Invigorating Old Cullowhee and creating the college town that Western Carolina University now lacks depends on developers and entrepreneurs taking a leap of faith and building a commercial district, essentially from scratch.
But first, the stage must be set.
“What Old Cullowhee needs is an attraction,” said Maurice Phipps, a WCU professor of parks and recreation management and a leader of the Cullowhee revitalization group called Curve.
Phipps and his colleagues want to create a meandering riverside park at the heart of Old Cullowhee, where students could sip lattes on benches, lounge on large boulders or study on grassy banks while watching paddlers play in the waves.
“If you had a river park connected to a greenway, it would be an incredibly good attraction,” Phipps said. “It would bring people there and then you might get cafés and shops. There would be some reason for people to go to Old Cullowhee, and that would help with revitalization and economic development.”
The master park plan created by Curve calls for a river walk, enhanced rapids for paddling, boat put-ins, a community garden, a children’s playground — all tied together by a long-distance greenway on the banks of the Tuck through Cullowhee.
There is already momentum. The county will start construction a 1.25-mile greenway segment in Cullowhee soon. A large community garden is underway by volunteers. Duke Energy is building a new paddlers put-in and park-like river launch. And the state highway department is replacing a bridge over the river in Old Cullowhee, hopefully choosing a design that could accommodate a river walk.
But those are only bits and pieces of the big picture. The greenway segment being built doesn’t run all the way into the core of Old Cullowhee. And parts of Old Cullowhee don’t even have sidewalks.
But the biggest and most important feature — the river walk itself — exists only in conceptual form.
Curve has applied for a grant from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area to do a feasibility study for the river walk. With that in hand, the group would then try to leverage grants and funding to actually build the river walk.
Without that kind of public investment coming first, it’s hard to see how Old Cullowhee can dig out of its “has-been” reputation and reclaim its role as hub of college life.
“I think we need to go ahead and start building the infrastructure, and if you build it, they will come,” said Mary Jean Herzog, a WCU education professor and leader in Curve. “It’s the university’s backyard.”
The university stands to benefit if the vision comes to fruition, both in attracting students and keeping them at WCU for a full four years.
“We think that a really vibrant downtown Cullowhee would appeal to college students as well as residents, and we think that would help improve WCU’s retention rate,” said Herzog.
WCU Chancellor David Belcher said he supports the revitalization of Old Cullowhee. He agreed it would enhance college life — but not just as a commercial district.
The plan for greenways, public parks, a community garden, bike paths and river boating would make Old Cullowhee a recreation hub. That would be a huge asset to the university.
“I think what we are seeing more and more is Western Carolina University is becoming a destination campus. Part of it is where we are located. We are in this gorgeous place with all these outdoor opportunities, and students love it,” Belcher said.
‘Old’ versus ‘new’ Cullowhee
Cruising Old Cullowhee’s business stretch, you find a few stalwarts: the Cullowhee Café, a Chinese restaurant, a Mexican restaurant, a laundry mat and mechanic shop.
But it’s a shadow of its former self.
SEE ALSO: Sketch of a potential Cullowhee
Old Cullowhee’s decline is often traced to the construction of the four-lane highway N.C. 107. A new main entrance to campus was built off the highway, steering traffic and commerce away from Old Cullowhee.
It became the backside of campus and was labeled with the tagline it’s now stuck with: “Old” Cullowhee.
“The theory is when the four-lane highway got built, it decimated Old Cullowhee,” Herzog said.
While Curve has championed a comeback of Old Cullowhee, it could face competition from the university’s own Millennial Campus. The 340-acre Millennial Campus is clear on the other side of campus — on the opposite side of the four-lane highway no less. It has been targeted by the university as a priority for development.
“It is possible the Millennial Campus could become the uptown of Cullowhee and further contribute to the decline of the Old Cullowhee area,” Herzog said.
When a new coffee house opened in Cullowhee last fall, it set up shop on the doorstep of Millennial Campus — not in Old Cullowhee. The Point coffee shop has done a brisk business and gained a strong following, no doubt benefiting from the 1,500 undergraduate and graduate students taking courses in the newly opened $46 million Health and Human Sciences building.
But Herzog is optimistic the Millennial Campus could actually help Old Cullowhee.
“We really think there can be a tipping point. Let’s say nice things happen across the highway. Hopefully that would influence good things on our side of the highway,” Herzog said.
Despite the university’s obvious focus on building out the Millennial Campus, Belcher doesn’t think it would detract from efforts to revitalize Old Cullowhee.
“As Cullowhee is developing and more and more people are moving in, people are living on both sides of the campus. As the area grows, there will be room for both,” Belcher said.
For more on Curve’s vision, go to Gocullowhee.org.