Small town success: Retiring DWA Director Ron Huelster talks about his days on Capitol Hill, the scourge of malls, and his vision for small town America

By Michael Beadle

When Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway meets fellow town managers from across the state, he inevitably hears his counterparts say, “Your town looks great. What’s your secret?”Without a beat, Galloway replies, “Let me give you a phone number and a name.”


That name and number belong to Ron Huelster, Downtown Waynesville Association’s director for nearly 20 years.

When it comes to working with business owners and town officials, building consensus, and sharing a long-term vision for what a small town can be, there’s no one as capable as Huelster, his friends and colleagues will attest.

“He’s just tactful and diplomatic, and he gets the job done,” Galloway says.

Whether he’s out there walking the streets and meeting with shop owners, courting new businesses, or picking up trash after a downtown festival, Huelster works so hard representing the town that it’s difficult to say “no” to him when it comes time for funding requests, Galloway explains.

“He always gives a hundred and twenty percent,” Galloway adds.

Over the last four decades, Ron Huelster has been working with towns in the Midwest and across North Carolina to preserve and restore their authentic identity. As a college professor, consultant, and director of the Downtown Waynesville Association, Huelster has devoted the bulk of his career to making sure America keeps the charm of its small towns while box stores, mega-malls and the ubiquitous signs of fast-food restaurants turn many communities into homogenized anytowns.

As he readies for retirement, stepping into a part-time role and planning some vacation travels, Huelster says he’s learned to recognize “the long view” when it comes to ensuring a thriving downtown. Sometimes you have to take three steps forward and two steps back, he says, but you must embrace change. A town must learn to grow and diversify if it is to stay alive, Huelster says.

Roy Gass, a former DWA board member and president, has the utmost respect for Huelster. As director of stores for Mast General Store, which has locations in Waynesville, Asheville, Greenville, Knoxville and Valle Crucis, Gass has a unique perspective on what area towns and cities in the region are doing with their downtowns, and Huelster has a reputation for making sure Waynesville stays on the cutting edge.

“He’s just light years ahead of where they are,” Gass said.

It’s downtown art projects like the StreetScapes sculptures. It’s collaborations with public and private donations to pay for streetlamps. It’s preparing for annual festivals and setting up speakers to visit Waynesville to discuss everything from architecture and greenways to gateway marketing.

“And that’s hard to find in other communities,” Gass said. “Ron has fostered a lot of that.”

Though many credit Huelster with the long-term vision and organizational skills needed to help make Waynesville a nationwide model for small town success, he would rather give praise to the community leaders, business owners and volunteers that continue to work together to make it all happen.

“It’s not one person,” he says. “It’s a public/private partnership that’s made it successful.”

Again and again, he emphasizes the need for a broad range of people to be involved in the decisions to keep a small town alive and well.


From Joplin to Capital Hill

If Ron Huelster sounds like he belongs in a small town, perhaps it’s because he came from small town roots. He was born in Joplin, Mo., as the younger of two boys. His mother was a registered nurse and his father was a self-taught engineer who designed and built factory parts for plants all over the country.

Growing up in the Midwest in the ‘50s, Huelster and his family would take vacation trips out West. He saw the unspoiled beauty of national parks, but back home a surging post-war optimism and the Baby Boom meant rows of suburban houses, interstates and the rise of malls.

After college, he left home to live in Aspen, Colo., for a year and saw the influx of vacationers, the six-lane roads carving up the mountains and locals who couldn’t afford to live there anymore. He wanted to do more, so in 1964 he went to Washington, D.C., to work as a legislative assistant for a Missouri Congressman. Before long, he was heading up the House urban/suburban affairs committee and serving as co-director of the intern program for the House Republican Conference.

It was a time of huge change. Lyndon Johnson became President after John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Congress approved “War on Poverty” legislation along with Civil Rights legislation, and the Vietnam War raged on.

Huelster recalls writing a “white paper,” a critical analysis on the U.S. government’s Vietnam War policy. When it got some national coverage, Republican Congressional leader Mel Laird (who would go on to become President Nixon’s Secretary of Defense) chewed out Huelster in private.

“I was naive,” Huelster recalled.

He wanted to affect change in Washington but he was beginning to see there were two kinds of people in the nation’s capital — those who seek power and those who serve the egos.

By 1968, Nixon was making his move for President.

“And that’s when I decided to leave,” Heulster said.

