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Managing growth, preserving rural character is common theme in Mills River

How to accommodate growth while preserving the small-town character and agricultural heritage of Mills River was the clear theme among the candidates who are seeking appointment to the Mills River Town Council.

The Town Council last Thursday night heard from all nine candidates who applied for appointment to the seat made vacant by the retirement of veteran council member and former mayor Roger Snyder. The term expires in December 2023.
The council agreed to meet at 3:30 p.m. Thursday of this week to make the appointment. Mayor Shanon Gonce said he will ask council members to write their choice on a slip of paper, which the clerk will then read. The voting will continue until the council reaches agreement on the appointment.
“It’s a big decision for the four of us to have to make,” he said. “It would be nice to have had a small election and let the people of Mills River make this choice. … We can leave friendship aside. We’ve got to do what’s best for Mills River. You’ll be voting just on your heart. I don’t want somebody following somebody else’s lead. I want them to vote their heart.”
The board considers the appointment somewhat urgent because it is embarking soon on a visioning process to set priorities for a 2022-23 town budget.
Here are the candidates and their comments:

Tristan Cowie is a member of the Parks, Trails & Recreation board. “There’s a balancing act between development opportunities and for preserving our natural resources. I want this town to have an identity and contain opportunities for all. While I’m a big proponent in not spending capital that is not accessible, the increased population of this area has seen and will continue to see means the time is right to build infrastructure before we need it. Let us get ahead of the curve and build now rather than construct it incrementally and always wishing for what is needed.”
Eugene Edwards Jr., a retired manager for Eaton Corp., has lived in Mills River about 15 years. He has three sons and five grandsons. “My entry is simply to help manage growth that Mills River is going to have,” he said. “I spent 40 years in the contracting business and think I’ve been to almost every city in the country so I’ve seen what’s done in my 40 years in the electrical business. If you don’t manage the growth in Mills River you’re going to be reacting to whatever happens around you. So to me, managed growth is the secret. I’ve been in cities that didn’t manage growth, I’ve been in cities that did manage growth.”
Jerry Frady, a native of Mills River, owns three businesses in the town. “I’m concerned with the growth as well,” he said. “I’m Christian and I think I get a pretty good input on a daily business from the people of the town of Mills River. I feel like I could help this board.”
Brian Kimball, who lost re-election by 10 votes in November, is also a Mills River native. He served on the Planning Board for nine years. “I debated about applying out of respect for the election,” he said. “What I bring to the table is that I offer experience. We know that Mills River is in a real crunch right now. The next two years we have some real big issues coming before us. What we need is experience on the council and familiarity with those issues.”
Katrina McGuire, the executive director of the Blue Ridge Literacy Council, said she and her husband moved to Mills River because they wanted to live in a rural community. “I’ve been a public servant most of my career so I do bring to the council experience serving as an elected official,” she said. “There needs to be managed growth here in Mills River.” In her day job “one of the things we’re currently focused on is workforce development and that’s a very important focus. Mills River has an opportunity to address those needs based on the land we have. I was formerly a CEO of a chamber of commerce so I do have an acumen for business development as well as growing communities in a slow way.”
Paul Richmond Meadows Jr. served on the council for three years until he resigned in 2020. “I had some medical issues that I had to resolve and I left it,” he said. “Everything’s clear. I know every inch of this town, and I’ve seen it grow from a total rural farming community to an economic development center. It’s done that real fast in the last 20 years. I am for controlled growth. … Some people say they don’t like being called a bed community. You can say what you want to but we are a bed community.”
Teresa Peterson-Spoonholtz, who has children at Mills River Elementary School and West Henderson High School, bought a home in Mills River seven years ago “because of the community, because of the small-town feel.” A manager for Home Depot, she works regularly with people in the building industry. “I see their challenges, I see their business and I really understand what it is to manage growth,” she said. “I truly believe that being involved in local government is important and I’m in a position where I understand the growth that we’re facing. The United States is short 5 million homes due to lack of building in 2008, 2009 and 2010. It’s going to take 10 years to catch up and so it’s important to understand that there is a need for housing. So how do we as a community manage that in a way that our residents feel like this is that small town that they grew up in, that they moved to.”
Jeffrey Young served on the Mills River Planning Board for eight years, on the Parks & Recreation Committee and the town’s finance committee. He retired in October as an engineer with the Department of Agriculture. “I tell people I was an engineer that did a little bit of farming. I’m now a farmer that does a little bit of engineering. This opportunity comes at a good time for me personally because now I have the time and resources and attention that I think it deserves. I offer my services with a background in service to the town in different capacities.”
Dr. Sayyad Yaseen Zia, head of radiation oncology at Pardee UNC Health Care, moved to Mills River with his wife and three young daughters “and could not think of a better place to live and it’s very important for me to preserve and sustain,” he said. “The last two or three years have been very challenging for health care in general as it has for everyone. We’ve had a lot of changes, decisions that had to be made, and a really changing landscape and it’s like where Mills River is right now, at a crossroads. All the candidates have talked about growth, and growth is coming, and I really do think it’s important to manage it and it’s important to preserve the character of the community that everyone loves.”