Recently, the town of Sylva passed a $1.6 million budget on a 3 to 2 vote. The most contentious line item in the finance package was a $12,000 allocation to the Downtown Sylva Association.
Since the DSA was formed in 1995, its town funding has fluctuated from $20,000 at its high point to $2,000 at its nadir.
The ups and downs in the town board’s support for the DSA sheds light on a the bigger questions. How much does the town value the program?
Sylva first joined the N.C. Main Street program under the name Sylva Partnership for Renewal in 1996. With strong support from Mayor Brenda Oliver the town funded the program up to $20,000 per year and used it to drive the revitalization of Sylva’s downtown.
With the leadership of Sarah Graham, who later became a town board member, the DSA spearheaded the $120,000 fundraising drive that created Bridge Park, a unique downtown green space that hosts events like the Sylva Farmer’s Market and Concerts on the Creek.
These days, the DSA operates with less than $50,000 in its budget which includes a $12,000 contribution from the town, more than $10,000 in dues from its 50 members and another $9,500 from sponsorships.
Mayor Maurice Moody believes the DSA is under-funded by the town, and he considers it a crucial part of the equation.
“I think it’s absolutely essential really,” said Moody. “Not just for the downtown but for the whole town.”
DSA Director Julie Sylvester, a part-time employee, is worried that the program still doesn’t have a sustainable funding scheme.
“We have to go in the hole each year and dip into our savings, and that’s pretty much gone now,” Sylvester said. “Now more than ever we need the support of the town and the community.”
Sylva has broached the possibility of a business tax district, but those plans have never come to fruition. In the absence of a tax district, the DSA relies on getting more money from the town or from private sources.
With two of the five members of the town board, Ray Lewis and Danny Allen, opposing the $12,000, Sylvester fears for the future, mainly because Sylva’s town contribution is already so much lower than in surrounding Main Street communities.
Of the 10 programs around the state that serve towns of 5,000 people or less, Sylva’s contribution to the DSA is second lowest.
“I’m not just asking for money because I want to see certain things happen,” Sylvester said. “We’re trying to keep this community a place that people want to move to.”
Allen and Lewis have said they don’t like the idea of funding a program that only benefits one sector of the business community.
Moody and board members Stacy Knotts, Chris Matheson, and Sarah Graham all support the DSA.
“I think the $12,000 is just a drop in the bucket to what it needs,” Moody said. “Obviously some people feel the downtown doesn’t have much importance, but I disagree.”
Moody said he would support the expansion of the DSA to cover the town’s other business districts, but that would require even more money to accomplish effectively.
Sylvester said the support of the full board is crucial to the success of the DSA moving forward. Instead, the annual funding for DSA has been a source of controversy among elected leaders for five years running.
“I think what would be great first is for everyone to be on board and them to sit down and think through how this can happen,” Sylvester said.
The DSA has had many successes and it operates a full schedule of events throughout the year, but the history of the N.C. Main Street program has seen many local organizations fall by the wayside.
For Sylvester, support for the DSA amounts to a vote for a town with better opportunities.
“If we have a vibrant downtown it helps our property values. It helps the tourist experience and it helps our families. You need to have everyone working together to have a vibrant community,” Sylvester said.