Sylva has a new town manager. Paige Roberson, 25, was promoted last week by the town board to the top leadership position.
Roberson has clearly impressed the town after stepping in to a part-time job as the director of the Downtown Sylva Association last summer.
Mayor Maurice Moody said that he believes Roberson will do an outstanding job for the town.
“I think she’s very well qualified — she’s a smart young lady,” Moody said. “The entire board is satisfied with this selection.”
Roberson, who last year graduated from Western Carolina University’s master in public affairs program, grew up in Sylva. Her mother was a long-time elementary teacher at Cullowhee Valley. Her father inherited the family’s hardware store, Roberson’s Supply, which was started by her grandfather. The family closed the store upon learning Lowe’s was coming to town. It had already been struggling since Walmart had opened, and the family decided surviving in Lowe’s shadow would be near impossible.
Roberson has a fierce appreciation for small businesses. Helping the business community of Sylva is going to be one of her passions.
Roberson hopes to bring a long-range approach to all of the town’s affairs. Lately, the town has been managed from year to year, without enough attention to where it is headed.
“We need to take a long-term approach to everything — projects, budgeting, ordinances,” Roberson said, identifying that as the town’s biggest challenge. “You have to plan with foresight. I think part of that comes from living here as long as I have. I think I am able to see the long term. ”
Moody said Roberson’s ties to Sylva “give her a leg up.” That, however, was not the deciding factor in her selection, he said.
“She does have a relationship with the community, but I think qualifications are more important than being local, though being a local individual does help.”
For her part, Roberson described herself as excited to be serving her hometown, although she admits she never thought when pursuing a career in public policy she would find herself at the head of her own hometown.
“I’m eager to do it,” she said, adding that she doesn’t feel apprehension about her lack of experience because the town has other veteran department heads.
The former town manager, Adrienne Isenhower, was forced to resign in September of last year after just a couple of years on the job. The town had brought in an interim town manager, Mike Morgan, who had recently retired from a long tenure as the town manager of Weaverville. Morgan was able to step in quickly to the role, but was commuting from Weaverville and was not interested in the job on a permanent basis.
Roberson will attend county and city manager training for eight months through the N.C. School of Government, one week a month, starting in September. During that time Morgan will continue as a consultant to the town to help bridge the gap.
Before taking a fulltime position with Sylva, Roberson worked in the Jackson County Planning Department.
Roberson went to undergraduate school at N.C. State, where she majored in economics. She planned to go to law school, with the intention of going into public policy. But during college, she interned three summers for N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, in the General Assembly in Raleigh, and decided not to go to law school but instead get her masters in public affairs. She went through the two-year masters program in public policy and public affairs at WCU.
Her final semester, she was involved in the Cashiers comprehensive community planning project as an intern for the Jackson County planning department. In a case of opportune timing, she graduated just as the town was looking for a part-time director for the Downtown Sylva Association. The DSA had just been brought under the auspices of the town, and she was given a part-time job with the county planning department and worked for both the town and county.
In short order, however, the town promoted her to the role of assistant to the town manager and made her fulltime, before eventually selecting her as its new manager.
Roberson, in addition to her town manager’s duties, will continue in dual roles as Main Street director and head of economic development for the town.
“As a manager I hope to be proactive, fair, and consistent,” Roberson said. “By doing this and keeping the future in mind I will be able to serve Sylva effectively. I’m honored to be hired for this position. I love this community. I feel that my community knowledge and experiences being raised here will give me a good starting point.”
A 24-year-old with family ties to Jackson County has been hired as the new leader of the Downtown Sylva Association and as the town’s economic development director.
Paige Roberson, who grew up in Sylva, graduated from Smoky Mountain High School, and whose family once owned and operated Roberson Supply, a hardware store on N.C. 107, replaces Julie Sylvester in the director’s post. Sylvester opted not to reapply for the position when it shifted to a town-employee post earlier this summer, citing family commitments (she is the mother of young twins).
Roberson will work 20 hours a week for the town, and 20 hours a week for Jackson County’s planning department, where she completed an internship. Roberson received a bachelor’s in economics from N.C. State University in Raleigh, and received a master’s degree in public affairs at Western Carolina University.
“Paige is going to focus more on the Main Street program instead of the event side so much,” said Sylva Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower, who added that the number of future town-sponsored events hasn’t been determined yet.
Roberson was scheduled to attend a Main Street managers’ conference this week to learn the ins and outs of the state program. The N.C. Main Street Program stipulates towns must have a Main Street director to be eligible for certain state grants.
“I’m passionate about Sylva,” Roberson said in an interview late last week. “I’m eager to have this job and I’m very excited.”
Roberson cited the underlying architectural “bones” of Sylva — ie., the historical character of many of the town’s buildings that, she said, set it apart from other mountain communities — as a structure to work on. Roberson said Mill Street (locally called Back Street), is full of possibilities for enhancement.
It’s a typical late afternoon weekday in Hollifield Jewelers on Main Street in Sylva, with four or five customers in the store at one time.
Busy — just the way owner Steve Dennis likes it. But that busyness, the marks of lifeblood in both a store and any downtown district, is posing some problems in Jackson County’s largest town.
Parking — and as difficult an issue as that can be anywhere in any Western North Carolina municipality, there’s an added element of danger to Sylva’s Main Street that is missing in neighboring Waynesville, Bryson City and Franklin.
The diagonal parking on Main Street, with its two lanes of one-way traffic, requires a leap of faith, especially when driving a small car parked beside, say, an SUV for example.
When it’s time to leave, that’s when the fun begins: Back out blindly and hope another vehicle in the process doesn’t smash you in the rear. Or ask a passenger to risk their physical wellbeing by standing in the road to ensure your safety — but not theirs — while backing the car.
Police Chief Davis Woodard doesn’t like the lay-out one little bit. He figures there’s a smashup about once every two weeks. Given the situation, the chief said it’s somewhat inexplicable why there aren’t fender-benders, or worse, 50 or more times a day.
“If you just stand there and watch, it’s amazing there aren’t more,” Woodard said.
The problem isn’t a simple one to solve, though town leaders are trying to sort out what best to do. Commissioner Ray Lewis has suggested angling the parking spaces more deeply, as is done in Franklin. That means, however, losing some 20 to 25 percent of parking on Main Street, according to what Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower has learned from the state Department of Transportation.
“We can’t afford that,” said Holly Hooper, co-owner of Black Rock Outdoor Company. “It is hard to back out, but we just can’t lose any more spaces.”
Besides, both business owners — Hollifield and Hooper — believe the problem needs to first be sorted out at a different starting point: by slowing down speeders on Main Street.
“It’s unbelievable,” Hooper said.
“It’s like they are on I-40,” Hollifield said.
Combine those speeders with motorists jostling for position, shifting from right lane to left, and shoppers backing cars out into traffic or circling endlessly around town looking for parking … oh yes, don’t forget the jaywalkers, and delivery trucks stopping to unload — that’s downtown Sylva in a nutshell these days.
But there’s also a vibrancy to the downtown, a special quality that Sylva needs to be careful not to lose, said visitors Madeline Crawford and Marti MacMillan, who both live near Clayton, Ga. The two women were returning to their vehicle after an afternoon of shopping in Sylva, their arms burdened with shopping bags.
Take away downtown parking and force people to walk any distance to shop, and you can kill a downtown and kiss much of the business goodbye, MacMillan said.
“It really hurts a town if you take away the quaintness. Then you might as well go to a mall,” the Rabun Gap resident said, emphasizing that she, for one, wouldn’t hike from a distant parking lot to shop the downtown area.
One other, quicker fix the town is leaning toward implementing: marking off the parking spaces at the back ends, as well as the sides, to eliminate vehicles longer than about 19 feet.
