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Views on merging, sharing town resources told
  • Updated

People now running for elected office in Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro shared varied views on combining the two municipalities during an Oct. 7 question and answer forum at the Yadkin Valley Marketplace in North Wilkesboro.

Regardless of their personal feelings on merging, they all agreed that it’s a matter that should be left for people of the two towns to decide by voting.

The majority of the candidates indicated support for commissioning a study on advantages and disadvantages of merging. They all spoke in favor of Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro working together to address each other’s needs.

Candidates for North Wilkesboro mayor are Michael Cooper, William Hamby, Marc R. Hauser, and Robert L. Johnson. Johnson is the incumbent.

Candidates for two North Wilkesboro commissioner seats are Otis W. Church, Angela J. Day and Joseph A. Johnston. Jonathan Swift’s name is on the ballot, but he said he no longer is a candidate. Day is the only incumbent. Debbie Ferguson’s term is also ending, but she didn’t file for re-election.

Candidates for two Wilkesboro Town Council seats are Nellie Hubbard Archibald, Russell F. Ferree and Lee W. Taylor. Archibald and Ferree are incumbents.

Names of candidates are written as they appear on the ballots.

During the forum, organized by the Wilkes Journal-Patriot, all the candidates were asked the following:

“Do you support authorizing a study to determine pros and cons of combining town services (including water systems) now provided separately by Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro and also to determine pros and cons of merging the two towns. Why or why not?”

Their responses follow.

N.W. mayoral candidates

Hamby said he is in favor of merging Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro, but “the people have to vote and decide if they want to merge or not.” He stated, “We’ve been a North Wilkesboro and we’ve been a Wilkesboro. There’s no reason why we can’t be the Wilkesboros. It’s a much better sounding name. We can all work together and we can grow together.” Combining Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro will bring growth to both and save money by reducing what is spent on water, sewer, fire departments and other services “and that’s what we want.” He added, “We’re all one people,” with a river flowing between what now are two towns.

Hauser said voters should decide on merging the two towns and it wouldn’t happen quickly, but the process of considering this should start. He said tough questions should be asked, including if two separate fire departments and two separate police departments are needed, as well as two mayors, two boards of commissioners, two town managers and two sets of buildings and departments that essentially are the same. It’s a matter of economies of scale, he said. If it appears a merger will maintain benefits for both towns and reduce costs, it should be explored. He said it’s a no-brainer if it improves benefits and cuts costs. “I don’t think the two towns should merge everything at once. We should start with water. That should have been done years ago.”

Johnson said, “We certainly do need to work with the Town of Wilkesboro to merge and we are in that process now with water and working with them on sewer.” He said plans call for North Wilkesboro to extend a sewer line and Wilkesboro to extend a water line to the North Wilkesboro Speedway. He said that for a merger to occur, the state would have to be petitioned for holding a public vote on this. “If the people vote to do it, that’s it…. As far as whether I favor it, it would be okay with me if it would help us progress in the county and serve the people the way we need to serve them.”

Cooper said the two towns should commission the UNC School of Government to do a study on merging in the next couple of years, share the resulting information on costs and benefits with the public and let the people vote on whether to merge. He said he hasn’t decided but is open to the two towns eventually merging. “We should be continuing to look at working together on things like water infrastructure and other services. I do support studying this issue. I think it’s an issue whose time has come…. It probably makes sense to integrate our services.” Cooper said merging isn’t a silver bullet that solves everything. He said it might make services more efficient and help get larger grants, but it won’t solve a number of bigger challenges like the opioid crisis or lack of good paying jobs.

Wilkesboro council candidates

Taylor said what citizens of Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro think about combining services or merging the two towns matters more than what he thinks. He asked if either town wants to give up its autonomy, identity and heritage and then answered his question. “I think not. And I don’t think they have to.” He said the two towns already have a symbiotic relationship and rely on each other. Taylor said this relationship includes the ability to share water with each other if needed and for emergency personnel from one town to respond to an incident in the other “faster than you can blink an eye.”

Archibald said a jointly-funded study on interchange of water between the two towns is underway and includes determining what’s needed to make their two water systems compatible. One issue is corrosiveness of one system’s water to the other’s pipes due to treatment differences. She said water rates one town would charge the other must be addressed. Archibald said costs were cut by sharing a 911 dispatcher and agreements in place authorize each fire department to assist the other. “I’m hoping we’ll be talking more about taking turns on big (fire department) equipment purchases” instead of making duplicate purchases. “As far as joining the two towns, I don’t know,” but that should be a decision for the voters.

