EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the Wilkes County property tax rate. The correct rate is 67 cents per $100 of property valuation.
Downtown Wilkesboro's revitalization, the Taco Bell sink hole, addition of six deputies as school resource officers and decline of prescription pain pills as an illicit drug of choice were among the biggest news stories in Wilkes County in 2018.
Improvement in the local economy was reported in 2018, as reflected in higher wages and a lower unemployment rate.
Fatal road rage incident
There also was tragedy in 2018, including a road rage incident with gunfire on Aug. 5 on the Red, White and Blue Road exit of U.S. 421 East that left a man dead and his son hospitalized.
Kelly Michael Black, 56, of Hamptonville was shot at least once in the upper portion of his body and died. Black’s son, Stephen Michael Black, 25, of Statesville, was shot in the upper portion of his body and was taken to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem. He survived, but details on his conditions haven’t been made public.
A third man identified as the shooter and has been interviewed, but not arrested. The district attorney’s office hasn’t announced if any charges will be filed.
Chief Deputy David Carson said all three men were eastbound on U.S. 421 when the man identified as the shooter tried to drive his Subaru car from the inside lane to the outside lane and nearly collided with a motorcycle driven by Kelly Black, who was in the outside lane. Carson said Stephen Black, operating a pickup, was directly behind the motorcycle in the outside lane.
The Subaru operator had tried to move to the outside lane to turn right onto the exit ramp to Red, White and Blue Road and the near collision occurred a short distance before that exit ramp, said Carson. The Subaru operator avoided a collision by quickly moving back to the inside lane, but moments later entered the outside lane ahead of the motorcycle and the pickup and turned onto the exit ramp to Red, White and Blue Road, he added.
Carson said the motorcycle and the pickup also turned onto the exit ramp to U.S. 421. Kelly Black drove up to the right side of the Subaru and stopped and Stephen Black stopped his pickup behind the Subaru, he said. Carson said Kelly Black and Stephen Black were both on foot and on the left side of the Subaru when multiple shots were fired from a handgun, which he said was recovered at the scene. He noted that the Blacks and the Subaru operator didn’t know each other.
Big changes in Wilkesboro
The first phase of the revitalization of downtown Wilkesboro was completed in 2018.
It includes the Carolina West Wireless Community Commons, the new name for the reconstructed Open Air Market area and nearby “splash pad” water play area on the Wilkes Heritage Museum front lawn. It also includes the Wilkes Communications Pavilion, the name of a new 70-by-23-foot stage along Main Street in the commons.
The naming rates were secured through agreements with the named local companies. Carolina West Wireless Inc. committed to giving $525,000 and Wilkes Communications Inc. committed to giving $300,000 to the Town of Wilkesboro over 10 years. The naming rights continue through Aug. 31, 2026, but they give both companies the option of negotiating with the town to extend them and also the right to opt out prematurely with termination penalties.
The Heritage Square Splash Pad opened Aug. 31 on the newly designed Wilkes Heritage Museum courtyard, which was re-branded as Heritage Square. The public water play area, sponsored by Carolina West Wireless, features 29 water jets, colorful lighting and tilework arranged in an “Ohio Star” quilt pattern. It cost the town about $175,000.
The first phase of the revitalization of downtown Wilkesboro is estimated to cost $2.1 million, but the funds from Carolina West Wireless and Wilkes Communications will help offset this. Details of the second and third phases haven’t been fully announced yet.
The two-story Rock Building on North Bridge Street, which the town bought in 2017, will be converted into a facility complementing activities at the adjacent commons. Planning documents indicate that it will house restrooms, a concession/kitchenette area,open air breezeway, outdoor patio, observation deck, information kiosk, and retail space upstairs.
Taco Bell sink hole
Sink holes that formed on and near the Taco Bell property at the intersection of Winkler Mill Road and U.S. 421 West in Wilkesboro in February 2017 were often in the news in 2018, especially when storm water from the site flowed across U.S. 421 and Winkler Mill Road.
