Buzzworm news briefs

Misplaced money

There’s about $570 million of unclaimed property (much of it cash) currently being held by the N.C .Department of State Treasurer, according to Kirsten Weeks, a spokeswoman for the department. And there’s a chance — one in eight, actually — that some of it could be yours.

Where does the money come from? “Say you lived in an apartment and you put down a $250 deposit when you moved in,” explains Weeks. “If you moved out and somehow forgot to claim your deposit and [the landlord] couldn’t find you, they’re required by law … to forward that money to the Department of State Treasurer for safekeeping.”

Aside from apartment deposits, the unclaimed property also consists of security deposits from utility companies, wages, bank accounts, insurance policy proceeds, stocks, bonds and contents of safe deposit boxes that have been abandoned.

Financial institutions are required to make a determined effort to locate the owner of any misplaced property and, if they fail, must then turn over the name of the owner, last known address and money to the State Treasurer.

The department has set up an online database (www.nccash.com) with each owner’s name and last known address. Visitors who find their name and any unclaimed property on the database can fill out a claim form online, print it out and send it to the Department of State Treasurer.

Each month, the department returns about $2 million of unclaimed property to its rightful owners, with amounts returned ranging anywhere from $50 to $20,000, Weeks says. “We even returned $75,000 to somebody once who had bought stock and then forgot about it,” she notes. “The stock obviously did very well.”

Celeste Collins, executive director of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of WNC in Asheville, and Margie Swofford, WNC regional operations manager for Carolina First Bank in Hendersonville, are setting up the WNC Cash Club, a team of WNC sleuths who will search the NC Cash database for local residents.

According to Weeks, there are currently about 1 million names on the NC Cash database. “And with eight million North Carolinians,” she adds, “that means there’s a one in eight chance that a North Carolina citizen has a claim.”

If you have any questions or would like to learn more about the WNC Cash Club, call Collins at 255-5166.

— Lisa Watters

Room for the inn?

It turns out the rumors were true: A major hotel developer announced last week that he wants to build a $50 million, 250- to 280-room hotel, conference and convention center behind the Asheville Civic Center. To some Lexington Avenue retailers and landowners, however, the surprise announcement was anything but.

The news came via an unusual April 21 City Hall press conference, of which Xpress was not notified. This reporter attended nonetheless. The only other media outlet represented was the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Mayor Charles Worley presided over the event, introducing John Q. Hammons — a Missouri-based developer who’s built 163 hotels in 40 states since 1958. Worley explained that although no formal plans have been submitted and “everything is … preliminary,” Hammons has expressed a “strong desire to build” the complex. The mayor also said the city was announcing the proposed project now because rumors had been circulating for some time about a new hotel in the area.

On Dec. 8, Xpress asked Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford if he’d heard of any plans involving Hammons. Shuford said, “No, I have not.”

Rumors also surfaced last winter that the city was contemplating using eminent domain to secure property along Lexington Avenue for such a project. At the time, Shuford acknowledged that he’d heard the same thing, noting, “We actually got a couple of calls from the media saying: ‘You got a secret plan?’ It was so secret, I didn’t know about it.”

In an interview after last week’s press conference, Worley told Xpress that he’d first met Hammons during a visit to Asheville by a delegation from Springfield, Mo., last August or September. Asked about eminent domain, the mayor said, “We have no plans to declare that area blighted.”

Lexington Avenue bookseller John Brinker of Downtown Book and News said Worley’s announcement comes as no surprise: “My first reaction was ‘told you so.’ We all knew in November, but nobody wanted to admit it in the city.” Brinker said he’d sent e-mails to several city officials asking if such a project was in the works, and they all denied having any knowledge of such a plan.

— Brian Sarzynski

Grove in bloom

The Grove Arcade will host its Third Annual Flower and Garden Show from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, April 30. More than 30 garden clubs and garden-related organizations will be on hand to answer questions, distribute literature and sign up new members.

