The year 2022 will be remembered as a time when McDowell County, like other communities across the nation, bounced back from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Throughout the year, restrictions were eased and people returned to a more normal way of life, though the virus remains with us.
Health officials stopped sending out regular updates on how many residents of McDowell tested positive for COVID and how many had died of it. Fewer people wore face masks when going out in public. COVID vaccinations became as routine as getting a flu shot. There was a return to in-person gatherings such as church services and local government meetings. Festivals and special events that had been held in years past but had to be put on hold during the COVID era started happening again in our community and some new ones got started.
That doesn’t mean COVID is totally gone and people are no longer getting sick or dying from it. The effects of the coronavirus are still around us and still being felt. But McDowell County, like other places around the nation, started getting back to normal in 2022.
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During the year, the county continued to make economic progress and various community leaders worked to effect positive changes in McDowell County. Progress took place in Marion and especially Old Fort with announcements about new industries, trails and paths and small locally owned businesses getting their start. Local leaders took steps toward the solving the housing shortage in McDowell. The work that was initiated in 2022 will continue to develop in the new year of 2023.
McDowell residents also responded to events around the world such as Russia’s attack on Ukraine. A vigil was held in Marion for the victims of the school shooting at Uvalde, Texas. In 2022, McDowell celebrated Juneteenth for the first time. British natives living in McDowell reflected on the life and legacy of Queen Elizabeth II, who died in September.
Here are some highlights from the eventful year of 2022.
McDowell County officials completed the process of converting the former Kirksey Funeral Home building in downtown Marion into a new county administrative building and a new location for commissioner meetings. After years of studies, meetings and planning, McDowell County officials and representatives from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission cut the ribbon in May for the long-awaited public shooting range.
A month later, county officials, EMS leaders and numerous others cut the ribbon for the new McDowell Emergency Medical Services headquarters. This new 26,000-square-foot structure on Barnes Road houses McDowell EMS, Emergency Management, the Fire Marshal’s Office and the Community Paramedic Program. It has four two-truck bays, support facilities for staff, training rooms and administrative offices for McDowell Emergency Services. It has nine bedrooms and a large kitchen and living space for the paramedics who will need to stay there.
In July, Gov. Roy Cooper came to McDowell County where he announced that Forza X1 Inc., the builder of an innovative line of electric-powered boats, would invest $10.5 million to establish a new manufacturing plant in Marion and create 170 jobs. The new manufacturing plant will be built on the Universal Advanced Manufacturing Center property. The governor was joined by Commission Chairman Tony Brown, Forza X1 President Jim Leffew, Mayor Steve Little and Chuck Abernathy, executive director of the McDowell Economic Development Association, and numerous local and state leaders for this announcement.
At the end of 2022, county officials were not finished with their building projects. Upgrades are being planned for the Recreation Center, the Maple Leaf Sports Complex and the DSS building. The commissioners are looking at purchasing the former Nebo United Methodist Church property and possibly turn it into a community center for Nebo.
During 2022, city of Marion officials continued their work at renovating the former Fifth-Third Bank building at the corner of Main and West Court streets. In December 2021, the Marion City Council unanimously agreed to purchase the historic building in order to preserve its iconic cupola, which has become the symbol of Marion. When the renovations are complete, council meetings can be held in the historic structure.
During 2022, Superintendent Mark Garrett stepped down as the leader of the McDowell County School System to accept the job of superintendent of Henderson County schools. Since Garrett’s departure, Brian Oliver has served as the interim superintendent.
In November, school and county officials finally held the long-awaited grand opening and dedication of the new Old Fort Elementary School building. Current and former members of the McDowell County Board of Education, current and former McDowell County commissioners, current and former Old Fort aldermen, former superintendents, state lawmakers and other local officials were on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony and dedication. The new school for Old Fort has an auditorium that can seat more than 600 people. It has a special exhibit honoring the memory of Gollie Leo Grant, an Old Fort native who was killed in the Vietnam War. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the school’s ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony, which was originally scheduled for August 2020.
In the November election, the McDowell County Board of Education gained some new members. Challenger Angela Allen-Helms defeated incumbent Greg Barksdale for the Marion District seat on the board. Chuck Abernathy, the county’s economic development director, won election to the Nebo District seat. Eddie Shuford won election to the Pleasant Gardens District seat. Shuford got 6,547 votes or 49.89% while Kevin Price got 6,541 votes or 49.84%. That was a difference of just six votes. But Price didn’t ask for a recount of the results and Shuford won the seat.
Old Fort’s progress
Old Fort continued to make progress in 2022 with new businesses and continued efforts to blaze trails for hikers and cyclists. Old Fort’s second craft brewery, Whaley Farm Brewing, opened its doors in July 2022 on Catawba Avenue two years after it was announced. Old Fort gained new restaurants with Headwaters Kitchen and Black Beary’s Café serving good food to hungry patrons. GoGo’s Cinnamon Rolls opened for business in Old Fort and proved to be a big hit.