The sink holes resulted from a section culvert collapsing in the parking lot in front of Taco Bell near Winkler Mill Road. This blocked storm water in the pipe and this pressure caused breaks in other sections of the culvert upstream. Storm water also started flowing out of a concrete storm-drain box in front of Aaron’s when big rain events occurred.
Since then, sandbags have been used to direct the flow of storm water from the concrete storm-drain box to the grassed ditch along the north side of U.S. 421 and to the storm-drain box near the intersection of U.S. 421 and Winkler Mill Road. Sandbags and dirt berms have been built on the lower end of the Taco Bell parking lot to help keep storm water from flowing onto Winkler Mill Road and U.S. 421.
The Wilkesboro Town Council has formally asked businessman J.C. Faw of Wilkesboro, owner of the Taco Bell and other affected property, to repair the culvert. No repairs have been made so council has also discussed taking legal action repairs.
The council on Sept. 10 approved taking legal action to collect about $225,000 in back taxes owned by Faw or his businesses. The Taco Bell building and lot is listed for taxes in the name of Wisco Diversified Inc., which Faw owns.
Also in 2018, the towns of Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro moved toward alternatives to the long-discussed W. Kerr Scott Reservoir raw water intake project to meet their water needs in the decades to come.
Late this year, the towns were told by the N.C. Division of Water Infrastructure that a $30 million, zero interest, 30-year loan approved by the state for the Kerr Scott intake project would be lost if they didn’t move forward with it by the end of the year or shortly thereafter.
Acting independently, the towns hired engineering firms in 2018 to study water intake sources as alternatives to the Kerr Scott intake project due to cost concerns.
North Wilkesboro ordered a preliminary engineering report from Kimley-Horn, the results of which are scheduled to be announced on Jan. 8 during a special meeting held in conjunction with officials from Wilkesboro. Kimley-Horn has been engaged in a five-month study that is looking at water flow rates and other issues related to the Yadkin River and Reddies River, North Wilkesboro’s current intake site.
Wilkesboro learned from its own preliminary engineering report from McGill Associates on Aug. 21 that it would cost $33.4 million to expand the town’s water treatment plant capacity to 16 million gallons per day (MGD) and $39.3 million to expand it to 20 MGD using the Actiflo mechanical pretreatment process. The intake source would remain on the Yadkin River, just upstream from the mouth of Moravian Creek.
Those figures were revised on Dec. 3, when McGill reported that phase one would cost about $19 million and phase two, which could be delayed several years, would cost just under $16 million. With completion of phase two, the raw water treatment plant’s capacity would be increased to 16 MGD.
McGill projected Wilkesboro’s average water demand to be 7.5 million gallons a day (MGD) in 2047, with a maximum of 12.8 MGD. Current capacity is 10 MGD, of which half is now used.
The portion of the $30 million loan for the raw water intake and pump station on the Kerr Scot Reservoir was awarded to Wilkes County government and the portion for water lines to the Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro water treatment plants was awarded to North Wilkesboro. Under an agreement between governments of the two towns and the county, Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro would pay off the $30 million with proceeds from water sales.
In a special called meeting on Aug. 21, Wilkesboro Town Council members and North Wilkesboro commissioners discussed collaborative efforts concerning meeting each town’s water needs.
Wilkesboro officials proposed that the North Wilkesboro board let Wilkesboro use the $30 million loan to expand the capacity of Wilkesboro’s water treatment plant from 10 million gallons per day (MGD) to 16 or 20 MGD. Wilkesboro officials proposed that this include increasing connectivity (exchange water lines) between the two town water systems.
Wilkesboro proposed to pay all debt service on the loan under this alternative to the proposed Kerr Scott intake project. This would be part of Wilkesboro’s plan to use the town’s existing raw water intake on the Yadkin to increase its water treatment capacity—as well as help North Wilkesboro meet its needs if needed.
The latest cost estimates of long-discussed plans to pump water from W. Kerr Scott Reservoir and pipe it to the Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro water treatment plants exceed $40 million.
The Kerr Scott project would result in a capacity of 24 MGD, but it actually would only be 14 MGD due to the size of pipes to be installed. This would be split between the two towns.
Also in Wilkesboro
Local businessman Seth Cohn was awarded a $10,000 grant from the Town of Wilkesboro on Dec. 4 to partially subsidize the opening of his TwoBoros Brewery and a brick-oven pizzeria in the historic J.T. Ferguson store building on Main Street. Cohn said the brewery and pizzeria will go in the former J.T. Ferguson Store, built in 1887 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
Another brewery, Sonny Church’s Great State Brewery, announced plans to be brewing and selling beer by the spring of 2019 at Church’s Brushy Mountain Water and Coffee Co. building at 1202 Curtis Bridge Road in Wilkesboro. He already has beer-making equipment in the building and opened a taproom in the same building on Nov. 30.
In December, the town applied for a $200,000 grant (matched by in-kind town funds) from the Headwaters Stream Restoration Project of the N.C. Division of Water Resources to fund stream rehabilitation work on a small tributary of Cub Creek. The work would be on a small stream about 750 feet long that roughly parallels Main Street, flowing from South Cherry Street, passing beneath College Street and entering Cub Creek Park.
Town staff recommended to the town council in October that the Open Air Market no longer be held. This downtown Friday night event with live music and artisan and farmers’ booths was held seasonally for eight years. The closure was recommended due to low vendor and patron turnout. The council hasn’t formally acted on the recommendation.
Plans were announced in October for Courthouse Square, a four-story building with 18 luxury condominium units proposed directly behind the Wilkes Heritage Museum in downtown Wilkesboro. The condo units would sell for $355,000 to $405,000 apiece. On Dec. 3 the council approved conveyance of the old county jail property to local businessman Cam Finley for $100,000. Finley said he hopes to break ground on the condos this spring.
The council had discussions in September and October but took no action on a proposed move of the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) store at the intersection of U.S. 421, N.C. 16 and New Browns Ford Road to a nearby location. The discussed new site is on town-owned land adjacent to a new town water tank along U.S. 421 near the end of Old Browns Ford Road. It is a proposed 5,000- to 6,000-square-foot store that would be a marquee-type ABC store similar to the one recently built by the Town of Waynesville in the western end of the state.
The new town water tower along U.S. 421 was installed Jan. 9. It stores 500,000 gallons and is 80 feet tall.
The town’s wireless telecommunications rules were revised in June to help prepare for the arrival of faster 5G mobile technology. The revised ordinance calls for greater efforts to conceal wireless telecommunications equipment and established 100-foot and 35-foot height limits on towers, based on their location.
Other North Wilkesboro news
Boone-based Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization, revealed plans for expanding its administrative and training footprint off N.C. 268 East in North Wilkesboro.
Ron Wilcox, the organization’s chief operating officer, said during the North Wilkesboro commissioners meeting on Dec. 4 that a three-story office building next year where the Nancy King Textiles facility now stands at 315 Elkin Highway. The 3.9-acre site was bought from Nancy King last year. Wilcox said Samaritan’s Purse will have 150 employees in the 50,000-square-foot building.
Streetscape improvements to the intersection of Sixth and Main streets began in August and are ongoing, operating under a $676,388 budget, $300,000 of which is this funded by a state grant. The work will involve mast-arm light poles, sidewalk, crosswalk and curbing improvements, and a two-tiered rock wall for town branding.
Grading began in October on a new portion of the Yadkin River Greenway connecting existing sections at Memorial Park in North Wilkesboro and the Yadkin River bridge between the Wilkesboros. It will be almost seven-tenths of a mile long and cost about $400,000, nearly $300,000 of which has already been secured through grants and gifts. The project involves the trail itself, signage, fencing, riparian (riverbank) buffers and landscaping, erosion control measures, and a single pedestrian bridge over a small stream near the southernmost Memorial Park ballfield.
New branding for the town was unveiled in October. “Living starts here!” will replace “Your place to live, work, shop and play—where traditions lives” as the North Wilkesboro’s tagline. The new branding cost $17,000 and features a new destination logo for marketing and advertising with an artistic rendering of North Wilkesboro Town Hall, Benton Hall and a non-specific church steeple.
