Voters will have to decide which two candidates share their vision for the town and who they want to represent their interests for the next four years. Janine Crisp and Rick Bryson are both seeking a second term on the board and political newcomers Ben King, Lisa Anthony and Rob Duplak are challenging the incumbents for their seats.
Here’s what’s been happening
In such a small town that has historically had low voter turnout for municipal elections, this year’s race will hinge on who is successful at getting people to the polls.
About 1,050 of Bryson City’s 1,400 residents are registered to vote, but only 233 showed up to cast a ballot during the 2015 election. Even though the 18- to 51-age bracket of voters makes up over half of the voting population, only about 35 percent of people in that age bracket voted in 2015.
The challengers — who feel like they represent the younger, more progressive community members — are focused on improving voter turnout to increase their odds of winning. They’re hopeful they can get the younger folks to the polls and have a shot at unseating the incumbents.
Although Alderman Heidi Woodard Ramsey was able to unseat an older incumbent during last year’s election, her more progressive agenda has been squashed by the board majority on a couple of hot-button issues, including the closure of Fry Street and the local adoption of the brunch bill to allow 10 a.m. Sunday alcohol sales.
If any of the challengers are able to claim the two aldermen seats, it could ultimately change the board’s direction for four years.
Many Bryson City business owners have some animosity toward the current town board since the vote to not relinquish its right of way on Fry Street and also the board’s unwillingness to allow restaurants and grocers to sell alcohol beginning at 10 a.m. Sunday. They’ve come before the board to voice their complaints, but feel like they don’t have a voice in decisions since many of them don’t live in the town limits and therefore can’t cast a vote.
The tourism industry has also been a source of contention in town. Bryson City only has a population of 1,400 residents, but as a gateway to the Smokies, the town is a tourism hub bustling with visitors during the summer and fall months. While tourism brings in much-needed sales tax and room tax revenue, many locals aren’t thrilled about the traffic, lower-paying service jobs and wear and tear on the town’s infrastructure that comes along with tourism. All the candidates are faced with the age-old question of how to preserve the town’s roots and maintain a small town identity while continuing to progress and grow as a community.
• Age: 47
• Hometown: Bryson City
• Education: Swain High School, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from Western Carolina University
• Profession: Behavioral health social worker at Cherokee Hospital
• Political/community experience: Serves on The Restoration House board of directors
Lisa Anthony was born and raised in Swain County, raised her two children there and gives back to the community through her career as a social worker, but this is her first time running for any political office.
Since recently buying a house and moving back into the Bryson City town limits, she’s getting reacquainted with what’s going on in town. She’s also been attending town board meetings and picking up on complaints from downtown business owners.
“I’m passionate about social justice. I’ve been active with local politics and I just thought I have strengths I can bring to the table that can be helpful,” she said. “This community has given a lot to me and I want to give back while supporting growth and development.”
Anthony sees the limited resources the town has to address many issues — the small police department struggling to combat the growing opioid epidemic, the town board struggling to keep up with infrastructure maintenance on a limited budget and to pay its employees a competitive wage. But as a social worker, she wants to use her skills as a mediator to improve collaboration between with the county, town, businesses, and other stakeholders to find practical solutions.
While she doesn’t claim to have all the answers, Anthony wants to see the community come together to work on a comprehensive, long-term vision for the future of Bryson City.
“I would like to see more town forums — opportunities for citizens to come in and voice their opinions,” she said. “I want us to have a conversation about what’s your vision for Bryson City. We need more public input and not polls taken by individuals.”
Anthony was referring to several polls taken by members of the current board when it came time to vote on the Sunday alcohol sales issue. Woodward’s poll showed more people favoring the brunch bill while Alderman Jim Gribble’s own poll showed most people not approving of extending Sunday sales. In both cases, the aldermen were biased in that their polls only reached their circle of friends.
“If we’re true representatives of the people, we have a responsibility to make decisions that best serve the people,” she said. “If I’m limiting myself to a small group of people and not opening it up to the entire spectrum of diverse community members, am I really hearing the voice of the people?”
Despite some locals’ reluctance to accept outsiders as part of the community and to accept change as a way of life, Anthony said she embraces the growing diversity in Bryson City and wants to better utilize the wealth of knowledge that people bring with them when they choose to relocate to Bryson City.
“I am open to listening and hearing other perspectives — diversity is great thing,” she said.
Anthony said she was disappointed to see the town board not close Fry Street for pedestrian safety reasons — in fact it was one of the issues that made her want to run for office. She supports the closure of Fry Street to keep visitors safe and to support the economic impact the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad has on the community.
She also was disappointed the board chose to not pass the brunch bill despite overwhelming support from the local business community and that most other municipalities in the region have passed it. This issue came down to religion — Aldermen Jim Gribble, Janine Crisp and Rick Bryson didn’t think it was appropriate to be selling alcohol while people were in church. Anthony understands it can be a touchy subject but believes it’s possible to find a compromise.