Tom Rodgers of the Caney Fork community drives a big Ford F-250, exactly 20 feet long (he knows that because, being a careful man, he measured before building a garage). He elected one day this week to park in a nearby parking lot and walk across Main Street to Vance Hardware — both because he knows his truck would be difficult for motorists in smaller cars to see around if he used a street space, and because the back few feet of his truck would jut into traffic. Rodgers wasn’t eager to have a passing car clip the back end.
But not everyone is as thoughtful, or self-considerate of the back end of their vehicles, as Rodgers, so the size-marking of parking spaces on Main Street looks to become a certainty, based on recent meetings of the town’s commission board.
Chief Woodard is also getting ready to interview, then hire, a foot-patrol officer for the downtown, something Sylva has lacked since the late Officer Joe Frigo (fondly dubbed “Officer Friendly” by Sylva residents) retired in December 2003.
The new Officer Friendly will be tasked with enforcing Sylva’s relatively recent rule forbidding merchants and their workers from parking in the prime spaces downtown, and generally providing an official reminder for motoring civility in the downtown area.
The fate of the organization tasked with marketing and promoting downtown Sylva remains in flux, but it appears positioned to survive in a yet-to-be determined restructured form.
“We are working very cooperatively, jointly with the town board, to come up with what we think will be the best solution — at this point, we don’t know what that is,” Lucy Wofford, president of the Downtown Sylva Association, said this week.
Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower last week presented three options to town commissioners, telling them that the $15,000 contribution town leaders agreed to earlier might not be enough to keep the organization afloat. That amount represented a $3,000 increase over this year’s funding for the group.
DSA initially requested $25,000 from Sylva leaders, saying anything less would jeapordize the group’s solvency. Director Julie Sylvester told commissioners that to continue raising money directly from members, namely downtown businesses, was not financially sustainable. Wofford said she agreed with Sylvester’s assessment, saying it put the group into more of a merchants association’s role than that of a Main Street organization.
Being a state Main Street group opens the door to certain state grants and support. Under the program, however, DSA is required to have a paid director.
Isenhower said the first option available to commissioners would leave the DSA at $15,000. The second option would bring a DSA director in-house as a town employee at $18 dollars an hour, 20 hours a week (with no benefits) for a total salary of $20,150 a year. And the third option would also bring the director in-house, but would add duties as a town planner, which the town currently lacks, bringing the amount needed for a fulltime salary up to $44,800 ($30,000 salary plus benefits).
Commissioner Harold Hensley said this week that if DSA decided they did need more than the original $15,000, then for his part, the position of director would definitely need to move to being a town employee.
DSA Board Member Robin Kevlin said she sees no problem with the director of DSA becoming a paid employee of Sylva.
“Everything is up for discussion,” she said, adding that for DSA’s part, “we’re basically waiting to see what the town of Sylva is going to do, what their wishes are.”
Although DSA’s purpose, witnessed by its name, is nuturing a vibrant downtown, Hensley has repeatedly questioned pumping town tax dollars into a group that benefits only one commercial district of town.
Kevlin expressed sympathy for Hensley’s wish to see DSA’s focus expand beyond the downtown area — “if they are going to give the money, I understand what they are saying,” she said.
There might be a model nearby to do just that.
The Franklin Main Street Program is different from the Downtown Waynesville Association and the Downtown Sylva Association in that it’s not solely limited to the downtown business district.
While historic downtown Franklin is the only area that qualifies for the state’s program, locally they’ve expanded the vision to include the other commercial districts in the town limits.
Jackson County currently handles zoning enforcement for Sylva, with $5,000 in the town’s budget set aside for payment. That money, under the third option, could go toward a fulltime in-house town planner/DSA director.
The town manager was instructed by the board to get more financial numbers on DSA together for commissioners to consider. She plans on presenting those at the next town meeting, set to take place June 2 at 5:30 p.m. Isenhower said she hopes for a decision on DSA and a vote on the town’s overall budget at that same meeting.
Each of the three options, framed as a “new proposal using fund balance and/or capital reserve,” would see a police officer added to patrol downtown for $16,500, and gives the police chief and assistant police chief raises that total $7,520 (including benefits). A downtown officer was an important issue for Commissioner Danny Allen, a former police officer himself.