The town’s board of commissioners has had numerous discussions of how to best use $15 million paid by Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center when began leasing the town-owned Wilkes Medical Center on July 1, 2017. The town learned in April that is has a spending limit of about $500,000 annually, because the town’s auditor has to treat the $15 million as an upfront lease payment for the hospital. Town officials agreed this would make it hard to use the $15 million on one-time large capital projects.
New town clerk
Debra W. Pearson was sworn in July 19 as North Wilkesboro’s new town clerk. Pearson replaced Kay Minton, who retired in July after a 30-year career with the town.
The North Wilkesboro commissioners approved earlier alcohol sales on Sundays on May 8—at 10 a.m, two hours earlier than previously allowed. This option is possible under Senate Bill 155—commonly called the “brunch bill”—which was approved by state law in 2017.
In February, the Wilkesboro Town Council voted 3-2 to not allow alcoholic beverage sales two hours earlier on Sundays. Council can choose to revisit the issue and re-vote at its leisure, although it hasn’t done so since.
Main Street building
In a split 3-2 vote, the North Wilkesboro commissioners rejected a bid to sell a town-owned property at 912 Main Street on April 3. The board rejected the bid of $20,000 by Miami, Fla., architect and developer Adan Fons, who spoke during the April 3 public hearing. Fons said he would invest at least $100,000 in the renovation of the building. The rejected agreement would have given Fons 30 months or less to complete the renovations. The board had issue with leaving 30 months in the agreement.
Wilkes Transportation Authority financial and other problems frequently were an issue for the Wilkes County commissioners in 2018.
In May, the commissioners approved allocating $35,650 to WTA to help the nonprofit agency pay past due federal payroll taxes. At the time, WTA officials were having to choose between paying the fuel bill for WTA vans and other vehicles or payroll taxes due to a lack of revenue. Subsequent allocations were made, including in the county budget for the first time in several years and as advances to state grant funds coming to WTA.
In August, the commissioners received a report saying WTA’s ridership dropped while its administrative salaries and overall expenses rose from 2014 through at least mid-2017. The report said WTA operated at a deficit in each of the last three years and was $100,000 in the red in 2017. Other reports identifies similar WTA issues, including that the agency made personal loans to WTA Executive Director Mike Norwood and Finance Manager Robin Kipp for personal expenses. Kipp became WTA director after Norwood resigned as executive director and then Kipp resigned on July 31.
The commissioners later approved making themselves the WTA board and hired Gary Page, former Wilkes County manager, as WTA director. Page is expected to soon make cuts to help reign in WTA expenses and also is helping find a new director. As a public transportation authority, WTA is an independent, nonprofit government enterprise.
Extras in county budget
In May, the Wilkes County commissioners approved a fiscal 2018-19 budget with about $3.8 million more in expenditures than initially proposed to address several needs. These additions included:
• $566,699 more for Wilkes Sheriff Chris Shew’s plan for increasing salaries in his department to improve competitiveness in hiring and retention, plus help address salary compression. This refers to salaries inadequately recognizing differences in rank and experience;
• $458,394 more for a 3 percent cost of living pay increase for all other county employees. A 2 percent increase was initially proposed;
• $244,274 more than initially proposed for Wilkes County School current expenses for pay increases for locally funded teachers as a result of the legislature approving a new budget with a 6.5 percent average pay raise for teachers;
• $298,297 more for salaries and equipment for four new sheriff’s office deputies to create four new school resource officer (SRO) positions—one apiece in each of the four Wilkes middle schools;
• $46,308 more for the Appalachian Regional Library for higher pay requested for Wilkes County Library staff, as well as additional funds for operations;
• $33,500 more for a pickup for the Wilkes Soil & Water Conservation District;
• $15,000 more for the Wilkes Rescue Squad, making the total $153,000.
The budget kept the property tax rate unchanged at 67 cents per $100 of property valuation.