Ferree said the towns are united, not divided, by a river and “need to start acting that way.” He said it would take a referendum to merge and voters in both towns would turn it down if held now. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study” advantages and disadvantages of merging and also combining certain services. “We don’t have to merge these two towns, but let’s save money.” He said the only reason for not having the study is fear of what it might show. Aside from the important topic of water, the two towns need to consider buying fire protection equipment they can share. He said Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro should adopt a Unified Development Ordinance so they could have the same land use rules.

N.W. board candidates

Johnston said he is in favor of merging Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro “for the good of our community 25 years down the way.” He said he supports commissioning a grant-funded study on the feasibility and cost-savings and other benefits of combining them. “There are too many things of twos in these towns, these two boros. There are also too many egos…. That’s something a study will prove are wrong.” He noted Wilkesboro Councilman Russ Ferree saying in the forum that he wants to provide a place for young people to return to after college. Johnston said one larger town will help achieve that goal. “Some observations: the Kerr Scott water intake (effort) ended last year after 20 years of haggling…. Energy spent on competition as in music festivals, police departments. We need to merge that energy into one channeled effort. I feel the outside forces in the next 20 years will be more impactful for a 10,000-person town than two 5,000-person towns.”

Church said the issue of whether to merge the two towns “has been going on since I was in diapers. Are we going to merge or not merge? It doesn’t really matter to me. I think we should, but right now we’ve got a good relationship with Wilkesboro” that includes loaning equipment back and forth. He said the egos of political leaders in the two town are too great for this to occur. “They’re afraid to do a study because they’re afraid of the results coming from the study and they also say who will pay for the study.” Church said he said he favors doing the study and added that funds for this can be secured. A merger wouldn’t occur overnight, but citizens of the two towns need the opportunity to vote on this. “You got to make a decision sometime and whatever the study shows, I’m 100% behind it.”

Day said she realized the importance of sharing between the two towns after becoming a member of the North Wilkesboro planning board and later by becoming a commissioner. Day said she was concerned about merging the two towns until then. She said the good relationship between North Wilkesboro Town Manager Wilson Hooper and Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland made a huge difference in the relationship between the two governments. She said an agreement has been reached between them for sharing water. Day said a drought and hot summer could leave North Wilkesboro unable to get the amount of water it needs from the Reddies River, the town’s current source. “We have to take that very seriously and it requires a partnership with Wilkesboro.”

Ag honoree known for ability to change
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A leader in environmental stewardship in farming is the latest inductee in the Wilkes County Agricultural Hall of Fame.

Gary N. Blake of the Somers community in southeastern Wilkes became the 19th inductee a year later than planned due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Bill Davis, chairman of the Wilkes Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors, presented Blake with a plaque with his image in a brief ceremony on the Blake farm along Hunting Creek Road on Oct. 12.

A duplicate plaque hangs with 18 others in the Wilkes Agricultural Center in Wilkesboro.

The farm that Gary and Lorene Oakley Blake started over 40 years ago at the base of Ring Fire Knob now encompasses 650 acres and supports three generations of the Blake family. “If this isn’t a family farm, there isn’t one,” said Davis.

The farm became a contract pullet producer for Holly Farms in 1980, and now is a contract broiler producer with Holly’s predecessor, Tyson Foods Inc. It has 22 broiler houses, including six former pullet houses.

Blake has said in past interviews that poultry production provided stability and he has continuously expanded this aspect of the operation. This included when one of his two sons returned home ready to farm after graduating from N.C. State University with an agricultural degree and as his grandsons have indicated interests in farming.

However, Blake has been recognized for his willingness to change, try new things and diversify the farming operation. Other family members have contributed to further diversify sources of revenue.

The farm produced tobacco from 1982-2012, and corn and other row crops from 1990 to the present. In 2014, Blake Farms set a state yield record for non-irrigated corn with 327 bushels per acre.

Greenhouses on the farm were repurposed from producing tobacco seedlings to vegetable and ornamental plants in 2012. This has evolved into an agritourism feature.

The hall of fame plaque’s inscription recognizes Blake for his progressive drive, innovative best management practices and for utilizing the farm to educate the public about the importance of stewardship.

Davis noted the many ways Blake and his family have reached out and interacted with the public through the farm.

It is used for high school and college cattle judging and land judging and for Boy Scout and Girl Scout events. It also is utilized for educating 4-H and other school groups (public and home).

