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Blasting operations to start near N.C. 105 bridge-replacement project
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WATAUGA — Blasting operations will take place on N.C. 105 near the bridge-replacement construction project over the Watauga River, which will cause traffic delays in the area.

Traffic may be stopped for up to 30 minutes on N.C. 105 on days when rock removal is necessary through blasting operations. The contract allows rock removal between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Mondays through Wednesdays, but the operations are not necessary every day, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

According to NCDOT Communications Officer David Uchiyama, safety precautions during the blasting include adding a loose material to prevent any fly-rock or other debris from reaching the road, and having safety personnel, explosive experts and fire department officials on site.

Seismic monitoring systems are in place and send reports to the contractor for any significant disturbance. bridge-replacement project on N.C. 105 over the Watauga River, according to Uchiyama.

The three-year bridge replacement project essentially breaks down into three year-long phases. The first includes utility relocation, vegetation removal and dirt and rock removal. The second phase includes building half of the new bridge and switching traffic to it, before building the final half of the bridge.

The project includes creating a new intersection with Broadstone Road and Old Tweetsie Road, plus a traffic signal upgrade at Broadstone and a modern bridge 270 feet long and more than 100 feet wide. It will be wide enough to carry four lanes of traffic with standard safety features.


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Boonerang Music and Arts Festival a hit after thousands descend on downtown Boone
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BOONE — The streets of downtown Boone were transformed on June 17 and 18 when thousands of people descended on the town for the Boonerang Music and Arts Festival.

Boonerang Founder and Director and Town of Boone Cultural Resources Director Mark Freed said an estimated 6,000 people attended the festival, with more than 4,000 ID checks taking place — which did not include artists, vendors, staff, children and non-drinkers.

Freed said there was a lot of unknown factors entering the inaugural festival and he questioned if there would be enough space for stages, cars and people. He said that with the hard work of everyone involved, the festival “came together pretty much as planned.”

“The inaugural Boonerang Music & Arts Festival was a resounding success. Our community came together in every way from the staff and presenting partners to the amazing volunteer crew. From the production companies, artists and organizations and of course to all of the people for showing up and having a great time.... and the beautiful mountain weather didn’t hurt,” said Freed. “It was so much fun to see our friends, families and visitors smiling, dancing, making and engaging with art, and celebrating all things Boone. I overheard many people saying things like, ‘We have been waiting for something like this to happen in Boone for years.’ And the consensus of the masses is ‘more’. We will Boonerang back next year, for sure.”

Updated

Free said the festival came to fruition after he began a list with several other community music lovers and producers of bands with connections to Boone. He said when Luke Combs performed at Appalachian State University in September of 2021 he started to think about how many musicians are tied to the High Country.

“We were thinking, ‘wow, we really have some big artists with some roots here.’ Luke Combs, Eric Church, Old Crow Medicine Show, Derek Trucks, Widespread Panic... we wrote them out and it was like, ‘wow, that’s quite a list, what if we did something with this?’” said Freed. “We finally decided to bite the bullet about six months ago. We started lining up bands and production companies, stages and tents and all those sorts of things and then we hit the street with it looking for support and it’s been overwhelming.”

Freed said the community response has been “enthusiastic” and that their team was privileged to work in Boone when planning an event like this one.

The Watauga Arts Council, local non-profits, children’s organizations, restaurants and food trucks, breweries, retail stores, event venues and App State all helped make the festival free, community-centric and full of activities, said Freed.

“Just the awesome support from all these organizations and dozens of volunteers, it’s just really heartwarming,” said Freed. “The response from the community has been hugely enthusiastic and the energy and the vibe we got from people is so exciting.”

Boone Mayor Tim Futrelle said this festival was a long time coming.

“On the year that we recognize Boone’s 150 birthday, 75 years of Horn in the West, Pride month, and at long last Juneteenth; so much to celebrate,” Futrelle said. “It was just amazing to see how our town, sponsors and wealth of great Boone talent came together to make this all happen. All the credit goes to our Director of Cultural Resources Mark Freed and his team and all the great volunteers. Discussion has already begun on Boonerang 2023, so stay tuned.”