Old Fort made significant progress as a destination for hiking and cycling trails. In January, the U.S. Forest Service, the G5 Trail Collective and members of the Old Fort community took part in a ground-breaking ceremony for the start of the new 42-mile trails project, which was announced during a press conference in November 2021. Included in this initial phase are 4 miles of easy trails forming loops for hiking and mountain biking, as well as 2 miles of intermediate connector trails for hike, bike and equestrian users. These community-oriented trails will provide much needed beginner experiences in the Pisgah National Forest.
In June, the first 6 miles of trail and new parking area were opened to the public. The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Old Fort Gateway Trails took place in the Pisgah National Forest on Sunday afternoon. The Old Fort Gateway Trailhead is at 1500 State Road 1227 (Curtis Creek Road).
The new trails are the product of the collaboration between Camp Grier’s G5 Trail Collective, Eagle Market Streets Development Corp.—CDC, People on the Move Old Fort and the U.S. Forest Service Grandfather Ranger District, known as the Catawba Vale Collaborative.
In June, Gov. Roy Cooper announced the town of Old Fort was awarded a $900,000 grant during the first funding cycle of the Rural Transformation Grant Fund. This money is intended to upgrade the streetscape of the town and make it more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists. The $900,000 grant will be used for enhancements along Catawba Avenue that will improve bicycle and pedestrian safety and access in the downtown. The grant supports upgrading Old Fort’s downtown corridor with crosswalks, bump-outs, pedestrian signals, Americans with Disabilities Act improvements and bicycle and pedestrian facilities that better protect downtown patrons from vehicular traffic.
And in October, the Old Fort Board of Aldermen agreed to purchase some land so that a new access road can be built to the planned Fonta Flora State Trail park.
The decision was made after the aldermen heard from retired Judge Bob Hunter with the Friends of the Fonta Flora State Trail. The planned pathway will start at Lake James, continue through McDowell County and end in Buncombe County. Gary Jones wanted to sell the 5.8-acre property to the town for a new constructed access road to the site. The Friends of the Fonta Flora State Trail had already applied for a grant from the state for the purchase of the property. Hunter asked the town to purchase the property with the understanding once the grant funds are available the Friends of the Fonta Flora State Trails could reimburse the town.
Progress with housing:
McDowell County leaders continued their efforts to improve the housing situation in the local community. Officials with both the county and the city of Marion approved incentives for the remodeling of the old Marianna Hotel downtown. Owner Allen Roderick plans to create 16 residential rental units and two retail rental units on the first floor of the historic multi-level building at East Court and North Main streets. Roderick is also planning similar upgrades for the former Foam and Fabric building on Logan Street.
Local officials continued to work on the workforce housing project, which is an effort between the Gateway Foundation, Dogwood Trust, McDowell County, the city of Marion, McDowell Technical Community College and McDowell Economic Development Association. The plan is to build 168 housing units near the Universal Advanced Manufacturing Center. The effort has been slowed down due to the dramatic increase in construction costs and the partners are reworking every cost option.
In 2022, Gateway Wellness Foundation announced plans to build a new neighborhood with 25 houses at the former Johnny Banks trailer park site in the Clinchfield section of Marion. And the Asheville nonprofit organization Givens Communities purchased the former Clinchfield Mill building at 56 Branch St. in Marion. Givens received a $3 million grant from the Dogwood Health Trust to purchase the property for development of affordable housing. Givens will seek historic tax credits and mill tax credits to preserve the existing three-story brick facility and convert it into housing.
Near the end of 2022, the biggest housing projects of all were announced. A $950,000 state grant was awarded to McDowell County for the rehabilitation of homes for low-income individuals. McDowell County will be working with the Gateway Wellness Foundation on this initiative. Approximately 40 homes, located all around McDowell County, will be provided emergency repair or rehabilitation under this program. And a $5 million grant was awarded to a long-term transitional housing project being spearheaded by Freedom Life Ministries. The project will pay for utilities, site development and 28 residential units for the program housing Freedom Life has planned for several years for hard-to-house individuals. The units will be along U.S. 70 East between Marion and Nebo.
In 2022, McDowell County hosted several first-time special events which would not have been possible during the COVID-19 pandemic. Local residents responded to Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the Rotary Club of Marion launched its Million Meal March for Ukraine effort. McDowell County’s first-ever Juneteenth celebration, which commemorates the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans, was a big success complete with a field day for youth, an outdoor festival, a pageant and a Sunday morning church service.
A festival was held in downtown Marion to celebrate the new mural “Seeing our Voices.” Marion officials declared Juneteenth to be a city holiday. A vigil was held in downtown Marion to remember the victims of the mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, N.Y. McDowell County residents raised their voices in protest over the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade and showed their support for women’s rights. Downtown Marion was filled with people celebrating the arrival of the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree.