An unusual proposition has landed on the doorstep of Forest Hills, a tiny speck of a town at the edge of Western Carolina University.
In hopes of transforming Cullowhee into a more vibrant college community, a group dedicated to reinventing the lackluster area around campus wants Forest Hills to expand its town limits and annex a portion of the university and its surrounds.
It would be quite a leap for a town of Forest Hills size. With only 347 registered voters, a property tax rate of just one cent, and an area of a little over one square mile, the Village of Forest Hills seems more like a homeowners association than a bona fide town. It has no town hall and no paid employees.
Yet being part of an incorporated town is crucial in the quest for WCU’s campus to be more than an island in the middle of nowhere, according to those advocating the idea.
The restaurants, coffee shops and bars typically found around universities are markedly absent at Western — witnessed by a standing joke on campus that “Cullowhee is a state of mind.”
Incorporating would give Cullowhee the option of allowing alcohol sales and bring greater access to state and federal grants, supporters say.
Conjuring up a college town from thin air isn’t exactly what advocates have in mind, but they do want a more robust commercial district. In particular, the area along Old Cullowhee Road bordering the Tuckasegee River isn’t reaching its potential.
“I think it is difficult to sustain a business there. We have seen restaurants come and go, businesses change hands or just go defunct,” said Brian Railsback, dean of the WCU Honors College who is active in Cullowhee revitalization efforts. “Rather than a backwater to the university, it could become a hub.”
The appeal came to Forest Hills by way of the Cullowhee Revitalization Effort, a group that goes by the acronym CuRvE.
The decision is ultimately up to the five members of the Forest Hills town board. So far, they appear willing to hear out the idea.
“We are part of the larger Cullowhee community, and we don’t want to divorce ourselves from that but instead look at our mutual interests,” said Clark Corwin, a Forest Hills town council member.
Details of the proposal are still in formation, including exactly what area CuRvE wants Forest Hills to annex. A public presentation by the group next week should shed light on those questions.
“I want them to share with us what their visions is and see if any of it fits with how the village is evolving,” Corwin said.
The town board is eager to keep Forest Hills residents abreast of the proposal, so much so that it sent a letter to every household in the town limits inviting them to the public meeting.
“The council would appreciate your presence and participation during this meeting,” the letter states.
The proposal to grow the town’s size comes with the suggestion for a name change: from Forest Hills to Cullowhee.
A name change would certainly create a shift in the town’s identity, Corwin said. But mention the two names to an outsider — Forest Hills and Cullowhee — and it’s easy to guess which one they’ve never heard of. Corwin said his post office address is in Cullowhee, after all, not Forest Hills.
Railsback said his group envisions a commercial district along Old Cullowhee Road with a “river walk” feel.
Road to redemption
One barrier to revitalization in Cullowhee is the lack of alcohol sales. Whether it’s a six-pack at a gas station or a glass of wine with dinner, alcohol sales aren’t allowed by Jackson County. Incorporated towns have the option of allowing alcohol sales, however.
If the annexation goes through, and if Forest Hills in turn passed a law to allow alcohol sales, it would help attract restaurants, Railsback said.
“That is the most important source of revenue for many restaurants,” Railsback said.
Railsback said legalizing alcohol sales is not the driving factor in the annexation plan, however.
“We didn’t all sit around say ‘Hey, let’s get incorporated so we can drink,’” Railsback said.
If it does pan out that way, however, beer could be sold at the Ramsey Center, where concerts and sporting events are held, and wine could be served during receptions at the Fine and Performing Arts Center — since both buildings would be taken in by the annexation.
The revitalization crew will try to convince the property owners in the area being annexed to support the move. But the most important pitch is to the people of Forest Hills. Many Forest Hills residents are affiliated with the university, from retired professors to currently faculty. For them, the motive to revitalize Cullowhee might be reason enough to support the idea.
But to others wondering what’s in it for them, Railsback points out that expanding Forest Hill’s town limits is the only way to give them control over how growth around the university will look.
“Whatever happens in Cullowhee is going to be right at their front door,” Railsback said. “If you just passively sit there, you won’t have a say in what this will look like. I don’t think that will be in their best interest.
“Let’s face it. Even if you are in Forest Hills, you are living in a part of Cullowhee. I think people are interested in having a say and being a part of creating an identify for that,” Railsback said.
Forest Hills’ forte
Land-use planning just happens to be what Forest Hills does best. In fact, it’s their raison d’être.
The residents of Forest Hill incorporated as a town in the late ‘90s with one main purpose in mind: to keep student housing out. The town sits at the edge of the University and was at risk of becoming inundated by student apartments, condos and rental units.
Residents wanted to maintain their neighborhood feel. As a town, they could pass zoning laws to do just that. The town is currently refining its ordinance to limit the number of non-related people who can live under the same roof in an effort to prevent large groups of students from renting homes in certain neighborhoods.
The town hires off-duty deputies to patrol on weekend evenings during the school year to keep a check on loud partying.
Other than the security patrols, the town’s only other service is fixing potholes and street maintenance.
Corwin sees merit in Forest Hills being a master of its own destiny, rather than allowing Cullowhee to grow up around it.
“Either way, we are going to be affected. One way, we can have participation,” Corwin said.
Incorporating a brand-new town of Cullowhee will continue to be a fallback plan if Forest Hills doesn’t take the bait.
When Cullowhee Revitalization Effort launched three years ago, Railsback said the group quickly realized not being an incorporated town was hurting them. They weren’t eligible for some state and federal grants. From sidewalks to sewer lines, the area was missing out on funding it could get it only if it were incorporated, Railsback said.
“CuRvE didn’t begin with the idea of incorporation but we recognized pretty soon if you want to improve infrastructure or get grants or even stimulus money, no one is going to touch that if you aren’t incorporated,” Railsback said. “If you have a bunch of volunteers in an unincorporated area, you aren’t going to say ‘Here is $1 million, go to it.’”
Railsback said the proposal to Forest Hills came up as an alternative to jumping through the myriad hoops of incorporating a new town.
The idea to partner with Forest Hills has been percolating for more than a year, but it was publicly broached with the Forest Hills town board in December.
“We didn’t have a plan or anything then. We just said ‘Here’s what we are trying to do and would you be interested in some kind of expansion and being involved in creating Cullowhee,’” Railsback said. “Or should we reinvent the wheel and create our own Cullowhee, which could present problems for Forest Hills.”
Meanwhile, property owners in the area to be annexed also need convincing that something positive will come from having to paying town property taxes — albeit exceptionally low ones.
“If I was a property owner I would think on the one hand, I will have a city tax to pay, but on the other hand, if what comes with that is a whitewater park down the road and sidewalks and improvements and I can sell beer and wine, the property value would increase,” Railsback said.
Property owners would also be subject to whatever zoning laws Forest Hills leaders come up with.
If property owners sign on voluntarily, it will make the process far easier for Forest Hills. If they don’t like the idea, Forest Hills can annex them anyway, but the process is more cumbersome.
Railsback said the university administration supports the move. University leaders hope to create a new university “center,” a commercial district to fill the void of a college town. Being incorporated would help.
“The university likes it because if you are going to build a town center and you want a supermarket to come here, it is a much more attractive if it is an incorporated area,” Railsback said.
Want to learn more?
The Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor will present a formal proposal to the Village of Forest Hills to annex part of the university and surrounding area at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3, at the Ramsey Center hospitality room on the WCU campus. It is open to the public.