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Guests gather around Marvin Jarman during Jarman’s 75th birthday celebration at Elm Street Park on Thursday, Jan. 13.


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Officials: Stay alert for wintry conditions

Snow and ice could cause travel hazards on Sunday morning but officials do not anticipate many issues heading into the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.

Casey Dail, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Morehead City, said that the forecast still calls for a wintry mix in the Pitt County area Sunday morning. The weather is expected to pivot into moderate to heavy rain that afternoon.

Light snow and ice accumulations are possible which could make travel hazardous on Sunday morning, Dail said.

Crews began preparing roadways for the storm earlier this week. State maintained thoroughfares like Charles Boulevard already had a coat of salt brine on Thursday.

The Department of Transportation said primary routes including four and two-lane highways will be treated along with bridges and overpasses. The NCDOT suggests motorists stay off the road unless absolutely necessary if wintry conditions exist.

Pitt County Emergency Management officials are staying abreast of any developments. Randy Gentry, the department’s director, said that residents should do the same.

“Emergency Management continues to monitor the forecast and have plans for different weather situations that can be implemented if needed, Gentry said Thursday. “The best message, as always, is for citizens to make sure that they have a plan to ensure that they are prepared before any weather event.”

East Carolina University’s classes were already out due to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. School officials do not anticipate any changes to their plans to celebrate King’s legacy due to weather. The athletics department similarly does not anticipate any cancellations for its women’s basketball team, who are slated to play Cincinnati at 1 p.m.

Pitt County Schools will also be closed Monday for the holiday.


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Making his voice heard: Teen with autism celebrates 250th podcast

Even before there was an audience, Jackson Robol had a knack for talking sports.

His parents would hear him calling play-by-play as he watched football and basketball upstairs and wonder if their son, who has autism, could benefit from having his voice heard beyond those four walls. A year and a half later, Jackson has gained more than 1,500 followers for a podcast he records from his bedroom.

The host of The Jackson Robol Show recently celebrated his 250th episode, all before graduating from high school. Since the Ayden-Grifton High School cross country team member got it up and running in August 2020, the podcast has taken off, expanding from a sports show based on community conversations to a wide-ranging series that includes a little back-and-forth with business owners and even chats with celebrities.

“I interview a lot of people,” Jackson said from his bedroom/studio, surrounded by displays of caps, posters and pennants from the Denver Broncos, San Antonio Spurs and other favorite teams.

That’s not a boast; it’s an honest appraisal. Delivered in the same direct style that can be heard on his podcast, it is also a bit of an understatement. In the last 18 months, the 18-year-old has had shows featuring everyone from fellow podcasters to pastors and politicians, from athletes to actors and other people with autism.

The scope of the show is broader than what Ken and Anne Marie Robol had envisioned when they first entertained the idea of a podcast for their son, who had spent the spring of 2020 learning remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m a professor by trade, so I’ve been home for a year and a half,” Ken, a former radio announcer, said. “We never thought anybody would really listen.”

Ken helped Jackson record and edit his first interview, a conversation with Allen Ray Pittman of Washington, N.C., a coach whose son has autism. “His (the son’s) name is Jacob, by the way,” said Jackson, who has an uncanny ability to remember names.

That first interview was a positive experience for Jackson, a high school senior who has an interest in a potential career as a broadcaster. He quickly began looking for future guests.

“He’s had a lot of friends that say, ‘Hey, I’ve got someone you can interview,’” Anne Marie said. “It’s just kind of taken on a life of its own after that.”

It wasn’t long before Jackson was lining up additional interviews with other coaches but also with educators, authors and musicians. As more guests came on board, so did listeners, sometimes only a few dozen but other times numbering in the hundreds or even thousands.

“I feel like he started this podcast at such a critical time during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Mackinsay Glover, autism services coordinator for the Autism Society of North Carolina, who has worked with Jackson for nearly two years. “During this time, we could all use a little bit of positivity to brighten our spirits, and I feel like Jackson does just that. He makes people laugh, smile. Most importantly, I think he connects people with others during a time that it’s so hard to do.”

