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High Country Council of Governments Present Awards at 45th Annual Banquet

On September 6, 2019, High Country Council of Governments held its annual awards banquet to recognize outstanding achievements and contributions by elected officials, local government employees, and advisory committee members.

High Country Council of Governments (HCCOG) is a planning and development agency serving local governments in Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Mitchell, Watauga, Wilkes, and Yancey Counties.

Award winners were selected by elected and appointed officials from the seven-county region.

HCCOG Planning & Development Director, Phil Trew, presented the first award.

Avery County Commissioner, Wood Hall Young Jr. was recognized as this year’s Outstanding Rural Transportation Advisory Committee (RTAC) Member by his fellow board members. This award recognizes an individual’s contribution to the region as a whole and their knowledge of the region’s transportation needs.

Mr. Young has served on the High Country Rural Planning Organization (RPO) since January 2017 with excellent attendance. He is a very engaged member of the committee, tries to learn more about the region’s transportation needs and issues at every meeting and routinely inquires about transportation projects outside of regular meetings of the RTAC.

Mr. Young works effectively with other RTAC members, NCDOT staff, RPO staff and supports the efforts of the High Country RPO to plan for and improve the region’s transportation network.

Workforce Development Board Director, Keith Deveraux presented the next award of the evening.

Jeff Dryer, Director of Manufacturing at American Emergency Vehicles was selected by fellow board members as this year’s Outstanding Regional Workforce Development Board Member. This award recognizes service and effort given to the region and its citizens in workforce development.

Mr. Dreyer currently serves as Vice Chair and has served the board’s Executive Committee which reviews grant applications and Request for Proposal submissions among other regional workforce issues. In addition, he helped shape the region’s Manufacturing Career Pathway certification, which documented the engagement and collaboration of employers and educators with the goal of creating a pipeline of trained workers with the necessary credentials to work in manufacturing.

Written by his fellow board members in their nominations of him, “Jeff has served the board, and the citizens that we serve, faithfully. Plus, he is just a great guy, adding levity and thoughtful considerations to every meeting.” Plus, “Jeff makes a tremendous contribution to the success of AEV.”

Nicole Hiegl, Area Agency on Aging Director presented the next award.

Wilkes County resident Kenneth Foster was recognized as this year’s Outstanding Senior Tar Heel Legislature member. This award honors remarkable service and contributions to the older adults in the region.

This year’s recipient is a native of Wilkes County. He graduated from Wilkes Central High School, earned a B.A. degree at UNC-Chapel Hill, and later an M.A. degree and an Ed.S. degree at Appalachian State University. He has worked for Wilkes County Schools for 34 years, where his last assignment was a counselor at North Wilkes High School.

Being civic-minded, he served as president of Wilkes County Retired School Personnel for four years as well as being active in several community organizations. Four years ago, he took his first Tai Chi class at the Wilkes Senior Center seeking relief for chronic back pain. He loved Tai Chi so much he continued taking classes and earned his instructor’s certification. Currently, he teaches Tai Chi four mornings each week.

He has represented Wilkes County in the Senior Tar Heel Legislature for three years and served on the Governor’s Advisory Council on Aging for two years. He thoroughly enjoys being an advocate for our senior citizens.

HCCOG Executive Director, Julie Wiggins presented the next two awards.

Banner Elk Town Manager, Rick Owen was recognized by the region’s managers/administrators, and local elected officials, as this year’s Outstanding Local Government Manager in the High Country region.

The award acknowledges the contributions a manager has made to local government through his/her professionalism, leadership, and accomplishments as manager or chief administrator.

Mr. Owen is known to have a calm, cool and collected leadership style. His leadership has translated into 9 years of growth, along with development and prosperity for the town he serves. Under his leadership and guidance, the town has made infrastructure improvements that will secure future development.

He worked with County Commissioners to secure the purchase of an old school, the staple centerpiece of his town. His foresight and leadership on this project preserved the landscape of this charming town. The old school was turned into a Cultural Art Complex under his leadership and guidance and is now home to a Theatre Company, Yoga Studio, Art Studio, Mayland Community College classrooms and much more.

Mr. Owen maintains positive relationships with the local college, businesses, elected officials, neighboring towns, and the county as a whole. He has the utmost respect for his employees, Town Council members, visitors and residents and often goes above and beyond for their needs.

He is the first one to town hall every day and the last one to leave. Having never allowed Town Hall to be closed for snow days, he will tell his staff to stay home, but he is always there.

