According to its backers, the tax would be used to promote and improve downtown, theoretically increasing foot traffic and bringing more customers into his shop to buy Western-style artwork and artifacts. But that seemed like a maybe at best, and in the meantime, his rent would go up to cover the special tax.
So Alligood rousted up some neighboring shop owners and marched down the street to a meeting last week where members of the Downtown Sylva Association hoped to sell the idea to skeptics. It didnât work. Instead, Alligood is more determined than ever to defeat the tax.
âIf they thought they were going to drive this thing through they didnât do their background very well. I donât want somebody jamming something down my throat,â said Alligood, owner of Arsenal Artifacts and Prints.
Several long-time merchants like Alligood donât resent the monetary cost â for most it would be roughly $200 a year â as much as the tactics of a group of relative newcomers pushing the special taxing district.
âThese people have never been in my business before. Theyâve never even walked in here and talked to me before,â Alligood said. âI donât care if itâs $20 or $200. To me it is the principle of the thing.â
Next door at the Barber Shop, Vance Caulkins shared a similar view. Caulkins said the group pushing for the special tax dismissed his concerns and werenât interested in his opinions when he went to the meeting.
âI am really upset about it,â Caulkins said. âI donât want to be forced to pay an extra tax. I donât want it to be shoved down our throats.â
The Sylva Town Board will have the final say on the creation of a special taxing district. The Downtown Sylva Association plans to pitch the idea to the town board at a meeting on Feb. 15.
âWe are going to have a show of people there against it,â Caulkins promised.
The pending showdown has divided downtown merchants. For advocates of the special taxing district, the benefits seem obvious. The tax would support the Downtown Sylva Association in its goal to bring more people downtown and create a unified business district.
âIf someone was coming downtown and walked by your shop, they might come in and spend money there,â said Sarah Graham, a Downtown Sylva Association board member promoting the idea.
Many merchants have bought into the concept, a popular tool in other downtowns across the state.
âFor every car that passes or person that walks by, whether they are here to see us or another business around us, we benefit,â said Sheryl Rudd, owner of HeinzelmĂ¤nnchen Brewery and president of the Downtown Sylva Association.
That view was echoed repeatedly during a random door-to-door poll of downtown merchants last week.
âAnything that draws attention to downtown is a good thing,â said Dave Molin, owner of Motion Makers bike shop. âIf you increase the number of people who walk by my store, Iâm bound to benefit.â
âI wouldnât mind helping pay the tax at all if it did more to draw business downtown,â said Patrick Ewart, the owner of Nick and Nates.
Ewart also runs a restaurant in Waynesville, which has a special taxing district like the one proposed for Sylva. Ewart said it pays off.
For example, two years ago the Downtown Waynesville Association started a summer block party series to get locals and tourists alike to stay out past supper. So many people gravitate downtown for the music, Ewart has a 45-minute waiting list the night of block parties.
âEveryone on the street benefits,â Ewart said.
Selling the intangibles
Not everyone, according to some business owners. For Caulkins, festivals are a detriment to his Barber Shop business. The street is closed and parking is full, so he simply shuts down for the day.
Kay Clemmons, owner of Samâs Motor Sales, doesnât see much in it for her either. Itâs unlikely a festival-goer toting a bag of kettle corn will pop in and buy a used car while theyâre at it. The same could be said of Wardâs Plumbing.
But according to backers, the payoff comes down the road. If a second-home owner in Cashiers is lured to Sylva and discovers Alligoodâs frame selection, they might return when they need a picture framed, or call Wardâs when theyâre in the market for a new appliance.
Thatâs the kind of exposure that led William Maney of Fantasy Travel to support the idea. Collectively, merchants can make downtown more enticing and pique peopleâs interest. They wonât wander in during an afternoon stroll to book a vacation, but at least theyâll see he exists.
âWe still have people say, âOh, we didnât know there was a travel agency here,â and itâs been here for years,ââ Maney said.
As development booms from Whittier to Cashiers to Balsam, where will these newcomers shop? Will they buy on-line? Drive to Asheville? Support big-box chains? Or can downtown Sylva win them over?
âDo we want the business of the people moving here ?â posed Joyce Moore, owner of City Lights Bookstore.
Downtown leaders promoting the special tax have extolled the feel-good benefits of the Downtown Sylva Association â like creating a sense of community and a gathering place.
âItâs the intangibles of being part of the downtown community. Those are hard to measure,â Mary Beth Druzbick answered when one business owner asked her what was in it for them.
But intangible benefits arenât going to convince those reluctant to support the downtown tax. Jay Denton, the Sylva town manager, said many business owners will look solely at the bottom line: whatâs the cost-benefit?
The tax will cost the average merchant $200 a year, or $16 a month.
âWill it bring in that extra $16 a month to justify that tax?â Denton said. âYou are talking about lots of non-tangibles that business owners canât put their hands on. When they come down to town hall at the end of the year to write their check, will they get their bang for their buck?â
Dodie Blaschik, a Main Street business owner for 25 years, said she would rather make her own decisions about how to market and promote her auction company than pay a tax to someone else to do it for her.
âAnytime any government body dips into my pocket without my permission it lessens my freedom to do what I need to promote my business,â Blaschik said. âIt becomes a freedom issue as to who is best qualified to spend my money. My credentials are more substantial than anyoneâs on this committee.â
Blaschick said she supports downtown, as do many of those against the taxing district, but a downtown association should be supported through voluntary dues and membership, like joining the Chamber of Commerce.
