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Park, forest receive $6 million to fund more bike trails on part of Foothills Parkway

Gov. Bill Lee and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander announced Monday that $6 million in grant funding will be used for mountain bike trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee National Forest in Cocke County — an investment Lee said could help tourism throughout East Tennessee.

At a small outdoor gathering at a rest stop in Cocke County, Lee told The Daily Times that the project could help tourism and employment growth throughout the region and state.

“Tourism brings not only the folks that are here, but it brings the businesses to support the tourists, and it brings economic activity to areas around the county that is attracting the tourists,” Lee said. “So it’s a real opportunity for development economically for the entire region, not just for this county.”

Describing it as a “very important day in East Tennessee,” Lee was joined by Alexander, a Maryville native, who has made national park improvements a priority before retiring from the Senate in January.

“This is a $6 million grant to create 50 to 75 miles of mountain bike trails to the top of Hall Mountain with a shuttle to take the bikers up there and the idea is to try to get more of the 12 million people who come to the Smokies and the 3 million who come to the Cherokee National Forest to come through Cocke County,” Alexander said.

The money comes from the Appalachian Regional Commission and will pay for 50-plus miles of mountain bike trails. Some of those trails will be on Foothills Parkway, which stretches through Sevier and Blount counties.

Though the trails only will be in Cocke County, Lee said the benefits could bleed into Blount.

“It’s a very important day for economic development here in Tennessee,” he said.

Foothills Parkway, designed to provide travelers with optimum views, was authorized by Congress on Feb. 22, 1944, but construction, which began in 1966, was slow because of engineering difficulties.

All of the parkway but the “Missing Link, ” a 1.65-mile gap between Walland in Blount County to Wears Valley in Sevier County, was completed by 1989.

The link was a result of halted construction due to slope failure and erosion when Foothills Parkway first was being built.

For 10 years, the Missing Link was put on the back burner. Construction resumed in 1999 but was slow going.

It wasn’t until 2009 when President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that construction began to pick up.

“You know how the federal government is,” Alexander said Monday. “It took us 70 years to build the first part of it, and we just dedicated it a couple of years ago — what I think is the prettiest drive in the Smokies — (and) another part of the Foothills Parkway.”

Alexander said the idea to improve Foothills Parkway further was born a few years ago when he, Lee, former Gov. Bill Haslam, former Congressman Phil Roe, R-Northeast Tennessee, and now-U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, as well as representatives from the National Park Service, Cherokee National Forest and the Appalachian Regional Commission began discussing the matter.

“There are 33 miles of undeveloped Foothills Parkway right of way — some of it a mile wide — and I was thinking, we don’t want to wait another 70 years for something to happen,” Alexander said. “What can we do in the meantime?”

Alexander said the group went to Cocke and Sevier county leaders and asked what they wanted to do to develop the parkway.

“Mountain bike trails, I wouldn’t have thought of that, but they did,” he said.

Now, more than 70 years after Foothills Parkway was approved, Alexander said the latest improvement project will make the parkway even more enticing to visitors.

“What we hope is that this new mountain bike trail will become a magnet for the tourists and for visitors to our region who want to come to Cocke County, and while they’re here, spend a little of their money, create a few jobs and find the beauty of this county and enjoy that 50-75 miles of mountain bike trail going up Hall Mountain,” the retiring senator said.

Warming shelter opens tonight at First Baptist Church in Maryville

Blount Countians suffering from homelessness will have a safe haven in tonight’s frigid temperatures.

The warming shelter at First Baptist Church of Maryville will open its life center doors to those in need beginning at 7 p.m., Dec. 1. Temperatures are expected to drop to as low as 21 degrees early Wednesday.

The center opens when temperatures hit 25 degrees or below. People are welcome in the shelter from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m.

While at the FBC Maryville, those seeking shelter will receive a cot and bedding, two warm meals and access to a shower.

“These guys have had a rough year this year,” shelter organizer and Chilhowee Baptist Center Director Rick Myers said about those suffering from homelessness. “They didn’t have anywhere they could go day or night, and they suffered through the summer. It really took a toll on the ones who I’ve met. Any little bit of shelter they can find, they’re looking for.”

Organizers weren’t sure that a warming shelter was possible during COVID-19, but on Saturday, they received the go-ahead from First Baptist.

“They’re good people over there,” Phil Hoffman, board chair for Family Promise Blount County, said about organizers at First Baptist. “They’re doing everything they can to try to help. They just had to put their heads together.”

To protect both volunteers and shelter seekers, volunteers will enforce social distancing and the wearing of masks for all who enter.

“We’re going to insist on washing hands,” Hoffman said. “Rather than having them go through a buffet line, we’re going to serve them with paper plates and plastic utensils just to keep things as clean as possible for everybody.”

Because of the pandemic, volunteers have been hard to come by, Hoffman said. Many of the past shelter volunteers have been elderly and more susceptible to the dangerous effects of COVID-19.