The live performances at the festival covered a wide array of musical styles including gospel, soul, blues, reggae, rock, singer-songwriter, bluegrass and Americana. Local bar Lily’s hosted Doomerang that night, which featured metal music and the silent disco held at the North Depot Stage included party music.

“My favorite parts were seeing so many smiling faces; rocking out with the Naked Gods and Melissa Reaves; seeing the throngs of people up South Depot; hearing about independent artists making their rent by having a successful festival; talking to volunteers who had as much fun working as playing and watching and participating in the silent disco,” said Freed.

Free said that mid-June was chosen for the free festival weekend to maximize the focus on Boone locals enjoyment.

“We specifically chose this time of year for a couple of reasons. For one, the university is gone. As much as we love the university and the students and having them as an important park of the fabric of our community, for those of us who live here year round, we know that there’s also just a great sigh of congestion relief when the students leave for the summer,” said Freed. “It’s also the time of year we heaven’t quite hit our full tourist stride of July... there are still hotel rooms and Airbnbs available.”

Freed said the term “boonerang” has been used in local vernacular for many years as an endearing term for people who spend time in Boone, leave and then come back, which some people do several times. He said he wanted the festival to be a “homecoming” for boonerangs.

“It’s one of the best times to be in the High Country and we kind of think of it as a community homecoming, a time that you can welcome your friends, your family, invite people back to Boone to come and enjoy the High Country in its glory and come out and have a great time,” said Freed. “It’s a very Boone-centric thing. It’s all things Boone and we all love our town so this is a good excuse for us to just come out together and celebrate.”

Boonerang kicked-off on Friday, June 17 with a special performance on the Jones House porch as part of their summer concert series. Members from Urban Soil, Wiseapple and Lazybirds performed in the sunshine following a torrential downpour, which Urban Soils member Sarah Reinke said was “perfect Boone weather.”

Wiseapple banjo played Brian Swenk was the media director of the festival and coordinated media outlets and photographers. He said he was excited to play with his old band mates and celebrate Boone.

“We got together in the late 90s and we are just like brothers at this point,” said Swenk. “We played around the southeast for six or seven years and love doing reunion shows in the place we started.”

Saturday saw more bands and streets close down to accommodate the stages set up on North and South Depot streets.

The South Depot Stage saw bands like Soul Benefactor featuring the Junaluska Gospel Choir and Chalwa perform during the day whole headliners Town Mountain and Acoustic Syndicate played their sets that evening. South Depot Street was covered with people dancing and watching the bands perform.

On the North Depot Stage, the King Bees, Naked Gods and Melissa Reaves were jamming for hundreds of festival goers dancing along.

The Jones House Stage — no stranger to concerts — saw performances from the Tray Wellington Band, Alexa Rose and the Songs from the Road Band. The BACR/641 rpm Stage near Espresso News saw performances from Trevor McKenzie, Zodiac Lovers, Endangered!, H A U N T E R and RUGG.

Zach Smith, bass player for Town Mountain, is from Boone. He said coming back to play at Boonerang felt “full circle.”

“I have a lot of a lot of pride for where I grew up because this place is so special,” Smith said.

He said to play a free event for the community while also giving back was important to him.

“I feel the same today as I did when I like played Merle Fest for the first time,” Smith said.

He said pulling in to Boonerang and seeing something out of a movie seeing bands like Soul Benefactor and the Junaluska Choir performing on South Depot Street. He also saw people he said he kind of grew up with like Tray Wellington. Smith said he and Wellington would jam together at Murphy’s “back in the day” during the Wednesday night bluegrass jams.

Before he went on stage with Town Mountain, Smith said he had felt like he had lost his voice because he had hugged and talked to so many people he hadn’t seen in a while.

“It feels like a big homecoming,” Smith said.


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MountainTrue, Wine to Water raise money for clean water access in Uganda
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BOONE — A fundraising event at Ransom Pub & Event Venue raised money to send water filters and tanks to communities in Uganda to increase access to safe drinking water.

The fundraiser was organized by Watauga River Keeper Andy Hill, French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson, a MountainTrue member, and local non-profit Wine to Water. Drinks and appetizers were provided for guests.