The future of the Downtown Sylva Association remains unclear despite a move by town leaders to increase public funding for the group.
The town board unanimously voted last week to increase funding from $12,000 to $15,000 a year, but that amount still falls short of the $25,000 the downtown association says it needs.
“It is very appreciated, but it still doesn’t get us where we need to be,” said DSA Executive Director Julie Sylvester minutes after town leaders made their decision.
DSA, the group charged with spotlighting and underpinning Sylva’s vibrant downtown scene, has stated it faces “solvency” dangers without the $25,000. DSA wants to drop what it claims is an unsustainable funding method — raising money directly from merchants. The group hoped the town would make up the difference. It’s unclear whether the group will now continue soliciting extra funds from downtown businesses.
Mayor Maurice Moody told fellow town leaders that DSA’s total budget each year is in excess of $50,000.
“If you under-fund them, whether you intend it or not, there’s a chance they may go away,” Moody said.
Commissioner Harold Hensley said an article in The Smoky Mountain News two weeks ago mischaracterized where he and fellow board members Danny Allen and Ray Lewis stood on the issue. He said they never intended to totally cut DSA off the town’s funding list. They simply felt that the $25,000 being requested is too much.
“I said we could leave it (at the same amount) … but we do have other things we have to look at,” Hensley said, saying he wanted to keep DSA at $12,000.
Hensley also said he wanted clarity that there is no “power struggle going on on this board. Everybody has their own ideas — but I don’t call it a power struggle.”
Allen said he agreed with Hensley.
“I don’t think there’s one board member that wants to cut DSA,” Allen said. “Fund as is … In the past, we’ve gotten that rap about not funding DSA, but we do want to fund DSA.”
Allen then qualified his support by noting that funding anything is difficult given the economic climate, saying, “we have to take a hard look at what we fund and what we don’t fund.”
Allen said town merchants he’s talked to want money put toward paying a policeman to work the downtown area.
Hensley also said if the town wanted to give DSA funding that approaches the $20,000 level, then he strongly believed that the director’s position ought to transition to a town staff position. Sylvester receives $20,000 a year for 20 hours a week. She also receives $250 a month for a health-savings account.
North Carolina requires a paid director for towns to participate in the Main Street program. The program is important, among other reasons, because it opens the door to grants, which towns otherwise don’t qualify to receive.
Commissioner Chris Matheson told Hensley that bringing a new employee on board with the town entails much more than simply paying that person’s base salary, citing health benefits and so on.
Hensley said perhaps Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower or Town Clerk/Tax Collector Brandi King “could be the Main Street person.”
“If you are going to start appropriating that kind of money, you ought to have it in-house,” Hensley said.
Commissioner Stacy Knotts said Isenhower and King have fulltime jobs as it is, without taking on DSA duties.
Ultimately, the commissioners in a compromise decided on an additional $3,000 in the budget to DSA bringing their funding to $15,000, plus gave a Neighbors in Need help group just more than $1,000 at Allen’s request.
“I’d also like to say we need to keep in mind the policeman on Main Street,” Allen added.
Board members also discussed a flat raise for all town employees who make under $50,000 instead of an across the board cost-of-living increase.
Hensley said dividing up the proposed 2.5 percent increase would give $1,020.28 to those making below $50,000 though he asked not to be held strictly to his math.
“We’ve got some people that’s really low paid in this town,” he said.
The other commissioners indicated they agreed with Hensley’s proposal, but Matheson and Commissioner Stacy Knotts emphasized this was a one-time deal that they’d want to revisit next year.
We’ve written before about how important the downtown business districts in our mountain towns are to their communities, but it needs to be said again in light of the debate now going on in Sylva. Town leaders in the Jackson County town will be making a big mistake if they pull the plug on support for the Downtown Sylva Association.