So he went back to school, back to grassroots, back to small towns. After a brief stint in the National Guard, where he served at Langley Air Force Base, he finished work on his PhD in urban planning and taught courses at what is now the University of Illinois at Springfield. Teaching grew into a traveling consulting business helping towns in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and West Virginia.

Small Midwestern towns had been hit hard as farms were going bankrupt and suburban malls cropped up everywhere.

“People were leaving the downtown to go to the mall,” Huelster said. And box stores like Wal-Mart were becoming omnipresent. “They essentially decimated the Midwest.”

Then Huelster and his then wife Catherine moved to Haywood County. Catherine was originally from nearby Mitchell County and became director of the Haywood County Public Library. Ron continued to do consulting work with towns and restored an old Waynesville house on Church Street (now the parish house for St. John’s Catholic Church).

Armed with his knowledge of community development and urban planning, it didn’t take long before Huelster was working with community groups, becoming a member of the Rotary Club, the Haywood County Arts Council, the State Advisory Board for the Cooperative Extension and others.

By the time downtown Waynesville started its revitalization efforts, Huelster found his passion as director of the newly formed Downtown Waynesville Association.


An Exciting Time

Back in the mid-1980s, a group of local business leaders and town officials in Waynesville gathered to form a steering committee aimed at revitalizing the downtown district. North Carolina had joined the National Main Street program, and a handful of small towns across the state were looking at ways to save small towns that were languishing in the wake of urban flight to the suburbs and the proliferation of shopping malls.

The main street program began in the Midwest as a way of preserving the unique character of downtowns. The four-part plan, Huelster explained, was to establish a day-to-day organization that would oversee a downtown revitalization, work on designing and preserving the downtown landscape and its buildings, promote community assets and cultural events, and recruit new businesses.

While public taxpayer dollars could help pay for improvements to streets, sidewalks and the infrastructure, private investors could work with business owners, retail shops and property owners to spruce up storefronts, bolster business plans and join forces to tax themselves as a merchants district.

And that’s just what downtown Waynesville did.

The town brought in a five-member team that put together an oral and published report on what Waynesville needed to do to build and maintain a strong downtown. It was known as a “cookbook” and it became a nationwide model for how main street programs could survive and thrive. Armed with information from the steering committee as well as the five-member panel and the National Main Street Program, Huelster and others from the steering committee went up and down Waynesville’s Main Street and talked with property owners, businesses and the town to see the idea through.

“And nobody spoke against it,” Huelster said.

More local investment would mean improved property values, more town revenue and a renewed town pride. Visitors coming to Waynesville would see how important a downtown was as a symbol of its community image. If it’s not a vibrant, attractive downtown, people will look elsewhere.

“And I think that’s what essentially sold everybody,” Huelster said.

So downtown Waynesville businesses agreed to set up a taxing district. The Town of Waynesville offered annual funding and office space in its Fire Department. Local businesses began pooling together resources to promote annual events, festivals and beautification projects.

“It truly was an exciting time,” says Jackie Bolden, who served as director of the Haywood County Arts Council at the time.

Bolden, Huelster, and a delegation of Waynesville leaders went to San Antonio to share ideas about main street revitalization. Huelster was then president of the Haywood County Arts Council board, and the arts council provided a lot of the administrative support to organize those early meetings about Waynesville’s downtown revitalization. From his experience as a professor and consultant in urban planning and development, Huelster was able to help people see where Waynesville could go.

A lot of people have a vision but they don’t always know how to get it across to other people, Bolden explained, but Huelster had both the vision and the ability to convey his ideas.

“He’s wonderful to work with and he’s a real straight shooter,” she added.

More than anything, Bolden has admired his leadership.

“He leads by showing people what needs to be done,” she said.

And that includes lots of meetings and legwork, talking to town officials and business owners, keeping people informed about changes, and educating new business owners about the vision for downtown Waynesville.

For Bolden, downtown Waynesville still holds a special place in her life. It’s where her family bought groceries and went to the library (now the Christmas Is Everyday gift store). It’s where she worked as the arts council director. It’s where she set up Folkmoot performances as the festival’s director.

With annual Main Street Waynesville events such as the Church Street Festival, the Apple Festival, Folkmoot International Festival Day, Friday night summer street dances, art gallery open-houses, Art After Dark, parades, the Stars and Stripes Celebration, the Night Before Christmas events and various celebrations, the DWA calendar stays busy — not only promoting its own scene but other tourist attractions around the county. Shops stay open extra hours on certain nights, coordinate promotions and steer customers to other stories downtown.