Free classes on flowers and gardening to be offered during the afternoon include: “Designing a Perennial Garden,” Sylvia Elwyn, noon; “Growing Orchids in the Home Environment,” Ralph Coffey, 1 p.m.; “Twenty-four Great English Gardens,” Peter Loewer, 2 p.m.; “Growing Gourmet Mushrooms,” Tom Gueder, 3 p.m.; and “Easy Care Roses,” Carolyn Tolley, 4 p.m.

The Asheville Garden Club will stage a floral arrangement competition during the show. Entries will be displayed in the Grove Arcade Conference Room, which will be open to the public.

Garden enthusiasts also will be able to shop for flower and garden items from various businesses that will have booths located outside on Battery Park Avenue. Wares will include everything from indigenous plants to garden art and fountains.

— Cecil Bothwell

Farm festival celebrates heritage, spring

You can see a bygone era come to life while enjoying time with friends and family at the 15th annual Johnson Farm Festival in Henderson County.

The festival will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, April 30, at the 15-acre farm (2246 Haywood Road, Hendersonville).

The festival celebrates mountain heritage (and spring) with horse-drawn wagon rides, farm animals, bluegrass music, square dancing and other entertainment, along with children’s activities and demonstrations of 20-plus old-time customs and crafts.

Visitors may also tour the house and the barn loft museum (featuring farming implements and memorabilia) and explore the property’s nature trails.

The farm is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is owned by the Henderson County Public Schools. The 1800s-era farmhouse is believed to be the oldest brick home in Henderson County. The property features 10 historic buildings including a barn, clapboard boarding house, granary and smoke house. Farm residents include miniature horses, chickens and rabbits.

Homemade pound cake is among the treats to be found at the food booths, which also will be selling lunches, drinks and other snacks.

Volunteers will be on hand to answer questions. In addition, Johnson Farm memorabilia and cookbooks will be for sale.

Admission is $5/adults and $3/children. For more information visit www.historicjohnsonfarm.org or call (828) 692-3379.

— Tae Martin

Jail forum sidesteps local issues

An April 18 American Civil Liberties Union forum featured wide-ranging discussion of jail and prison conditions in North Carolina and nationwide, but very little about either investigating or changing local jail policy and practice — the advertised topic. Forum organizer Alex Cury had billed the event as “an open discussion between the public, Buncombe County commissioners and Buncombe County officials” concerning allegations of overcrowding, inhumane disciplinary measures, poor hygiene and serious lapses in medical care at the Buncombe County Detention Center.

According to local ACLU Chair Karen VanEman, the nonlocal focus was due, in part, to the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department’s withdrawal from the forum. Both Jail Administrator Bill Stafford and Kim Gordon (who directs the county’s pretrial release program) had agreed to participate. In the days leading up to the event, however, Sheriff Bobby Medford vetoed their involvement, said VanEman.

The panelists did discuss a host of other jail-related issues at the forum. Chief District Judge Gary Cash spoke about judicial efforts to keep people out of jail and to use alternative sentencing; and Ellen Clarke, the director of Western Carolinians for Criminal Justice, talked about the success of the Women at Risk program. Letitia Echols, director of the Safe and Humane Jails Project, told the audience that no legal action can be taken concerning overcrowding at the jail, since an annex is now under construction (“They are addressing the problem,” she explained). And John Hayes, president of the Asheville-Buncombe chapter of the NAACP, urged greater involvement with young people before they become inmates. “We need to treat people, help people, not incarcerate people,” he said.

What little discussion there was of local jail conditions came mostly from VanEman and former county inmate Josh McKinney. In her opening remarks, VanEman repeated much of what she’d said to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners on April 5 (see “Things That Go ‘Thump’ in the Night,” April 13 Xpress). And McKinney reported on his experience in the Buncombe facility beginning last September.

“When I was in the holding cell, there were no personal-hygiene products,” he noted. “And we slept on the concrete floor.” Some other inmates, he maintained, had slept on concrete for as long as 14 days. And even after he was transferred to the main jail, McKinney said: “I am not a large person, but the food in the jail was a starvation diet. I had to drink lots of water to try to feel full. Most inmates trade away medication for food.” Having been in one other jail, he observed: “In West Virginia, they watched inmates swallow their medication. They don’t do that here, so inmates can trade it later.” McKinney also claimed that some guards are very abusive.

