Jackson County October 2022


County Seat

Median Income

Population Density Designation

Our visit to Jackson County began with us waking up in the Qualla Boundary before heading to the Southwestern Commission in Sylva. We ultimately concluded our visit to Jackson County on the campus of Western Carolina University (WCU) in the unincorporated town of Cullowhee.

Jackson County contains a large stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Tuckaseigee River. It adjoins the Qualla Boundary — land held in trust by the federal government for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — and the county plays host to WCU.

We began our conversation with HIGHTS (Helping Inspire Gifts of Hope, Trust, and Service) at the Southwestern Commission’s offices. The Commission is dedicated to improving the quality of life in its seven-county service area by assisting local governments in reaching their goals.1 HIGHTS’ mission is “to transform youth in Western North Carolina by inspiring trust in their own abilities, connection to a caring community and hope for a better future.”2

Marcus Metcalf, the Executive Director of HIGHTS, walked us through a brief overview of their work serving youth and families across the region. Metcalf also thanked us for “making the long trek” out to western North Carolina stating, “Until you travel out here, you can’t possibly know what everything is like for those of us in this group.”

A core part of HIGHTS’ mission, according to Metcalf, is a focus on connecting resources both to those most in need and those “doing the work” in the community. This work materializes in a variety of approaches, but our conversation zeroed in on what Metcalf dubbed, “the mental health crisis of our lifetime.” Given the state of the crisis, HIGHTS is now actively working with the community colleges and universities in the region to grow the mental health workforce on the ground since the infrastructure is lacking in the region.

Russ Harris, the Executive Director of the Southwestern Commission, echoed the importance of workforce development work to the region. Harris pointed out that their five-year comprehensive economic development plan illustrates the opportunities for the region while noting, “Many issues and obstacles for our region were already here, but they were exposed by COVID-19.”

A key focus moving forward will be addressing the mental health issues and the health care workforce as a whole.

Our next stop in Jackson County was the campus of WCU where Chancellor Kelli Brown and her team welcomed us to their Health and Human Sciences Building for a conversation around the role WCU plays in western North Carolina and beyond.

“We are honoring our promise through service to this region,” declared Brown as she described WCU’s role as a true regional institution serving a student population of over 12,000 students3 — with one in three of those students being first-generation college students.

One key aspect of WCU’s role as a regional institution is to provide a “living lab” for its students and community partners through incubating alliances with nonprofits, educational entities and others. We heard from representatives of programs focused on culturally based health care and the preservation of the Cherokee language; the Call Me Mister program focused on increasing diversity in the educator workforce; and Vecinos — a program “providing culturally-appropriate health and wellness services for the uninsured, low-income and the farmworker community.”

One core of WCU’s work moving forward is celebrating “resilience and independence combined with service” in order to build leadership and capacity in their region.

Qualla Boundary

We had the opportunity to visit the Qualla Boundary for a series of conversations around health and wellness, educational outcomes and workforce development for the tribal members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who call it home.

The Qualla Boundary land is held in trust by the federal government. The Eastern Band is a sovereign nation within the borders of the United States.4

We began our time in the Qualla Boundary with a visit to the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority. Casey Cooper, the CEO of the Hospital Authority, guided us through a conversation around the mission and vision of the organization. The mission of the Hospital Authority is to “provide accessible, patient and family-centered quality health care with responsible management of the Tribe’s resources.”5 The vision is to be “significant in the lives of Tribal members, chosen for excellence and exceeding customer expectations, recognized for improving the health of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.”5

The hospital provides more than 18,000 yearly primary care visits — and they have also hosted more than 22,000 annual emergency room visits.6 They also have an on-site pharmacy that fills tens of thousands of prescriptions annually.

Cooper guided us on a walking tour of the hospital. Every element of the hospital was designed to be calming, unique and rooted in the culture of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Cooper pointed out numerous artistic elements that were also included in the design of the hospital.
We traveled from the Hospital Authority to Cherokee Central Schools next. Yona Wade, the Director of Community Affairs for the schools, led our visit. The elementary, middle and high schools all sit on the same campus — alongside other key offices. The campus comprises 473,000 square feet of space,7 and it is the largest “green” project in the region according to Wade.

Wade also arranged for our group to visit the Cherokee Indian Fair to watch a stickball game. Stickball is considered to be one of the original sports played in North America — and it has a rich history among the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and other tribes.8

Meet Dr. Algie Gatewood

Dr. Algie Gatewood is only the fourth President to lead Alamance Community College (ACC) since it opened in 1958. During Dr. Gatewood’s tenure at ACC, the college won its largest ever bond referendum – nearly $40 million – in 2018 to fund a number of major capital projects and expansions. The college also secured $16 million in county funding in 2014 to build the Advanced Applied Technology Center. Other notable accomplishments include creating a Biotechnology Center of Excellence, introducing an Early College, facilitating an apprenticeship program, and introducing nearly two dozen new academic programs and articulation agreements with state universities.