At this time town leaders are debating what level of funding to give to the downtown booster organization in the coming year’s budget. We would encourage those elected officials to provide as much as they can, and to begin looking for additional ways to support downtown Sylva.
The primary complaint by those opposed to the funding is that DSA is too downtown-centric. In other words, a majority of the town commissioners say giving money to the organization is unfair to other parts of town that don’t benefit from its work.
We think that argument leaves out too many of the proven reasons why a vibrant downtown is a rising tide that lifts all ships. Other merchants throughout Sylva benefit when the downtown is alive and full rather than empty with storefronts boarded up.
If someone is thinking about opening a new business anywhere in Sylva, it’s obvious a thriving downtown would provide a strong signal that the town has a healthy business environment. When the hospital, the university, the community college, the school system and private businesses are recruiting single professionals or families, downtown Sylva surely helps. Throughout the mountains, Sylva is known now as a place where those who keep our Appalachian musical, craft, and literary traditions alive will find patrons, whether that’s at a reading at City Lights or a concert at Bridge Park.
These are important, tangible reasons for keeping downtown Sylva healthy. There’s also the tax benefit to Sylva and Jackson County of a healthy downtown. And we won’t even go into the festivals and special events that bring real dollars to Sylva and Jackson County, helping everyone from grocery store clerks to gas station employees.
Look, asking town leaders to support downtown Sylva is not a revolutionary idea. From Charlotte to New Bern to Waynesville and Franklin, civic and elected leaders have realized the benefit of supporting their Main Streets. Drive downtown anywhere and you take the pulse of a community. Sylva’s pulse is strong, and that’s why about 20 people showed up at a meeting two weeks ago to encourage town leaders to support DSA. We can only hope they were listening.
The organization many credit with helping to create and nurture Sylva’s vibrant downtown scene is facing the possibility of going belly up over funding issues.
During a budget work session last week, a majority of town commissioners indicated they might vote against giving money to the Downtown Sylva Association. DSA, as it’s dubbed, formed 18 years ago under a different name — Sylva Partners in Renewal — but with the same basic mission: to promote the economic growth and vitality of downtown Sylva.
The group is seeking $25,000 from the town as it moves toward dropping what it claims is an unsustainable funding method — begging for money directly from merchants — developed as a defense during previous funding attacks. DSA has created a wedge on the town board, marked by narrow split votes flip-flopping for or against DSA, depending on the winners in the last election.
The town’s support dropped from $20,000 to a low of $2,000 a year, and surged back to $12,000 last year following a brief shift in power on the board that favored DSA. This amount contrasts, by way of example, to the $45,000 a year Franklin’s town board chips-in for its Main Street program.
As happened previously in Sylva, a fiscally prudent threesome is in power these days, meaning the DSA could get far less than the amount requested. Zero dollars doesn’t look farfetched, in fact, with commissioners Harold Hensley, Ray Lewis and Danny Allen making no bones about their overall unwillingness to continue underwriting an organization they have declared too Main Street/Back Street/and a couple-of-side streets-centric. The same three town commissioners were in power when the town first yanked DSA funding seven years ago, but subsequently lost their majority control.
Commissioners Chris Matheson and Stacy Knotts are expressing support for funding DSA. Mayor Maurice Moody is, too, but he doesn’t get a vote unless there’s a tie. That possibility is not as completely farfetched as it might appear.
Because, in the melodrama that is the Sylva town board, Allen a couple of months ago announced he planned to resign … though he wouldn’t say why, when, or how exactly this exit would take place. If history serves as a guide, Allen’s resignation might not happen at all, or even be mentioned again: A few years ago Allen made exactly the same sort of pronouncement, only to continue blithely on without public explanation about why he wanted to leave in the first place, yet never did.
So, while Moody holds the potential tiebreaker, that might be as close as the mayor gets to being able to demonstrate his voting power.
DSA is fighting back. About 20 merchants turned up at last week’s meeting to demonstrate their support for the group that represents them. Most were DSA members who’ve ponied-up money over the past few years as the town’s financial support teeter-tottered.