Two more SROs
In their Sept. 18 meeting, the Wilkes County commissioners unanimously approved a budget amendment appropriating $33,334 as the county’s match to a $66,667 grant from the state for two new school resource officers in addition to the four funded earlier for the four middle schools.
Wilkes Sheriff Chris Shew said in an interview that with the two newest SRO positions, the sheriff’s office will have two SROs available to fill in when SROs assigned to particular high schools or middle schools must be in court, in training or away for some other reason.
In addition to SROs, athletic trainers were added to the four traditional high schools with funding from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
The county commissioners approved new fire protection contracts incorporating new fire district boundaries with all of the volunteer fire departments in Wilkes in 2018. The last one was for the Buck Shoals Fire Department, which was approved Tuesday night. The fire departments approved them also.
The new district boundaries resulted from the districts being re-mapped with GIS (Geographic Information System) technology. The N.C. Department of Insurance now requires GIS-based insurance districts. Wilkes County government requires that fire insurance districts and fire tax districts match.
The new district maps, like the old ones, are based on distances of existing roads, but GIS mapping measures distances more accurately because it’s based on locations on the Earth’s surface.
Unless served by a substation, a parcel must be within six road miles of a fire station to be in a fire insurance district. Some parcels in remote areas ended up beyond the six miles in the new maps so they’re not in a district. A little over 2,000 parcels were moved to different fire districts, into districts for the first time or are no longer in a district.
Among 25 volunteer fire departments in Wilkes, those that gained the most fire tax revenue as a result of the re-mapping were Wilbar with $11,129 and Wilkes-Iredell with $8,741. Losing the most fire tax revenue were the Champion Fire Department with $12,569 and McGrady with $10,279.
The 2017-18 and 2018-19 budgets included fire tax rate increases requested by several volunteer fire departments to help compensate for revenue lost when fire district boundaries were changed, as well as to help cover the rising cost of firefighting equipment.
The commissioners and several fire departments also approved addendums to fire department contracts allowing the departments to provide rescue services.
In February, the county commissioners agreed to seek compensation from over a dozen drug companies for costs resulting from opioid addiction in a 162-page lawsuit filed in the Western District of U.S. District Court in Statesville. Several other local governments in the state have taken similar action.
The suit claims that the companies committed offenses as part of ongoing criminal organizations, some as manufacturers and others as distributors of prescription opioid pain medication. It asks that the companies be ordered to pay medical and mental health treatment costs related to opioid addiction in Wilkes, as well as foster care, law enforcement, jail, court and other costs in the county. It also seeks punitive damages, which are funds collected as punishment.
Decline of pills
The sheriff’s office reported a decline in demand for prescription pain pills among abused drugs and increased usage of heroin and crystal meth, particularly toward the end of the years. There were record amounts of meth and heroin seized in Wilkes in 2018. Drug overdose cases dropped.
Three murder cases and a couple of sex cases highlighted the criminal case docket this year in Wilkes Superior Court.
Byrd Ridge Road case
On Jan. 24, Coy Edward “Eddie” Pack, 51, pleaded guilty after a jury trial to voluntary manslaughter in the April 13, 2013, death of his handicapped neighbor on Byrd Ridge Road. Richard Baxter Davenport Jr., who was wheelchair-bound, died when his throat was cut, according to testimony. Pack was sentenced by Judge Michael D. Duncan to not less than three years and six months nor more than five years and four months in prison. In exchange for the plea the state dropped first-degree murder, burglary and armed robbery charges.
Pack’s wife, April Dawn Pack, 33, pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact to first-degree murder. She was given five years and six months to seven years and eight months in prison. The state maintained that Davenport was killed after Eddie Pack caught his wife performing a sexual act on him.
Little Brushy Mtn. case
On July 17, Bryan Keith Hendren, 61, of Mount Sinai Road pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the Feb. 18, 2017, shotgun slaying of his brother outside a residence in the Little Brushy Mountains community. Killed was Barney Montgomery “Benny” Hendren, 63, of 1219 Mount Sinai Road. Bryan Hendren was sentenced by Judge Angela Puckett to not less than 23 nor more than 28 years in prison. The killing resulted from a dispute between the two brothers over land they inherited, Carson said.
A jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision in the first-degree murder trial of Shane Meyerhoffer, 25, resulting in a mistrial on July 5. Myerhoffer remains in the Wilkes County Jail, charged with murder in the May 18, 2016, stabbing death of 28-year-old Anthony Wayne Sheppard. The stabbing took place in front of the mobile home Myerhoffer shared with his stepmother, Norma Myerhoffer, at 163 Southwood Drive off of Rock Creek Road in the Hays community.
Evidence presented during the trial was that Sheppard and Rachel Handy came to Meyerhoffer’s residence with Sheena Royal on May 17, 2016, and bought a gram of methamphetamine. Meyerhoffer testified that he was unemployed and sold drugs to make money. Meyerhoffer told the three to not again come to his home unless calling ahead of time. Despite this, Handy and Sheppard drove to Meyerhoffer’s home the next day. Testimony was that Sheppard and Handy had been up for a couple of days because of heavy methamphetamine use.
Sex offense case
A Millers Creek man, convicted multiple times of molesting children, received what amounted to a life sentence after being convicted by a jury on Feb. 24. Robert Daryl “Bear” Bauguss, 56, was found guilty of five counts of first-degree sex offense with a child by an adult, two counts of attempted sex offense with a child by an adult, and one count each of first-degree sexual exploitation of a minor and failure to register an online indicator as a sex offender.
Duncan sentenced Bauguss to a total of not less than 166 years nor more than 239 years in prison, essentially amounting to a term of life without possibility of parole.
Bauguss’ co-defendant, April McGlamery, 38, of Fairplains was sentenced in 2014 to not less than 25 nor more than 33 years in prison. The lower end of the sentence must be served without possibility of parole. The victim in the case was McGlamery’s 6-year-old daughter. McGlamery admitted to authorities that she performed sexual acts on her daughter and used a cell phone to send four videos and a number of photos to Bauguss. She said Bauguss, both via Facebook chat and the telephone, told her what to do to the child and she did it.
On Nov. 15, a jury acquitted a former janitor at North Wilkes High School of raping a student there. Alvis Bruce Calhoun, 64, of Hays, was charged with second-degree forcible rape, second-degree forcible sex offense, taking indecent liberties with a student and four counts of committing a sexual act on a student. The incident was alleged to have occurred in November 2016 after a football game. The girl testified that she was highly impaired on alcohol when she asked Calhoun for a ride home. She said he stopped on a gravel road and raped her. Calhoun, represented by attorney Jay Vannoy of North Wilkesboro, took the stand in his own defense and denied the allegations. He said he gave the girl a ride home, but said he didn’t rape her.
In the general election on Nov. 6, Republicans David Gambill and Brian Minton were the voters’ choices for two Wilkes County commissioner seats and Republican Jeffrey Elmore was re-elected representative for the 94th House District Tuesday. Democrat L.B. Prevette lost in the commissioners’ race. In the only other contested race with local candidates, newcomer Brian L. Parker of the Broadway community won one of two seats on the ballot in the non-partisan Wilkes Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors race. Incumbent Claude E. Shew Jr. of Roaring River was re-elected after already serving 15 years.
In the May primary, veteran legislator Shirley Randleman of Wilkesboro lost to fellow incumbent Deanna Ballard of Blowing Rock in the race for 45th District senate seat. The two incumbent senators ended up in the same district due to redistricting.
Brian Minton is Shirley Randleman’s son, and Gambill won a GOP primary race that resulted in the defeat of incumbent Greg Minton. The other t GOP primary candidates were Robert L. Wood, Seth Cohn and Rodney Buff.
Incumbent Wilkes Sheriff Chris Shew easily won the GOP primary and was unopposed in the general election. Also running for sheriff were Eric Byrd and Sharon Call-Diaz.
Sharron Huffman and Randall “Rudy” Holbrook, 62, of Benham were both re-elected to the Wilkes Board of Education. Defeated were Brandon Whitaker and Steve Collins.