ERWIN — Those close to him and those who worked with him agree that the efforts of the late Zane Whitson were instrumental in bringing a Tennessee welcome center to Unicoi County.
Later this week, the facility that Whitson worked to bring here will officially be named for him.
The Tennessee Department of Tourist Development and the Tennessee Department of Transportation have announced that a public rededication ceremony in honor of Whitson will be held this Friday at the Unicoi County Welcome Center beginning at 11 a.m.
A plaque that reads “Zane Whitson Welcome Center” has been mounted adjacent to the center’s main entrance ahead of the ceremony. State officials are set to give remarks at Friday’s event, but on Tuesday, local officials and fellow legislators who worked with Whitson, as well as family members, took time to reflect on Whitson’s work and the man himself. The consensus among them is that the naming of the welcome center in Whitson’s honor is deserved.
“I think it’s very well-deserved,” said Don Whitson, Zane Whitson’s brother. “I think he earned it with what he did for the area and fighting for that. He died before it was ever built, but he sure put in a lot of effort on it.”
Zane Whitson, who died in March 2009, was a Unicoi County native and graduate of Unicoi County High School, where he once served as basketball coach. However, he is likely best known to those in Unicoi County for his more than two decades of service in the state House of Representatives, where he represented Unicoi County and part of Greene County.
During his tenure as a state representative, which lasted from 1978 to 2002, Whitson was known for championing the construction of Interstate 26, which was opened to the North Carolina state line in 1995.
Although Republican, Whitson was also known for assisting anyone, regardless of political persuasion, when called upon for help.
“When they come asking for help, it didn’t matter what the politics was, Zane helped,” Don Whitson said. “He helped everybody. If they asked, he helped.”
“Zane was a great friend and was loved by colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” State Sen. Rusty Crowe said. “No one was better at the art of politics and law-making than Rep. Zane Whitson. He will be missed by all.”
Following his stint in the state House, Whitson served as Unicoi County’s economic development director. Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch described Whitson as a “hub of many improvements” to Unicoi County.
“He, along with Ned Ray McWherter and probably Congressman (James) Quillen and others, you have to put his name in there amongst theirs because he was that influential in bringing the Interstate 26 corridor to Unicoi County, and also the welcome center,” Lynch said
Former county mayor Larry Rose was in office when Whitson was working to bring the welcome center to Unicoi County. Rose said Whitson saw Interstate 26 as a boon for the county.
“Zane had enough foresight when the interstate was built to get as many exits off the interstate through Unicoi County as he could, because Zane knew that the more exits/interchanges that you had on Interstate 26 going through your county, the more possibilities you had of developing those sections,” Rose said.
Rose said Whitson viewed the construction of a welcome center, which opened to the public in February 2010, in much the same way — an avenue to get travelers off the interstate to see what Unicoi County has to offer.
“I look at that interchange where the welcoming center is to one day be developed some, to have a motel, to have a service station or mart,” Rose said.
While Lynch said it is unfortunate that Whitson could not see the project he helped bring to fruition, he said Whitson’s efforts led to a facility that has been already been utilized by thousands of road-weary travelers and will continue to be.
“It’s a real legacy to him and his family to know something he helped create is going to continue to influence our county and our tourism efforts and our economic development efforts for years to come,” Lynch said.
“I know Zane would be very proud,” Don Whitson said.