One state Main Street requirement is that town programs must have a paid director. DSA’s version is Julie Sylvester, who receives $20,000 a year for 20 hours. She also receives $250 a month for a health-savings account.
Robin Kevlin, speaking for DSA, told commissioners their support is critical.
“We must have active involvement of both public and private sectors for continued growth and prosperity for the town of Sylva,” said Kevlin, who works at the downtown office of Metrostat. “The Main Street program is a proven strategy for revitalization, a powerful network of linked communities, and a national support program that leads the field.”
Kevlin went on to describe downtown Sylva as the “heartbeat of northern Jackson County” and “the reason we move here and stay here.”
Jackson County Planner Gerald Green added his voice in support of DSA, playing off Kevlin’s heartbeat analogy.
“With a healthy heart the rest of the community can remain strong,” Green said in a flash of inspired speechifying.
Sylva in the past has touched on the possibility of forming a special tax district, where businesses pay a surcharge on their property taxes to support downtown initiatives. The idea was not universally supported by merchants or building owners and was dropped, however. In the absence of a tax district, the DSA relies on money from the town and from voluntary membership dues.
Downtown Sylva Association will no longer ask merchants for membership money, a financial model that has proven unsustainable, according to Julie Sylvester, executive director of Downtown Sylva Association.
The organization hopes to rely more on funding from the town, but this comes at the same time town leaders are poised to cut funding to the organization.
“The DSA has now reached the point where its solvency will be in danger unless the town acts to provide the level of funding the DSA requested of $25,000,” Sylvester said. “Unfortunately, the funding that has been set aside in the town budget for the DSA has fluctuated over the past several years, forcing the DSA to tap into its dwindling reserves to make up the difference.”
Sylvester said the group deserves money from the town’s coffers given its contributions to the community.
“The Downtown Sylva Association provides events that highlight the beauty of downtown Sylva and its community and attract visitors from both the local area, and from surrounding states,” Sylvester said in a written statement. “Without the DSA, the town of Sylva would not have received $100,000 in grants from the State of North Carolina’s Main Street program in the past year alone.” DSA also led a $120,000 fundraising effort to build Bridge Park.
DSA sponsors festivals and concerts that bring visitors downtown to spend money, helping the economy and generating tax revenue. Other DSA events “help us build a strong, family friendly community,” Sylvester said.
“In the past, the DSA received its funding through a combination of fundraisers, sponsorships, membership driven revenue and local government funding. In light of the current economic climate and the fact that only one or two other Main Street programs out of more than 50 operate with a membership based organization, the DSA made the decision to discontinue its local business membership program at the end of this fiscal year,” Sylvester said. “This has put the DSA’s funding in the hands of local government.”
While Sylva’s downtown organization struggles for stable financial footing, similar programs in Waynesville and Franklin are seeing the results that strong support can yield.
In May, Gov. Bev Perdue announced the awards of the first round of state funding for participants through the Main Street Solutions Program. Waynesville was one of the big winners, receiving a $300,000 grant to help with the rehabilitation of the historic Strand Theater building.
Also this year, the Franklin Main Street Program received a $130,000 grant from the North Carolina Rural Center that will help the town refurbish its waterfront on the Little Tennessee River.
The grant hustle is just one facet of Main Street programs, whose work also includes holding events that draw both tourists and residents back to downtowns in order to create a thriving business environment that encourages rehabilitation and growth.
Liz Parham, director of the N.C. Main Street Center, stresses the fact that each community has its own challenges, needs and resources. If there is a commonality between programs, it’s often linked to their maturity.
“A program that is 30 years old and has operated consistently that entire time may be more willing or better equipped to take on a riskier project than a 5-year-old program that struggles to secure their operating funds each year,” Parham said. “It’s a matter of how sustainable the organization is.”
According to Parham, the vast majority of N.C. Main Street programs have a full-time downtown director in place. Some, like Sylva, operate with a part-time downtown director, but it is a requirement to have paid-professional staff in place in order to be considered an active member of the state program.