Mr. Owen was a local elected official for the Town of Beech Mountain for 22 years, serving as Mayor for 16 of those years. He has been awarded Banner Elk Chamber Person of the Year, Lees McRae College Alumni of the Year, and was the Past President of NC Resort Towns and Convention Cities.

Watauga County resident Kathy Combs was recognized as this year’s Outstanding Staff Member at High Country Council of Governments. This award recognizes an individual’s willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty, contributing to a positive work environment, and promoting a healthy image of the COG in our region.

Mrs. Combs has contributed to the COG in various capacities for nearly 15 years. During those 15 years, she has repeatedly demonstrated her willingness to take on additional roles and responsibilities to support the organization and her colleagues.

Staff nominations stated that she is not only highly responsive, very helpful, a team player, and makes everyone feel appreciated, but she does so with a positive attitude and smile on her face.

Executive Board Chair and Yancey County Commissioner, Johnny Riddle, presented the final two awards.

Alleghany County Commissioner/Chair, Mark Evans was selected as this year’s Outstanding Local Elected Official in the High Country Region. This award honors outstanding service and leadership to the community.

Mr. Evans became a County Commissioner in 2014, and he has served as his county’s representative on the HCCOG Executive Board since 2016. He has been County Commissioner Board Chairman for 3 years. He is a true Alleghany local, small business owner and family man.

Mr. Evans has been involved in several important projects that had positive impacts on his county, including: a new library, a new county maintenance garage, a new Senior Center in progress and a Disc Golf Course in progress. He has also supported the Sparta Streetscape, Veteran’s Memorial Park and the Haven of Hope Child Advocacy Center, helped update 2way radio communication, initiated annual board retreats, attends the NCACC annual conference, and has shown support for an Alleghany Memorial Hospital partnership with Hugh Chatham and Wake Forest Baptist Medical to sustain the county’s rural hospital.

Mr. Evans serves on many more Boards and Committees that are too numerous to list both in the County in which he serves, and across the entire region. He truly cares about the citizens and employees of the county he serves, and he’s always willing to help out in any way–he is currently serving as Interim County Manager. He is considered a great asset to the county as well as a friend.

The High Country Council of Governments’ Executive Board chose Gary D. Blevins, Wilkes County Commissioner, as their Outstanding Executive Board Member. This award honors service and effort in promoting cooperation among local governments in the region and the state.

Mr. Blevins is passionate, determined, has boundless energy, and is a very dedicated public servant. He has served on the High Country Council of Government’s Executive Board since 2008, serving as Chairman twice. He is currently a County Commissioner, a role in which he has served in for the past 11 years, also serving as Board Chairman 3 of those years; as well as Vice Chairman for 3 years.

He has also served on many Boards and Committees with the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners and in 2016 was awarded the coveted Most Outstanding County Commissioner Award from a field of over 600 County Commissioners across the State.

Mr. Blevins was appointed by the Governor to the North Carolina Arboretum Board of Directors. He currently serves as Chairman of the North Carolina Association of Regional Councils of Governments and has been a part of this Forum since 2014. He is a graduate and Alumni of the UNC School of Government Local Elected Leaders Academy

Mr. Blevins serves on many more Boards and Committees that are too numerous to list both in the County in which he serves, and across the entire state. His leadership and vision are invaluable. He is well known for his collaboration, partnership, and consensus-building. He has been instrumental in working with both local Officials, Legislatures, and State Government Leadership to make sure Wilkes County and the entire High Country Region continue to gown and prosper.

Chairman Riddle also recognized Mayor of West Jefferson, Dale Baldwin for his many years of service to his town and the region as a whole. Dale Baldwin was elected and served as an Alderman from 1968-1977, then again from 1985-1989 and appointed for 9 months of a term in 1997. Dale was elected Mayor and served from 1997-2003 and again in 2011-to present. In 2008, he received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine from the Governor and in 2015 he received the Outstanding Local Government Elected Official in the High Country region. He has served on the HCCOG Executive Board and Advisory Committee for seven years.

HCCOG would like to congratulate all award recipients and thank them for their dedicated service to High Country citizens.

All photos © Burton Photo 2019

Executive Board Chair and Yancey County Commissioner, Johnny Riddle
Wood Hall Young Jr. (right)
Jeff Dryer
Kenneth Foster (right)
Rick Owen (left)
Kathy Combs
Mark Evans
Gary D. Blevins (right)
Mayor Dale Baldwin