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Cooper proposes $10M for North Wilkesboro Speedway
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Gov. Roy Cooper has $10 million for bringing the North Wilkesboro Speedway back to life in plans for spending $5.7 billion tabbed for North Carolina under the federal government’s American Rescue Plan (ARP).

Cooper’s plans, announced May 19, designate $10 million apiece in three counties with speedways. The two in addition to Wilkes are Richmond, with the Rock Speedway and Entertainment Complex, and Cabarrus, with the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The money would fund speedway repairs and needed infrastructure.

Cooper proposed using $5 million to develop and market new and existing natural and cultural tourism trails across the state, including a “Motorsports and Moonshine Heritage Trail.”

He also proposed spending $250 million on grants for low- and middle-income families with children facing financial hardship; $1.2 billion for broadband internet expansion; $575 million for affordable housing; $800 million for water, sewer and storm water infrastructure; and $160 million for public schools and child care centers.

Before these plans for ARP funds can be carried out, they must be included in an ARP spending bill approved by the Republican-majority General Assembly and signed into law by the Democratic governor. The legislature was expected to start working on the bill this week.

Under Cooper’s proposal, a $2.5 million “non-state match” is required to receive a $10 million speedway grant. The plans say county governments would partner with venues to fund needed infrastructure, “including, but not limited to,” water and sewer line extensions, repaving tracks, erosion control and working on pedestrian walkways, bathrooms, grandstands and other track facilities.

This language indicates Wilkes County government would partner with Concord-based Speedway Motorports Inc. (SMI), which owns the North Wilkesboro Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway. County Manager John Yates said county government would receive the $10 million and be responsible for how it’s spent.

Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith released a statement in response to Cooper’s announcement, “We’re very pleased to see Governor Cooper’s support of motorsports and statewide tourism in his new budget. Motorsports is a significant part of not only North Carolina’s past but also its future to create jobs and grow tourism.

Smith continued, “The proposed allocations from the American Rescue Plan can have a significant impact on renovating parts of Charlotte Motor Speedway as well as starting restoration efforts at North Wilkesboro. Our team at Speedway Motorsports will get to work on the best ways these funds could be utilized and we’ll watch closely as the proposals continue through the legislative session.”

Smith’s comments in a March 30 online interview with Dale Earnhardt Jr. raised hopes for reviving the North Wilkesboro Speedway. Smith said then, “I just want you to know that we haven’t forgotten North Wilkesboro. We haven’t given up on it,” referring to the speedway here. He explained, “It means we’re thinking. We’re working on it. No promises, but we have not forgotten about it. That’s the big message.”

Yates said a state official called him several weeks ago and said Cooper’s administration “had something they wanted to talk about.” This led to state, county, Wilkesboro, North Wilkesboro and Wilkes Economic Development Corp. (EDC) officials discussing the North Wilkesboro Speedway in a virtual meeting in early April.

LeeAnn Nixon, EDC president, later communicated with SMI about Cooper’s plans involving the speedway here. Nixon released a statement Wednesday thanking SMI “for its commitment in this endeavor. We look forward to continuing to collaborate with their leadership and our partners as we move forward together.” She said the speedway’s revitalization will have a significant impact on the local economy through tourism and growth of motorsports-related businesses.

Eddie Settle, chairman of the Wilkes commissioners, said on May 19 that county officials were told funds matching the $10 million must come from county government. “We are ready and willing and, because we’ve been very conservative, we are more than able” to provide the $2.5 million match, he said.

“Whether it’s taken from our fund balance or we use COVID relief funds, nothing is going to stop us from getting that race track reopened” for racing, Settle added. “I’ve been working for two years on getting it reopened and I’ve made a lot of racket to get it noticed.” The COVID relief funds Settle referenced are $13.6 million earmarked for Wilkes County government in the ARP.

Settle said he’s confident that racing will return to the North Wilkesboro Speedway and that county, Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro officials will work together toward that goal. Settle said this includes getting water and sewer lines extended to the speedway, which he said would help other economic development efforts as well.

