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Wellness Center to see changes in coming months including removal of lap pool

BOONE — The Paul H. Broyhill Wellness Center is currently in the process of being re-imagined to serve the community, which includes removing the lap pool.

Rob Hudspeth, senior vice president for system advancement at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, said for the past three years, the health care system has been in the process of revitalizing all of its facilities and services to prepare for growth in the coming decades, which included the Wellness Center.

“Since the county announced that they were going forward with the recreation center, we’ve been contemplating what that means for the future of the Wellness Center, especially being that they’re a block apart,” Hudspeth said.

One of the biggest changes coming to the center is the removal of the lap pool.

“This decision was based on utilization of our pool and the availability of the pool at the new recreation center,” Hudspeth said. “We have not made a determination regarding the therapy pool and are still evaluating how and where to continue those services.”

If the Watauga Community Recreation Center did not have a pool, Hudspeth said the lap pool at the Wellness Center would most likely stay open.

Mary Stolberg, a member of the Wellness Center, is disappointed that the lap pool will be closing. She said that as a cancer survivor and someone who suffers from an autoimmune disorder, she would rather swim in a cleaner pool rather than one that’s frequented by children and many other people.

“I think it’s just a mistake for people who are immunocompromised and older to be exposed to that and I think it’s a real disservice,” Stolberg said. “It just is not wise to put us into a pool where we are with unvaccinated people and germ carriers.”

She also said the Wellness Center offers more privacy for someone like her who is older, verses locker rooms at the Watauga Community Recreation Center.

Stolberg, who has been a lifelong swimmer, had constantly used the lap pool before COVID-19 pandemic, but has not during the pandemic due to health concerns. She said she plans to use it as she can while it’s still available.

During her 31 years in the county, Stolberg said she has had very good experiences with the hospital, but she is upset the lap pool is being removed.

The re-imagining of the center, Hudspeth said, is directly related to growth in three key areas. The first is AppOrtho, which has grown 213 percent in the past five years.

“As AppOrtho seeks to grow to meet the community’s demand — and develop a comprehensive sports medicine and performance lab — relocating to the Wellness Center made the most sense,” Hudspeth said. “Having AppOrtho located beside The Rehabilitation Center, where orthopedic providers and physical therapists can work in concert, will allow for care continuity under one roof.”

Hudspeth said that currently, people would go to the AppOrtho office for their medical appointment and then go to the Wellness Center for their physical therapy. With the Wellness Center changes, patients will have it all in one building.

The sports medicine and performance lab would be able to help athletes who are dealing with an injury, such as tendinitis in an elbow of a softball pitcher. The player could go to the lab and staff would monitor the throwing motion and assess the mechanics to determine what’s causing the injury.

While AppOrtho has grown immensely, so has The Rehabilitation Center — with physical and occupational therapy services — located within the Wellness Center. Hudspeth said the rehabilitation portion has grown 162 percent since 2018 with therapists providing therapy in “tight, confined spaces.”

The new plan, Hudspeth said, allows for the physical and occupational therapy to have more space and grow with demand. Along with that comes change in how clinical wellness and medical fitness programs are delivered.

“As we continue to shift toward prioritizing population health management we will adopt processes which align patients with targeted medical wellness programs,” Hudspeth said. “These programs will be directed by medical providers and carried out by therapists and personal trainers in a newly renovated space within the Wellness Center. We will continue to offer memberships for people who seek to ensure their personal physical fitness beyond their medical fitness program.”

Hudspeth said the new architectural designs will be finalized in the next few weeks and, once they are complete, will be posted in the Wellness Center.

Watauga Riverkeeper installs Trash Trout in Winkler Creek

HIGH COUNTRY — MountainTrue, an environmental organization based in the Southern Blue Ridge, announced June 2 that their Watauga Riverkeeper installed Boone’s first Trash Trout in Winkler Creek along the Greenway in partnership with the town of Boone.

The Trash Trout Jr. is a passive litter collection device that catches debris floating down a waterway for removal. A large cage with a wide mouth that floats on pontoons, the Trash Trout is installed in creeks and streams where it prevents trash from entering main waterways. MountainTrue says that large pieces of trash and plastic are trapped inside the Trash Trout, while smaller organic matter passes through and other aquatic wildlife pass below the device.

