Just the Facts

Macon Middle track project enters design phase

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Dan Finnerty

The first Macon County Commissioner meeting of 2024, on Jan. 9, was held as usual at the County Courthouse. The most debated and longest topic of the evening was the Macon Middle School (MMS) track project, which consumed more than half of the two-hour session.

However, leading off with public comment, citizen Betsy Baste addressed commissioners concerning the Town of Franklin Council’s efforts to stand up a social district in 2024. Referring back to the most recent council meeting, Baste lauded efforts put forth thus far.

“It was refreshing to hear people in support of economic development … to hear people in support of the research that so many people have done, [in order to] see whether a social district is good for a small town,” she said.

After providing more commentary on what she viewed as benefits of supporting and increasing small town business, Baste concluded, “The next time someone from the [Town of Franklin Council] asks you [commissioners] to review that again [a request to include county-owned property located within town limits as part of the social district], you can say they can use the property.”

(For more about the social district issue, click here.) 

In old business, Balsam West’s Matt Saenger, director of sales and marketing, updated commissioners on three main areas of the internet backbone implementation project currently in progress.

The Nantahala Project, Phase One, extends core network into that area and includes the Fontana Regional Library. With 80% of necessary permits received, Balsam expects work to begin this month and for the build out to take approximately three months. For Phase Two, work is ongoing to establish a point of presence that will enable gigabyte and multi-gig services to residents and businesses.

AT THE JANUARY meeting, Commissioner Danny Antoine provided an update on the new Fontana Regional Library agreement as well as presented a nomination to fill a vacant seat on the Macon County Library Board of Trustees.

Saenger reported that using Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) grant-derived funding, Balsam can serve 233 households and 30 businesses. While given a two-year window, he expects work to be completed within one year and will consist of areas including Tessentee and Middle Creek (58), Stillhouse Rd. (6), Scaly (38), and Highlands (131).

Macon County Parks and Recreation Director Seth Adams provided information on bids received regarding the new master plan for the Veteran’s Memorial Park. Phase 1A of the plan includes nine pickleball courts, eight tennis courts, a covered shelter, and a bridge. Three companies responded to the request for qualification (RFQ) issued in support of the plan. Following an evaluation of bids received, McGill and Associates was selected as the company best suited to conduct the work. The process of discussing a fee schedule is now underway according to Adams.

Ironing out MMS new track issues

Diedre Breeden, Macon County Board of Education (MCBOE), spoke on behalf of the school board regarding the MMS track improvement project. Referring to a Dec. 21 meeting held by the MMS track committee, Breeden reported that following issuance of an RFQ, the architecture firm LS3P was selected as the company to undertake the design process. Once approved, LS3P would subsequently select another company to do the actual track construction.

Commissioner Paul Higdon stated that he had conducted some track design inquiries with different people, including former Western Carolina University track coach, Danny Williamson, who now is employed by GeoSurfaces – a company that develops, designs, and constructs tracks. Higdon also reported meeting with some paving companies and professed that a cost window of $200,000-$300,000 for construction of a track is normal.

Higdon further asked if LS3P had been given an “open-ended” check by the school board. County Manager Derek Roland reminded the commissioners the process in place is multi-stepped.

“Once the school board accepts the RFQ (for LS3P), there is a contract negotiation where the design professional that won the RFQ will submit a contract for the design of the track facility. At that time the school board can negotiate the price with the architect,” said Roland.

COMMISSIONER PAUL HIGDON stated at the Jan. 9 meeting that he had conducted some track design inquiries in regards to building a new track at Macon Middle School.

Commissioner John Shearl then offered: “We’re going to hire an architect to design something we’ve already got designed.” Shearl was referring to GeoSurfaces, and his assertion brought into question why the MCBOE was tasked initially with determining a design company through the RFQ process.

Both commissioners’ (Higdon and Shearl) revelations of working with a company to provide the work to complete the track resurfacing appeared to take Breeden by surprise, because the county commissioners had tasked the school board with finding a design company through the RFQ process.

Shearl continued, “Why do we need two million-dollar-plus tracks two miles apart? We need a track at the middle school and high school to practice on. We need a new sports complex at Franklin High School (FHS) … We need to get a paving company to give us a price on repairing the existing track at MMS.” 

Shearl maintained that instead of building a new track at the middle school, a paving company could address cracks that have appeared in the surface and fix the problems with only two inches of new asphalt, along with some peripheral patching and finishing steps. “It’s going to be cost effective and give those kids a place to run,” he said. 

Both Higdon and Shearl approached the project from the standpoint of saving county taxpayers money and the non-necessity of a new, state-of-the-art track at MMS when a new sports facility will also be part of the FHS new school project. 

Shearl concluded, “I want to be reasonable and not have multiple facilities that are very expensive to the taxpayers when this right here [the re-paving/repairing of the existing MMS track] would be very sufficient for what the middle school needs as far as a track.”

Breeden responded that the school board believes otherwise. “I would like to assure that having two state-of-the-art tracks that close together … both will still be fully utilized. We have a very full middle school team, with some of the Mountain View Intermediate joining that, and we have a very full high school track team with four grade levels that participate. And, all are currently sharing one not-high-quality track.”

GeoSurfaces’ Williamson, who was at the meeting, argued that the county could save significant money by working with a company that can both design and build a track. “Anything I can do in Western North Carolina to advance the sport of track and field … if you want to save $200,000-$300,000, I suggest you take a look at design and build.”

After a long discussion, Commissioner Josh Young motioned for the board to take the school board’s recommendation and enter into contract negotiation with LS3P; the motion was seconded by Commissioner Danny Antoine. The motion passed, 3-2, with Higdon and Shearl opposing.

Later, commissioners also voted to approve the updated drug and alcohol testing policy for Macon County Transit, which passed unanimously.

Concluding the meeting topics, Commissioner Antoine provided an update on the new Fontana Regional Library (FRL) agreement. Both Jackson and Swain counties are scheduled to review the updated policy sometime in January, after which time they will be sending back any changes requested to Macon County. Once that step is completed, the new agreement draft will be sent to the FRL board for its review and comment or to request changes.

Antoine also moved on the Macon County Library Board of Trustees vacancy by nominating Marsha Moxley to fill the seat vacated by Bill Trotter last August. A 5-0 vote secured the nomination for Moxley. 

A special meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 8, for the Fiscal Year 2025 budget kickoff. The meeting will be held in the Commissioners Board Room at the County Courthouse.

The next regularly scheduled Macon County Commissioners meeting will be held Tuesday, Feb. 13, at 6 p.m.