After attending a water conference in Washington, D.C., Ugandan Lake Victoria Waterkeeper Daniel Musota was invited to host events in Boone and Asheville to raise money to provide tools for clean water to the communities he serves.

He said that areas around Lake Victoria are becoming increasingly industrialized, specifically in Kampala, Jinja and Entebbe, which leads to contamination of water sources. Agriculture can impact the water quality as well as livestock, which shares the same natural springs as the people living in rural areas.

Musota said he was surprised when he first visited America and saw how accessible clean drinking water was — especially in public places.

“When I first came to America in 2018 I had an opportunity to go to Niagara Falls and I was surprised when I walked into the park and there was a place to get clean water to drink,” Musota said. “In Uganda, you can only have clean water if you live in a town or big city. If you go to the rural areas, people drink directly from open sources that are contaminated and it’s a challenge.”

Musota works to provide clean water to communities in Uganda by installing water filters, water tanks in public locations and drilling wells. He partnered with Wine to Water and MountainTrue to raise money to continue his efforts.

Musota spoke about the conditions in Uganda while a slideshow of pictures he took in his hometown of Jinja, Uganda were displayed on a screen.

“Women and children collect water from natural springs and they are often contaminated. We share this water with animals. In Uganda, we raise cows so cows also come and drink here, and it’s where we get our drinking water,” said Musota. “We have to walk for long distances to get water for drinking. Women walk many kilometers to get water.”

Wine to Water Director of Special Initiatives Shane Hillman demonstrated the effectiveness of the water filters the organization creates. He mixed dirt into water and attached a filter to the bottle before pouring it into a glass and drinking the now clear water. Attendees were invited to purchase a water filter for Musota to bring back to Uganda for $100.

Earrings provided by a Ugandan woman were sold and general donations were accepted to raise money for water tanks.

This event was one of three fundraising efforts conducted in Western North Carolina for the community Musota serves. Between the three fundraisers, more than $10,000 was raised to install eight water tanks in addition to the many filter provided. All water tanks will have filters installed on them as well.

Musota said he hopes other organizations in America will be inspired by the fundraising efforts of Wine to Water and help provide clean water access to the communities he serves.

For more information on clean water access efforts near Lake Victoria, contact Daniel Musota at ugandalakevictoriawaterkeeper@gmail.com.


Moving on

Local team headed to states 


WCS preparing for free school breakfasts, lunches to end

WATAUGA — Watauga County Schools is preparing for a school year where students will no longer have access to free breakfast and lunch.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture passed waivers nationwide that allowed schools to serve breakfast and lunch to students without collecting payment. That waiver expires on June 30, meaning parents will have to again apply for free or reduced lunch for their children.

“It is very disappointing that school meals for children are a casualty of Washington politics,” WCS Superintendent Scott Elliott said in a statement. “Of all the things the federal government has spent money on over the last two years, nothing has been more beneficial to our working families than free school meals. If our leaders want to help our families through these difficult times, providing meals to children is an easy way to give people some relief.”

During the two years that students could receive free lunch, WCS saw a large increase in the amount of meals they served. Between August and March in 2019-20 — pre-COVID — the school system served 90,276 breakfast meals and 236,418 lunches.

During that same time period during this past school year — while the waivers were still active — WCS served 157,215 breakfast meals and 325,141 lunches, which is a 74% and 37.5% increase, respectfully.

“We immediately saw an increase in the students who were eating breakfast and lunch at school,” Elliott said. “As the cost of fuel and most everything else increased through the Spring, we saw more and more children eating free meals at school who normally would have either paid full price or brought food from home. I suspect that demand for school meals will only increase through the fall as families struggle to make ends meet.”

According to the school system, free and reduced meals are based on two criteria: family income and household size. Prior to COVID-19, Watauga hovered around 34% across the district for families who applied for and were eligible for free and reduced meals. When meals became free for students, not as many families completed the applications as had in the past and the eligibility was approximately 24% last year.

