken Packer and Krazzy Dogz Catering & Packer’s Lemonade. “We have always had The Hot Dog Guy out of Greenville, but unfortunately he had a scheduling conflict so we are thankful for Ken (Packer) stepping in,” Clapp said.

There will also be musical entertainment.

“We will have a stage set up with some bluegrass and good old rock and roll,” Clapp said. “We will have some good music for everyone.”

Clapp acknowledged that many non-automotive vendors will join the usual automotive vendors at the event.

“I know the Unicoi County Animal Shelter will be there with some pups and cats, along with information,” Clapp said.

The 59th Annual Southeastern Autorama welcomes all makes and models of vehicles.

“Anyone who wants to enter their vehicle is encouraged to show up at 8 a.m. on Saturday, June 8, to get registered,” Clapp said. “Once someone is registered they are on our mailing list for future events. There is no fee.”

According to Clapp, there will be cars from Asheville, Nashville, Knoxville, Atlanta, as well as plenty of local cars at the event.

“We are bringing cars in from a pretty wide range,” Clapp said. “Mike McIntosh will be bringing in some Model Ts and Model As.”

According to Clapp, there could be as many as 300 automobiles on display at the annual event. Some of the cars that will be featured during the 59th Annual Southeastern Autorama aren’t exactly even considered cars.

“We have everything from classic cars to modified go-karts,” Clapp said. “We like everything with a motor and four wheels; we even accept the vehicles with two wheels.”

Clapp and the Southeastern Autorama Tennessee would like to thank the community for being so supportive.

“We would like to thank the people of Erwin for supporting this,” Clapp said. “Without their support, we would just be people hanging out with cars.”

For more information, updates or to learn how to join Southeastern Autorama Tennessee, follow Southeastern Autorama Tennessee on Facebook.

Tolley receives UCHS diploma 50 years later

Keith Tolley, right, shakes the hand of Unicoi County Board of Education Chairman Tyler Engle after Tolley received his diploma during Unicoi County High School’s graduation on May 20. Tolley was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1969 and served in Vietnam, which kept him from receiving his diploma. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Approximately 200 Unicoi County High School Students reached a milestone on May 20 as the class of 2019 walked across the stage at UCHS to receive their diplomas.

Each graduate’s road to the milestone is unique. That was especially true for one man as 50 years after he left UCHS, Erwin native Keith Tolley finally received his diploma.

Tolley had just finished his junior year of high school and started working his summer job in construction, when he went home for lunch on July 15, of 1969.

“I was helping build the middle school, I went home for lunch and I noticed that I had gotten my draft letter,” Tolley said. “I went back and told my foreman that I had got drafted, and the foreman said when you get back you will always have a job here.”

As his son Jerrod Tolley has said: “Most people got handed a diploma. My father got handed an M16.”

Tolley was drafted to the Army, and was sent to Alabama for his Advanced Individual Training and then moved onto Fort Gordon, Georgia, for more training.

“After I left Georgia, I came home for a week, and then I was sent to Oakland, California,” Tolley said. “I had five and a half weeks training and they sent me to Vietnam.”

While in Vietnam, Tolley fought in Laos and Cambodia.

“It was pretty bad,” Tolley said. “I walked point for 18 months until I got wounded.”

By walking point, Tolley was the most exposed in his company.

“We were fighting, and a mortar blew up right in front of me,” Tolley said.

Tolley still has fragments in his head from the explosion. Tolley then was sent to Japan and then back to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., for a year of surgeries including a plate being placed in his head.

“The only thing that bothers me is headaches,” Tolley said.

Tolley could have been put on full disability when he returned home but decided to work.

“When I got back I worked in construction,” Tolley said. “I’m going to work as long as I can.” Tolley worked until 1991, before accepting his benefits. During his construction days, Tolley helped erect the Mall at Johnson City.

Although he had accomplished and sacrificed more than most, Tolley always sought his diploma that he missed out on. Tolley’s wife, Linda Tolley, began working with Unicoi County Director of Schools John English and Unicoi County School Board representative Lisa Saylor to push for the state to give Tolley the diploma he had earned.

“Bill Lee signed off on it, and it finally came through at the first of May,” Tolley said.

English suggested, and Tolley agreed, to walk across the stage with the graduating UCHS class of 2019.

Tolley was very touched by the show of support and is honored to receive his diploma.

“I’ve got medals from service, but that diploma outranks all of those,” Tolley said. “There were more than 3,000 people there.”

Tolley received a standing ovation as he was called up first.

Tolley had some advice for those that may be struggling with school.

“Even though it is hard to do, you can do anything you put your mind to,” Tolley said. “Stay in school; you may not see it, but that diploma is something you need in life.”