On paper, the building owners pay the tax. But in reality, most landlords would pass the tax on to the merchants renting the storefronts. Thatâs not to say building owners donât stand to benefit.
Success in downtown commerce will create more demand for storefronts and increase downtown property values, allowing building owners to charge more rent and get more cash when they sell. The special tax is an investment that reaps a better return on your assets, according to Ken Wilson, one of the original supporters of a special taxing district in Waynesville.
But some downtown Sylva building owners donât subscribe to the adage of âspend money to make money.â
âAll you have to do is look at the second or third floors or the backsides of buildings and you will see a lot of building owners arenât doing squat to take care of their buildings,â said Milt Wofford, a downtown resident.
Several of the big property owners in downtown Sylva are reportedly against the special taxing district, according to those familiar with the issue. But in some cases, the tenants of those property owners support the idea and say they would pay higher rents, according to random interviews with merchants last week.
Only a handful of merchants actually own their own building. Livingston Kelley, something of a downtown fixture for three decades, is one of those few. Kelleyâs not wild about his share of the special tax.
âI donât like taxes to begin with,â said Kelley, who runs a photography studio. âThatâs a big hike. I would be especially damaged I think.â
But Kelley might have other options. Stroll past his building on Main Street and half the storefront has sheets over the windows disguising stacks of boxes. Instead of using Main Street frontage for storage, Kelley could rent the space and have someone else to pass part of the tax along to.
In the decade since Dave Molin moved to Main Street, heâs seen a new generation of merchants open their doors. A used bookstore, a bakery, a brewery, a pizza and beer joint, and hip clothing stores.
âSylva is coming of age. It would be interesting to see what they could do if they had a stable source of funding,â Molin said of the downtown association.
But some business owners are less excited about the prospect of change downtown.
âThey want to make Sylva like Waynesville, but we donât want to be like that,â said Alligood.
While promoters of the special tax see an organized downtown group as a way to preserve whatâs special about Sylva, some feel it could erode it.
âI think our town is a Rockwell painting come to life,â said Dodie Blaschik, owner of Dodieâs Auction. âWe are a national treasure. We donât need to pattern ourselves after bigger towns and lose our character.â
Those for and against the special taxing district will be rallying support for their side up until the Feb. 15 meeting when the Downtown Sylva Association makes its pitch to the Sylva Town Board. Most likely, town board members wonât make a decision that night but will schedule a formal public hearing on the issue sometime in March.
Alligood said it wasnât fair that the final decision would rest with the town board. Many downtown merchants live outside the town limits and canât vote in the election for town board.
âIf this thing gets pushed through, we are being taxed without representation. I think there is a little something in the Constitution about that,â Alligood said.
Town board members have said they will make their decisions based on the wishes of the majority of business owners, putting even more pressure on both sides to turn out the troops for the public meetings.
Lots of merchants want to know how the money would be spent if the special taxing district is approved. Other than hiring a part-time executive director, thereâs no hard and fast plans, according to Mary Beth Druzbick, spokesperson for the effort.
âThis is money for the Downtown Sylva Association to do for the people of the district. We want feedback on what kind of programs or projects you might like to have,â Druzbick told merchants at a series of information meetings. âThe people who pay the tax would have their voices heard.â
Patrick Ewart, owner of Nick and Nateâs, said he wants to see an Appalachian craft show and a car show. But it will take a pro-active downtown organization, which in turn takes money to hire a professional director, he said.
âThe more successful we get as a town, we have to be more organized and the Downtown Sylva Association is the way to do that,â agreed Matthew Turlington, owner of Penumbra Gallery.
Turlington is trying to interest fellow gallery owners in staying open late one evening a month for a gallery stroll. But coordinating and publicizing the event on a regular basis is beyond the workload of average volunteers.
The townâs role
Some business owners feel the town as a whole should fund downtown revitalization, or at least contribute, since the downtown is the essence of a community. Locals take their out-of-town guests for an afternoon stroll downtown, not along the five-lane highway lined with commercial sprawl. The town Christmas parade and July 4th fireworks are held downtown, not in the Wal-Mart parking lot, said Turlington.
The entire community has a vested interest in downtownâs success, and it should be supported by everyone, some merchants believe. Thatâs why many downtown merchants were upset when some town board members â namely Harold Hensley, Ray Lewis and Danny Allen â cut funding to the Downtown Sylva Association last summer.
âI was distressed by the abrupt taking away of funding by the town board,â said Joyce Moore, owner of City Lights bookstore. Moore said the apparent lack of downtown support from the town board makes her hesitant about the taxing district.
Druzbick said the funding cut shocked the Downtown Sylva Association but has made them stronger.
âIt pushed us out of the nest a little bit and helped us clarify what we want to be as an organization,â Druzbick said. âIf we donât get a special taxing district, the Downtown Sylva Association will still be here. We feel Sylva is really ready to do some neat things.â
The Downtown Sylva Association is taking applications for a part-time executive director, which the group plans to hire regardless of if the special taxing district passes, although itâs not clear where the salary would come from after the group runs out of built up savings.
âThatâs kind of putting the cart before the horse,â Alligood said.