Methodist minister Ken Metzger said he’d made regular visits to the jail for two years, spending 10-12 hours a week doing counseling and running Bible-study groups for inmates. Administrator Glen Matayabas, said Metzger, sharply criticized him for befriending prisoners and then prohibited him from writing to them or counseling them one-on-one. Matayabas finally excluded him from the jail completely, Metzger said, asking what he could do about it.

In response, Judge Cash said, “I can’t tell you how often I have seen, in my courtroom, the difference that religious faith can make in people’s lives.”

— Cecil Bothwell

Hidden risk

It could happen to you. That’s the message from HIV/AIDS activists around the world, but it might come as a big surprise that one group of “you” they are addressing is people over 50.

Among those most at risk for AIDS, older people are the fastest growing demographic group in many countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia, according to the AIDS Action Council. As reported by “The Body: The Complete HIV/AIDS Source” (www.thebody.com), “AIDS cases among individuals over the age of 50 have increased 22 percent since 1991.” Notably, in the state of Florida, 25 percent of all HIV cases now occur among older heterosexuals. In WNC, the number is closer to the national average of 11 percent, according to Michael Harney, a prevention educator with the WNC AIDS Project.

There appear to be two main reasons for the demographic shift. The first is simply a statistical reflection of the fact that HIV/AIDS treatment has lengthened the lives of many infected persons who, in the past, might not have survived into their fifth decade. But another factor seems to be serious and spreading: Older people and their doctors tend to assume that the disease principally affects the young.

“Older Americans know less about HIV/AIDS than younger people,” notes the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s National Institute on Aging. “They do not always know how it spreads or the importance of using condoms, not sharing needles, getting tested for HIV, and talking about it with their doctor.”

In addition, people who are divorced or widowed late in life and then begin dating again are often uninformed about STD risks that have grown enormously in recent decades, and post-menopausal women may be unconcerned about birth control and therefore less insistent about condom use.

Locally, the WNC Aids Project has an educational outreach program aimed at reaching any group that requests a presentation, and the group’s resources include a video specifically targeted at people over 50.

“Sometimes people over 50 feel uncomfortable speaking to a doctor who might be half their age,” Harney told Xpress. “Sometimes doctors don’t ask and the older person doesn’t say anything to the doctor. So there’s this lack of communication about HIV or potential risks or even offering a screening.”

Those who are uncomfortable talking to a doctor can now also test their blood at home. The Home Access Express HIV-1 Test System, the only HIV home-test system approved by the Food and Drug Administration and sold legally in the United States, is available at pharmacies. The Department of Health and Human Services warns that other HIV home test systems have not been approved by FDA and may not always give correct results.

For more information about education programs and other HIV/AIDS related issues, contact WNCAP at 252-7489.

— Cecil Bothwell

Countin’ crawdads

Besides being an essential ingredient in etouffee, crayfish are also a vital link in the aquatic ecosystem. Species living in the state — 40 native and non-native types — are the subject of a survey this spring by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission that will include our own French Broad River.

Though crayfish live in almost any water source, including rivers, lakes and mountain streams, scientists say they still know very little about the small, lobster-like animal. The survey is a continuation of a study begun in the late 1990s.

Biologists hope to learn more about crayfish populations, and identify previously unknown groups.

Previous surveys have indicated that crayfish are especially vulnerable to activities that affect water quality, such as damming, dredging and run-off from logging and development.

“Because we have limited historical data with which to compare current distributions, it is hard to determine how land-use practices and other effects of human actions, such as introductions of non-native crayfishes, have affected native crayfish populations in North Carolina,” says Steve Fraley, aquatic nongame coordinator for the Wildlife Resources Commission.

Among the species found in North Carolina, at least 13 are found only in the state. But three species are non-native types that were inadvertently introduced into N.C. streams, wreaking havoc on native populations and aquatic plant life. The commission recently banned the use of two species — the rusty crayfish and the virile crayfish — that it thinks were released into waterways by fishermen.

For more information about the survey or crayfish, visit www.ncwildlife.org.

— Brian Postelle

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