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'We want you back'

A campaign has been launched to tell owners of the North Wilkesboro Speedway that Wilkes Countians want to see the track reopened.

It began late last week with a banner that says, “We want you back,” being hung across the front of the Wilkes Chamber of Commerce building on Main Street, North Wilkesboro. North Wilkesboro Speedway logos are on either side of “We want you back.”

“We want you back” yard signs with the speedway logo were also put up along the sidewalk in front of the B Street Park on Main Street, North Wilkesboro.

“We want to assure Marcus Smith and Speedway Motorsports Inc. that Wilkes Countians would like to see something happen with the speedway,” said Wilkes Chamber of Commerce President Linda Cheek on Friday.

Marcus G. Smith is president, chief operating officer and director of Concord-based Speedway Motorports Inc. (SMI), which owns the North Wilkesboro Speedway. He is the son of Bruton Smith, SMI’s founder and chief executive officer.

SMI encountered opposition to its plans to bring NASCAR racing back to Nashville, Tenn., and Cheek said the “We want you back” effort is intended to show SMI that it wouldn’t experience opposition in Wilkes.

Terri Parsons of Purlear, Wilkes County’s film commissioner, is credited with initiating “We want you back” and is spearheading the effort. Parsons said she was talking to Eddie Settle, chairman of the Wilkes County commissioners, about their shared interest in seeing the North Wilkesboro Speedway reopened when Settle brought up the need to “show some love” to the Smiths.

Parsons has long-standing ties to NASCAR, the Smiths and others prominent in motorsports racing through her husband, the late Benny Parsons, a Wilkes native who won the 1973 NASCAR Cup Series and was inducted posthumously into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Parsons said reopening the North Wilkesboro Speedway is the only one of 10 things her late husband left her to accomplish.

The Wilkesboro Tourism Development Authority board approved granting $5,000 for the “We want you back” effort at its April 27 meeting. Cheek requested the funds to pay for banners, yard signs and any other “We want you back” promotions. Cheek’s term on the TDA board ended in June.

She said a “We want you back” billboard will be put up near the North Wilkesboro Speedway, visible from U.S. 421. Cheek said local business people plan to put up billboards with the same or similar messages,

Wilkesboro TDA Director Thomas Salley said the $5,000 will be paid to the Ragg Company in North Wilkesboro for making the banners, signs and other promotional materials. Salley said the Ragg Company already had North Wilkesboro Speedway logo files from doing business with SMI.

Cheek said people should contact the Ragg Company to get signs and other “We want you back” promotional material.

North Wilkesboro Town Manager Wilson Hooper said Crystal Keener, Downtown North Wilkesboro Partnership director, is participating in the “We want you back” committee. Hooper said the town is promoting the campaign by posting it on its social media.

Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland said Wilkesboro is participating through the Wilkesboro TDA.

Cheek and Salley both said the campaign is in response to comments Marcus Smith made when he was interviewed on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Podcast on March 30.

Smith told Earnhardt during that interview, “I just want you to know that we haven’t forgotten North Wilkesboro. We haven’t given up on it,” referring to the North Wilkesboro Speedway.

When asked what that meant, Smith responded, “It means we’re thinking. We’re working on it. No promises, but we have not forgotten about it. That’s the big message.”

Smith added, “I know a lot of people think that I don’t care, and that’s not true, I really do care. If we can think of a way to do something there, we’re going to…. I don’t want people to think that we don’t care. I work on ideas regularly to figure out how we do something there.”

He continued, “I think there might be hope to do something there” at the North Wilkesboro Speedway. “You never know. To be sure, I’m not saying a NASCAR race. I’m just saying that something could be done.”

The North Wilkesboro Speedway opened in 1947 as a dirt track. It was later paved and became a mainstay in Winston Cup racing, with spring and fall NASCAR races each year. Jeff Gordon won the final NASCAR Cup Series event on Sept. 29, 1996.

If sat dormant for over a decade before being revived for a series of short track touring division races, including Pro All Stars Series and Pro Cup, in 2010 and 2011.

The track has been the venue for several commercials, music videos and other film projects and received some upkeep in preparation for being the basis for an iRacing simulated race online last year. Otherwise, it remains dormant and falls deeper into a state of disrepair.

Tribute paid to slain deputies as procession passes
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Funeral services for two Watauga County Sheriff’s Office deputies who were fatally shot in an incident on April 28 are scheduled Thursday at Appalachian State University’s Holmes Convocation Center in Boone.

