Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
Although the Oct. 4 Town of Franklin council meeting began with the swearing in of two individuals and the presentation of a certificate of appreciation for another, much discussion centered on the uptick in homelessness in the Franklin area.
Before new business ensued, Mayor Bob Scott first conducted the swearing in of Amanda (Amie) Owens as the new town manager. Owens, a native of Western North Carolina, has worked in local government for several years, as an executive assistant/deputy clerk for Haywood County and then town clerk for Waynesville, and most recently – before joining Town of Franklin – as assistant town manager in Virginia.
“I am humbled and honored to have been appointed to the position of town manager of Franklin and look forward to serving the citizens,” said Owens the next day. “My goals for the town are to continue to provide exemplary service, make improvements to infrastructure, and continue to work with Council and staff to enhance economic and community development projects for increased business and housing opportunities.”
She was joined at the swearing in by her mother, Melissa Welch, who Owens said “has been by my side and supportive of me throughout this entire journey, and I wanted her to share in this culmination of achieving my goal.”
Mayor Scott also oversaw the swearing in of Austin Ryan Holland, who was joined by his fiancée, Kayla Waldroup, and Franklin’s chief of police, Bill Harrell. Holland is a lateral transfer from Swain County Sheriff’s Office to the Franklin Police Department and has served in law enforcement for five years, last serving as a sergeant.
Town Planner Justin Setser was presented with a certificate for “outstanding services” for the three months he served as interim town manager between the time the previous town manager, Summer Woodard, resigned to take a new position with the Town of Reidsville (N.C.), and the new town manager, Owens, stepped into her new role.
The Homelessness Dilemma
Regarding the increase in homelessness in the area, which has led to littering, theft, possible disposal of waste into the Little Tennessee River, and more, Chief Harrell and Captain of Patrol/Field Operations Devin Holland updated the council – apropos of the Sept. 23 article in “The Macon County News,” which shed light on the homelessness challenge to North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), Franklin Police Department (FPD), and the community at large. Chief Harrell reminded the council that there has been more homelessness in the last 15-16 months with homeless individuals primarily congregating under the main bridges in Franklin, such as the one on Main Street near McDonald’s and the one over the Little Tennessee River on the Little Tennessee River Greenway. He added that while homelessness is not illegal, the actions of some homeless persons, such as littering, destruction of property, etc., are. Tents and trash have been evident under the bridges and citizens are reporting criminal behavior. Glass, syringes, waste, and garbage – due to homeless people congregating near the Little Tennessee River – can get washed into and down the river when the river rises due to rain and flooding.
“We’re short staffed as it is,” said Chief Harrell, “and this is terrible.”
He and Capt. Holland shared that the FPD is receiving from four to 12 calls daily pertaining to homelessness. Chief Harrell explained that every effort has been made and continues to be made to make “arrest as the last resort” and to work with homeless persons to connect them with the many and varied area resources, such as No Wrong Door, REACH, Macon New Beginnings, Adult and Teen Challenge of the Smokies Men’s Center, and more.
Council member Dinah Mashburn elaborated that No Wrong Door, a local organization that supports individuals and families struggling with substance use disorders and mental health challenges, of which she is involved, has used grant monies to assist homeless individuals in the past. Yet, the “quick fix” does not solve the problems of homelessness for the long term. “We all want our town to be the best that it can be,” said Mashburn, “but I don’t know the answer to this problem.”
Mayor Scott and Capt. Holland noted that a main issue is that many homeless persons “prefer the lifestyle,” as Mayor Scott expressed, and they often reject services offered that might move them out of homelessness.
“Often because of drugs,” said Mashburn, “if they get out of jail and go back on the street, they basically go back to the same life they had [before they went to jail].”
“Yes, it’s more of a drug and mental health issue than just a homeless issue,” offered Council Member David Culpepper.
Chief Harrell also explained that “the majority of homeless people are not local. They come from somewhere where they weren’t welcome but say it’s easy here because of the hospitality of our community. We’ve made every effort to get them the help they need. And we’ve been working around the clock to come up with out-of-the-box ideas to deal with this issue and keep our community safe.”
He added that, when necessary, law enforcement “steps” must be taken to deal with the illegal activity, including trespassing. “We have to take a proactive stance,” he said, concluding, “It’s a slippery slope, and we have to be careful that we’re not enabling the lifestyle.”
Mayor Scott pointed out that Franklin is not the only town, out of the more than 500 towns in North Carolina, to be facing a homelessness problem.
Chief Harrell said, “There are great minds in this room and in the community, but we haven’t come up with the answers.” In response, Vice Mayor Jack Horton suggested a “task force to come up with a permanent solution. We can’t solve this with a broad brush. We need to look at aspects individually.”
In other business, Setser asked for and received consideration for approval of the rezoning of 4.5 acres off Siler Road. The land, which borders Hwy. 441 and is currently owned by Duke Energy, will be rezoned from R1 to C2, which means from a residential zone to commercial use. Although the Town of Franklin opened up the issue for a public hearing, no one spoke for or against the measure. The council approved the rezoning consideration.
The planned skate park at Veterans Memorial Park, also known as the Jaycee Park, is receiving donations for its construction, which is scheduled to begin in February 2022.
A citizen received council approval for the closing of a portion of Bidwell Street from 5-9 p.m. on Oct. 31, due to the popularity of annual trick-or-treating on the street. The tradition typically draws many children and families, and the citizen explained that closing the street will better ensure safety.
The planning stages for a memorial bench was proposed by Travis Tallent, town clerk. “We will begin looking at locations, costs, and a timeline for the project,” said Tallent.
The bench would initially honor the late Gwen Taylor, co-owner of The Dusty Pallet in Franklin and president of the Streets of Franklin Heritage Association. She died Aug. 14, 2021. The other name proposed for the bench is Larry Hollifield, who was a member of the Macon County Planning Board for 17 years. He died Aug. 7, 2021. The Town of Franklin council agreed that other names may be added to the bench in the future.
“I think this project would be a great way to honor those who have helped Main Street become such an inviting area for visitors and residents alike,” said Tallent. “Both of these individuals [Taylor and Hollifield] were a true asset to Main Street, not only with their businesses, but also with the civic duties that they carried out. Their impact will not be forgotten and they will be sorely missed.”
The 25th Annual PumpkinFest is scheduled for Oct. 23, from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. in Franklin. “We’re going to be rolling those pumpkins,” said Mayor Scott.
The next Town of Franklin council meeting is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 1, at 6 p.m.