Right now, a lot is going on in this university-dominated community. Cullowhee is the fastest growing area in Jackson County, adding population at a faster pace than the county seat of Sylva. Enrollment at Western Carolina University is on the rise, and new buildings are going up as the UNC system prepares for these students and the future. A recently passed alcohol referendum now allows sales throughout Jackson County, and entrepreneurs have already started targeting the college crowd. University officials and local residents — including CuRvE, a Cullowhee revitalization group that boasts solid leadership and real vision — are eyeing the future and trying to figure out how best to grow this community.
Add to all this Cullowhee’s natural scenic setting along the Tuckasegee River surrounded by mountains, and we have all the makings for what could become one of the country’s most idyllic college towns. Wasting that opportunity — or letting it just slip away due to inaction — would be almost criminal.
Success in fulfilling this vision is going to take the combined forces of Jackson County, the university, and private citizens. Although incorporation would provide the easiest path to creating a one-of-a-kind Cullowhee, right now county commissioners need to take the lead in advocating for a Cullowhee Planning District. That would provide an avenue toward the future, a way to start the momentum with a few ordinances. A master greenway-trail system covering campus and the surrounding area is almost done, and a planning district could provide added impetus. Measures to protect the Tuck and make it accessible could be established. Regulations to encourage retail, commercial and residential growth that is in line with what local leaders would like to see would be beneficial.
The centerpiece of efforts should focus on what many now call “old Cullowhee.” That area where the university and what used to be a thriving commercial district intersect has so much potential. CuRvE already has drawings for a riverfront park and wants to develop it when the state Department of Transportation replaces the bridge over Old Cullowhee Road in 2013. Anyone who has visited towns like Chattanooga or Greenville, S.C., knows the potential of riverfront parks and recreation areas.
Cullowhee is much smaller and would not need anything on that scale, but starting with that investment as the centerpiece could serve as a catalyst. It is also a tangible, buildable start while the vision for a more long-term future is being developed.
Part of the problem is that county leaders in Jackson and throughout Western North Carolina’s smaller counties have been reluctant to enact planning and zoning measures. Cul-lowhee, however, presents a unique opportunity. Since the campus is guaranteed to bring in people and growth at a much faster rate than what would occur otherwise, simply shutting their eyes and letting it occur haphazardly is just a bad idea.
County commissioners will have to take the first step if Cullowhee is going to reach its potential. Some commissioners have said they are reluctant to create a Cullowhee Planning District unless property owners in the area want it. But commissioners have a higher calling than that. They represent every citizen of Jackson County and Cullowhee, not just the handful who happen to own property. Besides, making use of the dedication and energy of those who want to move Cullowhee forward would surely increase the value of all the property in this area. And as Commissioner Mark Jones has pointed out, the Cashiers Planning District has led to some very real and tangible benefits to that community.
The time to begin crafting a future for what Cullowhee could become is now. Commissioners need to take the lead and make it happen.