An Asheville-based environmental nonprofit named GreenWorks designed the trapper and partners with other environmental organizations to target tributaries near areas that may have more trash introduced into the waterway.

Watauga Riverkeeper Andy Hill oversaw the installation, adding that the team at MountainTrue are “very grateful for GreenWorks’ partnership,” as well as the town of Boone and longtime river advocate and Sustainability and Special Projects Manager for the town of Boone, George Santucci.

The Winkler Creek Trout Trap Jr. was funded by Boone as part of its sustainability initiatives, according to Hill. He explained that “the property where (the trap) sits is owned by the town, which made it an easy place to install it.” The Winkler Creek Trout Trap Jr. was funded by the town of Boone as part of its sustainability initiatives, according to Hill. The trap costs $3,500, and the expenditure came from Boone’s general budget, according to Santucci. Santucci added that the town of Boone is funding $2,500 annually to cover the costs of monthly maintenance for the device.

Hill says that volunteers will collect the accumulated trash each two weeks as well as after every rain event. MountainTrue’s water quality monitoring program, which regularly collects water samples for quality testing, and Appalachian State University student volunteers will aid in the collection of trash.

Tributaries, says Hill, are the ideal location for the Trash Trout as these waterways carry most of the trash. Hill said, “A lot of this trash is overflowing from trash cans in parking lots and things people drop” on land. Rain can also affect how this trash runs off into creeks and streams. Additionally, Hill explains that since larger rivers are popular for “recreation, tubing, boating,” and other activities, placing the Trash Trout Jr. in a tributary avoids creating a hazard for navigation.

The waste the Trash Trout collects poses a large threat to aquatic ecosystems since much of it is plastics, which after entering the water will begin the process of photodegradation in which petroleum-based products such as plastics begin to break into smaller pieces known as microplastics. Hill said that this year “has been an explosion of waste,” including a large increase in single-use plastic, personal protective equipment and plastic bags in waterways.

Not only are volunteers collecting trash, Hill said, but they are also sorting trash by type and itemizing the items to have an idea of what the trash is and where it may be coming from. Hoping to locate where trash is coming from on land, Hill looks to develop plans to reduce wastes before it enters waterways. Ultimately, he states, “We are trying to use a scientific approach to interrupt the waste stream and come up with strategies as a community to address the plastic crisis.”

MountainTrue members and volunteers work to ensure that development does not come at the expense of environment and quality of life. The group partners with communities throughout Western North Carolina to support smart planning, sensible land use and multi-modal transportation initiatives, including work within the Elk and Watauga river basins.

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WCSO releases more information about death at Hound Ears

BOONE — The North Carolina Department of Labor and the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office are investigating the May 31 death of an employee at the Hound Ears Club.

According to the WCSO, they were dispatched to Hound Ears at 10:47 p.m. on May 31 in reference to a missing person.

“It was reported that a maintenance employee had not clocked out of work for the day, and no one was aware of his location,” the WCSO said in a statement.

Deputies were directed to 1860 Hickory in Boone by Hound Ears security, according to the WCSO, where they found the employee, Robert G. Presnell, 47, of Linville, dead.

The Hound Ears Club, a private living community with a golf course and other amenities, released a statement the next day, where they described the death as a “work-related accident” and said they were working with investigators to determine the cause.

According to NCDOL Public Information Officer Natalie Bouchard, preliminary information indicated that Presnell had fallen off of a roof. Bouchard and the WCSO said the investigation is ongoing and that no additional information could be released.

According to Presnell’s obituary from Hampton Funeral Service, a GoFundMe has been set up to support his family, and can be found at gofund.me/afe87601. A week after the incident and four days after the creation of the GoFundMe, $5,630 had been raised for the Presnell family.

Watauga Democrat will provide updates for this story as they are made available.

N.C. House passes bill that would eliminate extra federal unemployment in state

RALEIGH — The North Carolina House of Representatives has sent a bill to the North Carolina Senate that ends the $300 extra a week in federal unemployment relief that ends Sept. 6.

Senate Bill 116 — or the “ Putting North Carolina Back to Work Act” — passed the House on June 3 with a vote of 71-36. Rep. Ray Pickett (R — Watauga) spoke on the House floor in favor of the bill.