English was honored to work with the Tolley family.

“It was an absolute honor and privilege to be able to recognize and honor Mr. Tolley,” English said. “What a story. There was so much admiration and respect for Mr. Tolley and rightfully so.”

Tolley stays busy these days spending time with family and still attending veteran events.

“I got to go on the Honor Flight to Washington this year and I plan on going back next year,” Tolley said.

Tolley also attended Unicoi County’s Memorial Day Observance on Sunday, May 26.

Podcast shares Mary the Elephant’s story

NPR Podcast winners Jaxton Holly, John Gouge, Caleb Mille, and Deanna Hull receive keys to the city from Mayor Doris Hensley.(Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

A group of four students from Elizabethton High School have been named honorary citizens of the Town of Erwin and even received keys to the town.

These students earned that honor thanks to a podcast that explains the history of Murderous Mary and how the Town of Erwin has worked to turn that negative event in its past into a positive.

During the May 13 Town of Erwin BMA meeting, Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley presented EHS students Deanna Hull, Caleb Miller, Jaxton Holly and John Gouge with a key to the city. The students worked alongside teachers Alex Campbell and Tim Wasem on the podcast.

The podcast won a national contest held by NPR, which aired the podcast during its “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition” programs, on Wednesday, May 15.

Campbell explained to The Erwin Record why the students chose Erwin to be the focal point of their podcast.

“We decided that we wanted the students to choose a local history story or a local person,” Campbell said. “At first they decided they wanted to do the history of Murderous Mary, but after speaking with the mayor, and with (Erwin Communications Specialist) Jamie (Rice) the students decided to cover the topic from the past and present.”

According to Campbell, the students worked on the winning podcast for nine weeks.

“All of the podcast was so good, we thought they would do well,” Campbell said.

Campbell was impressed that students could take pride in the stories in this area.

“It built a lot of pride and appreciation between the students and the community,” Campbell said.

Rice said she was honored to be a part of the project.

“The mayor and I were approached maybe two or three months ago to help these EHS students with a project about Mary, and I don’t think either of us had any idea they were entering it into a podcast competition, especially NPR,” Rice said.

According to Rice, Hensley came into her office about two weeks ago very excited and shouting, “We won, we won, Mary won.”

“When I asked what we won, she told me about the NPR contest,” Rice said. “I was completely floored.” 

Rice said the Town of Erwin jumped at the chance to work with the students.

“We had no apprehension whatsoever,” Rice said. “I always enjoy telling our story of redemption for Mary. Had I known it had the potential to be heard by a nationwide audience, I probably would have been much more nervous.”

According to Rice, the story of Mary deserves to be told.

“Twenty-eight million listeners will hear a new elephant story, and we, as a community, do not have to hide or be ashamed of this sad event any longer,” Rice said. “A 100-year-old tragedy has been transformed into something full of life and positive outcomes, and we have significantly changed the perspective of Erwin’s relationship with elephants for future generations.”

According to Rice, the students did an amazing job.

“I am so impressed by these Elizabethton High School students, and they really had done their homework and had really great open-ended questions,” Rice said. “I loved how they used all our different voices to tell the narrative of the story.”

According to Campbell, students need more projects like this.

“It just validates that our students need projects and ways to create, and they need connections to the community,” Campbell said. “It’s like what Andrew Jackson said, ‘You give me 1,000 people from Tennessee, I’ll whip 1,000 of anyone else from anywhere in the world.’ I feel like you give me four students from Elizabethton, I can whip four students from anywhere else in America.”

For Rice, this project is one of many that she is proud of.

“I am so proud of these Elizabethton students; however, I do feel that the Unicoi County High School students played an integral role in the Erwin Elephant Revival,” Rice said. “Mrs. Lori Ann Wright’s drama students wrote, directed and performed a beautiful play in 2016 called ‘Mary’s Story,’ and I wish that every single person could see it again today.” 

The podcast is available at NPR.org.

Whitson ‘thankful’ for Survivor adventure

Erwin native Gavin Whitson was the runner-up of “Survivor: Edge of Extinction.” Whitson traveled to Los Angles for the live season final. (Photo courtesy of CBS)

By Richard Rourk

He may not have won the $1 million prize on “Survivor: Edge of Extinction,” but Erwin native Gavin Whitson is happy that he got to experience something few people ever do.

“It’s bittersweet. I hate to see this adventure end because it’s been a dream of mine. I made it 39 days, and I’m super proud of the game I played,” Whitson said. “I had the title ‘Sole Survivor’ within my grasp, so not getting it leaves a little sour taste in my mouth, but overall I’m pleased I had the opportunity to play.”