North Wilkesboro Town Manager Wilson Hooper said he believes extending municipal water and sewer lines to the speedway would constitute the local match for the $10 million awarded here.

“Both towns are getting estimates on what it would cost to extend (lines) from their systems,” said Hooper. “The track has access to Broadway Water Association (water) service, but I think the lines are too narrow to service a full house of fans or any type of extra development.”

He said he’s uncertain if it’s more economical to extend a North Wilkesboro waterline water from its terminus on N.C. 115 or from a Wilkesboro waterline near the Northwest Visitor’s Center along U.S. 421 East.

“I’m guessing that North Wilkesboro will be expected to extend sewer, since our system currently terminates on Speedway Road near Breeze Hill Road, only about a mile and a quarter from the speedway property,” he added.

Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland agreed about the likelihood of North Wilkesboro being asked to extend a sewer line. Noland said he has a plan for extending a Wilkesboro waterline to the speedway. “I don’t have any hard numbers yet. We are working on estimates now.”

The North Wilkesboro Speedway hosted spring and fall NASCAR races annually for many years before the final NASCAR Cup Series event was held there on Sept. 29, 1996. If sat dormant for over a decade before being revived for short track touring division races in 2010 and 2011.

The Wilkes Chamber of Commerce, working with others locally, recently launched a “We want you back” campaign to show SMI that there is strong support in Wilkes for reopening the North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis said on Twitter that he was willing to invest $1 million in the North Wilkesboro Speedway, in addition to building a small Camping World store there.

Limits eased for high school graduation Friday
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The Wilkes County high school class of 2021 has often been denied normalcy during the pandemic, but graduation ceremonies for 651 seniors Friday will be closer to normal than recently planned due to Gov. Roy Cooper easing COVID-19-related restrictions on May 14.

Cooper lifted all mandatory capacity and gathering limits, social distancing requirements and most mandatory mask requirements.

This resulted in Wilkes Community College’s Walker Center becoming the venue for the Wilkes Early College High School’s graduation ceremony instead of WCC’s Watson stage amphitheater, said Principal Michelle Shepherd. The change was made late last week. This ceremony starts at 6 p.m. Friday.

Shepherd said that due to WCC’s COVID-related guidelines being eased, there is no limit on the number of guests allowed in the Walker Center. Initial plans were to limit attendance at the Watson amphitheater by issuing eight guest tickets per student. Shepherd said masks are still required indoors and social distancing is still recommended.

Masks are also required for all attending East Wilkes High’s outdoor graduation ceremony, said Dr. Chad Mann, East principal. Principals of the other three Wilkes high schools said masks are recommended but not required at their graduation ceremonies.

East Wilkes, West Wilkes, North Wilkes and Wilkes Central will still have their graduation ceremonies in their football stadiums, although West Wilkes and North Wilkes ceremonies are usually in their school gyms. Starting times are 8 p.m. Friday at North, Central and West and 6 p.m. Friday at East.

North Wilkes Principal David Johnson and West Wilkes Principal Amanda Pruitt said seniors at their respective schools will be issued six guest tickets apiece as initially planned.

What’s new is that people with tickets will be allowed to enter North Wilkes High’s Raner Wiles Stadium between 7 and 7:40 p.m. and West Wilkes High’s stadium between 7 and 7:30 p.m. People without tickets will then be admitted to Raner Wiles Stadium until its capacity is reached, when admission will end. People without tickets will be admitted to the West Wilkes stadium starting at 7:30 p.m. and continuing until its capacity is reached.

Dr. Dion Stocks, Wilkes Central principal, said the biggest change at his school’s Wes Steele Stadium is that each graduating senior will receive 12 tickets instead of the eight initially announced. Stocks said families will still be asked to sit together in the stands during the event.