“The problem has been two-fold. Normally, we have the month of December to pull this off because we usually have warm Decembers, and also we normally have a little more notice as to whether we’re going to be doing this or now,” Hoffman said.

The early cold and late notice have created a shortage in volunteers. Many are still needed to keep the shelter open for the rest of the cold season.

This is the warming shelter’s third year in operation. It functions financially through a one-time United Way of Blount County grant.

Lisa Atkinson, UWBC community resource consultant, said United Way was determined not to lose the momentum the warming center has built over the past three years.

“It’s just one of those things that’s always been a need and because we’ve been able to do it in the past, we wanted to continue to do it,” Atkinson said. “With everything else this year with COVID, you just have to be a little flexible and a little fluid and just kind of see how things go and hope for the best.”

Those interested in volunteering at the warming shelter tonight or any other cold night this season can contact uwbc@unit edwayblount.org.

Blount County Schools emphasizing face masks as community COVID-19 cases rise

Blount County Schools appeared to take a stronger stance requiring students and staff to wear face masks on Monday, Nov. 30 — the same day the state reported 34 new school-age COVID-19 cases across the county.

In social media posts BCS said, “Face coverings will be required by all employees, students and visitors inside our schools to support a healthy and safe learning environment in Blount County Schools.”

Previously the district had said students were “expected” to wear face coverings but it would not enforce them as it would a dress code violation.

In an email to The Daily Times, Director Rob Britt wrote, “With rising levels of infection due to the community spread of COVID-19, we want to do our part to mitigate the infection rate and number of quarantines in our schools. Therefore we are going to be more restrictive with our face coverings protocol. We want to do all we can to provide the safest and healthiest environment for students and staff in our schools.

“Our state and local health departments agree that face coverings are essential in preventing, mitigating, and reducing the spread of COVID-19. We are committed to do our part to keep our Blount County Schools buildings open for in person learning to the extent feasible and practical.”

In a phone interview Britt said, “It’s not really a whole lot different than what we’ve been doing,” adding that staff have been required to wear face coverings and the district would heighten awareness of the protocols.

“We will do a lot of reminders and support our students,” providing face masks if they don’t have them, he said.

While school policy allows the district to take action when a student is “defiant,” Britt said, “I don’t anticipate that’s going to happen.” He said he believes most students want to be in school, and school officials will talk with parents about any issues.

Explaining the new emphasis on face coverings, Britt noted, “The two weeks prior to Thanksgiving were our two most difficult weeks,” with some schools and classes moving to online learning in the days before the holiday.

Monday, Nov. 30, BCS was able to fill only 71% of the needs for substitute teachers, and Britt said it is possible some schools will have to move to virtual instruction.

The director said he’s trying to keep schools open as long as the district possibly can. “I want to say to our community that we’ve done all that we can do,” he said. “I hope we’ll have a great deal of cooperation.”

While some on social media questioned whether the school district can require masks, Britt said, “The state Department of Education provides schools the authority to make those kinds of decisions,” and he noted other districts, including Knox County, have had mask mandates.

Blount County Schools’ new announcement does include a few exceptions to the face covering requirements, such as when students are eating and drinking; have a documented medical condition or disability; or can maintain 6 feet of distancing.

Alcoa split

Since schools closed for Thanksgiving, Alcoa has had 17 new cases of COVID-19, according to Director Beck Stone. About nine were at the high school and most of the others at the intermediate and middle school, she said.

Many of the high school cases already were in quarantine and did not require contact tracing, the director said.

Alcoa City Schools plans staggered on-campus attendance in grades 3-12 through the end of the semester, with half of the students in the buildings Monday and Wednesday, half Tuesday and Thursday, and everyone in virtual classes on Fridays. Elementary students are expected to be on campus every day.

This week is an exception, with all four Alcoa schools closed Friday, Dec. 4, because the high school football team is playing in the state championship game.

Stone estimated more than 90% of Alcoa students are wearing masks and said she did not see a need for a mask mandate at this time. “Our students are doing a pretty good job,” she said.

She said Alcoa likely will stagger attendance for a while on the return from winter break in January, too. “If we don’t, we’ll be quarantining a lot,” she said.

With only half the students in the buildings at a time, she noted, distancing is easier.

Maryville City Schools Director Mike Winstead told The Daily Times on Monday, Nov. 30, “We do not anticipate any changes to our operating plans.”

MCS already has announced it will have staggered on-campus attendance the first week back in January for grades 4-12. The last day of on-campus learning for Maryville this semester will be Dec. 11. On Dec. 14-15, elementary students will have materials to work on at home and the other grades will have digital instruction.

November rise

The 34 new cases among Blount County children ages 5-18 that the state Department of Health reported Monday, Nov. 30, was the largest single-day number since the state began reporting the figures in July.

Eight of the 10 highest single-day numbers for new COVID-19 cases among school-age children were between Nov. 11-30, with 13-34 cases. The county also had 13 new cases in that age group on July 21 and 21 on Oct. 12.