During the season finale of the popular CBS show on May 15, Whitson joined Julie Rosenberg and Chris Underwood in the final three. Whitson and Rosenberg survived 39 days outwitting, outplaying and outlasting the other 16 contestants. Underwood, who spent 26 days on Extinction Island, was able to bond with the other contestants that were voted off of the main island and won his way back into the top three. Underwood pulled a major move when he gave up immunity to face off against Rick Devens in a fire-making challenge to secure a final three spot.

At the final Tribal Council, each member of the final three pleaded their case to the jury. Devens, who Whitson saw as a threat throughout the season, was quick to acknowledge that Whitson played the perfect game of Survivor. No one ever wrote Whitson’s name down to go home at tribal.

During the live reading of the votes from the Tribal Council, it was clear that Whitson and Underwood were the top two contenders for the million dollar prize. Survivor host Jeff Probst announced that it was Underwood, who was the sole survivor and winner of the $1 million dollar prize.

Whitson acknowledged that he would be ready if CBS called again.

“I would do it again, 100 percent, because I had the prize and it slipped through my hands. I would have something else to prove,” Whitson said. “With that being said, I would have to check with (my wife) Carly; it can’t be something I snuck up on her.”

Whitson would be open to competing with Carly on Survivor if CBS came calling for a “Blood vs. Water” edition of Survivor. If that call never comes, Whitson is happy with his adventure.

“If the opportunity never presents itself, I’m still coming out a winner,” Whitson said. “I have an amazing family and support system.”

Whitson, who became a fan favorite for many reasons including his infamous pineapple shirts, explained his wardrobe choice.

“Honestly, before Survivor, I don’t know that I ever wore anything with a pineapple on it,” Whitson said. “I decided if I’m going to Fiji, I’m going to dress like I’m going to Fiji.”

The random clothing choice took off.

“Once the show started, people who recognized me were referring to me as the ‘pineapple guy,’ so I embraced it,” Whitson said. “People have been so great and sent me pineapple flags and pineapple cups.”

Whitson opened up about the struggles on the island.

“By day 39, it felt like I was dying. I struggled to walk back to camp,” Whitson said. “To make matters worse, you were sleeping on bamboo with notches dug into your ribs, no toilet paper, and living on 100 calories of rice a day.”

During the final episode, Whitson worked diligently on a puzzle with a smile on his face, that even caught the attention of Probst, who said that was a first. Whitson explained his smile.

“I knew I was a winner for playing and was thankful for the opportunity,” Whitson said.

After spending 39 days on an island, Whitson acknowledged that he still remains friends with several castmates.

“I made several connections while I was there,” Whitson said. “Rick Devens and I have stayed in touch. It might not have showed in the game but Rick Devens and I were tight. I wanted him out of the game because I knew he could win, but he is one of the best dudes I’ve ever met.”

Whitson admits it’s a great feeling having the support from Unicoi County.

“I never thought being on Survivor would bring the community together,” Whitson said. “Just inspiring kids to do what they want in life, and to be a positive role model, has been as valuable as a million dollars to me.”

Whitson is very optimistic for whatever the future holds.

“Once I left tribal council and headed to the airport to come home, I realized that’s what I need, and enjoy life,” Whitson said. “I have a great life and my heart is full.”

Whitson was very thankful for the community and the show of support by Unicoi County.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better community to show support,” Whitson said. “At the (Union Street) taproom, I got to talk to the same people and the same kids every week, and one day those kids may be on Survivor. The support from the (Unicoi County) Chamber of Commerce has been unbelievable.”

Whitson also acknowledged his family as being such a support system.

Union Street Taproom Owner Michael Baker, who hosted weekly Survivor watch parties, was honored to host the events and get to know Whitson.

“Union Street Taproom is so proud of our hometown Survivor, Gavin Whitson,” Baker said. “It was truly an honor to host a weekly watch party in support of Gavin, as well as having him join us each week.”

Baker explained the impact that Whitson had on the community.

“The watch parties allowed families the opportunity to have dinner, meet Gavin, and watch the show every week with family and friends,” Baker said. “Union Street Taproom prides itself on being active in the community and supporting all things Unicoi County.”

Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amanda Delp, who hosted several watch parties, was also proud of Whitson’s Survivor run.

“Congratulations Gavin Whitson, you played a remarkable and memorable Survivor game,” Delp said. “Our community is so proud of you and your accomplishments.”

On Friday, May 31, starting at 6 p.m., the Chamber of Commerce will honor Whitson for his successful second place finish on Survivor. Whitson will be on hand for photographs and to sign autographs.

“We’ll have food trucks, music, games and more,” Delp said.

The event will take place in downtown Erwin at the Gathering Place Park. For updates or more information, please follow Unicoi Chamber of Commerce on Facebook or call 743-3000.