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Wednesday, 05 July 2006 00:00

DSA rallies support to oppose funding cut

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By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Sylva town board members should expect a heated public comment session at their upcoming meeting on Thursday, July 6, as Downtown Sylva Association members are rallying support to persuade aldermen to overturn their decision to cut the organization’s funding from $20,000 to $2,000.

“We’re hoping a lot of people will show up,” said Sheryl Rudd, DSA president.

The word is out on the street and an email notice has been circulating, calling board members, business owners, and the general public to attend Sylva’s regularly scheduled board meeting and voice their opinion.

“I’ve heard a few people have said that they wanted to come speak, but that’s about it,” said board member Stacy Knotts, who wanted to grant DSA’s original request for $20,000. “Several people have come up and said that they’re really disappointed.”

Last month, board members passed a motion to give $2,000 each to the DSA, Economic Development Commission and rescue squad by a 3 to 2 vote. Aldermen Harold Hensley, Danny Allen and Ray Lewis voted for the $2,000 allocations. Aldermen Knotts and Maurice Moody voted against. The same vote split applied to voting on the town budget as a whole, a protest against cuts to the DSA.

The cut came after years of debate as to whether DSA has done enough to justify the costs, and if the organization would ever become self-sustaining, as was its intended goal.

Newly elected town board member Hensley led the recent charge against the DSA, saying local business owners told him that the town’s usual $20,000 allocation to DSA could be put to better use.

However, that’s not the necessarily the case, said R.O Vance, owner of Vance Hardware and Appliance Repair on Main Street.

“I don’t believe in wasting money,” Vance said.

However, he doesn’t agree with town board members’ decision unless they’re going to be the ones who step up and take over the DSA’s mission.

“The Back Street/Mill Street needs a lot of improvement,” Vance said.

The DSA — during its earlier days when the organization was known as Sylva Partners in Renewal — spearheaded the 1999 Main Street streetscaping project that led to placement of benches, planting of trees and new streetlamps. The benches are now a favorite place of tourists and locals alike to read a travel magazine, eat a take-out lunch, or just spend a few minutes congregating.

A similar streetscaping was to occur on Mill Street — the one way, westbound parallel to Main Street — but the project has been slow to come about. In 2001, design firm Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon was chosen to work on the project and SPIR officials estimated a six-month design process. However, the project went through several adjustments with plans finally earning public and governmental approval in late 2004. Construction on the first section of the streetscape along the block from Mill & Main Restaurant to Jackson General Store was completed last month.

The DSA paid more than $49,000 for the Mill Street project — which benefits the town and county, as Mill Street is the entrance to the downtown area for anyone coming from the west, said Apple Realty broker Susan Manning.

In Franklin, where Main Street also is divided into two one-way sections, there is the advantage that the area between those streets is wide enough to allow stores to face each way, Manning said. However, in Sylva the other half of Main Street is rife with loading docks and buildings’ forgotten backsides.

“Investors don’t want to invest in downtown because it looks like it’s declining,” Manning said.

Outsiders may not necessarily know that the Main Street streetscape is a relatively recent improvement, and that Mill Street is on it’s way up. And if they’re coming in on Mill Street, they might just keep on driving, Vance said.

“A lot of people, that’s the only way they see,” he said.

A vibrant downtown will help attract business and residents countywide, Manning said — an argument that goes against town board member Ray Lewis’ statements that funding DSA takes money away from other businesses along the N.C. 107 corridor. Visitors generally don’t pay attention to where downtown officially starts and stops when it comes to spending money. If a quaint downtown gets them here, there’s nothing to stop them from eating at Bogart’s, buying insect repellent at Kel-Save, or filling up their gas tanks at Cody’s Hot Spot.

However, an organization that focuses on improving the Main Street area is a benefit to locals as well as visitors, said Linda Fleck at Fantasy Travel.

“We’ve got to have more than just a bank so that more locals do come,” she said.

So far everything the DSA has done has boosted business on Main Street, and looking for the DSA to show more results may simply be a result of people not understanding that benefits are long-term, Manning said. Consequently, Manning said she disagreed with town board member’s vote to decrease the DSA’s funding.

“It’s insane,” she said.

Manning, along with Jackson County Arts Council president Ray Menze, will most likely be two of the faces in the crowd at Thursday’s meeting.

Menze said that while he’s not entirely sure that DSA is exactly what downtown Sylva needs, the town does need someone to put on the festivals, parades, and other events that draw people to the area.

“Because who else is going to do it?” he asked.

Menze, who is familiar with trying to raise money through grants, said that if the town did not decide to re-up the DSA’s funding he was fairly confident board members could find a way to make up the financial difference.

“I’m sure that they probably could, but a part-time person would need at least a full-time grant writer,” Menze said, referring to DSA administrator Linda Gillman

A majority of the DSA’s budget each year is spent on putting on the downtown Sylva Greening up the Mountains festival, which DSA board members — including town board member Moody — have said brings 4,000 people to Sylva. Hensley did not know what the Greening up the Mountains festival was during initial discussions about DSA funding.

Menze wasn’t sure how anticipated public comment supporting the DSA would affect town board members’ decision.

“I don’t know. I’ve not spoken to any of the town commissioners, so I don’t know how firmly entrenched they are,” he said.

During an interview last month just after the town decided to cut DSA’s funding, Hensley said that he was only doing what he thought was best and that if proven wrong, he had no problem with revisiting the issue — a sentiment board member Knotts said Hensley had also expressed to her. Hensley encouraged the development of a strong merchants’ association, one that was not funded with town monies.

The DSA is researching the creation of a municipal service district, which designates a special taxing area to raise funds for downtown events and organizational operations, Rudd said. The plan is to create a presentation for local business and property owners to educate them on the topic and hopefully answer any questions. The presentation should include a rough estimate of how much revenue could be generated at a given tax rate, based on current property values, Rudd said.

The Sylva Town Board meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at town hall.

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