Moving beyond the success of downtown Waynesville, Huelster has gone on to do consulting work for the towns of Elkin, Dillsboro, Brevard, Chimney Rock, Robbinsvillle, Hayesville and Mars Hill.

In an effort to see where tourists are coming from when they shop in Haywood County, Huelster helped coordinate with other local towns such as Canton and Clyde to set up a program that asks customers for their zip codes with each purchase. It’s another way businesses can keep abreast of where their potential market is.


Future Challenges

In the two decades he’s worked for the Downtown Waynesville Association, the Town of Waynesville has seen a growth of art galleries, more festivals and holiday events, building renovations, street lamp installations, a public art program, and a tourist season that now extends a good nine or ten months.

Of course, plenty of small businesses have also come and gone. It’s part of the cycle for any town, Huelster admits. As with any small business, there are family squabbles, business plans that don’t pan out, and owners who suffer health problems or die or go bankrupt.

“A downtown is a living organism, and it goes through changes,” Huelster said. “If you’re not living, you’re dying. So I don’t get upset about it — it’s part of the process.”

Critics of downtown Waynesville might say there are too many gift shops or too many art galleries or too many real estate companies and not enough restaurants, or the stores don’t stay open long enough. Downtown’s success has led to higher rents, forcing some businesses out and preventing others from moving in. Then there’s the demise of local institutions such as the Open Air Curb Market, a long-running newsstand that recently was sold and torn down to make room for a second-home furniture store. Some blame the DWA for not doing enough to save the beloved Curb Market.

“We don’t have control over that,” Huelster said.

When a family decides to sell a business, the DWA or the town can’t legislate who buys the store. All DWA can try to do is talk with new business owners, help them with their plans and encourage them to work with their neighbors.

“So you do the best you can and keep moving forward,” Huelster said.

In an age of mass-marketing and competitive tourism, the DWA director realizes Waynesville is not a nostalgic Mayberry or a magical Disneyworld Main Street, U.S.A. — it’s not something you can bottle up and keep the same forever. It’s not a gated community with a segregated, monolithic class-based system. Nor is it a faux town, propped up by the façades of false advertising and gimmicks.

“Why try to create an artificial image when you have the real thing already there?” Huelster says.

A true small town like Waynesville offers that unique sense of place, a personality and culture all its own. It’s where you can chat with a store owner who knows you. It’s where families can find more than a present and a quick sale. They can linger on a park bench, enjoy a parade or an outdoor sculpture, join hands and clog in a circle on Friday nights, meet with friends for an ice cream cone, or catch an international dance festival in the summer.

When you spend time away from that place, Huelster says, you don’t appreciate it as much and don’t see the need to improve such places. You don’t experience the diversity of people, the variety of life.

Huelster has made a career out of showing people the value of that sense of place.

But it’s not always easy for people to see that. What happens when the big box chain companies open on the outskirts of a town and inevitably push out the smaller Mom and Pop stores who can’t compete with extra low prices? Surely west Waynesville’s new Super Wal-Mart complex in the old Dayco factory site will pull customers away from the downtown streets.

“I don’t think that’s going to affect us,” Huelster said.

In the time he’s worked with DWA, big retail chain companies such as Roses, Sky City and others have come and gone, and the downtown has endured.

“The competition is between the big boxes,” he said.

As long as downtowns continue to offer specialty stores, locally grown food like the tailgate market, and a diverse range of shops where people can walk around and have a fun time, people will continue to flock to downtowns for their quality, diversity and unique experiences. In fact, Huelster points out, malls and big box stores are now trying to copy that small town charm with more specialty shops, organic foods and niche markets aimed at courting the tourist.

The challenge for downtown Waynesville, Huelster says, will be to keep property values from getting too high and relieving some of the pressure by enlarging the central business district to adjacent streets — in essence, expanding the downtown district to include Depot Street, Wall Street, Church Street, Miller Street and Frog Level. He also recommends bringing in more mixed development so people can live and work downtown and not just shop. Huelster refers to the City of Durham, which has been transforming its old tobacco warehouses and mills into apartments and businesses rather than recruiting another large industry.

With the alarming rate of obesity in American society, more efforts are also being made to set up attractive greenways for walkable communities and more pedestrian-friendly shopping areas.

But how much is too much? It’s a delicate balance of recruiting businesses but not too much of one kind of business, so the downtown isn’t dependent on one type of industry that could make or break the downtown district. And new business owners have to be continually educated about the long-term history of where a downtown has been and where it’s going.

“It’s a plan,” Huelster says. “We need to do it together.”

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