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Sen. Tillis: $4 million to Swain County 'one tenth of an obligation' owed by government

Swain County is still owed over $35 million from the $52 million agreement made over what is now known as "the road to nowhere." (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

It's a $4 million payment to a mountain county that's still owed more than eight times that amount from the federal government for a failed road project that dates back 74 years.

On Thursday, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced the payment to Swain County. The county is still owed more than $35 million from the $52 million agreement made over what is now known as "the road to nowhere."

The story of the "road to nowhere" begins in the 1940s. The federal government flooded communities in Swain County in order to build the Fontana Dam, which included North Shore Road. However, the road was never rebuilt, as promised by the government. Instead, a dead-end of pavement is all there is now.

Tillis spoke about the payment, giving credit to the perseverance of his staff and the leaders of Swain County for not letting the government off the hook.

"You'd be amazed what happens when an office is willing to take hold of something and not let go until it gets done," he said. "And I think that is what you see here and again I want to credit other past efforts, really give a lot of credit to the people of Swain County and their county commissioners--current and past--because they've been beating this drum for over 70 years. I'm glad to see it come to fruition."

He gave particular credit to late Swain County Commissioner David Monteith and one of his staff members, Kayla Dolan.

"Commissioner Montieth down in Swain County, God rest his soul, people should thank him for the work he did," he said. "He passed away earlier this year, but he reached out to our office when we got here. The commissioners have come up asking for help, we made this a priority. And I have a particular staff, Kayla Dolan on my staff, who is really the one who took the lead and members lined up behind her to get it done."

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) also released a statement on the payment: “The Department of Interior’s decision to compensate Swain County is well overdue, as it was initially appropriated in 2011. I support the Department’s decision and count it as a step in the right direction, but I will continue to press the Department to fully match Swain County’s expectations dating back to a decade-old agreement. When the federal government makes a promise, it should keep that promise. I will continue to work to hold the government accountable.”

Tillis also credited Zinke for his work to get this payment.

"The first discussion I had with him [Zinke] on this issue was before he was confirmed," Tillis said. "As a part of our meetings before confirmation he said he was committed to listening. He's a very reasonable person and I give Secretary Zinke an MVP credit for making this thing happen and following through on the government's promise."

In a statement, Tillis's office also quoted Zinke.

"One of my top priorities as your Secretary of the Interior is making sure the federal government is a good neighbor and a good land manager for federal lands like national parks and battlefields. Making sure Swain County received the funds from the Department of the Interior was key," said Zinke. "Senators Tillis and Burr and Rep. Meadows made sure this project did not get lost in the paperwork. I'm grateful for their tenacity on behalf of North Carolina."

The county's agreement with the federal government expires in 2020. Tillis said if the remaining $35 million isn't paid to Swain County by then, his office will work to extend the deadline.

"I think we can work through that. We've got a great secretary, a friendly administration, we've got everything set up through the hard work of other members and even prior members," he said. "But the ones who put it together are on the field right now, and I'm convinced we can come through."

He also acknowledged that the $4 million is a drop in the bucket of what the county is owed.

"I've very happy, but again -- this is a great first step but I'm mindful of the fact it's one tenth of an obligation that's been owed to the people of Swain County since the 1940s," he said. "So we've got more work to do but this is a great first step. I'm proud of our staff who worked to get it done."

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