It just wouldn’t be the Jackson County we’ve all come to know and love if there wasn’t some kind of community-action group watchdogging Western Carolina University’s attempts to create its very own incorporated town.
But it’s Jackson County, so of course, there’s now such a group — with the working name of the Cullowhee Coordinating Committee.
“The school, in the past, has behaved as if this is Cullowhee,” Robin Lang, the group’s spokeswoman, said one day last week, gesturing toward the university.
But, she argued, that’s not all of Cullowhee. The people who live in the area are Cullowhee, too. So are the local businesses, and the many people who have invested time and emotional energy into the university and into the area around WCU. All of these people and institutions, Lang said, deserve to be heard before something is done to change what they claim as theirs, too.
Some issues the group might look into:
Possible legal sales of alcoholic beverages — how will local restaurants compete if they can’t do the same? Are there Cherokee archaeological sites? Any Indian burials around WCU, or perhaps an old village or two? Environmental questions also abound — does the proposed Town Center have wetlands within its 35-acre tract, like some are claiming gave way during the building of the Ramsey Center? Are there ways to accomplish revitalization goals along Old Cullowhee Road without annexation?
A bit of background.
WCU, under the leadership of Chancellor John Bardo, is attempting to pair with its tiny neighbor, the 1997-incorporated Village of Forest Hills, to create a college town that would probably be called Cullowhee. Forest Hills is made up of fewer than 400 residents, most being current or retired faculty and staff of the university. (In an interesting twist of irony, the Village of Forest Hills — which has no town hall or services to speak of, though it does contract some police protection — incorporated for one simple reason: to stave off students from taking over the community.)
WCU wants Forest Hills to voluntarily annex university land as the town center. There, Bardo has said, there would be commercial development, with leases extended to restaurants, bookstores, coffee shops and such, as well as condos and a few university offices. That vision has not included much in the way of local businesses — franchise restaurants have been mentioned, not such campus fixtures as the Mad Batter Bakery and Café or its ilk.
WCU bought 2.2 acres on Centennial Drive in January 2007 that houses the Mad Batter, a Subway sandwich shop, and several other commercial businesses.
Forest Hills Mayor Jim Wallace indicated last month that town aldermen were expecting to receive information from WCU soon on how the town could best accommodate a mixed-use land plan.
Tom McClure, director of the office of partnership development for the WCU Millennial Initiative, said there are some “internal discussions” taking place, and that it could be a matter of weeks before the necessary documents are ready for review.
McClure said he has prepared a draft, but that it is not yet ready for review. McClure said a 20-year or more development agreement is key. A “planned-unit development” would eliminate the need for each new business involved to get individual approval from the town.
Chancellor John Bardo has said WCU will ask town leaders to adopt wholesale the university’s design for a town center.
WCU’s desire to create a commercial hub and vibrant college town hinges on its tiny neighbor. Cullowhee is not currently incorporated as a town, and as a result, stores and restaurants can’t sell beer, wine or liquor drinks. That has proved a major stumbling block in attracting commercial ventures typically associated with college towns.
The next meeting of the Cullowhee Coordinating Committee will be Thursday, Nov. 18, at 2 p.m. in WCU’s Honors College conference room. The meeting will last an hour.