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News State / Region Public offered the chance to share ideas for southwestern region at ‘Opt-In’ workshop

At the “Opt-In” forum, maps were made available of the areas the Southwestern Commission is targeting for growth management regarding the economy, infrastructure and transportation.Last Thursday night, the Southwestern Commission, the Council of Government’s organization that represents the counties and municipalities of the seven-county region, held a workshop in Macon County to discuss the Southwestern North Carolina Opportunity Initiative (OPT-IN). Members of the public were invited to attend the forum to lend their ideas for the project.

A group of experienced consultants from within the region were chosen to facilitate community discussions that shape the Regional Vision. The goals of the initiative that have been laid out are to first identify a broad, consensus-driven vision, then to facilitate a collaborative sorting of ideas and strategies most likely to realize that vision for counties, towns and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“Rural, sparsely populated communities like ours already struggle to compete with urban centers for funding for crucial infrastructure,” said Gianni Longo who serves as the Regional Vision leader for the initiative.

“Given the urgency brought on by a widening revenue gap, doesn't it make sense that we recognize concerns our communities share and strengthen our capacities for addressing them by speaking and acting from a more powerful, unified position? That's what Opt-In Regional Visioning is all about. By the summer of 2014, we'll have identified areas in which there are clear advantages in working together and we'll suggest some strategies likely to serve those common goals.”

The Southwestern Commission has declared that by the summer of 2014, they will produce:

  • A draft of the Regional Vision that identifies what citizens value most and what strategies are likely to maximize opportunities in the line with those values.
  • Draft Comprehensive Plans for Cherokee and Graham counties that connect with the regional vision and set broad goals for infrastructure decision making at the county level.
  • A Comprehensive Transportation Plan for Graham County that focuses even more directly on transportation priorities.

At Thursday's forum, attendees were asked to place three dots on to boards where indicators were listed. The placement of each dot depended on the level of importance that a person placed in the indicator.

Longo focused on three scenarios that could be taken in regards to land use, the economy, infrastructure, transportation, and demographics.

The first scenario involved staying the course and therefore continuing to develop, following the spread-out growth trends established in the past decades.

The second scenario would use targeted management and investment to counter the trends of the past two decades by implementing a moderate set of incentives, investments, and regulations to achieve the vision's goals.

At the “Opt-In” forum, attendees were asked to place black dots next the indicators they deemed most important in the Regional Vision plan.The third scenario would focus on robust management and investment to counter the same trends by implementing a more robust set of incentives, investments, and regulations to achieve the vision's goals.

Once Longo explained the ins and the outs of the initiative to the attendees, they were asked to gather into groups and discuss the scenarios that he had described. Once that had been done, the groups shared their thoughts on a variety of issues. Macon County resident Lewis Penland suggested that attention be directed towards the water supply and the need that will be in the area for years to come.

“The quickest way to stop growth is to cut off the water supply,” he said.

Another Macon County resident, Lisa Leatherman brought up her concern for transportation in the region.

“As some of us get older, we don't really like to drive,” she said.

According to information that Longo presented earlier, traffic on the roads in and around Macon County has decreased almost annually since 2005. One of the reasons that he pointed to was alternative transportation habits of young people like walking and riding bicycles more.

“I think a lot more people would be up for riding bicycles if we could make it safer,” said Linda Harbuck. “There are a lot of roads around here that would be scary for a bicycle rider to get on and scary for the vehicles around the person.”

The next Opt-In workshop will take place in Swain County on Feb. 17 at Swain County Technology and Training Center. More information can also be found at

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