“We know that a significant number of our students live in poverty or come from homes where making ends meet is getting more difficult,” Elliott said. “We also know that it is difficult to do much of anything, especially learn, when someone is hungry. Being able to have a healthy breakfast and lunch at school is important for children’s overall wellbeing.”

According to the Census Bureau, 15.8% of the the population in Watauga County lives in poverty, however, the Census states that small counties with a large university with presence of college students who live off campus raise a community’s poverty rates.

“If the federal government cannot find the will to continue providing meals, then we will work hard to get every eligible family signed up for the free and reduced program,” Elliott said. “Once meals became free, many people stopped filling out the applications for free lunch. We will need every family to fill out the paperwork this time.”

WCS School Nutrition Director Monica Bolick said she feels like some children will fall through the cracks when free lunches go away.

“I think it’s going to impact how many students are eating,” Bolick said. “Our participation is really going up. It’s going to impact students and parents with them having to pay, once again, for meals when they haven’t had to do that. And I think we’re going to see our participation decline because of the burden of having to pay for those meals again.”

Information on how to apply for free and reduced lunch through Watauga County Schools can be found at bit.ly/3zRqtsg.

Yolanda Adams, the family resource coordinator for WCS, said in a statement that while people may think food insecurity happens in specific households, it really happens more than people know.

“Food insecurity impacts the entire family at a level beyond hunger. It affects the performance and growth of minors,” Adams said. “Many people don’t know that for many of our students in WCS, the only guaranteed meal during the year is what the children receive during school days. During the weekends and holidays, that concern for parents is heightened by the knowledge that there will not be a guaranteed meal on the table for their children.”

Adams said food insecurity is one of the reasons the partnership with the Hunger and Health Coalition is so important.

The Hunger and Health Coalition’s mission is to relieve poverty and hunger in a compassionate manner for families and individuals who are experiencing economic hardship and food shortages. Assistance to families may include food, medicine, wood and referrals to other community resources, according to the organization.

The organization said in a statement that it is “disheartened” at the decision to end the child nutrition waivers.

“We are energized to continue feeding our most vulnerable neighbors, including children,” the organization stated. “This decision only amplifies our work and our current programs including the Backpack Program, which offers food to children over the weekends and our food services programs, that have helped to distribute over 700,000 pounds last year to families in need.”

The organization said getting involved with their mission is the “easiest” way community members could help to lessen the burden of governmental decisions like the ending of the waivers. More information on how to volunteer with the Hunger and Health Coalition can be found at www.hungerandhealthcoalition.com/home.

The waivers ending is not the only issue the school system is facing and preparing for. Elliott said the school system is working hard to keep meal prices as low as possible, but all of the system’s commodity and grocery vendors have canceled their contracts because they could no longer honor their prices.

“The new prices we are seeing have increases of 50% or higher on many food items compared to what we were paying a year ago,” Elliott said. “The cost of everything has gone up, including the food items, kitchen supplies, and of course the fuel for our deliveries. We will do everything possible to keep the cost of a school meal as affordable as possible.”


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AppHealthCare releases COVID-19 update as FDA approves vaccines for children as young as 6 months old
  • Updated

BOONE — AppHealthCare has provided a COVID-19 update as the health department says it continues to “circulate and even increase over the past few weeks in key statewide metrics like hospitalizations, COVID-19 like illness in the Emergency Departments and COVID-19 particles found in wastewater.”

According to AppHealthCare, Watauga County is currently at a medium COVID-19 Community Level as defined by the CDC, which measures the impact of COVID-19 on health and healthcare systems. A medium level means community members may need to take more precautions to prevent illness and protect themselves and others from severe outcomes like hospitalization and death, AppHealthCare stated.

The following are tips from AppHealthCare to help prevent a COVID-19 infection.

  • Stay up-to-date with COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters. More Information on COVID-19 vaccines can be found on AppHealthCare’s website.
  • Get tested if you have symptoms. Don’t visit the Emergency Department for just testing.
  • Stay home if you’re sick – except to get medical care. This helps limit potential exposure to others.
  • If you test positive, seek treatment options as soon as you can to lower your chance of hospitalization and severe outcomes. As soon as you feel sick, it’s time to get tested and treated. That’s because treatments work best if you start them soon after you notice symptoms of COVID-19. Remember, your first symptoms may be a cough, headache, or sore throat—and they may even be mild. The key is: don’t wait. Locate Test to Treat options near you by visiting the NC DHHS website.
  • Wear a mask if you test positive for COVID-19 or have COVID-19-like symptoms. People may choose to wear a mask at any time.

