Buzzworm news briefs

Calling all brainiacs

If you harbor a secret belief that you have what it takes to be a contestant on Jeopardy! — or even bump all-time Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings (who’s won $2,355,001 to date) from his winning streak — here’s your chance to find out. The Jeopardy! Brain Bus is set to roll into town on Friday, Nov. 19, stopping at the Biltmore Square Mall, where a Jeopardy! contestant search and a Jeopardy! just-for-fun game will be held from 5-7:30 p.m. The event is sponsored by WLOS.

The Brain Bus “Clue Crew” will test up to 1,000 people who want to be contestants. The quiz is graded immediately, and participants will know if they qualify to move to another round. Meanwhile, the Jeopardy! game will be going on for anyone who wants to try a pretend version of the real thing.

— Lisa Watters

A fare-free future?

Would you ride the bus more often if it were frequent — and free? Chapel Hill and numerous other cities have found that a lot of people answer that question in the affirmative. The response to Chapel Hill’s fare-free transit system, instituted in 2001, has been overwhelming, according to Transportation Director Mary Lou Kuschatka, who guided her city through a successful transition to fare-free transit. She offered an overview of the process at a Nov. 5 luncheon in Asheville’s City Hall that was organized by Asheville City Council member Brownie Newman. Among the benefits reported by Kuschatka were an increase in ridership of better than 50 percent, which she said had instantly solved Chapel Hill’s downtown parking problem and enabled residents to fend off a state Department of Transportation plan to multi-lane a highway that runs through the city. The relevance of this testimony to Asheville’s transportation woes was not lost on more than two dozen attendees, who flashed knowing looks around the U-shaped table.

Those in attendance included: Newman and fellow Council members Terry Bellamy and Jan Davis; Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey; Asheville Transportation Director Bruce Black and several members of his staff; Brian Freeborn, Andrew Goldberg, Bill Michie and Chair Stacy Anderson of Asheville’s Transit Commission; President Chris Pelly and past President Barber Melton of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods; Sam Camp, Executive Director Elizabeth Russell and Chairman James Geter of the Eagle-Market Streets Development Corp.; Tim Amos, Asheville City Schools Assistant Superintendent for Business/Support Services; Anthony Butzek, Asheville Traffic Engineer; Charlotte Caplan, Asheville’s Director of City Development; Jim Abott, co-chair of Christians for a United Community; and UNCA Transportation Planner Yuri Koslen. UNCA was also represented by students Nikki Gunter (who explained her research on successful fare-free transit projects around the country), Maggie Ullman (who is active with Unified Solar, a student organization dedicated to promoting “green” building and sustainable development), and Travis O’Guinn (a recent graduate currently interning with Newman who helped organize the meeting).

For public-transit supporters, the most encouraging part of Kuschatka’s report was that such a transition proved to be affordable. With substantial support from UNC-Chapel Hill — where a lack of parking was constraining growth — as well as city funding from Chapel Hill and Carrboro (which is also served by the system) and diversion of state funds earmarked for highways, the changeover hasn’t broken the transit bank. “DOT doesn’t like to divert money from road building,” Kuschatka told Xpress. “But they have to under the law, and will if you push them.”

The big jump in ridership means the cost per passenger mile, a major yardstick of transit-system success, has dropped dramatically. The Chapel Hill system now runs buses every five minutes during peak commuter times, “and they are all full,” reported Kuschatka. The system includes free park-and-ride lots in peripheral areas along major commuter corridors, as well as feeder vans from a few sections of the city that are more than a quarter-mile from regular bus routes.

Chapel Hill, including its university population of about 20,000 students and employees, is roughly the same size as Asheville.

Newman told Xpress: “I think it might make sense to try to do a two-year pilot project on fare-free transit policy in Asheville. Give it a try for two years and see if we see the same big increases in ridership that other communities have. If it works great, we could consider making it a permanent policy.”

— Cecil Bothwell

Film highlights tobacco farmers’ plight

When filmmaker Cynthia Hill was growing up in the eastern North Carolina town of Pink Hill back in the ’70s, she remembers helping tend the crop on her grandfather’s tobacco farm.

“My grandfather used to be a tobacco farmer,” she notes. “I say used to because when I was 10, he was unable to keep up with changing technology and increases in labor costs and was forced to stop farming.”

“I continued to help friends and neighbors on their tobacco farms until I went away for college,” notes Hill. “But now, that way of life seems so far away.”

Ironically, Hill now lives in what once was one of Durham’s tobacco warehouses.

Hill and fellow filmmaker Curtis Gaston‘s feature-length documentary film Tobacco Money Feeds My Family will be screened at the Harris Media Center at Mars Hill College on Saturday, Nov. 20, at 3 p.m., as part of a statewide screening tour. The free event is sponsored by the Madison County Arts Center and the Liston B. Ramsey Center for Regional Studies.

In the film, we meet three tobacco farmers — two tenant farmers and one landowner — who press on in the face of a changing culture, cuts in government quotas and the realities of global free trade.

When Hill and Gaston began shooting in 1998, they decided to structure the film to follow the course of a growing season — from the planting of seedlings in greenhouses in February, to the sweltering August harvest, to the frenzied, make-or-break fall auctions. The film is told in an intensely personal fashion through Hill’s memories and the eyes of these three very different farmers.