In addition to his connections within the Autism Society, Jackson has been helped by a couple of press agents who began following him online. One based in Nashville, Tenn., enabled Jackson to book interviews with musicians including Jonathan Antoine of “Britain’s Got Talent” fame and with Damon Johnson, a solo artist and former lead guitarist for Alice Cooper’s band.

More celebrity interviews followed, including actress and recording artist Darcy Donovan (“Anchorman,” “My Babysitter’s a Vampire” and “Six Feet Under”) and Emma Burman, a voice actress featured in the 2021 Disney/Pixar animated feature film “Luca.”

Jackson conducts online research to select and converse with his interview subjects, such as John Ondrasik III, who is known by his stage name Five for Fighting.

“He is a dad, hockey fan, songwriter, award winner, and just all around cool dude,” Jackson said as he introduced Ondrasik on a November podcast.

“Thank you for being a guest on my show,” he told the Grammy Award nominee, to which Ondrasik replied, “I’ve heard a lot about your show.”

While Jackson begins nearly every podcast by inviting his guests to tell the listeners about themselves, he sometimes polls friends and listeners to suggest questions to include in a show. He recently surprised Canadian actress Catherine Mary Stewart (“The Last Star Fighter” and “Weekend at Bernie’s”) with a question about what movie she would have liked to have starred in if she could go back in time. (Her answer? The 1980 hit “Fame.”)

Although Jackson said talking with celebrities doesn’t make him nervous, his sports-fan side is evident in interviews with athletes including Dalton Risner of the Denver Broncos and Thomas Hennessy of the New York Jets. Still, some of his favorite interviews have been with fellow podcasters, such as Rio Robinson of “Rambling about Washington” or announcers like John Sadak of the Cincinnati Reds.

“He does not discriminate in who he interviews,” Glover said. “He will interview anyone that he can, which I think is why this show has grown so much and people appreciate it so much.

“I think throughout the process he’s had such a positive response because of his outgoing personality,” she said, “and I think more people are learning the message that he represents.”

Jackson has helped convey a message about the capabilities of people with autism through interviews with guests who are on the autism spectrum, including advocates like Ryan Lee, Daniel Svoboda and Anand Prahlad, author of the award-winning book “The Secret Life of a Black Aspie” and director of creative writing at the University of Missouri. But hosting is not the only role in which Jackson serves as somewhat of an autism ambassador.

“For a while there, he was reaching out to every type of business. For some businesses, Jackson was their first ever exposure to someone with autism,” Ken said. “That’s what I hope is that Jackson will be a vehicle to introduce a lot of people who don’t necessarily know a lot about people with special needs or diversity to the differences in people. We always assume that everybody knows (but) they don’t.”

In June 2021 Jackson had a chance to broadcast live from the General Assembly, when House Majority Leader John Bell (R-Wayne), hosted him and his family.

“He asked people about their food, if they like movies, the kind of music they like, just little personal things just to try to make the representatives be more personable,” Anne Marie said. “They all had fun with it.”

Jackson remembers asking N.C. Rep Erin Paré how she liked to eat macaroni and cheese. Her answer? With ketchup.

“I’m like, ‘Why would you put ketchup on mac and cheese?” he recalled, laughing. “’I can’t do it. I don’t want to hear you say it.’”

Other opportunities for live broadcasts have come at the Raleigh Film and Art Festival, where Jackson connected with actress Jen Lyon (“Claws”), and at the State Fair, where he was invited to set up on the fairgrounds for a special access day for people with disabilities.

“I feel like people, given exposure, see that autism is just how people are different,” Anne Marie said. “Once they get to talking to him and realize how smart he is, I think people really enjoy talking to him.”

Jackson also was invited to host interviews last fall for a promotional video for Awaken Coffee, a nonprofit coffee house being launched in Greenville to employ people with disabilities. As part of the filming for the project, Evolve Advertising created a customized “The Jackson Robol Show” graphic that is now used at the beginning of each podcast.

As his show has progressed, Jackson has taken on more production responsibilities. He now records the shows himself, having taken over that role, along with setting up interviews, from his father. His next goal is to learn to edit his own interviews for posting on social media.

Another goal is to achieve 10,000 Facebook followers with the hope of being able to generate some revenue. Already, the podcast has drawn some financial backing from local sponsors.

“The viewership, we’ll do 500 views. That’s not Mr. Beast, but it’s headed in the right direction,” Ken said. “We’re humbled and amazed at where it’s gone.”

Some of the podcast’s viewers, including some from out of state, are parents and grandparents of children and teens with autism who draw encouragement from Jackson’s success.

“I feel like his success and his growth through the podcast has really conveyed to people that we’re all a part of the community,” Glover said. “Everyone has a role, has a place, and has a voice. Sometimes for individuals with autism, it can be difficult for that voice to be heard because of various factors, but Jackson is quite literally sharing his voice in the world through his podcast.

“I think he’s teaching people that if you stop to take a moment and have a real conversation with others, regardless of ability or disability, that you can truly learn something and build a relationship and build that sense of community.”

To listen to The Jackson Robol Show, visit www.facebook.com/jacksonrobolmedia.


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County won't rehab old Stokes gym; Workshop set Feb. 24 to discuss ARPA spending

Pitt County’s Board of Commissioners will not be upgrading a 74-year-old piece of school property.

The board, which met remotely, declined the right of first refusal on an offer to purchase the old Stokes School gym on N.C. 903 with a 7-2 vote on Monday after discussing the cost of rehabbing the building.

Pitt County Schools notified the county in December that the school system had received a $10,000 offer to purchase the two buildings and surrounding 1.2 acres of land.

The system reported it had not demolished the buildings because abating environmental issues would be costly. In 2015 it was determined demolition would cost approximately $250,000. The potential buyer wants to use the buildings for storage.

The board at December’s meeting decided to delay a decision after Commissioner Chris Nunnally suggested the possibility of using American Rescue Plan Act funding to create a community center.

Tim Corley, county engineer, said Monday that staff and commissioners visited the site last week. Rough numbers on bringing the building back to operational use would come around $1.25-$1.65 million, Corley said. Environmental health concerns stem from septic issues, asbestos and lead paint.

Staff said that the building was unfit and too costly to become a community center. At Monday’s meeting Nunnally also said that he was concerned about the building continuing to fall into disrepair under new ownership. The property is adjacent to the current Stokes School property.

“I am worried about it falling into a worse situation than it already is for that community,” Nunnally said.

The 7-2 vote cleared the way for the school system to sell the former gymnasium and cafeteria, which was in use from 1948-2004. Nunnally and Commissioner Alex Allbright voted against the sale.

Staff on Monday also presented feedback on where the public wants American Rescue Plan funds invested. Brian Barnett, Pitt County chief financial officer, said that the community appreciated the opportunity for input and liked having sessions around the county.

No singular need was touched on, he said. A public comment session in northern Pitt County in November saw citizens call for expanded broadband services north of the Tar River, help with food insecurities and health services in the Pactolus and Clark’s Neck area.

At a session at Alice Keene District Park on Nov. 29, community members mostly asked for recreation opportunities and gym facilities. A Farmville session on Dec. 7 noted food insecurity, child care and job training, expansion to the Community Crossroad Center for isolation rooms, help to address human trafficking and business assistance for those who were forced to close due to the pandemic.

Following Barnett’s presentation on community feedback the board tasked staff with finding a date for a workshop where they can better discuss allocating funding. Gallagher recommended the meeting be in person and offered that the board should wait until at least February.

The county on Thursday announced the meeting will be held at 9 a.m. in the Eugene James Auditorium, 1717 W. Fifth St. The meeting will be in person with no public comments.

During her report Monday County Manager Janis Gallagher said there is optimism that the board will be back in person or on a hybrid basis by their next meeting on Feb. 7.