Services for Sgt. Christopher “Chris” Ward, 36, and K-9 Deputy Logan Fox, 25, start at 3 p.m., with doors to the public opening at 1 p.m. According to a funeral announcement, people attending are asked to wear masks.

A procession of law enforcement officers at least two miles long accompanied the two bodies when they were transported from Winston-Salem, where autopsies were performed, back to Boone on April 30.

Hundreds of people lined up along U.S. 421 in Wilkes County to pay tribute. Fire trucks were parked on overpass bridges, with firefighters and other emergency personnel nearby. People were lined up shoulder to shoulder in downtown Boone as the procession passed on its way to Austin and Barnes Funeral Home.

Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman said Fox, formerly an Ashe Sheriff’s Office deputy, had a fiancé. Ward was married with two children.

Speaking to the media on April 29, Hagaman thanked the community for its support. “The citizens — I can’t say enough about them.”

Ward and Fox were fatally shot at a home at 553 Hardaman Drive east of Boone while responding to a request for a welfare check there. Fox died in the house and Ward was extracted by two officers while the shooter, identified as Isaac Alton Barnes, 32, was distracted. Ward died after he was flown to a hospital in Johnson City, Tenn.

A Boone police officer’s protective armor was hit by a bullet while Ward was extracted.

A 13-hour standoff with, at the house ended about 10:45 p.m. April 28 when Barnes shot himself and died. Michelle Annette Ligon, 61, and George Wyatt Ligon, 58, who lived in the house, were found there fatally shot after the standoff ended.

Barnes was also identified as the shooter in the deaths of the Ligons, who were his mother and father-in-law. The welfare check was requested after the Ligons didn’t report to work or answer phone calls.

Hagaman said the Watauga Sheriff’s Office earlier received calls saying law enforcement should be on the look-out for Barnes. He said there were family concerns that Barnes might try to do something and that he “evidently had a fairly large cache of weapons.” The sheriff’s office didn’t expect him to be at Ligons’ house, he added.

“I’m convinced that the attitude of the suspect was such that he was planning this, not necessarily the officers but the public in general.” Hagaman said Barnes’ family provided information and said they were sorry about what happened when he reached out to them after the incident.

Five Wilkes Sheriff’s Office bomb squad members and about 10 Wilkes Sheriff’s Office Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team members were among about 300 law enforcement officers who responded to the incident. As requested when paged by the Watauga Sheriff’s Office, the bomb squad brought its two robots and the SWAT team brought two armored vehicles.

Upon the bomb squad’s arrival on the scene about 12:30 p.m., Major Kelly Redmond of the Watauga Sheriff’s Office, incident commander, said whichever of the two robots ready first was needed inside the house to help determine the shooter’s location.

Deputy Doug Cotton and Det. Chris Wagoner of the Wilkes Sheriff’s Office, the bomb squad’s former and current commander respectively, soon had the smaller of the two robots moving on its four tracks through the front door of the single-story house with a basement. Both robots have audio and visual functions.

The two veteran bomb technicians were positioned about 10 yards in front of the house behind a vehicle. Cotton said several SWAT team members were nearby. Officers from the Wilkes Sheriff’s Office and other agencies had the house thoroughly surrounded during the standoff.

Cotton watched a handheld monitor and verbally directed where Wagoner moved the robot with the controls. They have extensive experience working together.

Not finding the gunman on the first floor, said Cotton, they sent the robot down the steps to the basement and immediately heard gunfire. “We saw the robot shake a little (from being shot) and Chris ducked it into a side room,” he said.

“Then, we saw him (the gunman) pick up the robot, shoot it and it went blank,” said Cotton, adding that three or four rounds were fired. He said the robot is insured.

Cotton and Wagoner with the bomb squad’s other robot and State Bureau of Investigation agents with another robot kept track of the gunman’s movements in the house for the remainder of the standoff. The Wilkes Sheriff’s Office robot was upstairs in the home and the SBI robot was outside the basement.

“We were able to contain and confine the suspect to the basement,” said Cotton. “They allowed us to know what he (the shooter) was doing.” He said robots designed for use by law enforcement “aren’t needed all the time, but when they are needed they save lives.”

A Community Night of Remembrance in honor of the people who died is set for Monday, May 10. It’s being organized by businesses, organizations and individuals in Boone. Go to https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/GRN872H for more details.

Cub Creek bridge could reopen by Friday
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The N.C. Department of Transportation hopes to have the Oakwoods Road bridge over Cub Creek in Wilkesboro reopened to traffic by Friday, said a DOT spokesman Monday.

