Sylva might not exactly be your classic college town — it's certainly not Chapel Hill or Boone. But efforts to bind this community with Western Carolina University have taken catamount-like bounds forward recently.
First, there's a "paint the towns purple" week running Monday, March 19, through Friday, March 23, with students and campus groups adorning storefronts in the official purple and gold colors of WCU. This decking out of Sylva, Dillsboro and the Cullowhee area foreshadows the official installation of new Chancellor David Belcher. He interviewed for the job just more than a year ago, and officially started last July, but the installation ceremony takes place Thursday, March 29.
Secondly, there's the fact that WCU's "First Couple," Chancellor Belcher and wife Susan, are on a first-name basis with many business owners in town. Previous sightings of top WCU administrators in town were as rare as spotting actual catamounts stalking Sylva's downtown district.
These days, though, there's a new top cat in town.
T.J. Eaves, president of WCU's Student Government Association, said that he believes the "paint the towns" purple event will help introduce more students to businesses off-campus, and help business owners in turn promote "purple pride."
"We're really looking forward to it," said Eaves, who added that "when students do get downtown, maybe they'll keep on going" after the event ends.
Randy Hooper and his wife, Debbie, own Bryson Farm Supply & Natural and Organic Food Store on N.C. 107 in Sylva. Hooper said that it's easy to underestimate the importance of WCU to the local economy, and to the financial wellbeing of his particular business as well.
"It would surprise you," Hooper said, explaining that in addition to selling food items to students and a complete inventory of food, garden and lawn items to faculty and staff, WCU's grounds crew buys much of the material for campus from Bryson Farm Supply.
"We get really good support from them," Hooper said, who wasn't sure yet what role his business might play in the paint the towns purple event.
Special deals will be offered all day March 26 by local merchants and restaurants to WCU students, faculty and staff who show their university identification cards.
Sylva town board member Lynda Sossamon, a WCU graduate and co-owner of Radio Shack, said in a prepared news release that the events are "a great reminder" of how important WCU is to Jackson County's communities.
"This is a great way to bring students, faculty and staff into Sylva and Dillsboro and to get members of the community, some of whom may have never set foot on campus, to go to campus," she said. "We truly are a part of WCU, and WCU is a part of Sylva and all of Jackson County."
Dieter Kuhn, who with his wife, Sheryl Rudd, owns Heinzelmännchen Brewery, is at something of a loss to describe the first time he met the Belchers. Chancellor Belcher promptly engaged Kuhn in a lengthy intricate conversation — in the German language.
"He is totally fluent," said Kuhn, a transplant from Germany to the U.S., still clearly delighted with the unexpected language and cultural exchange with WCU's man at the helm.
Students under 21 can get birch beer and root beer at Heinzelmännchen Brewery; graduate students and faculty and staff can get the real stuff, and often do, Rudd said when asked about how important a role WCU plays at this back street in Sylva business.
Hannah Armstrong, who started as a WCU intern at Heinzelmännchen Brewery and now works for the business part time after graduating two years ago, said Sylva has a long way to go before becoming a true college town, however.
"The students are unaware in general that Sylva is even here," the Greensboro transplant said, adding that most WCU students tend to travel to Asheville for shopping and entertainment. Or they simply build bonfires in their yards and drink beer beside them there, Armstrong said.
Rudd hopes to see that indifference change. She was attired appropriately in a purple-colored shirt, and was working at the brewery on Saturday in part to adorn the business' front window in the school's colors. Rudd said that simply by being who they are — friendly and unassuming — the Belchers have begun changing the equation between the university and the community. And for the better, at least in her view.
"It has been wonderful to see them in downtown as customers," Rudd said. "They have actual conversations with you."
This was not what the town's business owners experienced in the past. Previous WCU administrators have had little to do with the local community, at least not in a direct fashion via business owners or other regular folks. In addition to the visibility of the Belchers, relations between WCU and Jackson County have seen additional improvement thanks to the rebirth of WCU's retired financial officer Chuck Wooten, who is now serving as Jackson County's manager.
Bernadette Peters' experience with this suddenly friendly WCU has been similar to that of Rudd's and Kuhn's: extremely positive. Peters is the owner of City Lights Café, located just off of Sylva's Main Street on East Jackson Street. The café's official color logo-wise is purple, giving Peters a head start on the paint the towns purple event.
The café is a frequent hangout for university types. Some of WCU's information technology crew meets there on occasion; several graduate students routinely study in the café.
Peters spoke warmly of David and Susan Belcher and the couple's visible presence in the community that is now their home.
"They call you by name," Peters said in a tone of some wonderment.
March 26 is being set aside as a day of special events in honor of the installation of David Belcher as chancellor of Western Carolina University. The day will be capped by a program at Sylva's Jackson County Public Library at 7 p.m. called "Reflections on Place: An Evening with Distinguished Storytellers" featuring Cherokee storyteller Jerry Wolfe; former N.C. Poet Laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer; and Ron Rash, WCU's Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Culture and author of The New York Times best-seller Serena. It will be followed by a reception.