There were never any plans to limit admission to East Wilkes High’s graduation ceremony at Ebb Tharpe Field. Dr. Chad Mann, East principal, said this is possible because of the number of graduates at East Wilkes and the school’s “reversed” seating plan. “This will provide room for more guests and allow us to be more precautious,” he said.

Mann explained that graduating seniors will sit on the home side bleachers, with teachers sitting on either side of them and everyone socially distanced. He said family members and friends will sit in chairs they bring on the football field, socially distanced and facing students.

The Wilkes Board of Education on April 5 approved Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd’s recommendations for near-normal graduation ceremonies, which included holding them outdoors if possible. Capacity limits, face masks and social distancing were required under Cooper’s order at that time.

Last year, Wilkes high school seniors graduated one at a time with only immediate family members and a couple of school officials present due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unofficially, 651 seniors at the five high schools are graduating. This includes 168 at Wilkes Central, 167 at West Wilkes, 159 at North Wilkes, 108 at East Wilkes and 49 at the early college high school.

East Wilkes High School

East Wilkes has 108 graduating seniors.

Student speakers for East Wilkes High’s graduation ceremony are Kandis Shore, welcome; Dylan Ward, introduction of special guests (Rudy Holbrook, Wilkes school board, and Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd); Jacob Spriggs, introduction of the East Wilkes Senior Madrigals; senior class president Brianna Martin, address; Mikayla King, address; and Haley Graham, closing remarks. Counselors Tosha Mathis and Bethany Hamby will present the senior class. Mann will present the diplomas.

Mann stated, “I am so proud of the Class of 2021. I am excited that this group will get to have a traditional graduation ceremony. This is a great group of young people. They have endured a lot and now they get their reward. This group will represent our school and community well! Thank you to all the parents, grandparents and guardians who have made this moment possible for our students. Congratulations to the East Wilkes High School Class of 2021.”

East Wilkes counselor Tosha Mathis said, “The class of 2021 could be considered small but mighty with 108 graduates. This class has 38 students who will be recognized as honor graduates, including eight in the category of Summa Cum Laude, seven Magna Cum Laude and 23 Cum Laude. They also accumulated $70,000-plus in outside scholarship monies, not including any monies students accepted directly to their college of choice.”

Mathis said several East Wilkes students plan to attend four-year universities, but the vast majority are taking advantage of the new Education Promise Scholarship at Wilkes Community College. Some are entering the workforce and a few are considering the military. “No matter what their choice for post-secondary, I feel this group of individuals will be successful and leave a legacy as they have persevered like no other group.”

North Wilkes High School

North Wilkes High has 159 graduating seniors.

Student speakers at North Wilkes High’s graduation ceremony are senior class president Cali Johnson, welcome; Stacie Shumate, introductions; McKenzie Johnson and Zachary Carlton, reflections; and Elby Royal, farewell. Principal David Johnson will share comments before diplomas are presented. Other speakers are Hardin Kennedy, Wilkes school board member; and Seth Prevette, chief financial officer of the Wilkes schools. The Northanders will sing “Omni a sol.”

Johnson said “It is amazing to think about the hurdles that have been overcome to get to this point. The Class of 2021 should be extremely proud of themselves, and they should see the past 14 months as proof that they can overcome any obstacle put in their way. They have been tested and they have come out stronger than before. This is a fantastic group of young people who will be successful throughout life.”

North Wilkes High counselor Glenn Miller said the North Wilkes Class of 2021 stands out for obvious reasons related to COVID-19 closures.

“One thing I find extraordinarily remarkable is that every single senior that started school with us in August 2020 will be graduating on May 28, 2021, besides eight transfers.” These eight students included four students who transferred out of state, three to other schools within Wilkes and one who never returned from summer break for the senior year of school.

“Not only does this show the resilience of our students, but also the compassion and hard work of our teachers who helped them get to graduation,” he said.

Miller said a large number of seniors at North Wilkes are taking advantage of the new Education Promise Scholarship at WCC.

West Wilkes High School

West Wilkes High has 167 graduating seniors.

