Marsha Mercer 2015-01-14 07:23:56
A club in rural North Carolina beautifies its town thanks to its garbage business. When the Etowah Lions Club organized 60 years ago, the 20 charter members first raised money for service projects the way other Lions did: turkey shoots, cake sales, raffles, gospel sings and barbecue suppers. But they really hit pay dirt when they got into garbage. Etowah Lions, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, began picking up trash in 1964, neighbor helping neighbor and spreading the word about Lions. The service has blossomed over the years into a successful, independent, forprofit business. Today the three heavy-duty garbage trucks of Etowah Lions Services Inc. haul away trash and recyclables for nearly 2,500 customers. With a staff of six, the business grosses more than $500,000 a year. “It’s doing well, yes,” says Lion Debbie Hicks, company business manager and District 31 A first vice district governor. Her husband, Will, is immediate past district governor. “We help the community. We pay cash for all our equipment and property. We don’t owe anything to anybody,” she says, adding that these days a new garbage truck costs about $116,000. The company pays dividends to Etowah Lions Club: $24,000 this year. “The garbage really is a blessing,” says Lucanne Rinke, who lives in nearby Horse Shoe. She is the immediate past president of the Etowah Lions Club, which now has 44 members. “We don’t have to work as hard [on fundraising] because we’ve got the business,” she says. Etowah, located 100 miles from Charlotte, 18 miles from Asheville and 8 miles from the nearest four-lane highway or interstate, is unincorporated. It’s dry, although the county allows alcohol sales. Etowah has two stop lights, a supermarket, drugstore, two banks, a gas station, public library, churches, a few shops and a post office. Etowah is not big. But it’s not small and it’s growing. Lions have helped steady the town. “Most of the progress Etowah has made over the years is because of the Etowah Lions,” says Dave Childers, a longtime Etowah Lion until he moved to Hendersonville, about 9 miles away. “The neat thing about Etowah is that if it wasn’t for the Etowah Lions Club, we wouldn’t have had a bank or a library,” says Debbie Hicks. Lions persuaded bank officials to open a branch, and Lions sponsored the library. “The Lions helped form the volunteer fire department and lobbied to save the post office,” she adds. To learn how Etowah Lions turned trash into treasure, talk to Lion Jerry Cox, president of Etowah Lions Services and three-time president of the Etowah Lions. “I was in it from the beginning,” says Cox, whose dad, the late Lion Grady Cox, coached the Etowah Little League team. From the age of 10, Jerry played second base. In the mid-1960s, Etowah had a few hundred residents and no trash collection. Most people actually dumped their trash in the French Broad River–their property deeds gave them the right–or carted it to the dump. The elder Cox and a couple of other Lions decided that picking up trash would help their community and be good Lions public relations. On Saturday mornings, they and their boys, who played ball together, jumped in their own pickup trucks and drove around, talking to people and collecting garbage. “I got paid for that. A few dollars was spending money!” says Jerry Cox with a chuckle, summoning the perspective of his 15-year-old self. By 1974, the project had taken off, and Etowah Lions decided they needed to pay both the helper who was running the trash truck, who was not a Lion, and the wife of a Lion who had volunteered her time for years keeping the books. That year, Etowah Lions Services was incorporated as a full-fledged business. The dividends from the business support many projects including college scholarships, free vision screenings and eyeglasses, the Marjorie McCune Center, Camp Dogwood, and Lions Clubs International. The McCune Center is an adult care home owned and operated by the Lions of Western North Carolina; Camp Dogwood is the summer camp for the visually impaired and blind run by North Carolina Lions. The club is buying a SPOT camera-type device that costs about $8,000 and screens the vision of children as young as 6 months old, says Rinke. She hopes children can be screened at Lions Pride Day in August, an annual festival with free food and entertainment at Etowah Park. For many local residents, the greatest gift from Etowah Lions may be the park. In 1994, using proceeds from the garbage service, Etowah Lions bought 20 acres of farmland, kept 2 acres for a clubhouse and used the rest to build the recreational facility, which it turned over to Henderson County. Etowah Park now has four ball fields, bleachers, basketball and tennis courts, a shelter, picnic tables, a