“I would have approved it — it would support our local businesses and increase their ability to meet the needs of tourists, and we are a tourist town,” she said.
As for what the board has done well over the last several years, Anthony said she was encouraged to see the board working on improvements to streets, sidewalks and water and sewer infrastructure even if it appears to be at a slow pace.
After hearing the annual audit report last month, she’s also impressed that the town is in a healthy financial position with a 15-month fund balance in case of emergencies. That healthy fund balance also allowed the town to purchase property outright for storage and maintenance needs instead of taking out a loan and paying interest. She’s also excited about the latest town initiative to begin a recycling program, which could hopefully be a new revenue stream, and implementing a more competitive pay scale to better recruit and retain employees.
“I really just want to see people get out and vote. I want to see people engage in their civic duty and to be an aware, educated voter,” she said. “At the end of the day whether I win or lose, I’m a citizen and will continue to go to the meetings and voice my concerns — I’ll have a seat at the table or I’ll be a voice in the audience.”
• Age: 72
• Hometown: Bryson City
• Education: Swain High School; bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from North Carolina State University
• Profession: Retired public relations writer for an industrial manufacturing publication
• Political/community experience: One term as Bryson City alderman, ran for the 11th District Congressional seat in 2016.
Rick Bryson is finishing up his first term on the board and wants a second term to see more projects through to fruition. He’s proud of the strides the town has made in the last four years, especially on a limited budget.
“There are so many positive things to talk about,” he said. “Our auditor said we’re in good shape. We have 15 months of fund balance — that’s unheard of in a small town like ours. We’re in great shape financially.”
During his first term, he said the board was able to install new digital water meters to cut down on the town’s unaccounted water loss — this was the first step toward quickly identifying leaks in the system.
He said the town also purchased a smaller fire truck that helps firefighters reach houses on more narrow streets. That purchase helped improve the town’s fire safety and also helped residents gets a lower rate on their fire insurance premiums.
Bryson also led an effort to get the Wildlife Resource Commission to designate Bryson City as a Trout City, which allows visitors to come fish on the Tuckasegee River for three days on a $5 license.
If elected for a second term, Bryson said he wants to pursue starting a curbside recycling program for town residents. While the county offers recycling at the convenience center, a town pick-up service would increase the number of people who recycle and then the town could end up being the county’s largest supplier of recycled items. Recycling can become a revenue stream for the town if done properly.
“We’ve contacted the state and they’ve agreed to act as a consultant to the town and guide us through the steps of getting the containers for recycling,” Bryson said. “It will not only make money, it will reduce our cost of carrying trash to the landfill.”
Most recently, Bryson is proud the town was able to acquire property in town to use for storage and a maintenance facility. With such a healthy fund balance, the town was able to purchase the 7 acres outright instead of taking out a loan.
“My joke is we operate out of shoebox — we don’t own anything in town — but this property will allow us to grow and improve our services,” he said.
While challengers for the incumbents’ seats are looking to upset the status quo on the board, Bryson thinks the current board is working well together.
“We’ve got a good team as it stands and we’re very oriented to meeting the needs of the residents. The aldermen’s prime task is to provide the essentials of life — provide clean water, make sure sewer and trash are taken care of, police and fire safety, make sure streets in safe condition,” he said.
And when it comes to providing those essentials, he says the town is making great progress although some residents would like to see government move faster. It’s easier said than done — roads and sidewalks need to be repaired, but there’s no sense in repaving a street or installing a new sidewalk when the water and sewer pipes underneath those roads and sidewalks are 60 years old and will also need to be replaced soon.
The town is replacing as many pipes as possible and fixing leaks when they pop up, but it’s an expensive task. To help offset some cost, the town has applied for $1.7 million Community Development Block Grant to use toward replacing sewer lines on Carringer Street, which can then be repaved.
“When you look at the town’s infrastructure you gotta think of it as an old leaky boat — always trying to sink on you — but the system is finally breaking even after losing money for a couple years,” Bryson said.
Despite all the accomplishments done under Bryson’s tenure on the board, he knows there’s still some animosity from the downtown business community regarding the way he voted on the Fry Street and brunch bill issues. The businesses feel like they’re voice is being disregarded since many of the owners don’t live in the town limits, but Bryson said they’re being heard loud and clear.
“We do listen to them but we don’t always agree with their interests. The brunch bill is a good example — people felt like it didn’t meet our community standards so we didn’t pass it — but you can’t say we’re not interested in the merchants because tourism is our lifeblood here.”
Overall, Bryson feels good about the level of services the town is providing and the town has done it without raising the property tax rate. Water and sewer rates have increased some, but only so they water and sewer fund is able to break even without being subsidized from the general fund.