Student speakers at West Wilkes High’s graduation ceremony are Katelyn Cothren, welcome; Evan Hamby, senior class president; Tyler Gambill, student body president. Other speakers are Amanda Pruitt, principal; Joan Caudill, Wilkes school board member; Dr. Donna Cotton, chief academic officer of Wilkes Schools; and Kelly Allison, West Wilkes science teacher. Assistant Principal Jennifer Sorel will help Pruitt give out diplomas. Emily Holman, Halah Sprinkle, Haylie Ogle, Ashlyn Shumate and Madi Roland will sing the national anthem.

Pruitt stated, “It is my honor to celebrate the 2021 graduates this year. They have experienced constant change since the spring of their junior year and they have endured! Throughout the last 10 months, students have worked remotely and in-person to accomplish the goal of becoming high school graduates.”

Pruitt said that with fortitude and strength, this year’s graduating class faced many obstacles the pandemic put in their path. “I know that the adversities they have worked to overcome this year will continue to help them in the future. Congratulations to the West Wilkes High School Class of 2021!”

West Wilkes counselor Stephanie Stone stated, “I am so proud of the Class of 2021. They are bright, resilient and hardworking. We recognized that this year hasn’t been ideal, but they have persevered and exceeded our expectations. I wish them all the best.”

Wilkes Central High School

Wilkes Central High has 168 graduating seniors.

Student speakers for Wilkes Central’s graduation ceremony are co-senior class presidents MaryAnna Bailey and Tate Jolly, welcome; student body president Jonah Brooks, introduction of guests; Noel Pratt, senior class remarks. Dr. Dion Stocks, principal, will share congratulatory remarks and present the Class of 2021. Other speakers are Kirk Walker, Wilkes school board member, and Dr. Westley Wood, assistant superintendent of Wilkes schools.

Thomas McNeil will sing the National Anthem. Ronald Adams, Erik Garcia, Triston Johnson, Michael Morris and Colby Wilson from the Wilkes Central Air Force Junior ROTC will present the colors. Senior members of the Chamber Singers, Cotara McCurdy, MaryAnna Bailey, Sheridan Bullis, Lacy Shrader, JoRaye Morrison, Jonah Brooks, Thomas McNeil and Tate Jolly will lead in singing the alma mater.

Dion Stocks said the school has been blessed to have such a wonderful group of strong, spirited and academically focused students in the Class of 2021. “They are truly the epitome of the green and gold spirit. They have tremendous leadership skills all throughout the group, which will be a tremendous asset to our community in the future. Our staff has thoroughly enjoyed working and teaching these young men and women. Their impact on our school will be felt long after they move forward with their lives. We wish them nothing but the best and much success,” said Stocks.

Wilkes Central counselor Kelly Wise said, “This graduating class of 2021 is very special to me because this year’s seniors were my first year’s freshmen. I’ve watched these students grow and mature over my past four years here, and I’ve been amazed at their transition into adulthood. These seniors have persevered through some tough times, with the pandemic ripping some important high school rites of passage, like traditional prom and football pep rallies, away from them. But these students have stepped up and stepped out, and I couldn’t be more proud of them! My once freshmen eaglets are now full-grown seniors who are ready to take on the world. I look forward to watching them take flight from the Eagle Nest here at Wilkes Central.”

Wilkes Early College High School

The Wilkes Early College High has 49 graduating seniors.

Student speakers at the early college high school’s graduation ceremony are Vanessa Chaquea and Iliana Grandados. Principal Michelle Shepherd will also speak.

Shepherd stated, “In the words of Dr. Seuss, ‘Sometimes you never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.’ This class has left a lifetime of memories in the halls of Wilkes Early College and the streets of Wilkes County. Through their many hours of volunteerism and selfless acts, they will never be forgotten. I look forward to the continued changes they will make in the world. Congratulations to the WECHS 2021 graduates.”