DOT engineers in Raleigh decided the bridge could be safely reopened with the simpler of two repair options, added Andrew P. Glasco, transportation supervisor II in bridge maintenance for the DOT’s Wilkes and Caldwell county districts.

The other option would mean keeping the bridge closed for another three weeks, said Glasco. It’s been closed since April 15, when a routine bridge inspection found repairs were needed.

Completing work in time to open the two-lane bridge to traffic Friday depends on the weather this week, he added.

“As of now, we’re going to replace three post-tensioning cables and make minor repairs to the concrete channel legs” starting Tuesday.

The concrete channel legs are the bridge deck’s 12 precast slabs of concrete that run the length of the bridge (on its underside) over Cub Creek. Some of the 12 have deteriorated to the point where pieces of concrete are broken off.

Post-tensioning cables are steel cables running horizontally through the concrete slabs to hold them tightly together with steel hardware on ends of each cable on either side of the bridge.

The inspection found that three of these horizontal steel cables holding the bridge deck’s 12 precast slabs of concrete tightly together had failed.

Glasco said the three-week repair option meant replacing two to four of the 12 concrete slabs. It would be a considerably bigger job requiring use of a crane and dismantling more of the current bridge structure.

The three-span Oakwoods Road bridge over Cub Creek was constructed in 1969. It underwent major repairs with placement of a couple of steel I-beams lengthwise under the bridge several years ago.

The bridge’s weight limit was reduced to 19 tons for single vehicles and 25 tons for tractor-trailers some time back.

In the DOT’s current Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), right of way acquisition for a new Oakwoods Road bridge over Cub Creek is scheduled to start in June 2026 and construction in June 2028.

Leaving regional library system eyed again

The Wilkes County commissioners are again considering withdrawing from a regional library system that also includes Ashe and Watauga counties.

“Notice to withdraw from the Appalachian Regional Library system” (ARL) was an action item on the agenda for the county commissioners’ meeting Tuesday night.

The meeting was after the deadline for the May 5 print edition of the newspaper, but Eddie Settle, chairman of the commissioners, said Monday that he expected a motion tabling withdrawal and instead establishing a committee of 10-12 Wilkes residents to study the matter.

Settle said the committee would make recommendations to the commissioners on how to provide library services for all Wilkes residents. He said he expected the committee to include three members of the Wilkes County Library Advisory Board, including Commissioner Casey Joe Johnson as committee chairman.

Settle had the withdrawal notice included on the agenda and said early last week that he expected commissioners to vote on it at the May 4 meeting. He also said he favored leaving the ARL and operating the library as a county government department due to the Wilkes Library Advisory Board’s lack of authority.

After hearing from citizens opposed to withdrawing from the ARL, Settle said late last week that he wanted the matter tabled so concerns could be addressed through negotiations with Jane Blackburn, ARL director of libraries.

Blackburn said Friday that by law and definition, the regional library board can’t give authority to county advisory boards. She said that when a regional board appoints a director of libraries, it gives that person all executive powers within the regional library system, including the hiring process.

To withdraw from a regional library system, written notice must be given to the regional library board, other member governmental units and the state on or before July 1. The withdrawal isn’t effective until the following June 30.

Funds designated by Wilkes County government and other sources for the Wilkes County Library in downtown North Wilkesboro and the Traphill Library go to the West Jefferson-based ARL. Blackburn said it all is disbursed for the Wilkes and Traphill libraries.

The ARL board consists of four members each from the Wilkes, Ashe and Watauga library advisory boards. Wilkes representatives on the ARL board are Becky Ball, Beth Foster Tharrington and Dr. Bill Davis, with a vacancy due to Carol Childers’ recent death. Each county advisory board consists of five to 12 people.

Blackburn said that in addition to making recommendations, this representation of advisory boards on a regional board is how advisory boards participate in governance of the regional system.

In addition to Ball, Tharrington and Davis and Johnson as commissioner member, Wilkes advisory board members are Gwen Minton (chairman), Ola Norman (vice chairman), Julie Faw Church and Sharon Carter Underwood. Views of the Wilkes advisory board members on withdrawing from the regional system appear to be mixed.

Advisory and regional board members are appointed by their county commissioners.

Settle said that when he was commissioner representative on the Wilkes Library Advisory Board, regional library officials brought a proposed Wilkes County Library budget to the advisory board “to rubber stamp with no discussion” each year.

