COVID, vaccines, new community projects dominate local news in 2021

Published 12:21 pm Thursday, December 30, 2021

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Editorial Director
The year 2021 brought some momentum and success as Elizabethton and Carter County sought to bounce back from COVID-19 and a bleak 2020. But like much of the nation, COVID remained in the headlines as vaccines and the push to make them available began to make the news as early as January when they were made available all across Tennessee.
When the vaccine became available — first to those 70 and older — Carter Countians lined up to get them, first at the drive-thru clinic at the Workforce Development Complex, and later at local pharmacies. The vaccines are now available to almost everyone five years and older at most pharmacies and the Carter County Health Dept.
COVID is still with us as Carter County is still averaging 27 cases daily with less than 40 percent of Carter Countians having been vaccinated.
The other big stories include the rise in gas prices as well as the shortage of health care workers — and workers in all business sectors. Gas prices fell another 1.5 cents this week bringing the Tennessee average to $2.99, resulting in Carter County breathing a small sigh of relief.
Carter County’s unemployment rate in the last quarter of 2021 dropped to 3.70 percent. Historically, the unemployment rate in the county reached a record high of 13.10 in April 2020. However, Help Wanted signs still dot the Elizabethton landscape as all healthcare institutions and fast food and restaurants report a shortage of workers. Also, the Carter County Rescue Squad is experiencing a personnel shortage, and is only staffed at 50 percent
Also, Carter County this past year experienced an influx of new residents, resulting in a boost to the housing market. Many of the residents have moved to the area from out of state, looking for both lower taxes and a decrease in the cost-of-living.
Locally, a top newsmaker in 2021 was the Elizabethton-Carter County Animal Shelter as both the county and city governments were at wits end on how to deal with the shelter’s problem of too many animals and not enough funding. Funding issues were resolved when the County voted to give the shelter $270,000 from its budget, and the City added another $25,000. The County Commission also voted to make the shelter a 501-C3, which they say would make it more financially sustainable.
Several new projects are on the board for 2022, including an extension of the Tweetie Trail. Carter County commissioners in April 2021 approved a 28-acre donation of property along an old highway grade and the former East Tennessee and Western North Carolina railway.
Offered by Management Properties Inc., the section starts at the end of Mill Pond Road in Valley Forge and ends at the terminus of Railroad Street in Hampton.
It traverses an extremely rugged section of land where a steep ridge forces the river into a horseshoe bend and includes an old highway bridge and a former railroad tunnel through the ridge.
The section is one of several that, if developed and fully linked, will give cyclists a safe route all the way from Johnson City to Roan Mountain — and someday, possibly beyond.
The county is presently exploring funding options for the new project, including state grants.
Elizabethton city leaders are determined to bring the ultimate rafting, kayaking, and canoeing experience to Carter County with the Surf Betsy project.
Surf Betsy is trying to establish a whitewater park somewhere along the rivers that flow through Elizabethton. The Doe and Watauga can be enhanced to further the enjoyment of rafters and kayakers, creating a tourist draw. Many people are not aware of the economic impact which could be derived from such a project.
Northeast Tennessee is already well known for its outdoor recreational opportunities. Camping, lakes, fishing, hiking, and rafting all help the local economy. These are augmented by the parks and recreation departments that help develop greenways, parks, and trails and suitable restroom facilities along their routes. Such casual tourism brings business to restaurants and other local shops.
The design of a whitewater park can be very complex. It requires a community centered approach, strategic thinking, and financial planning. It’s a straightforward process that requires careful execution.
Another project approved this year and perhaps will see action in 2022 is upgrades to the Covered Bridge Park in Elizabethton. Just recently the City received a $500,00 grant from the state for improvements and upgrades to the park, which will include a new pavilion, restrooms, lighting and landscaping. The City will provide the matching funds for the $1 million project.
The park has already become known for its special events.
In September the Carter County Commission approved millions of dollars in funding to help expand internet access in some of the county’s most rural districts.