Wilkes Early College counselor Sarah Winebarger said, “This class of graduates is full of amazing human beings. Even with the challenge of a worldwide pandemic, their dedication to their community and their personal goals did not waiver. I will forever remember how they welcomed me into the WECHS family with kindness and I’ll miss the fun conversations and jokes we shared through our Connections class. I am proud to extend my congratulations to the WECHS Class of 2021!”

14 seek job of Wilkes tax administrator
  • Updated

Fourteen people have applied for the position of Wilkes County tax administrator, said County Manager John Yates.

Yates said the county recently started advertising the position as a result of Alex Hamilton announcing his plans to retire as Wilkes tax administrator. Hamilton said he is retiring June 30.

Yates said three of the 14 applicants are current Wilkes Tax Department employees. The minimum salary is $66,989.

He said whoever is hired will have to become certified as a tax administrator within a certain number of months, if the person isn’t already certified.

The Wilkes County commissioners will interview four of the 14 applicants Thursday, starting at 1 p.m. They’re scheduled to have a budget work session at 2 p.m.

Hamilton said he expects the commissioners to spend more time with finalists for the position.

The person in this position is up for reappointment periodically, like the county manager, clerk to the commissioners and county attorney. People in appointed positions are hired directly by the commissioners rather than the county manager

The North Wilkesboro resident started working in the county tax office in 1995 and was named tax administrator in July 1999.

In the position, Hamilton has overseen county property tax collections, revaluation of real property in Wilkes about every five years, appeals of tax values, county mapping and related matters.

Public tax protests occurred more often in the early years of Hamilton’s career.

Yates said the next property revaluation is coming up soon, with new values expected to be in place for fiscal 2022-23.

Compared to earlier years, property values haven’t increased much in some recent revaluations.

The current strong real estate market in Wilkes is expected to result in significantly higher values when the next revaluation is conducted.

Wilkesboro woman loses all of her savings in scam
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A Wilkesboro woman said she lost well over $50,000 in a scam.

The woman said in an interview this week that she thought she was paying taxes to receive $3.7 million and a car from Publishers Clearing House.

After never receiving any money or a car, she reported what had happened to the Wilkesboro Police Department on May 18.

The woman, in her late 60s and retired, said a man claiming to be from Publishers Clearing House called her in December and said she had won $2.7 million and a new Mercedes Benz car.

He later called and she had won an additional $1 million “bonus.” The man told her that to receive the money and car, she had to pay the accompanying taxes.

The woman came up with part of what he was told to pay with a cash advance on her credit card and another portion with a bank loan.

This wasn’t enough, but the caller told her prior Publisher’s Clearing House winners were willing to help people like her. He sent her one check for about $10,000 and another for about $30,000 that he said were donated by previous winners.

The woman said she took one of the checks to a Wells Fargo bank and the other to a BB&T. She said the checks were accepted at both banks, even though she asked if they were valid.

The woman said both banks now say she must reimburse the check amounts because they were written on invalid accounts. She also was left with the bank loan and the credit card debt.

She said her checking account at one of the banks was canceled, but she needs that to receive Social Security checks.

She said she was told the checks would be returned to Social Security and held until she opens a new checking account, which she is doing.

The woman has contacted a lawyer for help. She described her embarrassment and her feelings of helplessness now. She said it’s like trying to claim her life back.

She said her savings were wiped out and friends are now helping her with living expenses until she can start getting her Social Security checks again.

The man who claimed to be from Publisher’s Clearing House called her about 20 times and indicated that he was starting to have emotional feelings for her. She realizes now that this was part of the scam.

He last called early this week and said it turned out she needed to pay another $1,000 to receive her “winnings.” The woman said she emphasized her bad financial situation to the caller and he hung up.

Chris Handy of the Wilkesboro Police Department said there is little local police can do and that federal law enforcement doesn’t get involved in these type of cases unless they involve considerably more money.

According to the Publisher’s Clearing House website, PCH never requires that winners pay anything to claim a prize.