Blake Farms was among the first participants in the Wilkes Voluntary Agricultural District program and Blake agreed to serve on the program’s board in 2009. He has influenced other farmers to sign up their farms for the program.

The plaque says Blake’s “life and farm exemplify his moto, ‘Take care of the land and it will take care of you.’ ” Blake inherited this motto from his father, according to information submitted when he was nominated.

The plaque cites the numerous conservation, environmental and quality awards Blake and the farm have received. This began with being named Holly Farms Pullet Grower of the Year in 1981.

In 1984, the Blakes were named Wilkes County Soil and Water Conservation District Farm Family of the Year and advanced through levels of competition to being named one of the top 10 Farm Families of the Year in Soil and Water Conservation. Most recently, Blake Farms received the U.S. Poultry Association Environmental Award in 2019.

Blake started farming at age 14 when he leased land with his father and grew six acres of flue-cured tobacco.

In 1978, Gary and Lorene Oakley Blake bought 238 acres on Hunting Creek Road and moved there to raise a family and farm full time.

Blake sold his 177-acre farm in Guilford County, where they lived, to help pay for the 238 acres in his wife’s native county.

Blake’s first task was removing kudzu and field pines covering much of his newly-acquired acreage. He began implementing practices to prevent erosion, restore fertility to the soil and benefit wildlife, including grassed waterways, field borders, strip-cropping and no-till planting.

Blake also began using nutrient management practices such as poultry litter and soil sampling to make sure appropriate amounts of litter were applied to the land.

Blake worked closely with Ron Howard, at the time Wilkes district conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Since then, Blake and his family have continued to work closely with soil and water conservation staff. They also work with the Wilkes County Cooperative Extension Service.

The farm’s first forestry management plan was established in 1992, and since then has been updated.

Blake was a member of the Wilkes Farm Bureau Board about 15 years, was on the Agricultural Hall of Fame board and is a member of the N.C. Cattlemen’s Association. He served as president of the Southeast Wilkes Community Center, as a Republican precinct chairman and was a candidate for county commissioner. Blake also is active in the Masons. He was in the N.C. National Guard from 1956-1964.

Gary and Lorene Blake are members of Mount Pisgah Baptist Church. She served as secretary/treasurer of the Southeast Wilkes Community Center, as a hospital volunteer and as a voting delegate at N.C. Farm Bureau state conventions.

'Conley Call Highway' signs go up
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A two-mile section of N.C. 268 East in North Wilkesboro is now publicly identified with signs as “Conley Call Highway” in memory of the longtime government, business, church and civic leader here.

Immediate family members of Call and town and N.C. Department of Transportation officials met Thursday to dedicate the highway, from Second Street to the town limits, in memory of Call.

The N.C. Board of Transportation unanimously approved the designation in December 2018. The North Wilkesboro commissioners endorsed this in October 2017, and it was requested by Call’s immediate family in late August 2017. Call was 86 when he died in early December 2017.

“I want to thank everyone for their contributions to make this happen,” said Gracie Call.

“Conley Call Highway” signs weren’t put up until widening of 3.7 miles of N.C. 268, from Second Street to Airport Road, was completed earlier this year. Contractor Young & McQueen Grading Co. started work on the project in the spring of 2015.

Call served two four-year terms as North Wilkesboro mayor, starting in 1993. After becoming a North Wilkesboro firefighter in 1956, he served in that fire department as lieutenant, captain, assistant fire chief and then as chief until his retirement in 1993.

He chaired the town’s Urban Renewal Commission in the 1970s. Using primarily federal dollars, the commission did much to shape North Wilkesboro’s present physical structure.

Call was an inveterate supporter of progress in Wilkes County. “A rising tide lifts all boats” was one of his favorite quotes.

He was a member of the North Wilkesboro Housing Authority, Wilkes Regional Medical Center Review Board, Wilkes County Board of Election, Wilkes Chamber of Commerce, Wilkes County United Way (including president), Wilkes Community College Advisory Board (including chairman) and Wilkes Fireman’s Association.

Call worked at American Drew furniture manufacturing in North Wilkesboro for 53 years, including as senior vice president of distribution and purchasing.

He was in the N.C. National Guard and Army Reserve for 37 years and commander of the Guard unit in North Wilkesboro. He retired as a colonel in the Army Reserve.

At First Baptist Church of North Wilkesboro, Call was a teacher of the John T. Wayland Sunday School Class, deacon and president of the Baptist Men’s Brotherhood and director of the Training Union. He served as chairman of the Brushy Mountain Baptist Association. Call also was a member and trustee at Flint Hill Baptist Church in North Wilkesboro.

