Support for downtown Sylva is a wise investment

Sylva town officials have OK’d a budget for the upcoming fiscal year that has just about eliminated funding for the Downtown Sylva Association (formerly SPIR). That’s a mistake the citizens of Sylva and the downtown business community should not tolerate.

The cut was somewhat surprising. In a story in the June 15 Sylva Herald, aldermen Harold Hensley and Danny Allen suggested that $20,000 is too much to give to a group that, according to them, only benefits downtown. Apparently that view gained favor from three aldermen — Allen, Hensley and Ray Lewis — and the funding for 2006-2007 was cut to $2,000.

The money used for DSA’s part-time staff and to leverage other grants does go directly to help downtown. By supporting that funding, it would seem on the surface that aldermen are favoring one group of businesses over another. But the thriving downtown business district in Sylva reaps sales taxes from tourists, students and locals that are redistributed throughout Sylva and all of Jackson County. Sales tax receipts come back to county and municipal governments and can be used for any number of projects. Without a healthy downtown business district, those shoppers who gravitate toward walkable, pedestrian-friendly shopping areas could just as easily visit Waynesville, Bryson City, Franklin or Highlands and spend their money there.

The reality of today’s mountain economy is also worth noting, especially as it relates to the downtown shopping districts. Manufacturing is drying up, a fact that economic development officials are finally facing up to. In Jackson County, education, second-home construction and tourism are the growing segments of the economy. A downtown business district with a variety of stores, shops and restaurants, along with the aesthetic improvements that SPIR and now the DSA have long supported, is one of the components of a successful tourism model in this region. Having a destination downtown these days is akin to the importance once placed on having a rail line or an interstate in one’s county. It is one leg of the economic foundation.

It is also worth noting that the increasing value of downtown real estate creates positive side effects. As the activity in the downtown business district continues to increase and building owners and tenants improve their properties, the value of that real estate will rise faster than values in other parts of Jackson County. That means more property taxes paid to Sylva and Jackson County. These increased downtown values will help elected officials keep the overall property tax rate lower, saving money for residential and business property owners throughout the county.

There are some in Sylva who may support continued downtown development but perhaps think the SPIR and now the Downtown Sylva Association have not been very effective. If that is the case, then those criticisms should be discussed openly and dealt with appropriately. Whatever the feelings may be between individuals, no one wants to see Sylva become a place where the superstores out on N.C. 107 become the only shopping choices because no one thought it was important to stand up for the downtown business district.

A vibrant Main Street business district populated with locally owned businesses is good for all of Sylva and Jackson County, and the Downtown Sylva Association needs support to continue its efforts. Aldermen should consider that money an investment, not an expense.

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