SEVIERVILLE — Documents from the Sevier County Utility District indicate that the board of commissioners reported allegations about President Matt Ballard to the state’s Comptroller of the Treasury.
Minutes approved by the board Wednesday show it discussed the allegations during an executive session at its Jan. 25 meeting.
“The board was provided with information that was provided to SCUD’s attorney by SCUD personnel related to allegations that Matt Ballard had used SCUD resources for personal matters,” the minutes said.
“The board then interviewed several employees and Mr. Ballard. Ultimately, after considering statements by the employees and those of Mr. Ballard, the board decided to report those matters to the comptroller and to place Mr. Ballard on paid leave pending review by the comptroller.”
Ballard has remained on paid leave since then. The board appointed Vice President James Greene as interim president.
The comptroller’s office confirmed last month that it was investigating activities at the utility.
Ballard told The Mountain Press that he he had used SCUD personnel to clear debris from his property after a storm last year. He said his mother-in-law had recently passed away and, with family coming in for the funeral, he wanted to have his home and his mother-in-law’s home cleared for safety.
“I asked some of my staff to get my property back in shape, and they did,” he said.
Ballard said he had reimbursed SCUD $620 for that work.
The minutes of the January meeting also indicate that Ballard had met with officials from the comptroller’s office on Jan. 20 to discuss some questions that appear unrelated to his activities.
They asked about Fitbits and Apple watches SCUD gave employees as part of a wellness program, as well as credit card charges for lunches and about controls for travel reimbursements, according to the minutes.
Ballard was present at Wednesday’s meeting along with his attorney, Bryan Delius, and the board asked them to stay for an executive session to discuss the ongoing investigation.
The board spent the rest of the meeting reviewing the normal operations reports for the utility district; the state investigation was mentioned in passing during the open session.
“SCUD’s fully cooperated with all records requests from the comptroller’s office,” Greene said during his report to the board.
“We’ve had several requests on that.”
Two large construction projects are getting closer to completion at Dollywood with a new family roller coaster set to open later this spring, and a second resort hotel expected to be ready this fall.
Big Bear Mountain roller coaster and HeartSong Lodge & Resort are the first two major projects in the property’s $500 million expansion plans.
“The larger we get, and the more we are able to add to the campus, the more families we have the opportunity to serve. We offer true hospitality, but the difference with Dollywood is, it’s ‘love every moment’ and it’s an opportunity for families to come to this area to really enjoy a multi-generational experience,” said Pete Owens, vice president of marketing and public relations. “There’s so much to do here, and we’re in the most beautiful area in the country in my opinion, so the opportunity is, we’re providing more amenities to families that come to visit us.”
Big Bear Mountain is located in the Wildwood Grove area of the park, and extends that section beyond its previous footprint. The ride is more than 3/4 of a mile long and runs adjacent to the full length of Wildwood Grove.
The ride is designed as a high-speed thrill ride but with a 39-inch height requirement making it a good first roller coaster for younger guests while still enjoyable for the whole family.
The ride will last 1 minute 40 seconds with three launches and a pass behind a waterfall. There’s also onboard audio to connect riders with the theme, which is the hunt for Big Bear.
“This is definitely going to provide that thrill to families with kids,” Owens said. “In 2019 we introduced the character of Ned Oakley, who was the ranger for Wildwood Grove, and now we learned Ned is a little bit obsessed with Big Bear, and he’s been trying to find Big Bear for a number of years, and you’re going to have the opportunity to join him on an expedition to try to find Big Bear. It’s a great story for kids, great story for families, but a really, really great ride experience.”
The construction of the ride has been delayed this winter with about 45 days impacted by weather, so the ride will not be open in time for this year’s “I Will Always Love You Celebration,” March 11-April 8, but an official ride opening date is expected to be announced by Dolly Parton during the 2023 season grand opening events.
“This park’s always been about families and it’s been about bringing families closer together, and by creating ride experiences that involve the whole family, that really is part and parcel to what we do, and that really follows through with the mission of the park and what Dolly really wants us to do, and that is focus on families. This ride is really going to do that,” Owens said.
Dollywood Parks & Resorts’ other major construction project for this year is the new HeartSong Lodge & Resort, located on property adjacent to Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort & Spa and Dollywood’s Splash Country Water Park.
Resort guests will enjoy additional park access hours and transportation, and the resort will include two large ballrooms to host corporate events, weddings and other large gatherings. The space will include a 7,500 square foot HeartSong Ballroom and a 3,200 square foot Inspiration Ballroom.
“HeartSong is about inspiration, and so many meetings are also about that, about getting people together, many they haven’t seen for a long time, reconnecting and collaborating. We’re really excited about the additional space we have here at HeartSong, well over and above what we have at DreamMore, but now ultimately we have two great properties to hold meetings and events,” said Kevin Osborn, general manager of HeartSong Lodge & Resort.
The hotel adds 302 rooms and suites to Dollywood’s lodging offerings and includes resort amenities like shopping, dining and swimming pools.