Following the screening, Hill and Gaston, along with Madison County humanities scholar and photographer Rob Amberg, will answer questions and encourage a dialogue.

For Hill, it’s a chance to get people talking about the issues at hand. “Tobacco has shaped many of our communities and we must ask the question, ‘What will we do when it is gone?’ How will we identify ourselves? And more importantly, what about the farmers and others employed by the industry, what will they do?” she says. “These are issues that affect almost everyone in North Carolina, and we want to give people a chance to talk about it with each other.”

A hot topic at recent screenings, Hill says, is legislation passed by Congress last month that will pay farmers to give up allotments regulating how much tobacco they can grow. The action ends the federal tobacco price-support program — set up during the Depression — in exchange for the buyout, effectively deregulating the growing of the crop, according to The Charlotte Observer. Over a 10-year period, about $3.8 billion of the $10.1 billion tobacco quota buyout will go to nearly 76,000 people in North Carolina who grow tobacco or own allotments.

“It’s not so much the details of the buyout that come up as the impact it will have on tobacco farming,” she notes.

Film attendees also will also be treated to a digital slide show of images from the James G.K. McClure Photographic Collection, which documents all aspects of tobacco life from the 1920s to 1950s. James G.K. McClure — who introduced burley tobacco to Western North Carolina — founded the Farmer’s Federation, an agricultural cooperative that helped organize WNC farmers and their families after the Depression.

For more information on the screening, call Cassie Robinson at 689-1262 or Anne Rawson at 689-5507.

— Lisa Watters

FEMA, floods and fraud

Federal and state officials are warning Western North Carolina residents to be on the lookout for swindlers eager to make a buck at the expense of flood and hurricane victims. The Federal Emergency Management Agency cautions residents to be leery of anyone claiming to be a FEMA official who asks for personal information (such as Social Security numbers or bank accounts) or who tries to collect an application or processing fee.

There are no fees required to register for disaster assistance, explains Federal Coordinating Officer Justin DeMello. “All it takes is a phone call.” Genuine FEMA representatives, he notes, can provide verifiable identification on request. Residents should also be wary of false or misleading claims from roofers, driveway pavers, home contractors and others offering disaster-relief services.

In addition, there have been reports of people trying to scam FEMA itself by reporting fraudulent damages, notes Amanda Johnson of the temporary FEMA field office in Hendersonville. These claims are researched and can be prosecuted, she says. If convicted, perpetrators will be fined or serve prison time.

The temporary field office in Hendersonville will close by Thanksgiving. After that, most programs will be transitioned to the FEMA Region 4 office in Atlanta or to state programs in Raleigh.

Area residents who believe they’re being scammed or who have any evidence regarding possible con artists are asked to notify the state attorney general’s Consumer Protection Division at (887) 5-NO-SCAM (1-887-566-7226). Complaints may also be filed online (www.ncdoj.com/consumerprotection/cp_about.jsp). People filing fraudulent claims with FEMA can be reported to the National FEMA Fraud Hotline (800-323-8603).

— Megan Shepherd

Celebrating Asheville’s early Jewish history

From the mid-1940s through the early 1960s, a weekly radio show called Hear O Israel aimed to educate people in Western North Carolina about Judaism. The show was broadcast during radio’s heyday by Asheville’s WWNC at a time when the radio station focused heavily on community-centered programming.

Hear O Israel was hosted by Rabbi Sidney Unger, and the show’s “town hall” approach with guest speakers and audience participation — discussing religion and all aspects of life — made it extremely popular across WNC.

This highlight of Jewish and community history will be part of this weekend’s Founders and Alumni Celebration, a first for Asheville’s Congregation Beth Ha Tephila.

The celebration will begin with a special evening service on Friday, Nov. 19, which will center on a prayer book that was used from the 1930s until the 1970s. The Union Prayer Book has since been replaced with a modern prayer book for services.

On Saturday, Nov. 20, a 9:30 a.m. program will feature a panel of people who grew up in Asheville who will describe Jewish life here (and life in general) in the 1920s through the 1960s.

Unger’s contribution to the congregation’s history and the interfaith community in Asheville will be featured in a talk by James Martin, chair of the department of government, history and justice at Campbell University, from 11 until noon. Martin recently received a fellowship from the American Jewish Archives to study Unger’s papers at the Archives’ collection in Cincinnati.

A brunch will follow Martin’s talk, after which Beth Ha Tephila’s cantor, Deb Winston, and organist, Vance Reese, will present a concert of music from classical Reform Judaism’s musical liturgy from the early 1900s.

The descendants of the 27 charter members of Beth Ha Tephila in 1892 also will be recognized and honored during the weekend activities, along with members active from the 1920s through 1980.

Community members who remember the rabbi or were friends with Beth Ha Tephila members are welcome to attend Friday and Saturday’s events. For Saturday, however, an immediate RSVP is in order (236-9650). And if you personally remember Unger or his radio broadcasts, Founders and Alumni Celebration Chairwoman Jan Schochet would like to hear from you (236-9650).

— Nelda Holder

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