“Folks in my district, they need people to fill jobs,” Pickett said. “The jobs are there. We’ve started our tourism season and many of our businesses can’t open because they do not have employees. Those jobs were filled before the pandemic started. Those same jobs are there, so we need to pass this bill so those people can go back to work.”

Pickett said employers in his district are offering $12 to $15 an hour for people to work for them, but the businesses haven’t been able to fill those jobs.

Sen. Deanna Ballard (R — Watauga) voted in the original Senate Bill 116 in support of using the federal $300 supplement as a back-to-work bonus, but said she would support the House version of Senate Bill 116.

“The reality is that so many of our businesses are facing a shortage of workers, due in part to the federal supplement,” Ballard said. “The General Assembly is trying to find solutions to this labor shortage since the federal government continues to pay people to stay home despite vaccination rates climbing and the availability of jobs.”

Ballard said that Gov. Roy Cooper’s potential opposition to ending the $300 unemployment supplement makes it harder to become law.

“So we can either continue with the status quo or try to convert the stay-at-home funding into a back-to-work bonus,” Ballard said.

David Jackson, president and CEO of the Boone Chamber of Commerce, said that all types of businesses have been hit by employment issues and elements in Senate Bill 116 would help alleviate those strains.

“This is not just a hospitality issue,” Jackson said. “We have landscapers that can’t get access to materials because their suppliers are not fully staffed. We’ve seen restaurants open one day, close the next, then open the next, because of staffing.”

Jackson said the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce does support the theory that some people are taking advantage of the extra federal unemployment subsidy.

“That subsidy was very important when it was implemented, and I think we are seeing that maybe we are coming to the end of its intended usefulness,” Jackson said.

Area businesses, Jackson said, are trying to balance operations with customer expectations and, in some cases, it’s not wise to open without staffing to provide expected services.

“I’m encouraged to see bipartisan support on this action, and I encourage both sides to continue to work for the people they represent, not their own political aspirations,” Jackson said. “Both sides have seen members break ranks to support this legislation, and that is not always easy to do, so they should be commended.”

The North Carolina Department of Commerce reported that Watauga County had an estimated unemployment rate of 3.2 percent — or 888 out of 27,663 people in the labor force unemployed. Both Avery and Ashe counties had the same estimated unemployment rate of 3.5 percent.

Watauga County has the third lowest unemployment rate in the state while Avery and Ashe county are ranked seventh and eighth lowest, respectively.

The April unemployment numbers — the latest data from the Commerce Department — shows the unemployment for Watauga County dropped .2 percent from March. From April 2020 to April 2021, the unemployment rate dropped significantly by about 10.7 percent.

The latest available hourly wage data from Watauga County is from 2020, which lists the median hourly wage for industries in Boone.

The data lists management occupations with the highest median hourly wage at $38.08. Food preparation and serving related occupations were the lowest at $8.93 an hour, which also had the highest number of jobs listed at 4,419, according to wage data from Watauga County’s economic development website.

Senate Bill 116 also includes tax forgiveness for Paycheck Protection Program loans, which Jackson said is big for local businesses that are waiting until the PPP tax implications are more clear.

“We have several businesses that are looking at a potential $10,000 to $20,000 swing in what they may owe the state in taxes if North Carolina does not make PPP expenses tax deductible,” Jackson said. “I’ve heard a few even suggest that they would have not taken PPP loans if they knew the tax impact would have hit them at the same time they were trying to ramp up hiring.”

The bill also sends $250 million to North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Division of Child Development and Early Education to be used for subsidized child care for eligible children.

“People have seen during the pandemic that sometimes a second income in a two-spouse family is devoted almost solely to childcare,” Jackson said. “You take the person out of the workforce and the child out of child care, and all of the sudden that family finds they can survive on one income and have greater flexibility.”

The bill would be implemented 30 days after it is passed by the North Carolina Senate and if it is signed into law by Cooper. The last action on the bill is listed as being referred to the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate on June 3.

“The work is not done until people are helped, so there is no need for victory laps before the bill crosses the finish line,” Jackson said. “We should be equally dedicated to resolving some of these issues as soon as possible, but recognizing that can’t be just a snap of the fingers either.”