He said the advisory board’s complete lack of authority over the Wilkes library budget and who is hired as Wilkes County librarian are primary concerns driving interest in withdrawing from the regional system.

Settle said the issue of hiring a Wilkes County librarian is timely because Aimee James, county librarian since late 2018, resigned earlier this month to take a public library position in Southern Pines.

The Wilkes commissioners have discussed leaving the ARL before, typically in budget talks this time of year. It came up when Blackburn requested library pay raises in 2018, based on results of a salary study. The increases, funded with $86,000 more annually over three years, were approved. The 23 library employees in Wilkes would become county government employees if Wilkes left the regional system.

Another budget issue is the Traphill Library, the only branch library in Wilkes. Blackburn has publicly suggested closing the Traphill Library due to its comparatively low usage. In 2017, she said per patron operational costs were $4.28 for the Wilkes County Library and $15.78 for the Traphill Library.

The commissioners helped prevent the Traphill Library’s closure by funding it separately from the main library in 2013. This has continued.

Settle said he and others interested in withdrawing from the regional system want more public libraries in the county and aren’t anti-library. He noted Wilkes County government expenditures on the main library building.

This fiscal year, Wilkes County government budgeted $571,500 for the Wilkes County Library and $28,931 for the Traphill Library. This $600,431 was 77% of total revenue listed in the Wilkes library budget.

Other revenue listed in the Wilkes library budget this year includes fines/fees ($20,000), donations ($23,310), $22,467 (other grants) $35,000 (endowment funds) and $5,000 from Town of North Wilkesboro. This year’s Wilkes library budget also includes $70,397 from a Wilkes library fund balance of about $300,000.

Blackburn said she believed but wasn’t sure that all of these funds, including about $300,000 left in the Wilkes library fund balance, would stay with Wilkes if it left the regional system. She emphasized that there are funds in the ARL budget spent on Wilkes not reflected in the Wilkes library budget.

Blackburn said it includes nearly $46,000 this year for technology, such as Internet service, online security, a platform for e-book exchanges, software and mobile hotspots for Wilkes. She said it also includes funds for equipment, periodical subscriptions, postage, mileage reimbursement, vehicle maintenance and more.

Blackburn said being in a regional system saves money through economies of scale and by sharing costs and resources. For example, she said, ARL libraries get better prices for computer hardware and software. She said the regional system funds internet service for all of the libraries and the digital platform that allows them to share e-books. An ARL courier service makes books at any ARL libraries available in all three counties.

Phil Trew, director of planning and development for the Boone-based High Country Council of Governments, prepared information on advantages of Wilkes remaining in the ARL in 2019. Trew also cited economies of scale, including ARL positions for management planning, accounting and information technology (including website management) in all three counties.

Trew said another advantage is membership in the N.C. Cardinal statewide consortium, which provides staff training and allows local people to borrow materials from libraries in any of 50 member counties in the state. Wilkes would have to pay $10,000 a year to be in Cardinal if it left ARL.

Each county gets a block grant from the state (about $63,000 in 2020) and an additional grant based on population and per capital income. Each regional system also gets another of the county block grants to spend among all member counties, which Trew said means about $20,000 a year for Wilkes. He noted that ARL staff obtain and administer grants for libraries in the three counties.

State Librarian Timothy Owens said in an interview that if Wilkes left the ARL, the two public libraries in the county would lose the benefits provided by the extra block grant the regional system gets. Owens concurred with Blackburn and Trew about the economies of scale, ready access to library materials in participating libraries and other advantages of being in a regional system. He said the centralized administrative and IT support allows local libraries to focus on community needs.

The ARL exists under an interlocal agreement approved by the commissioners of Wilkes, Ashe and Watauga counties in 1979, revised in 2012 and up for renewal in 2022.

North Carolina has 12 regional library systems covering about 40 counties, including Yadkin, Surry and Alleghany in the Elkin-based Northwestern Regional Library system. Other counties, including Caldwell and Alexander, operate their libraries as county departments.

Under the revised agreement, library buildings or any other ARL real estate is owned by the county in which the real estate is located, unless two or more counties agree otherwise.

A report on a Wilkes Library Advisory Board meeting in the ARL board’s May 15, 2019, minutes indicate bylaws of the local advisory board at one time gave it authority to choose the county librarian and approve budgets. The minutes said the state library sent a suggested revision that removed this authority from advisory boards to comply with state regulations and that a revised version was being prepared. It was later approved.