The idea of turning Cullowhee into a real town drew several dozen people to a public presentation last week where they were hit with contrasting images of Old Cullowhee — a before and after of what exists now compared to what “could be.”
The difference was stark. In the world of what “could be,” Old Cullowhee was a hip pedestrian village with people drinking lattes on park benches overlooking the Tuck.
Paddlers in kayaks and joggers on a river trail served as the backdrop for an attractive row of restaurants and shops.
The now, however, is a hodgepodge — a laundromat, tattoo parlor, a Chinese and a Mexican joint, and a couple of apartment complexes are among the anchor attractions.
“I think downtown Cullowhee is a disaster waiting to be redone. It is an eyesore right now,” said Janie Prentice, a member of the Forest Hills planning board.
Yet it’s the closest WCU has to a college town of its own.
“We have a long way to go in Old Cullowhee, but there is potential,” said Mary Jean Herzog, a WCU professor of education and member of the Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor.
The group driving the revitalization effort says it all hinges on whether the tiny nearby Village of Forest Hills will expand its town limits and annex a portion of the university and its surrounds.
“I don’t think it could actually happen without it, truth be known,” said WCU Chancellor John Bardo in a phone interview following last week’s meeting.
Being incorporated turns on the spigot for state money, from sidewalk funding to a cut of sales tax collected in the area, and taps into the federal grant pipeline. That in turn will allow the community to put in infrastructure and amenities it otherwise couldn’t afford.
There is another less tangible but equally important reason, Bardo said.
“The reality is most businesses aren’t going to come to something they don’t understand. Most companies wouldn’t understand a rural area without a town,” Bardo said.
Perhaps the most important reason — but one that is unspoken for now — is the prospect of bringing beer, wine and alcohol to the area. Alcohol sales, be it a six-pack at a minimart or glass of wine over dinner, aren’t allowed in Cullowhee. As a result, the nightlife typically associated with a college campus is markedly absent.
Restaurants or a small grocery store contemplating a foray into Cullowhee will likely want the ability to sell booze.
There are two routes to alcohol: convincing the county commissioners to allow it countywide or incorporating as a town and legalizing it in the town limits.
But Bardo and the Cullowhee revitalization group downplay alcohol as a motive in the incorporation quest.
“The motive is to provide a strong university community,” Bardo said. “The variables to make that happen are the same as the rest of the state. My interest in this is the level of services we can provide that give our university the opportunity to move forward.”
The Forest Hills town board seems open to the idea of expanding its town limits, with at least a couple of members if not more appearing to support the idea.
“The whole idea is to make a better place to live for everybody here,” said Mayor Jim Wallace.
“If it is done right I see a lot of benefits,” Board Member Gene Tweedy said.
University vs. town
PBCL Architecture in Asheville was hired about a month ago to illustrate a vibrant vision for Old Cullowhee in time for the meeting with Forest Hills leaders and residents last week.
“The goal was to try to communicate the feel of what Old Cullowhee could be,” said Richard Fort, an architect with PBCL.
As Fort surveyed the area it was instantly clear that the river was the biggest asset. The biggest weakness?
The plan depends on private developers buying land, building stores and creating a commercial district essentially from scratch. Attracting that level of private investment in this economy would be a challenge for any locale, but is possible, Fort said.
“I think it is underutilized and has some pretty good potential,” Fort said.
It’s the same challenge faced by the university as it maps out plans for a “Town Center” proposed on campus property (see related article).
In fact, Old Cullowhee and the Town Center could find themselves competing for whatever private enterprise may be willing to take a gamble on launching a new store in Cullowhee.
Bardo said he supports the vision for Old Cullowhee. Anything that makes Cullowhee more attractive and desirable will be good for the university.
But unlike plans for a Town Center on campus, remaking Old Cullowhee is not something the University can control.
“There is nothing we can do to cause it to happen,” Bardo said. “But we can support it and talk to people about it and continue to help the folks who are trying to do it. There are a lot of ways we can help — but we can only help.”
What’s in it for Forest Hills?
Residents of Forest Hills attending last week’s meeting mostly listened, with only a few asking questions. But they will ultimately want to know what’s it in for them.
“In viewing the sketches you put out, it seems the university would gain quite a lot of benefits. I need to find out what Forest Hills is going to be getting also,” said Gene Tweedy, a Forest Hills town board member.
For starters, it would mean more property tax revenue, Bardo replied.
“The second thing you gain is a set of services that currently don’t exist,” Bardo said, pointing to the prospect of new commercial establishments. “Whether that is perceived as valuable or not by your residents is not something I can speak to.”
Jeanette Evans, owner of the Mad Batter Café on WCU’s campus, said expanding the town limits will give Forest Hills control over the growth that will inevitably crop up around campus. Through land-use planning — from limiting light pollution to capping the height of buildings to preserving viewsheds — residents of the area could control how new development looks.
“It benefits us because it gives us a chance to have a voice,” Evans said. “Cullowhee wouldn’t be dominated by the university, but it would be Cullowhee and the university, two separate entities, that work together to form one great community.”
Forest Hills will hold another meeting on Aug. 24.
Forest Hills? Where’s that?
The Village of Forest Hills is a tiny town with just 347 registered voters near the WCU campus. It has a property tax rate of just 1 cent, and an area of a little over one square mile. It has no town hall nor paid employees.
The residents of Forest Hill incorporated in the late 1990s with one main purpose in mind: to pass zoning that would keep student housing out and maintain a neighborhood feel. In some ways, it looks and feels more like a homeowners association than a bona fide town, but that could take a dramatic turn if it accepts a proposition on the table from the university community.