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Wednesday, 12 July 2006 00:00

Sylva town board cuts DSA funding

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By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Sylva town board members’ minds are unchanged about cutting the Downtown Sylva Association’s funding from $20,000 to $2,000 after a heated public comment session pitted local merchants against budgetary conservatives.

Although DSA members circulated emails and letters encouraging the business community to show up and speak at the (July 6) meeting, those in attendance were hesitant to let their feelings be known. There was no sign-up sheet for speakers, so Mayor Brenda Oliver opened the public comment session by proceeding row by row through the crowd of about 50.

After she asked those in the first and second rows to speak without any result, Oliver — expecting public feedback — explained that this was the only opportunity to discuss the funding cut. With that, gallery owner and photographer Matthew Turlington finally took the floor, criticizing the vote to decrease DSA funding tenfold.

“It was very disturbing for me personally,” Turlington said.

A graduate of Western Carolina University, Turlington said he moved away to study before returning to Sylva to open his gallery. In part, that decision was made on the strength of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and the DSA, then known as Sylva Partners in Renewal.

SPIR changed its name to DSA a year ago to clearly delineate the organization’s service area as being downtown, not town-wide. However, at the time group members worried that the funding they receive from the town could be in jeopardy — a matter only further complicated by the group’s intentions to refocus solely on the downtown area.

Those concerns seemingly bore truth. The DSA’s failure to serve the entire town was a chief complaint from town board member Harold Hensley, who led the charge to reduce DSA funding. Hensley found support in board members Danny Allen and Ray Lewis, and together they voted 3 to 2 to give $2,000 each to the DSA, the county Economic Development Commission and the rescue squad. Board members Stacy Knotts and Maurice Moody voted against the motion.

Hensley, Allen and Lewis found themselves on the defensive Thursday night.

“I’m really disappointed in the board,” said one-time board member David Gates, who runs Bradley’s General Store with locations on Main Street and in Dillsboro. Not funding the DSA was akin to buying a Mercedes but being too cheap to buy the gas to drive it.

Former SPIR president Phyllis Foxx agreed with Gates’ sentiments.

“Sylva will die if we as citizens and elected officials don’t support downtown,” Foxx said.

Foxx said that perhaps a lack of knowledge regarding DSA’s mission to be the innovative and driving force for a vital downtown Sylva center was partially responsible for the decreased funding.

“From where I’m sitting, Sylva has definitely improved,” Foxx said.

Foxx said that the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street program does not recommend taking on an entire town.

Regardless of the DSA’s mission, Foxx said she didn’t think the organization could survive without funding. The DSA was supposed to become a self-sustaining organization years ago; however, town board members never were willing to cut off funds. Board member Allen said that it was high time the organization pays its own way.

The funds that were to be used for the DSA would have come from the town’s revolving loan fund, which traditionally is used to promote economic development. Allen said that the town’s accountant had cautioned board members against continuing to pull from that fund.

Using such funds for the DSA isn’t fair to the rest of the town, said Marie Leatherwood.

“We deserve something too,” she said.

Leatherwood, who has become a persistent opponent of government spending on all levels, said that DSA has gotten more than its fair share over the years. Leatherwood seemed to think that funds directed to the DSA benefited businesses directly, rather than going to improve the downtown community.

The meeting grew heated when Gates asked if board members Hensley, Lewis and Allen could explain why they chose to cut DSA funding so severely. In return, Allen asked how often Gates had ever come to a town meeting prior to the DSA cuts. Gates replied that his attendance was probably the first since the end of his tenure as a town board member.

“I have nothing else to say then,” Allen fired back.

“What does that have to do with it?” Gates asked.

Allen said that he was there to represent the majority — those who elected him to office. Allen was elected to the town board for a two-year term in 2001 and a four-year term in 2003. After losing the race for mayor to incumbent Oliver in November, Allen said that he would not run for election again.

Joyce Moore, owner of City Lights Bookstore, questioned Allen’s intentions.

“How do you know you represent the majority?” Moore asked.

Allen said that he had talked to people who had voted him into office, people who said that they could not afford higher taxes to pay for DSA contributions.

However, money in the town’s revolving loan fund does not come from local taxes. Rather, it is from the Urban Development Action Grant program, a federal source that supplies the revolving loan fund monies. The program was created to facilitate public-private partnerships in the redevelopment and economic recovery of urban areas.

Hensley also said that a public poll he conducted indicated little support for the DSA, with nine out of 10 business owners supporting the cut in funding. Instead of relying on town contributions, Hensley recommended that the DSA do as Waynesville’s downtown association had done and assess business owners a membership fee to raise money. While the Downtown Waynesville Association does collect fees from businesses, it also receives funding raised through a municipal service district tax — a special taxing area to raise funds for downtown events and organizational operations — and from the town, which also pays for the organization’s basic operation costs.

“You know something, Harold?” Gates said.

“Don’t talk to me David,” Hensley replied.

DSA president Sheryl Rudd questioned why town board members were not willing to compromise, as board members Knotts and Moody presented several alternatives to such drastic cuts.

“To rip $18,000 from us just like that was unfair,” Rudd said.

Local bakery owners Joe and Annie Ritota of Annie’s Bakery, who were unable to attend the meeting, passed on a message through Rudd in protest of the cuts.

“If we had the money to move out of this community, we would do it today,” Rudd quoted.

Turlington, the photographer, said that his business would not survive without a vibrant downtown community, as it is there from which he draws his inspiration.

“Sure, let me go photograph Wal-Mart and Lowe’s,” Turlington said.

Hensley, however, disputed business owners’ claims that the lack of town funding would lead to the proverbial nail in the coffin for downtown.

“I mean be real folks,” Hensley said.

People aren’t building million dollar homes in Jackson County because of a sidewalk cafe, he said.

Seemingly sick of the back and forth that had degenerated into less of a public hearing and more of a shouting match, Luther Jones asked town board members if there was any point to continuing discussion.

“Has the budget been passed?” he asked.

“Yes,” Oliver said.

“Is it going to change?” Jones asked.

With Hensley, Allen and Lewis saying that they weren’t about to change their vote, the answer to possible change seemed a definite “no.” With that, Holly Hooper, co-owner of Blackrock Outdoor Co., asked the question most likely on many minds.

“Where do we go from here?” she asked town board members.

Stepping in, Oliver said that she hoped that the DSA and town board could continue to communicate with each other. But first, the DSA had to decide what its future holds.

“I think the DSA has to decide how it’s going to function,” Oliver said.

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