“I want to let everyone think about it as a full campus; it’s not one resort and another resort. Now we have a ton of amenities, we have multiple restaurants, multiple outlets for our guests as well as non-guests to enjoy,” said Brian Angello, director of hospitality marketing. “When we’re talking about both DreamMore and HeartSong, it really is talking about the resort experience as a whole. It’s the absolute best way to visit Dollywood, by staying here.”
DreamMore opened in the summer of 2015 and changed Dollywood from a regional theme park experience to a world class resort experience, Owens said. It has allowed the company to expand its footprint in the community and lengthen the stay for families and visitors to the park.
“We offer a truly different experience at Dollywood,” said Eugene Naughton, president of Dollywood Parks & Resorts. “When you combine what we offer here along with the beauty of Great Smoky Mountains National Park — the most visited national park in the country, by the way — we’re poised for record growth over the next several years. Big Bear Mountain and HeartSong Lodge & Resort allow us to take care of our guests in a way only we can.”
GATLINBURG — The Gatlinburg Firefighters Association’s annual Fit for Duty Firefighters 5K and 10K has been scheduled for Saturday, March 25. This year’s race is the 10th such version.
All proceeds from the event benefit the Gatlinburg Firefighters Association community outreach programs. The Gatlinburg Firefighters Association offers fire and life safety education programs in area schools, an annual firefighter camp for area youth each summer, as well as providing free smoke alarms and child seat safety programs.
Pre-registration for the event is ongoing through 10 p.m. on March 24 at the discounted cost of $25 for the 5K race and $35 for the 10K race. Registration is also held the day of the event from 7:30 a.m. until 8:30 a.m.
The course starts and ends at the Gatlinburg Fire Department, Station No. 1 at 1230 East Parkway. In addition to the regular 5K and 10K races, there is also a Firefighter’s Challenge 5K Race, where participants are required to wear full turnout gear, as well as a SCBA Challenge 5K race, where participants must wear full turnout gear and a self-contained breathing apparatus unit. In order to register for the race, or for more information on the event, visit http://www.Runsignup.com/race/tn/gatlinburg/firefighterfitforduty510k.
PITTMAN CENTER — A large crowd gathered at Pittman Center’s Board of Aldermen meeting, asking town officials to reconsider their 2020 decision to dissolve the town’s regional planning region in hopes of hampering a proposed ridgetop development.
Attorney Daniel Sanders, who represents the group Save Pittman Center and Eva Havlicek, spoke to the aldermen asking them to reconsider the decision to dissolve the regional planning area. Following the citizens comment portion the crowd gathered outside to discuss what is next in their efforts to get the aldermen to reconsider their stance.
“We bought you guys some time until April to put pressure on this board. They will meet two times before the state meets,” Sanders said. “It would be a big statement if everyone here tonight brought a friend to the next meeting.”
Sanders said they needed to make phone calls, talk to friends at church and in civic groups, garnering additional support for the group’s stance that decisions about development in the area in and around Pittman Center should stay local.
More than two dozen attended the meeting, a rare sight in the small town. Those in attendance included Gayle Wood and her husband Pinckney Wood, who moved here after being wiped out by Hurricane Katrina.
They love the area and don’t want to see it changed with increased traffic and large developments. They want the decision to stay local at the Pittman Center Planning Commission rather than the authority sitting with the Sevier County Planning Commission.
“It should be the people here who are making the decisions,” Gayle Woods said.
Havlicek lives next to the proposed 50-unit ridgetop development she opposes.
“I have been battling this since May of last year,” Havlicek said.
Following the meeting, the aldermen indicated they didn’t think it was likely they would consider rescinding their decision to dissolve the regional planning area in any future meetings.
Mayor Jerry Huskey said while the regional planning area gave the town some authority over the development outside the town limits, he believes people mistakenly believe it would limit future development more than it would.
“I think some people are being misled if we have regional planning nothing can happen in the town of Pittman Center, and that is not the case. We cannot stop development,” Mayor Jerry Huskey said.
The town first voted to dissolve the planning region in December 2020, but due to an oversight did not send that request on to the Local Government Planning Advisory Committee. When they learned of this, the state committee agreed to consider it at their November 2022 meeting.
The dissolution of the regional planning area is currently in limbo, as Sanders filed a suit in Davidson County’s Chancery Court saying the Local Government Planning Advisory Committee’s meeting to approve the town’s request at the state level violated the Open Meetings Act. It asked that in addition to having the state agency’s actions nullified that the county not be allowed to take any action on the ridgetop development proposal.
An agreed order stipulates that the LGPAC does not admit to any wrongdoing but agrees to hold another meeting on April 17 to “substantially reconsider the agenda items from its November 10, 2022, meeting, including a resolution to dissolve the Pittman Center Regional Planning Commission and the Pittman Center Planning Region and to amend the Sevier County Planning Region.”
The order also stipulates the Sevier County Regional Planning Commission also agrees to not consider or act on any matter within the Pittman Center Planning Region or under the jurisdiction of the Pittman Center Planning Commission “as it existed prior to November 10, 2022, unless and until it receives approval from LGPAC no earlier than April 17, 2023.”
The parties also agree, in the order, that the “respective boundaries of the Pittman Center Planning Region and the Sevier County Planning Region currently remain as they existed prior to November 10, 2022, until further action by LGPAC as contemplated in this order.”