• Age: 51
• Hometown: Bryson City
• Education: Swain High School, bachelor’s degree in business/accounting from Western Carolina University
• Profession: Owner of Crisp Tax Services
• Political/community experience: One term as Bryson City alderman, previously served on the Swain County Tourism Development Authority Board
As a lifelong resident of Swain County, Janine Crisp feels a sense of duty to represent the local residents and be a voice of the people.
She describes herself as a deliberate and analytical person who likes to collect all the information she can before taking a vote on issues. She bases her votes on what she sees as the best decision for the community as a whole, but sometimes being a voice of the people isn’t as easy as it sounds. After careful consideration, Crisp made her opposition clear when the brunch bill issue came before the board of aldermen. For a community in the Bible belt, she decided allowing early alcohol sales on Sunday was offensive to the religious community and shouldn’t be allowed. She also voted against a request from the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad and the Swain County Chamber of Commerce to relinquish the town’s right of way for Fry Street. If the town gave up its right of way the small street next to the train depot could have been closed to vehicular traffic to increase pedestrian safety.
With those two controversial issues in mind, some in the business community have accused Crisp of trying to hold back progress in town, but she says that’s not true.
While she said she wants to see the town grow and prosper, she also wants to preserve the town’s identity and character. She said many lifelong residents are afraid the town is moving in the wrong direction.
“I want the best for my city in growth and moving forward — I am for that — but I still want us to be able to recognize the city we’ve always known,” Crisp said. “People feel like the home they’ve known is changing so drastically that it doesn’t feel like home anymore. I hope we can grow and prosper but not lose our identify and small town perspective.”
Crisp feels good about what the board has been able to accomplish in the last four years. When she was first elected, she really wanted the board to come up with a long-range plan for repairing streets because so many were in disrepair. The aldermen did a complete inventory of town streets and prioritized their spending on those that needed it the most.
The town has been able to repave 13 streets since she took office. That may not sound like much to some people, but Crisp said it’s quite the accomplishment given a lack of funding and all the obstacles.
“Nothing moves fast because there’s so many constraints that hold us back,” she said. “Nothing is as simple or straightforward as it looks. We have to consider what’s under the street, the utility lines, and it’s a waste of time and money to pave a street that we know has old leaky water and sewer lines underneath it.”
Crisp said aging infrastructure is definitely the most pressing issue facing Bryson City right now. Some of the town’s water and sewer pipes are 60 years old and are constantly having to be replaced. The town only receives about $40,000 a year in Powell Bill money from the state to go toward street repairs. It’s usually enough to cover one large street or maybe two small streets.
Crisp hopes the town will be approved for a $1.7 million sewer improvement grant to replace lines under Carringer Street. Once that project is complete, Carringer can be repaved. The town is also purchasing new software that will allow the staff to map out the entire system and document where leaks have sprung up and where improvements have been made.
If elected for a second term, Crisp looks forward to partnering more with the county commissioners and other stakeholders to figure out how they can work together to improve the community. Specifically, she wants to have a conversation with the county and Tourism Development Authority about using some of the room tax revenue to make improvements to streets and sidewalks in town.
By law, the room tax revenue must be spent on marketing and promoting the county as a tourism destination but also a percentage of it can be used for tourism-related infrastructure. Since tourists are using the town streets, sidewalks and water and sewer system, it would make sense to reinvest some of those dollars for that purpose.
“If our water, sewer, streets and sidewalks can’t hold up to the increasing demand from visitors, then why are we advertising for them to come here?” she said.
Overall Crisp thinks the town is performing well with a healthy fund balance, a steady tax rate and efficient services. She attributes most of the success to the dedicated town employees. As a resident herself, she said she understands the difficulty of paying county and city taxes and wants people to feel like they get their money’s worth.
“Paying double taxes is a tough thing for people who live paycheck to paycheck and I really try to look at paying taxes as an investment and as a resident I want to see dividends from those investments,” she said. “I hope people are seeing their hard-earned money paying off.”
• Age: 24
• Hometown: Born in Florida, but moved to Bryson City as a young child
• Education: Graduated from Swain High School; currently a sophomore at Western Carolina University majoring in parks and recreation management
• Profession: Served in the U.S. Army; currently works for the National Parks Service packing up equipment on horses and mules for trail crews
• Political/community experience: None
Rob Duplak might be the youngest candidate who’s ever run for alderman in Bryson City. He may not have much experience in town government, but his time spent serving in the U.S. Army has given him a much broader look at the world.
“I spent a lot of time in different countries in Europe and the Middle East and I can say none of those places were close to being as beautiful as Bryson City,” he said. “I decided I wanted to come back and be part of growth in Bryson City. I’d like to see more young people get involved in topics and I’d like for them to be able to go off to college and come back here to find a job or open a business.”