Mayor Gavin Brown credits the Downtown Waynesville Association, which was started in 1985, with helping to kick-start a much larger effort to revive Waynesville’s downtown business district and, indeed, reinvent the town.
“You have to focus on something, and we’ve focused on revitalizing our Main Street,” Brown said. “We’ve spent a lot of money on downtown, and I think we’ve gotten a good return.”
The DWA, which gets the majority of its funding through a tax on the downtown business district, has two full-time staff and helps organize more than 20 events each year to drive traffic and create a center for community activities.
In the past three years, DWA has also increased its destination marketing efforts with the help of more than $70,000 from the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.
Buffy Messer, the program’s executive director, believes the success has been the result of strong support from the town and its community, especially the downtown business community, and to the creation of a downtown business tax district that provides the bulk of its operating budget. It receives only a minor contribution of up to $12,000 from the town each year.
Brown thinks the tax district is the best way to fund the program because it creates ownership and autonomy.
“It gives them a voice. It takes the politics out of it a little bit, which is good,” Brown said. “It’s a community effort, but I do like the fact they’re independent of me.”
DWA has a 17-person executive board that governs its operation.
Messer said as the program has thrived, its expectations have grown. She sees DWA as a partner in the community involved in every facet of the downtown from building design and infrastructure to marketing and event planning.
“Everyone is encouraged to be a part of the solution,” Messer said. DWA focuses on its strengths when selecting projects. “We do more of what we know we do well and less of what we do not do well,” said Messer.
The Franklin Main Street Program first came into existence in 1990 but failed to gain traction. The town re-applied for Main Street status in 2006 and the second go-round has worked much better than the first.
The town of Franklin funds the bulk of its Main Street program itself, which includes the operating of the downtown merchants’ organization, Streets of Franklin.
The town provides close to $100,000 in operating funds each year, enough to pay a full-time director and have some left for the four major festivals it stages each year.
Town Alderman Sissy Pattillo was instrumental in getting the program off the ground and serves as its liaison to the town. Pattillo remembers how hard it was to get people to take the program seriously.
“When we started we had no support, and now it’s really paying off for us,” Pattillo said. “It’s opened doors for us as a town we wouldn’t otherwise have.”
Pattillo said winning broad support for the program was the first step.
“I went to banks. I went to people I knew. I went to the county commissioners. I went everywhere, and finally they came on board with us,” said Pattillo.
The Franklin Main Street Program is different from the Downtown Waynesville Association and the Downtown Sylva Association in that it is not solely limited to the downtown business district.
While historic downtown Franklin is the only area that qualifies for the state’s program, locally they’ve expanded the vision to include the other commercial districts in the town limits.
“You can’t just do downtown,” Pattillo said. “If you have businesses in other areas, you have to include those people. If you don’t, you’re a dead duck.”
The program’s executive director, Linda Schlott, has been able to build on the support of the town and county to create new relationships with entities that have a shared vision for the town. This year, Franklin became an Appalachian Trail Community, in large part because of the Main Street program’s leadership.
“It’s the relationships and it’s getting the work out and it’s trying to make everything a partnership effort,” said Schlott.
Schlott said the support of the town has shepherded the organization to maturity.
“It’s much easier when you go talk to someone that you know you have the town behind you,” Schlott said.
What is N.C. Main Street?
Franklin, Sylva and Waynesville all have local organizations that belong to the N.C. Main Street Program, which started as part of a national revitalization effort for historic downtowns developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the early 1980s.
The N.C. Main Street program provides training, planning resources and administrative support for local member organizations that rely on a combination of funding from their towns, private sources and event revenues in order to operate.
The Department of Commerce oversees the N.C. Main Street Center, which supports 61 local organizations that have, according the department’s Web site, generated $1.4 billion in new investment and 13,700 jobs since the program’s inception in 1980.
In North Carolina, the program focuses on communities that have less than 50,000 people and have a full-time town manager.
