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Wilkes ends '21 with surge in COVID cases, deaths
  • Updated

Wilkes County ended 2021 and started 2022 in a surge of new COVID-19 cases.

Wilkes went from 198 deaths officially tied to COVID-19 on Dec. 22 to 205 on Dec. 29, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

The county’s total was still 205 when the new year started.

The number of Wilkes residents testing positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic started surpassed 12,000 on Dec. 29. DHHS reported a total of 12,102 for Wilkes that day.

The Wilkes total was over 400 less (11,682) a week earlier on Dec. 22.

DHHS reported that as Monday, 12,316 Wilkes residents had tested positive since the pandemic began.

Wilkes hasn’t experienced an increase in COVID-19 cases this large since a surge in mid-September 2021, driven by the delta variant of COVID-19.

The latest surge is due partly to the increasing dominance of the highly-transmissible omicron variant.

Wilkes County’s positivity rate on COVID-19 tests was 13.36% for the seven days ending Dec. 27. It was still 13.36% for the seven days ending Dec. 29.

Wilkes and every other county in the state except Polk was colored red for high transmission rate on Monday. Polk was colored orange for substantial transmission rate, one level less severe than red.

Red indicates more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people in a seven-day period (week ending Dec. 29) and/or a positivity rate of at least 10%, also in a seven-day period (week ending Dec. 27).

Capital projects dominate plans for '22

Wilkes County government officials say details on using $18 million in the new state budget for bringing the North Wilkesboro Speedway back to life are starting to unfold.

This capital project should be among the top stories of 2022 in Wilkes. This will begin Jan. 20 when Marcus Smith, president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI), is guest speaker at the Wilkes Chamber of Commerce’s 75th annual Membership Celebration. SMI owns the North Wilkesboro Speedway.

This event is at Wilkes Community College’s John A. Walker Community Center in Wilkesboro, with the program and buffet dinner starting at 7 p.m. Reservations are required.

Smith said in November that the $18 million “provides the starting capital needed to rebuild the infrastructure” of the speedway. “With state budget amounts now finalized, we can zero in on project priorities and determine work schedules” for improvements to the North Wilkesboro Speedway. “The goal will be to modernize the property so that it can host racing and special events again in the future.”

The budget says the $18 million goes to Wilkes County government “to coordinate with other relevant local governments on water and sewer and related infrastructure projects for service” to the speedway.

County Manager John Yates said he learned in early December that county government will receive the $18 million through the N.C. Department of Commerce. Yates said that department will assign a grant manager to work with county officials on how the money can be spent. This includes meeting requirements of the federal American Rescue Plan (ARP), source of the funds.

Yates spoke to Terri Parsons of Purlear, a leader in efforts for the speedway through her NASCAR connections, and said she will help arrange for county government and SMI officials to meet.

Wilkes County Finance Director Chris Huffman said that following a remote meeting with officials from Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, he and other county government officials are working with SMI officials to produce a list of items SMI would like addressed with the $18 million.

“We’re in very, very preliminary stages of this…. It’s gaining some speed because we’re going to have to sign an agreement with the state on how we’ll use these funds,” said Huffman.

“We’re working with the speedway folks to see what all needs to be done there” and this will help determine what is funded with the $18 million, he said. County officials will then work with state officials to determine what is eligible for ARP funds, said Huffman, adding that state and local officials are still learning how the money can be used.

“We already know the money can be for water and sewer infrastructure” for the speedway. This means extending municipal water and sewer lines to the speedway. Discussion has focused on North Wilkesboro extending a sewer line and on Wilkesboro extending a water line to the facility.

The speedway is almost 1.5 miles down Speedway Road from a North Wilkesboro sewer line on Speedway Road, near where it intersects with N.C. 115. The facility is about 2.75 miles down U.S. 421 from a Wilkesboro water line at the Northwest Visitors Center along U.S. 421.

Keith Elmore, chairman of the Wilkes County commissioners, said county officials are ready to meet with SMI officials whenever SMI officials are ready.

Rep. Jeffrey Elmore of North Wilkesboro, who played a key role in securing funds for the speedway, said an SMI business plan includes using ARP money from the state on the facility. He said the company’s vision includes using all of its motorsports properties year-round for a variety of events. The North Wilkesboro Speedway last hosted a NASCAR Cup Series race on Sept. 29, 1996. It sat dormant for over a decade before being revived for short track touring division races in 2010 and 2011.

County government facilities

Wilkes County government officials will be involved in other capital projects in 2022. Building an emergency services center on county-owned land at the intersection of Call Street and Oakwoods Road in Wilkesboro is a high priority for the county commissioners. This includes a main Wilkes Emergency Medical Services base and a large open area under roof for drive-through vaccinations and other purposes.

On Sept. 7, the commissioners approved a preliminary design-build agreement with Jefferson-based Vannoy Construction calling for paying the company $485,000 to design the emergency services center, prepare documents for building it and figure its guaranteed maximum construction price. Ground could be broken for this 22,000-square-foot facility as soon as March or April.

