Editor’s note: This is the second in a five part series looking back at the top five stories in cops and courts; government and civic affairs; education; miscellaneous and offbeat; and events and happenings.
2017 was an election year for both the city of Marion and the town of Old Fort. In the Marion election, long-time Councilman and former Mayor Everette Clark chose not to seek another term after 45 years of continuous service. Eight candidates of various ages and backgrounds ran for the two available seats on the council. On Election Night in November, top vote-getter Woody Ayers and third-place finisher Ann Harkey became the newest members of the City Council and Councilwoman Juanita Doggett was re-elected. This meant the Marion City Council would have two women members. However, Councilman Lloyd Cuthbertson finished fourth in the race and was not re-elected after 24 years of service. Marion Mayor Steve Little won another term since he had no formal opposition. Old Fort Mayor Rick Hensley beat a challenger and won a second term. Both of the Old Fort’s aldermen up re-election easily won another term.
During 2017, people in Marion neighborhoods took it upon themselves to make their communities stronger, healthier and safer. The members of the West Marion Community Forum are working together to improve the health and well-being of their neighborhood. One of their primary goals is to focus on healthier living. In May, the forum dedicated its new Keeping it Fresh community garden to provide healthier foods for low-income and elderly folks in the community. The West Marion forum has formed partnerships with the city of Marion, the McDowell Health Coalition, the Corpening Memorial YMCA and the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust’s Healthy Places initiative. The forum also has a free transportation service for West Marion residents. Residents of East Marion, Eastfield and Clinchfield neighborhoods have a similar effort called the Marion East Community Forum. This one was started to focus on improving the health, safety and overall quality of life in those Marion neighborhoods. This group also consists of residents coming together to identify problems facing their neighborhoods and finding the answers to those problems. They held a communitywide cleanup of East Marion and focus on making their sections safer and better connected. Similar forums are planned for Glenwood, Old Fort and Nebo.
Downtown progress and HMR vote
During 2017, Marion saw a series of new businesses open that are already bringing new excitement and activity to the downtown area. In March, the XYZ Spirits store on East Court Street was the first of these to open followed later that month by the popular taproom Refinery 13 on North Main Street. Spillway Bridge & Co., which is a taproom and music hall on South Main Street, opened its doors later in the year. Mica Town Brewing Co. on Brown Drive is scheduled to open on New Year’s Eve and will be McDowell County’s first craft brewery. Still more similar businesses are planned for 2018. In relation to this, voters in Marion voted overwhelmingly in November to do away with the old hotel, motel and restaurant (HMR) rule when it came to the on-premise sale of beer. The overwhelming support for doing away with the HMR rule meant businesses like Refinery 13 could serve beer without having to operate as a private club. In August, the Marion City Council voted unanimously and with little discussion to approve the “brunch bill” for the city limits. This ordinance allows for the sale of alcoholic beverages before noon on Sundays and that applies to restaurants, bars and retail stores in Marion.
Old Rock-Tenn building controversy
Early in 2017, the McDowell County Commissioners went back and forth with the property owner over the purchase of the former RockTenn building and property in downtown Marion for possible use as county office space. In February, the commissioners held a special meeting and voted to purchase the former industrial plant and 5.25 acres from Gurley Storage LLC for $750,000. However, Gurley Storage had bought it in December 2016 for $275,000 from West Rock (the new name for the company). County officials said they didn’t know at that time it had been sold for that price. The McDowell News asked Wesley Gurley of Gurley Storage about his purchase of the building for $275,000 and why he would he sell it to the county for $750,000. That means the owner would make a profit of $475,000 from county taxpayers’ money. Gurley said he made a number of improvements to the site since buying it. A few days after their special meeting, the commissioners decided to walk away from the deal when the price was raised to $950,000. In March, the commissioners met again about to consider buying it and held a public hearing. Numerous people wanted to know why county officials did not get this property when it could have been bought for $275,000 and questioned how this had been handled. After a public hearing and a discussion that lasted almost 90 minutes, the McDowell County Commissioners voted unanimously to move forward with buying the former RockTenn building and property. In their action, the commissioners voted to have a due-diligence period of 60 days to allow the county’s environmental and structural engineers time to fully evaluate the building and the land. Then, Gurley Storage again changed the conditions of the purchase and asked for a 10-year lease with the option to purchase the building at the end of that period. By late April, county officials were saying that buying the old RockTenn plant “was no longer an option.”
Old Fort beautification grant
In August, the town of Old Fort received $100,000 town beautification grant and that money is being put to good use. The parking lot at Andrew’s Geyser is now being expanded about 25 feet with a decorative retaining wall. In addition, handicapped ramps, a sidewalk and bathrooms are also in the works at the landmark. Old Fort Depot’s Southern Railway bay window caboose, which was damaged by arson earlier this year, is set for reconstruction starting in January 2018 with the work to be done by the Craggy Mountain Railroad in Buncombe County. Other projects for beautification include redoing the walking bridges at the museum, new trash cans all over town, purchasing a new utility vehicle for the maintenance department, remodeling and repairing the outside of the Rockett Building, new pumps and lights at the Arrowhead, new street signs and eight brick flower planters going up and down Catawba Avenue for folks to sit on. The town has a committee comprised of aldermen, community members and town personnel who have helped make the decisions on the beautification projects. Mayor Pro Tem Andrew Carlton said the town’s web site has a new address and updated information.