All Main Street programs are based on four fundamental renewal principles –– organization, design, promotion, and economic restructuring –– aimed at the overall goal of economic renewal in the framework of historic preservation.
Recently, the town of Sylva passed a $1.6 million budget on a 3 to 2 vote. The most contentious line item in the finance package was a $12,000 allocation to the Downtown Sylva Association.
Since the DSA was formed in 1995, its town funding has fluctuated from $20,000 at its high point to $2,000 at its nadir.
The ups and downs in the town board’s support for the DSA sheds light on a the bigger questions. How much does the town value the program?
Sylva first joined the N.C. Main Street program under the name Sylva Partnership for Renewal in 1996. With strong support from Mayor Brenda Oliver the town funded the program up to $20,000 per year and used it to drive the revitalization of Sylva’s downtown.
With the leadership of Sarah Graham, who later became a town board member, the DSA spearheaded the $120,000 fundraising drive that created Bridge Park, a unique downtown green space that hosts events like the Sylva Farmer’s Market and Concerts on the Creek.
These days, the DSA operates with less than $50,000 in its budget which includes a $12,000 contribution from the town, more than $10,000 in dues from its 50 members and another $9,500 from sponsorships.
Mayor Maurice Moody believes the DSA is under-funded by the town, and he considers it a crucial part of the equation.
“I think it’s absolutely essential really,” said Moody. “Not just for the downtown but for the whole town.”
DSA Director Julie Sylvester, a part-time employee, is worried that the program still doesn’t have a sustainable funding scheme.
“We have to go in the hole each year and dip into our savings, and that’s pretty much gone now,” Sylvester said. “Now more than ever we need the support of the town and the community.”
Sylva has broached the possibility of a business tax district, but those plans have never come to fruition. In the absence of a tax district, the DSA relies on getting more money from the town or from private sources.
With two of the five members of the town board, Ray Lewis and Danny Allen, opposing the $12,000, Sylvester fears for the future, mainly because Sylva’s town contribution is already so much lower than in surrounding Main Street communities.
Of the 10 programs around the state that serve towns of 5,000 people or less, Sylva’s contribution to the DSA is second lowest.
“I’m not just asking for money because I want to see certain things happen,” Sylvester said. “We’re trying to keep this community a place that people want to move to.”
Allen and Lewis have said they don’t like the idea of funding a program that only benefits one sector of the business community.
Moody and board members Stacy Knotts, Chris Matheson, and Sarah Graham all support the DSA.
“I think the $12,000 is just a drop in the bucket to what it needs,” Moody said. “Obviously some people feel the downtown doesn’t have much importance, but I disagree.”
Moody said he would support the expansion of the DSA to cover the town’s other business districts, but that would require even more money to accomplish effectively.
Sylvester said the support of the full board is crucial to the success of the DSA moving forward. Instead, the annual funding for DSA has been a source of controversy among elected leaders for five years running.
“I think what would be great first is for everyone to be on board and them to sit down and think through how this can happen,” Sylvester said.
The DSA has had many successes and it operates a full schedule of events throughout the year, but the history of the N.C. Main Street program has seen many local organizations fall by the wayside.
For Sylvester, support for the DSA amounts to a vote for a town with better opportunities.
“If we have a vibrant downtown it helps our property values. It helps the tourist experience and it helps our families. You need to have everyone working together to have a vibrant community,” Sylvester said.
The Sylva town board is in for another shakeup. The board will vote at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 1, to appoint a replacement for Sarah Graham, who had to step down from her position because she and her family have moved outside the town limits.
It’s the second time in less than a year that Sylva’s board has had to vote on an appointment. Mayor Maurice Moody vacated his commissioner’s seat after the November municipal election.
Harold Henson, who lost his board seat to Danny Allen, was bypassed for the appointment when the remaining members tapped Chris Matheson for the seat Moody left.
Now Matheson, Allen, Stacy Knotts, and Ray Lewis will have to vote to fill Graham’s vacant seat. As with the November appointment, the newest town board member could provide a decisive third vote on key issues.