The main EMS base now is in a building adjacent to Wilkes Medical Center in North Wilkesboro. Commissioners have indicated uncertainty about continued availability of this building, which the county subleases from the hospital.

The agreement approved Sept. 7 authorized hiring Vannoy as the county’s design-builder for the emergency services center, but commissioner approval is needed for Vannoy to start construction. It also gave commissioners the option of proceeding similarly with a proposed new county office building and a third county government facility not yet determined.

If undertaken, the new county office building likely would be constructed on three acres at the intersection of Courthouse Drive Extension and Executive Drive in Wilkesboro that the commissioners approved buying in late April. It adjoins the Wilkes Agricultural Center property.

As for the third project, the commissioners have discussed renovating the current county office building in Wilkesboro to house the Wilkes Health Department or possibly building a new facility for a combined Wilkes Health Department and Wilkes DSS.

Town and county governments, county schools and Wilkes Community College all have additional funds in 2022 for capital improvements, primarily related to COVID-19 relief programs. Speaking for county government, Elmore said potential capital projects have to weighed against rising construction costs. “I don’t want us to get in a position of having to raise taxes to build buildings.”

In March, the commissioners okayed a reimbursement resolution saying the county will spend a maximum of $30 million on three capital projects. This lets the county pay itself back with borrowed funds.

In November, they approved a grant project ordinance calling for spending $3.1 million of $13.3 million in ARP funds the county received on building the emergency services center. Huffman said county officials are awaiting confirmation that ARP funds can be used for this facility. He said they can be used for four purposes: public health, water service, sewer service and broadband.

The ordinance lists spending $7.98 million on extending sewer lines and building pump stations for providing the county landfill and county airport with municipal sewer service, plus connecting others along the way. It allocates $1.6 million of the $13.3 million on buying 10 public safety vehicles and two ambulances and for constructing a “burn building” for training firefighters.

It designates $600,000 for rewarding county government employees who already have been vaccinated and offering incentives to motivate unvaccinated county government employees to get the shots.

Elmore said meeting labor force needs in county government should be even more of a challenge in 2022. This includes retaining longtime staff and recruiting new employees.

Other matters Elmore said will likely come before his board in 2022 include:

• providing the Human Society of Wilkes with land near the Wilkes County Animal Shelter for building a humane society animal shelter. As proposed by Humane Society of Wilkes officials, the humane society shelter would help free up space in the county shelter. Humane society officials also requested county assistance with grading the property

• distributing funds received through the nationwide settlement of lawsuits filed against prescription pain killer manufacturers and distributors. This money must go to non-profits that address drug addiction

• constructing a convenience center in another outlying area of Wilkes, partly to help address ongoing roadside litter problem

• enacting an occupancy tax outside the towns to raise additional funds for marketing Wilkes

• taking steps to require increased accountability from non-profits receiving county government funds.

A county-owned T-hangar will be under construction at the county airport in 2022. A commercial building, available for lease and funded by the county and the Golden LEAF Foundation, will also be built this year.

In Wilkesboro

Bob Urness, Wilkesboro’s assistant town manager and director of finance, identified five key issues looming large on the town’s radar in 2022.

  1. Housing. “I don’t think it is any surprise that this is a topic of conversation and we are not alone in the need for housing across all levels,” he said.
  2. Internal utilities. “We have a couple of large projects on the verge of construction simultaneously, one at each plant (raw water and wastewater). These are generational projects that would go un-noticed hopefully to the residents, but will have a great impact on our ability to serve in the future.”
  3. Shared utilities. “There will be lots of conversations around water interchange between the (Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro), utility service to the (North Wilkesboro Speedway), etc. These talks have lots of opportunity to set the course for years to come.”
  4. Financial opportunities. “Given the extended amounts of grants available as well as the low interest rate environment, we may see the stars align for projects/opportunities to come to fruition: phase two of downtown revitalization, phase two of the inclusive playground (at Cub Creek), various outdoor economy opportunities, etc. These need the right timing/funding to pull the trigger on and that type of environment may easily exist.”
  5. Staffing. “We try very hard to have a culture of longevity amongst our staff as it breathes all sorts of intangible benefits for the organization. Essentially, our employees are here because they want to be here. My goal is to not take our employee base or their efforts for granted and continue to make investment in the long term health” of the town.

In North Wilkesboro

North Wilkesboro Town Manager Wilson Hooper likewise recognized five central topics to the town’s 2022 agenda.