Commissioners voted to spend $2.5 million on top of $600,000 that was already set aside for the project. The state will also provide more than $7 million. The county’s funds will come from the American Rescue Plan. The project will expand internet access in county Districts 1, 2, and 6.
The Carter County School Board took the initial steps toward consolidating some of its smaller elementary schools this year. In December they presented a proposal to the Carter County Commission to expand classroom space at Hunter Elementary School by about 64,000 square feet. The expansion is projected to cost $20 million.
School Supt. Tracy McAbee said it is hoped to break ground on the project in the spring, with construction taking about two-and-a-half years.
The proposed project would create the largest school in the county and allow for the closing of Keenburg and Unaka Elementary Schools.
Earlier in the year the board voted not to close any schools through at least the next academic year.
A vote on the matter came following a cost study conducted by a former state education official that suggested declining enrollment along with declining state funding recommended closing five schools over a three-year period to save on costs, which would have started with closing Little Milligan and Keenburg Elementary.
School consolidation has been something that has been kicked around for sometime by previous school boards, but the idea, not popular with local communities, never gained traction.
Carter County with Gov. Bill Lee’s blessings this year approved a $20 million renovation project at the Workforce Development Complex, which will add a variety of career and technical education classes to be shared between Northeast State Community College, the Tennessee College of Applied Technology, and Carter County high schools. Classes in welding, cosmetology, chemistry and renewable energy are planned.
– Other news makers in 2021 included a new security system for the Carter County Courthouse which includes a single entrance to the building and a newly-installed metal detector.
– The retirement of Gary Smith as Carter County EMA Director. Also, the Carter County Emergency Management Agency transferred its operations to a new building at 525 S. Sycamore St., next to Carter County 911. Billy Harrell was named as the replacement for Smith.
– The hiring of Jonathan Valentine as the new band director at Elizabethton High School to replace long-time director Perry Elliott, who retired after 31 years at EHS.
– High school graduations were back this past spring after being cancelled in 2020 due to COVID.
– South Carolina based Community First Bank acquires Security Federal.
– Elizabethton Police Department moved up the street to a newly-renovated building at 511 E. F St., which will house all offices of the EPD, including the Detectives Division, which had been located in the basement of the Elizabethton-Carter County Public Library.
– Ginger Holdren was elected in September as the new chair of the Carter County Commission..
– Hampton-Valley Forge Fire Department builds new fire station at Simerly Creek to service that community. Also, the department announced in December it will build a new station at Valley Forge.
– Elizabethton Electric replaces old meters with new Honeywell digital meters with more technological advances to provide better power quality management and transformer efficiency.
– Bonnie Kate Theater receives $200K grant for restoration purposes.
– Carter County Finance Director Brad Burke resigns rather abruptly at a meeting where the animal shelter was being discussed.
– Carter County Commissioners vote to keep 8 districts, with 3 members each in its redistricting plan.
– Elizabethton Christian Home Academy celebrates 75 years of service to hurting children and families of Carter County. The home was organized as a memorial to men and women of World War II by Minister Fred Smith of First Christian Church, Elizabethton. The five-acre tract on which the home was built was donated by S.M. Morrell.
– Dale Fair retires as CEO/Chairman of the Board for Bank of Tennessee after a 45-year career in banking.
– The Black Olive and Libby’s Lodge were among new restaurants opening in Elizabethton, the Black Olive in the former Beef O’Brady’s location and Libby’s Lodge on Broad Street next to the Family Dollar Store.
– It was a big year for Carter County sports teams. Hampton, Elizabethton, and Cloudland football teams along with the Lady Highlanders Basketball team earned a trip to the state tournament.
– Elizabethton welcomed the River Riders in their inaugural baseball season. The River Riders replaced the Elizabethton Twins, as former Appalachian League Major League baseball teams no longer have minor league teams playing in the area.
As the old year fades and a new year is on the horizon, several persons have already announced their candidacies for county offices in the 2022 primary. It promises to be an exciting election season.
Elizabethton ended the year in style and color as holiday celebrations were big, well-attended, and well-appreciated after COVID put a damper on holiday festivities last year.

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