Gallagher, who assumed the role of manager on Dec. 31, also introduced her leadership team with a brief video during her report: Barnett; Corley; Michael Taylor as chief information officer; Sam Croom as revenue and growth/tax administrator; Florida Hardy as human resources director; and James Rhodes as planning director.

The following items were approved as part of the board’s consent agenda:

  • A $31,737 budget amendment in state excise tax by the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office.
  • A lease program for buyout properties.
  • Resolutions honoring sheriff’s office retirements of Clemmie German and Kenneth Ross.
  • An ordinance amendment regarding the Pitt County Human Relations Commission.
  • A training exception request for strategic public leadership.

Local
Protests over crypto mining continue despite city council meeting cancellation

Protests over a proposed rule change that would allow crypto mining operations in the city still happened on Thursday despite the Greenville City Council meeting being canceled earlier in the day.

A city news release said the meeting was canceled “in an effort to mitigate current and the potential for future COVID-19 cases in the community.”

Councilman Rick Smiley said some council members and scheduled presenters reported they had tested positive for COVID or had COVID-like symptoms.

“The mayor called me to tell me what he intended to do. I told him that it was a situation with no good answers,” Smiley said. “Postponing the meeting is unusual, it’s unfortunate, it’s maybe even extreme, but it’s still the right call.”

About 30 protesters outside city hall chanted and waved signs at passing cars even though no council members and few city staff were in the building.

“We are here because we want our voices to be heard,” said Jill Twark, chairwoman of the Friends of Greenville Greenways. “We had already planned to come here for the demonstration and thought it would be a good idea to keep this demonstration so the council sees we care about this issue.”

Twork worries that if the rule changes are permitted, the sound from the equipment that conducts large scale data processing will affect greenway users.

“If this facility is built anywhere near River Park North people will hear it there,” Twark said. She also is concerned about the excessive use of energy during a climate crisis.

The rule changes would allow businesses that undertake high performance data processing that powers cryptocurrency mining, blockchain and similar operations to build modular facilities made up of containers filled with computers that are cooled with multiple fans.

The council will meet remotely via Zoom on Jan. 24 and act on all items that were on Thursday’s agenda, Mayor P.J. Connelly said, including the rule change.

“I was hopeful we would have the meeting tonight but out of an abundance of precaution we decided to postpone it so everybody could participate,” Connelly said.

Greenville City Council resumed in-person meetings in August after holding virtual sessions for more than a year. . The Jan. 24 meeting will be the first virtual session since June.

Connelly made the decision to cancel the meeting after talking with staff and council members.

“COVID is running rampant through the community right now and there are cases running through their personal lives and we want to be respectful of them and keep everybody safe,” Connelly said.

Switching the meeting to a remote format means that opponents of the request to change the city code to establish “Modular data processing facility” and “data processing center” as two separate uses and to set associated standards and zoning districts, will not be able to appear before the council as a group.

“I would like to have (the public hearings) in person,” Connelly said. “That is why we intended on having the city council meetings in person because it’s important to have citizens come to a city council meeting to express themselves.”

The virtual meeting will allow residents to speak on the issue and allow the council to conduct city business without the risk of additional delays, Connelly said. He hopes everyone with an interest in items on the agenda will use the next 11 days to sign up to speak during the Jan. 24 meeting.

“Listening to everybody’s voice is extremely important and as elected officials we want to make sure we hear everyone’s voice in our community,” he said.

Protesters on Thursday said they want council to ask tough questions about the resources needed to operate data processing centers that support crypto currency mining.

“None of our concerns are being answered or addressed. Rather, the goalposts are shifting,” said Molly Holdeman. “We believe the Greenville ENC Alliance, (Greenville Utilities Commission) and the City of Greenville have not done their due diligence on what the impact of crypto mining will be on Pitt county. If they did, they would see it’s absolutely wrong,” she said.

Minnesota-based Compute North attempted to build such a facility near Belvoir Elementary School but withdrew after a contentious public hearing before the Pitt County Board of Commissioners. Compute North confirmed it is working with the Greenville Utilities Commission and a local economic development organization to locate a facility near Greenville.


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