Duplak said that growth and opportunity isn’t going to come unless the community embraces the tourism industry, which is the main job creator in Bryson City right now. He doesn’t see much hope for the return of the good old days when residents could make a living in the logging or manufacturing industries.
The town’s tourism season has been extended with businesses reporting numbers in October that compare to Fourth of July numbers. While that is great news for everyone in town, Duplak said he wants to help the town grow in a deliberate manner. Establishing a greenway is one of his top priorities if he is elected to the town board.
“With a growing city, we have to have controlled growth and look to the future,” he said. “We need to be looking at the walkability of the town — that’s going to be very important to make this place a great place to live.”
Duplak said having two new faces on the board would go along way to mending the relationship between the town government and the local business community. Two new members on the board could also completely change the voting patterns. He disagrees with the current board’s votes on Fry Street and the brunch bill and if two new aldermen are elected, he can see those votes being reconsidered.
“Two new members could make a huge difference and could completely change how that board votes. They get a whole lot of no’s, but I’m ready to say yes more than no,” he said. “If I was a business owner I’d be frustrated too.”
Other priorities include finding ways to improve traffic flow, which is something the North Carolina Department of Transportation is working on. Duplak would also like to see the town have discussions about the lack of parking downtown and try to come up with some solutions.
He understands the financial difficulties the town faces with repairs streets and sidewalks and is also open to the idea of trying to get some room tax revenue allocated for town infrastructure.
“That’s my big thing — if people are coming here let’s make the most of the money they’re bringing here and use it for infrastructure improvements,” he said.
• Age: 28
• Hometown: Bryson City
• Education: Swain High School, bachelor’s degree in marketing from Western Carolina University
• Profession: Co-owner of Bryson Outdoors
• Political/community experience: Serves on the Bryson City Downtown Merchants Association board through the Swain County Chamber of Commerce.
Ben King is one of few downtown business owners that does live in the town limits and he hopes his presence on the town board can make other merchants feel like their opinion matters whether they can vote in town elections or not.
“I started a business in Bryson and I’m choosing to make it my home by buying a house here — I’m building a life here and I wanted to be a part of the decisions being made for the town,” he said.
As a member of the Downtown Merchants Association, King started attending town meetings about a year ago to get acquainted with the issues and to see how decisions were being made. More than anything he’d like to see more discussion and public input at the town board meetings. Right now, public comment is only allowed at the end of meetings after the board has already voted on important issues. Most town governments allow public comment at the beginning of meetings.
King would like to see the town, county, chamber of commerce and TDA develop a better working relationship to make improvements together and grow the local economy by supporting tourism.
“Tourism is going to be key for our future and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Manufacturing jobs are changing drastically — it’s not the jobs our parents once knew,” he said. “We all know the service industry isn’t the highest paying but they are important jobs and we have to have people who love to do it and they have to be able to afford to live there.”
To address the issues of housing, jobs, business growth and infrastructure improvements, King would like to see stakeholders come together to create a five- to 10-year plan and take a proactive approach to how the town should grow.
If elected, King said he would be more open to hearing the opinions and concerns from business owners whether they can cast a vote in the town election or not because it’s all connected. Historically, the town and county have been able to keep property taxes low because of the amount of sales and room tax revenues coming into the county.
“The business community does feel very under represented — it is a sticky subject when you bring up how aldermen are elected. The town is supposed to be there for utilities and services but also to make the city function and businesses are very much a part of how we function and the sales tax they bring in affects the town’s budget. If we don’t have businesses to bring people here and sales tax goes down, the budget goes down and residents will see less services and higher taxes.”
King agreed that a better working relationship between the town, county and TDA would lead to more productive conversations about how the room tax should be used to improve infrastructure and take some of the financial pressure off the town.
Looking into the town’s recent annual audit report — a total of 65 pages — King said the town is in pretty good shape, but he can see room for improvement. The water and sewer fund is barely breaking even, which is standard, but ideally the fund should have some profitability so the town can be saving for future maintenance and growth. However, he said it wouldn’t be wise for the town board to increase water and sewer rates right now considering the high amount of water loss happening in the system due to old pipes and leaks. Continuing to replace the older water and sewer lines must be a top priority for the town before rates can be hiked.
More than anything, King would just like to see more people get out and vote during this election so that whoever is elected is a true representative for what the residents really want in the future and not what a couple hundred people want — and those couple hundred residents are usually the ones who don’t want to see the town change.
“We need to focus on how do we make Bryson City relevant to future generations but also not forget about our older generations that live here,” he said. “We are restrained by the amount of property we have in town — over-growth isn’t going to be an issue. It’s an obtainable goal to keep our small-town feel.”