He was a 63-year member of Union Odd Fellow Lodge, past Grand Master of the State of North Carolina, past Sovereign Grand Master of the Independent Order of the Odd Fellows for the World, past Master of the North Wilkesboro Masonic Lodge-Yorkrite-Scotchriete and Shrine.

One mayoral candidate raises $18,534
  • Updated

One of four people running for North Wilkesboro mayor filed paperwork showing $18,534 in contributions in the first three campaign finance reporting periods combined.

The records show Michael Cooper also spent $13,283 in these three reporting periods, with the most recent period ending Sept. 21.

Wilkes Board of Elections Director Kim Caudill said she wasn’t aware of any candidate for North Wilkesboro mayor ever receiving or spending more than the amounts Cooper reported.

A candidate receiving $1,000 or more in an election cycle, including from the candidate, must file campaign finance reports with the county board of elections.

If campaign finance reports are required, the source of each contribution exceeding $50 must be included.

Cooper listed nearly 50 contributions exceeding the $50 threshold, including about 20 from people with addresses in Wilkes and about 10 with addresses outside North Carolina. They’re people in various professions.

Cooper said his donors include relatives, longtime friends who no longer live in Wilkes and friends from a church mission trip. He said they include professional people from around the nation he developed relationships with in leadership programs, both Republicans and Democrats.

“Everywhere I go I talk about how much I love North Wilkesboro and why I want to serve the community. People are inspired by that and want to support the campaign.”

Cooper’s campaign expenses include fundraising fees, logo design, website development, video production, billboards, campaign literature, bumper stickers, T-shirts, banners, business cards, food for events, yard signs and radio and newspaper advertising.

Marc Hauser, also a candidate for North Wilkesboro mayor, reported receiving $3,829.18 and spending the same amount in the first three reporting periods combined.

Contributions Hauser reported receiving include $1,650 from Samantha Lockton of Cherry Hills Village, Colo., which he used to purchase a billboard advertisement on Aug. 9. Hauser said Lockton is his daughter.

The remaining $2,179 of Hauser’s campaign contributions are his personal funds, which records show were spent entirely on design work, postage, signs, postcards, business cards and door hangers.

The most recent campaign finance period with a reporting deadline already passed is the 35-day period, which was July 1 through Sept. 21. The reporting deadline for this was Sept. 28.

Next is the pre-election reporting period (Sept. 22 to Oct. 18), with an Oct. 25 reporting deadline.

Caudill said preliminary information from Lee Taylor, one of three people running for two Wilkesboro Town Council seats, indicates he now exceeds $1,000 in contributions and must file a campaign finance report on or before the Oct. 25 deadline.

Caudill said no other candidates in the Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro elections have so far received enough in contributions to need to file campaign finance reports.

More on Cooper’s funds

The largest single contribution Cooper received was $500 from automobile dealership owner David McNeill of Wilkesboro. Chelsea Page of North Wilkesboro, who works at Page Interworks in North Wilkesboro, made four contributions of $353 apiece for a total of $1,412.

Among contributions from out of state, Cooper received:

• $290 from Johanna Rousseaux, an attorney in Miami Shores, Fla., whose career includes voluntarily leading an initiative focused on civil and human rights issues and training lawyers in Latin America;

• $250 from Matt Tompkins of Chevy Chase, Md. a leadership consultant with a non-profit that recruits, trains and promotes future political entrepreneurs;

• $125 from James Fiedler of Woodlyn, Penn., an auditor with an agency that audits federal defense contracts.

Many of his larger contributions are from people who, like Cooper, are attorneys. This includes $250 from Priti Krishtel of Oakland, Calif., who specializes in health justice and co-founded a non-profit that works for more equitable medicine systems.

Attorney Kahran Myers-Davis of Greensboro made two $375 contributions. She is affiliated with State Voices, which works to protect voting rights.

Attorney Gene Nichol, a professor in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law, gave $250. Nichol is a champion of social justice who researched poverty in Wilkes.

Attorney James Cunningham of Raleigh gave $250. His office manager, Jullee Cunningham, also gave $250. Attorney Randall Faircloth of Charlotte contributed $250.

Attorneys in Wilkes County who contributed to Cooper’s candidacy include John Logsdon, with $300; Justin Dingee, $250; and Stacey Neece, $250.

Cooper received contributions from several people who work in state government. He contributed $950 of his own funds. He reported receiving no funds from political action committees.