playground, a paved walking trail and a concession stand, which the Lions operate. Club members take turns selling soft drinks, hot dogs, pretzels and candy at games five days a week in the summer, generating revenue for park upkeep and improvements. By the year 2000, after building the park, some Lions started thinking about, well, trashing the trash. “The equipment was worn out, and some Lions wanted to stop it and shut the service down, put the money in the bank and let it draw interest,” says Jack Keyes, who joined Etowah Lions in 2000. “You know how that would have gone,” he says, noting that with low interest rates, the nest egg of about $100,000 would not have grown much. Keyes had business acumen, having recently retired from his own trucking business. “I said, ‘This could be a gravy train if you run it right and organize it right,’” he recalls. The Lions listened. They bought a new compactor truck, built a warehouse to store the trucks, opened an office and hired Debbie Hicks as manager in 2006. A Lions hiring committee ran an ad in the local paper and decided that Hicks, who was club president and had already been volunteering long hours at the business, was the best qualified applicant. Some members objected, and a few even left the club over the new arrangements. Etowah Lions Services is run by a board of five Lions, who serve two-year terms. As club president, Hicks also oversaw the board that runs the company. So Hicks had become her own boss. To allay concerns, she “literally took a hat off,” she says. When she went to company board meetings, she took off the hat she wore to demonstrate she was switching roles. “That’s my integrity,” says Hicks, the only Lion on the payroll. Hicks runs the office and company website, but don’t get the idea that she’s stuck behind a desk all day. The retired Air Force technical sergeant isn’t afraid of hands-on duty. “I throw the trash if somebody is out sick,” says Hicks, who is 5’6 1/2” and describes herself as a “meatand- taters girl.” Figuring people in town have goodwill toward Lions, the company is not shy about its Lions connection. The Lions logo as well as Etowah Lions Services are emblazoned on its trucks and its 13 dumpsters. “Jack [Keyes] is the one who brought us into the 21st century,” says Cox. But the Lions never lost the neighborly spirit that motivated them from the start. Before building the warehouse, Cox was sensitive that nearby residents might not be thrilled with a garbage truck warehouse down the road. “I went and talked to the nearest neighbor about the color of the building. He picked out the colors–blue and green. He can’t complain,” he says. “You want to be friendly with everyone.” In the last decade, Etowah has become a retirement mecca. Its population zoomed 151 percent between 2000 and 2010 to nearly 7,000 people. One draw is the Etowah Valley Golf Club, whose Edmund B. Ault-designed golf courses are on land reclaimed after a brickyard closed. Jim Moyes was a Lion in Etowah in the early 1960s but his career as an airline pilot kept him away for 40 years. Retired, he moved back about five years ago. “I’ve been all over the world and there’s no place like this,” he says. He quickly cites Etowah’s advantages: “the scenery, the countryside, the air, the people, the low cost of living. It’s very, very laid back and very little traffic, considering there’s just a two-lane road.” In 1998, Etowah Lions constructed their clubhouse, a stick-built structure with white wood and a red metal roof. The kitchen has two gas stoves, a refrigerator and a freezer. The second and fourth Thursday of every month, the club holds buffet dinner meetings there. Betty Cox, Jerry’s wife, cooks, even though she’s not a Lion and she’s not paid. She started cooking for the Etowah Lions dinners in 1971. The favorite menu? Country-style steak–fried, then slow-cooked for three hours–green beans, mashed potatoes, rolls, fruit salad, pie or cake. Hot fudge cake is a special treat. “They’re a real good bunch,” Betty Cox says. “I don’t normally have any complaints.” Etowah Lions Services continues to grow. When a new housing development pops up, the company lets people know about the business with the unusual beginning. Although it has competition from other commercial waste management firms, Etowah Lions Services has been adding about six percent to its customer base yearly. Part of the appeal may be down-home, Lions friendliness. “We are really easy to get ahold of. No music on hold,” reads the company website. “You may have to listen to a detailed message then leave your name and number but we will call you back usually within the hour or so, except on weekends and holidays.”
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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