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Construction work begins on Tanner Building

NEWPORT—It’s been a long time coming—way too long, in the eyes of many—but last Thursday, Carlene Robinson finally got to do the “Happy Dance” with fellow members of Tanner Preservation Alliance and employees of the Cocke County Partnership.

The occasion was a guided tour of the old Tanner School where actual restoration and construction work has begun. Gary Carver, Newport Community Development Director, led a tour of the building for members of the TPA and the Partnership employees.

Robinson, who was been at the forefront of efforts to save and restore the historic school, which served Cocke County’s African-American population for decades during the days of segregation, began her own educational journey there.

She now serves as Director of the Cocke County Senior Center, which will be one of the agencies moving into the building after its restoration.

Other agencies and groups to be housed there include the Cocke County Partnership, Cocke County Tourism, Newport/Cocke County Chamber of Commerce, Cocke County Economic Development Commission, Keep Cocke County Beautiful and the Tanner Preservation Alliance.

The 16,000 square foot structure has stood empty since it suffered severe damage from a tornado several years ago. Following that storm, numerous groups, which had called the former school home, were forced to move elsewhere, including Robinson’s Senior Citizens.

The building dates to the 1920s when it was constructed as a Rosenwald School, one of hundreds built across the South. Today few of these structures remain, and only a portion of the Tanner building itself dates to that era.

As the years passed and the school’s population grew, additions were built and it continued its service as a school for grades 1-12 until the mid-1960s. For a time, after desegregation, it was known as Central School and housed special education classes and other students that transferred from Parrottsville Elementary School.

After all classes were moved elsewhere, it slowly became the home of various agencies.

Plans for the “new” building call for a spacious welcome area on the ground floor. There will be a large conference room, a warming kitchen, and a museum room featuring photos and memorabilia pertaining to the school.

When construction began last week, workers uncovered an original chalkboard, and plans call for its preservation and incorporation into the renovated structure.

“All bathrooms will be handicap compliant,” explained Carver. “The original elevator still works, but it must be overhauled. That will take place during Phase II.”

Both floors of the building will be ADA accessible, Carver added.

Preen Construction, a Knoxville-based firm, was awarded the contract which calls for completion of the project in 250 days.


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NPD padlocks home on English Street

NEWPORT—The Newport Police Department Narcotics Unit working in conjunction with the 4th Judicial District Attorney General’s Office sought a padlocking order for a residence and an outbuilding located at 141 English Street in Newport.

The residence has been the subject of an ongoing drug investigation by Detective Derrick Webb of the NPD/Narcotics Unit. A padlocking order was sought after multiple calls pertaining to drug activity, including drug usage, drug sales and drug overdoses were investigated at the residence.

Jonathan Shelton, age 35, of the home was arrested on an outstanding child support warrant. A search of the immediate area where Shelton was taken into custody revealed suspected Suboxone, Heroin, Cocaine and Xanax.

The Newport Police Department Narcotics Unit is continuing the investigation and evidence recovered at the scene will be submitted to the TBI Crime Lab for identification.

Any evidence obtained during the investigation is expected to be presented to a Cocke County Grand Jury. It is the intention of the Newport Police Department to continue to seek padlocking orders for those residences located inside the City of Newport where drug activity continues to create a public nuisances.


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E-911 board approves purchase of new CAD system

NEWPORT—E-911 Director Nancy Hansel spoke to board members about the need for a new CAD system at a recent meeting.

The CAD (Computer Assisted Dispatch) system gives the exact time of an emergency call, as well as other necessary information.

The current system at E-911 is six years old. Hansel said it’s and the end of its lifespan.

“Our CAD system is six years old and it keeps going down,” Hansel said.

“It’s a severe problem because the CAD gives us the time of the call. When it goes down we are writing that time down and revising the notes later. It’s causing a big problem.”

Hansel proposed the purchase of a new system to the board. She said the new software will fix the current issue, as well as provide a more exact location for an emergency call.

“The new software has rapid SOS. The calls will be sent through a clearing house, which will put the location of the call on a map. This can help a lot when first responders are trying to locate the person having an emergency situation.

“Several other counties already have this system in place. All phones for the most part are compatible with this system. The call will pop up with an exact location in the CAD.”

Hansel went on to say that this system is more accurate than using cell phone tower pings to locate an individual.

Board Chair and Police Chief Maurice Shults said it is very important to have a running CAD system in place. He said the location data and information will follow from the moment of the call all the way to the prosecution of and individuals or individuals if a crime has been committed.

Fire Chief Randy Ragan made a motion to support the purchase of the new CAD equipment.

He said it’s what is needed to make the county as safe as possible.

A second to the motion came from Mayor Roland Dykes III.

The board approved the motion unanimously.

The price tag for the new system is around $38,000.

Hansel said the system will be able to receive emergency texts to 911. She said an emergency text message may become the new norm in the near future.

