Downtown Cullowhee doesn’t look much like the thriving little town Rick Bennett found when he first moved to Jackson County in 1966. In the golden era of the 1970s, he reminisces, the little town boasted 17 restaurants, four gas stations, three grocery stores.
A far cry from the struggling crossroads in existence now, where cheap student housing fills buildings once inhabited by small businesses that just couldn’t make it and abandoned buildings punctuate the space between the few that have managed to stay open. The decline stems back to the construction of four-lane N.C. 107, which allowed traffic en route to Western Carolina University to bypass Cullowhee.
The effort to introduce zoning laws in Cullowhee is being taken up by Jackson County Commissioners at an upcoming workshop at 2 p.m. June 17 at the county’s Administration and Justice Building near Sylva.
This November could prove to be the do or die month for the planning effort in Cullowhee when Jackson County commissioners decide whether to give the thumbs up or down on the next pivotal step in Cullowhee’s journey to become an official planning district.
A group working to beautify and solidify the concept of community in Cullowhee wants to build a riverfront park, tying in to state Department of Transportation plans to replace a bridge over the Tuckasegee River on Old Cullowhee Road in 2013.
The park would be multi-use, and include picnic tables, public beach access to the river, and a boat launch, said Taylor Bennett, who serves on a River Park subcommittee for CuRvE, a Cullowhee revitalization group.
“They’re very receptive to suggestions, and they’d love to work with us,” Bennett said of recent discussion with transportation officials.
He added there are concerns about who would pay for building the park and who would provide ongoing maintenance. Discussions are also taking place between CuRvE and Duke Energy, which has a dam in the area. Duke’s land holdings on the shore around the dam are being eyed for inclusion in the park.
The park update came last weekend during a public meeting of CuRvE at the Cullowhee Café. About 15 people attended, including Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners and a Cullowhee property owner.
Data from the 2010 U.S. Census showed Cullowhee is now the largest township in Jackson County — even larger than Sylva — which could bolster local efforts to revitalize the once-bustling community, Debnam said.
In the 1970s, some 40 businesses operated successfully in the community, which now has just a handful open. Cullowhee saw its vigor drained when a new highway passage to Western Carolina University was built, siphoning motorists away from what’s now dubbed by some as “old” Cullowhee.
“We consider this ‘downtown’ Cullowhee,” CuRvE member Chris Blake said. “We want to see this ‘old’ Cullowhee removed.”
Debnam, after noting that Cullowhee is now the fastest-growing and largest township in the county, said “Cullowhee is now a force to be reckoned with, as far as population goes.”
That growth hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last year, before WCU Chancellor John Bardo announced he’d retire July 1, nearby incorporated Forest Hills agreed to consider annexing university land. This would be used to further Bardo’s vision of a town center for WCU, which it currently lacks.
The chancellor developed and spearheaded the possibility of developing 35 acres on WCU’s main campus. Key to the Town Center moving forward is whether the Village of Forest Hills also moves forward, namely by agreeing to annex land where the Town Center would go.
Cullowhee is not currently incorporated as a town. 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 a college town. If Forest Hills annexed land around the university, however, it could make alcohol sales legal, in turn paving the way for development of the Town Center.
The effort seems to have lost momentum with both Bardo’s impending retirement and the university’s budget woes. WCU could lose as much as $8.6 million in the wake of a state budget deficit totaling about $2.3 billion. Though the creation of a Town Center is not directly connected to those money issues, attention of campus administration has been riveted on dealing with the cuts.
Blake, co-chair of CuRvE, told The Smoky Mountain News that the group has intensified its focus on the original goal of revitalizing Cullowhee. What happens in regard to WCU and Forest Hills, if anything, he said, would be dealt with and considered as the situation developed — if it develops.
In the meantime, the possibility of building a riverfront park remains a viable possibility, group members said.
“This could make this area a destination for the region and beyond,” said Mary Jean Herzog, the other co-chair of CuRvE.
Tentative plans call for a sidewalk from WCU to the park area, and for the installation of street lighting.
Debnam urged group members to think about where their efforts fit into a greenways master plan for the county. Jackson County is working on acquiring right-of-way for a greenway that would follow the Tuckasegee River, connecting Cullowhee, Forest Hills, Webster, Sylva and Dillsboro.
He also pushed for the group to actively solicit the participation of other Cullowhee landowners in CuRvE, something group members said they would follow-up on.
A meeting that could lead to a completely new personality for the Cullowhee area will be finished by the time this hits the presses, but I’m hoping that the meeting gives fresh momentum to efforts to transform the Western Carolina University community.
A meeting was held last night (Aug. 3) between the Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor (CuRvE) and the leaders and citizens of the town of Forest Hills. The Cullowhee group presented a formal proposal to Forest Hills to annex a portion of the community near the college. The move would effectively create a college town, putting portions of the Cullowhee community into the Forest Hills town limits. The move could pave the way for alcohol sales in bars and restaurants, and would offer strong land-use planning and access to state and federal grant money.
Such a move would be a stretch for both Forest Hills and the university community. Forest Hills has only 347 registered voters and was created as an enclave from the university. It is a haven where residents try to keep out some of the problems associated with college students, like loud parties and single-family residences crowded with 10 students and 10 cars parked in the street and yard.
Annexing around the university would give Forest Hills control of its destiny. It could create commercial and residential areas, working with the university as it plans for growth and change. There are lots of examples — Chapel Hill (UNC), Boone (ASU) and Greenville (ECU) — of small North Carolina towns working hand-in-hand with the local universities to create unique, livable and cool college towns. This is an opportunity to start down a similar path.
For many WCU professors and administrators, creating a lively business district around the college has been a long-time dream. Brian Railsback, an English professor and head of the Honors College, said he envisions old Cullowhee with new businesses and walkways and paths along the Tuckasegee River. Almost everyone who has ever spent time at WCU has had similar thoughts, imagining what old Cullowhee could be with some fresh investment and new businesses.
There is apparently a lot of support from the university for incorporating areas around WCU. The college town feel would certainly help attract students and professors, along with giving Jackson County and Forest Hills new sources of sales tax money.
In the end, this is really about fulfilling potential that has languished for decades. Forest Hills, WCU and the larger Cullowhee community are great places just as they are. But they could be much, much more. Here’s hoping this new dialogue opens some doors that have been shut for way too long.