  1. Economy. “These are strange days from an economy standpoint. In addition to the easy-to-understand things (like how low interest rates designed to keep the economy humming affect town revenue), there’s now these new phenomena that are harder to grasp. I’m thinking specifically about workforce participation and what it means for agencies like us. The diminishing participation rate certainly makes it a workers’ market for those remaining in the labor force, and employers are having to pull out all the stops to recruit/retain people. On top of that, inflation is making compensating folks fairly harder even without competition from other employers. From an at-large perspective, I suspect the success of our community economy will be based largely on how well our local firms adapt to this situation.”
  2. Governance. “The town has had four new board members since 2019 (Andrew Palmer and Michael Parsons in 2019, Mayor Marc Hauser and Otis Church in 2020), all with big plans. Early signs indicate that Marc will be an active mayor who’ll work to create an action-oriented board.”
  3. Pandemic. “The last two years have been a roller coaster, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. We’re learning to live with it, but I suspect that the new normal will be defined by periods of disruption. Town services may look different from month to month as we continue to deal with having fewer staff available due to isolation, infection, etc.”
  4. Speedway. “Clearly this a great opportunity for the area to bring back what we’re, perhaps, best known for. So it’ll be great for our brand on top of the tangible economic benefit it’ll bring. But I think there’s an additional benefit that’s flying under the radar, and that’s the opportunity to expand public utilities to properties that aren’t currently served by them. There are lots of properties between where our water line terminates and the speedway property. If we could make public water available to them, that would certainly be in keeping with the purpose of ARP (American Rescue Plan).”
  5. Housing. “We have to make some hay on this in the coming year in order to stay economically competitive. Here in town, it appears renovation activity is ticking up, probably people bringing older homes back online as rental units, but no big splashes yet. We’re working on a couple of opportunities, but they’re too early to share anything yet. The board has instructed staff to bring back options for making the zoning on multi-family a little easier, so we’re working on that. I suspect we’ll see some changes to our zoning ordinance in the months to come as a result of that.”

Year begins with drought relief, snow
  • Updated

The new year began with drought-relief in Wilkes, with most of the county receiving about 2 inches of precipitation in the first three days of 2022.

It was the most precipitation in Wilkes for that period of time in over two months.

Near record high temperatures Sunday gave way to snow in much of Wilkes on Monday, beginning by mid-morning. As much as 2-3 inches of snow accumulated in higher elevations of the county.

Adjoining mountain counties received 5 or more inches of snow, with ski resorts reporting optimal conditions.

The southern and eastern flanks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, visible from the Wilkesboros, remained covered in white Tuesday. There were reports of numerous power outages in the mountains due to snow-covered trees falling on power lines.

Firefighters in outlying areas of Wilkes were busy removing trees from secondary roads Monday.

Snow remained on the ground in several areas of Wilkes on Tuesday, but roads were generally clear. The Wilkes County Schools operated on a two-hour delay Tuesday to allow for the possibility of icy conditions that morning. Schools were already closed Monday for a teacher work day.

Highs are supposed to be around 50 and lows in the 20s and 30s Wednesday and Thursday, but colder Friday in Wilkes.

Man in custody since 2 murders sentenced
  • Updated

A man who was in custody for over seven years without facing a trial was sentenced to a minimum of 166 months and a maximum of 212 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder in Wilkes Superior Court on Dec. 17.

Kenneth Wayne “Kenny” Myers Jr., 18 when originally charged with two counts of first-degree murder and now 25, was sentenced by Judge Richard S. Gottlieb of Winston-Salem. Under a plea agreement, Myers waived his right to appeal.

Gottlieb gave Myers credit for the 2,723 days (almost 7 ½ years) he was in jail or other custody, which means his prison sentence was reduced by that amount.

In 2016, Superior Court Judge Michael Duncan found Myers incompetent to stand trial and ordered that he be taken to Broughton Hospital in Morganton for treatment in hopes that he could become competent to stand trial.

Myers had been in custody since the killings, with part of that time spent in psychiatric institutions for pre-trial evaluation. The psychiatric proceedings largely accounted for the delay in Myers’ case being heard in court.

Court officials said that early in 2021, Myers was found competent to be tried.

The Wilkes Sheriff’s Office charged Myers with two counts of murder following the incident just before midnight July 3, 2014, that left two people dead in the Shepherds Crossroads section of Roaring River. Myers was charged in the shooting deaths of Richard Thomas Holloway and Amanda Victoria Transeau, 34 and 32 at the time respectively.

The incident occurred at 229 Peace Valley Road in Shepherds Crossroads, where Myers lived. Holloway lived on Half Mile Road in the Austin community. Transeau’s last known address was Foster’s Trailer Park, North Wilkesboro, but investigators were told she had been staying at 229 Peace Valley Road for three to five weeks. Peace Valley Road is a short road off Greenhorn Road.

Deputies were dispatched to 229 Peace Valley Road and found Holloway and Myers with gunshot wounds and lying in the driveway of a mobile home after a disturbance with shots fired at that address was reported to the Wilkes Communications Center. Both died at the scene.

According to the sheriff’s office, the shooting incident occurred in the driveway as a result of a domestic situation that occurred at 229 Peace Valley Road.

Myers, Holloway and Transeau “had been hanging out together the afternoon before it (the fatal shootings) happened…. There was some sort of argument, but we don’t believe it was over drugs or money,” said Capt. Brandon Absher of the sheriff’s office. (Absher has since retired.) Investigators were told all three had been consuming alcohol. A long gun was recovered at the scene.