According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, 33,393 Watauga County residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — or about 59% of the population. Approximately 31,440 Watauga County residents have been vaccinated with at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine or one dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine — or about 56% of the population.

According to NCDHHS, 18,967 — or 34% of the population — has received either a booster shot or an additional dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

As of June 17, Watauga Medical Center had four patients in the COVID-19 unit, according to Senior Vice President for System Advancement at ARHS Rob Hudspeth.

Hudspeth also said that they are continuing to monitor COVID-19 in the community closely, but the situation is better than it was a year ago.

Pediatric COVID-19 Vaccine Update for Children 6 months to 4 years old

On June 17, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine and the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine for the prevention of COVID-19 to include use in children down to 6 months of age.

For the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine, the FDA amended the emergency use authorization to include use of the vaccine in individuals 6 months through 17 years of age. The vaccine had been authorized for use in adults 18 years of age and older, according to the FDA.

For the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine, the FDA amended the EUA to include use of the vaccine in individuals 6 months through 4 years of age. The vaccine had been authorized for use in individuals 5 years of age and older, according to the FDA.

“Many parents, caregivers and clinicians have been waiting for a vaccine for younger children and this action will help protect those down to 6 months of age. As we have seen with older age groups, we expect that the vaccines for younger children will provide protection from the most severe outcomes of COVID-19, such as hospitalization and death,” said FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, M.D, in a press release. “Those trusted with the care of children can have confidence in the safety and effectiveness of these COVID-19 vaccines and can be assured that the agency was thorough in its evaluation of the data.”

The Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine is administered as a primary series of two doses, one month apart, to individuals 6 months through 17 years of age. The vaccine is also authorized to provide a third primary series dose at least one month following the second dose for individuals in this age group who have been determined to have certain kinds of immunocompromise.

The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine is administered as a primary series of three doses in which the initial two doses are administered three weeks apart followed by a third dose administered at least eight weeks after the second dose in individuals 6 months through 4 years of age.

AppHealthCare is planning to extend clinic hours until 6 p.m. for vaccine administration for the 6-month-old to 4-year-old age group at the Watauga location at 126 Poplar Grove Connector in Boone on June 23 and June 30. Appointments can be made by calling (828) 795-1970. Appointment scheduling is available in Spanish by calling (828) 795-1970 and pressing 1.

“We encourage parents and caregivers to ask questions about the vaccines and seek information from reputable sources like the CDC, NCDHHS or their child’s pediatrician or health care provider to make the most informed decision for their child’s health,” said Jennifer Greene, AppHealthCare Health Director, in a press release.

Blue Ridge Pediatrics will also be able to administer the vaccine for this age group, according to AppHealthCare. The doctor’s office is planning to extend COVID vaccine clinic hours on June 21 until 7:30 p.m. and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on June 24.

This will be available to existing patients and by appointment only in the Boone office. Appointments will be available starting on Monday morning, June 20, as long as the CDC has finalized their recommendation and can be made by calling (828) 262-0100.

“Parents have been waiting since the start of the pandemic for the chance to protect their youngest children against COVID. That time is almost here. Once the CDC offers their formal recommendation, we will continue to work hard to make these vaccines available to our patients,” Dr. Scott St. Clair, Blue Ridge Pediatrics, said in a press release.

More information about COViD-19 vaccines can be found at www.apphealthcare.com/covid-19-vaccinations or by contacting a health care provider or call the COVID-19 Call Center at (828) 795-1970.

More information on the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine can be found at www.fda.gov/emergency-preparedness-and-response/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19/comirnaty-and-pfizer-biontech-covid-19-vaccine.

More information on the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine can be found at www.fda.gov/emergency-preparedness-and-response/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19/spikevax-and-moderna-covid-19-vaccine.


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