Another item discussed by the board was the renewal of the contract with Land Air Total Communications.

Mike Jenkins, CEO of Land Air, said there were no major changes in the contract for the 2019-20 year, other than a $30 increase for routine services.

The board approved the renewal of the contract.

Jenkins told Hansel and board members that an update in the software for E-911’s computer equipment will be needed in short order.

He said they system they are currently using won’t be supported much longer.

The dispatch center will have to move to a generation 10 version to support the new Windows software.


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Homeless Outreach: Where can the county's displaced find refuge?

NEWPORT—A hot meal, a refreshing shower and the security of a roof over our heads are things that most of us don’t think twice about in our daily routine. But for a rising number of Cocke County’s homeless, these three simple things are nearly unattainable.

According to the Tennessee Valley Continuum of Care Point-in-Time count the number of totally unsheltered in the county went from 34 in 2018 to 45 in 2019. Empower of Cocke County Director Annette Burke feels this slight increase in number may not be a true increase, but a more accurate count due to the COC going digital and involving police versus volunteers to do the count.

“Police in town know exactly where many of the homeless sleep and are more willing to actually go to these places to get that count, where as a volunteers might see it as too dangerous,” said Burke.

Regardless of the numbers the fact remains that many are “street living” and even many more living week to week in motels and transitional living quarters without a permanent place to call home.

No Shelter but plenty of local assistance

Although the situation seems bleak, there are local resources and ministries able to lend a hand to the area’s homeless. The Community Center allows daily time slots for public showers Monday through Friday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and the center can also provide hygiene products and toiletries if needed. The limited time is due to staffing issues and water aerobics classes.

For a daily hot lunch and the community feel of a restaurant Feed My Sheep Ministries is open to serve anyone and everyone needing to eat, they also have breakfast on Saturday mornings.

The majority of those frequenting FMS are elderly and not necessarily homeless but many of the homeless come there for other needs FMS provides such as military style emergency blankets and winter clothing like coats, gloves and socks.

Last winter the ministry had a winter warming center set up in its sanctuary. The temporary shelter helped approximately 40 people during its seasonal operation.

At Empower Cocke County a main focus is drug addiction. Many who are homeless have addiction issues which usually cause them to become misplaced from where they were previously living.

“A large amount of the people we see living on the street either have a mental illness or an addiction problem, or both,” Burke said.

Working so closely with people who are struggling with these problems allows Burke to see how drugs and mental illness can make it nearly impossible for an individual to hold down a job.

Many refuse to continue taking medications for their illness and one individual in particular, Burke recalls, had lived in her car for over a year due to her paranoia and inability to be around people.

Burke feels that a certain stigma can be placed on adult homelessness especially when drug addiction plays a factor.

“It’s easy for people to become cynical when it comes to drugs and the way people can relapse back into them again several times before they are really ready to quit,” said Burke.

Although not operational as a homeless facility, Empower is equipped to hand out sleeping bags, pillows, hygiene products and even provide a couch for those on the street to come in from the heat or cold to rest for a while.

Programs help fight homelessness

From a different perspective the Douglas Cherokee Economic Authority hits the problem before it becomes a homeless situation by offering preventative programs in rental and energy assistance. The income based federal programs focus primarily on rent and energy help, but do include emergency food vouchers and baby formula.

“It’s important to keep power on in these homes because really without electric you are precariously homeless in a sense,” said Center Coordinator Pat Spurgeon.

Spurgeon estimates the center helps about 800 households in the county each with with energy assistance and at least 30-50 per month with rental assistance.

Most energy vouchers supplied are worth $100, but through LIHEAP the coverage maximum is $600 and spans over a period of time.

The center also has the capability of helping those living in motels as well as long as they’ve been in the same establishment for 2 months and the landlord is willing to work with the center’s vouchers.

“If they get an eviction notice we are here to help, to prevent them from becoming homeless,” Spurgeon said.

Spurgeon feels that many of the individuals she sees are having difficulty holding a job and paying bills because they are dealing with a mental illness.

Some don’t want a place to stay

At Sunset Gap food, blankets and pillows are handed out to anyone and everyone including the many homeless the workers see come and go.

Sunset Gap Executive Director Audrey Jones said each month is different but in August they had at least 5 homeless that came through, including a father with his son that they found sleeping in the chapel.

“They walked here. The father accepted the food, but didn’t want a place to stay or any other help,” Jones said.

Jones said surprisingly many don’t want any assistance or permanent shelter. They just desire a food box or hot meal. Sunset Gap will also provide hygiene items and clothing if someone expresses a need.

Besides food resources, Sunset Gap has a seasonal program in which mission groups come to help repair homes, many times for the elderly. Depending on the need and the licensure of the workers, repairs can be on a home’s roof, or they can build a new ramp or porch. The program does not allow for indoor repairs.

Jones finished by saying ,“We give whatever we have on hand here. We give it to everyone who needs it and there is so much need in this county.”