In the heyday of curbside service, Jim Caldwell had a special talent for dressing hot dogs.
He could balance 10 buns up on one arm, stacked from his wrist to his bicep, while his other wielded ketchup and mustard bottles, striping the dogs in rapid succession, sprinkling them with onions and topping with chili.
Those were the glory days though, and the cars that once lined the curb in front of Jim’s Drive-In on South Main Street in Waynesville are few and far between today. The once blue-collar community anchored by four factories and tight-knit neighborhoods has been slowly deteriorating over the years, largely passed over by urban renewal.
“It’s just really decrepit looking,” said Joellen Habas, who travels the South Main business district several times a day. “They are never going to attract businesses if that stretch is so ugly.”
Planning is currently under way to overhaul the corridor, which connects downtown Waynesville with a new Super Wal-Mart at the south end of town. The road passes through three distinct districts: a residential stretch defined by affluent homes and mature trees, a mixed-use district with professional offices, and a commercial stretch.
After years of prodding by town leaders, the N.C. Department of Transportation has launched a feasibility study for a redesign of South Main Street. A public meeting was held Monday (July 13) to gather input from the community on which plan they prefer. Nearly 150 people turned out to voice their opinions.
While planning is only in the early stages, it already promises to be a bitter debate over how wide the road should be, particularly through the main commercial district. Some want more lanes to prime the pump for redevelopment, others want a small-town feel. Some want to hang on to the strip of old buildings, others want to raze them and start over.
There are three options currently on the table. One calls for keeping it two lanes, one calls for adding a single middle turn lane, and one calls four four-lanes with a small raised median. The four-lane version, which also includes sidewalks, bike lanes and street trees on both sides of the road, would consume 120 feet of right of way. A road that wide would take out nearly all the existing businesses on both sides of the road, according to the DOT.
Business owners along South Main Street don’t want to see their buildings bulldozed in the name of progress.
“It would take a barrel full of money to buy that much property,” said Dick Bradley, the owner of an Ace Hardware and gun store on the corridor.
While not a fan of a significantly wider road, Bradley does think the road needs an appearance overhaul.
“The junk cars, the filthy lots, the big weeds,” Bradley said of the aesthetic problems plaguing the road.
Currently, the road has patchy sidewalks and lacks curbs, with the road and adjacent parking lots forming a giant sea of continuous asphalt.
Long-time residents are distraught about the thought of razing the corridor in the name of gentrification, however.
“I can’t see them doing something like this just because Wal-Mart moved up here,” said Oma Lou Leatherwood, 63, who lives just off South Main Street. “It seems like they are trying to get rid of old Hazelwood to beautify the town. That’s what the whole purpose is.”
The area seems primed for redevelopment, although it has not yet been realized. Many properties in the commercial district are for sale or perpetually for rent. Economic development planners thought Super Wal-Mart’s recent arrival would spur growth along the corridor, with corporate chains like Chili’s and Walgreens expressing interest so far.
“Change is something that happens whether you want it to or not,” said Thom Morgan, the owner of Mountain Energy gas station along South Main.
Morgan has bought additional property to the rear of his lot that would allow him to move back should widening claim the front of his convenience store. Morgan hoped to use the extra property for an expansion, however, with plans to add more pumps, make his store bigger and bring in a Dairy Queen.
Morgan has already started designing a site plan for the expansion.
“I’m ready to start doing something in the next year,” Morgan said.
But a final road design could be years away, making it difficult for anyone to redevelop while in limbo over how much property a wider road might claim.
How wide is too wide?
Many at the meeting questioned the need for four lanes.
“There doesn’t seem to me like there is too much traffic,” said Joellen Habas, who travels the South Main business district several times a day.
“It gets backed up a little when people get off work, but then it moves on,” agreed Leatherwood.
Henry Foy, the former long-time mayor of Waynesville, said a two-lane road with roundabouts would suffice to handle traffic. Foy wants to preserve the small town feel. He said a large four-lane road with a median would destroy the town’s character.
“We don’t want Waynesville to get that big,” Foy said.
Habas said she doesn’t want another major commercial thoroughfare like Russ Avenue. Instead, add some sidewalks and curbs, plant some trees, but leave the basic width alone, she said.
Patrick Bradshaw, an engineer with an office on South Main, said a four-lane with a median would be “overkill.”
Bradshaw said town leaders understand that, but the challenge will be convincing the DOT of that. Bradshaw thinks a combination of turn lanes, intersection redesign and congestion management techniques could improve traffic flow without a drastic widening.
Tracy McCracken, who owns property on South Main Street, called the four-lane design “too much for that part of town.”
Waynesville town leaders have not weighed in on which design they prefer. Alderwoman Libba Feichter said the town board will likely endorse a vision at some point.
“I feel like it would let people know we are together, that this is the plan that suits our community,” Feichter said.
Feichter hopes it is possible to pick a combination of plans, judiciously adding extra lanes at intersections but not the full length of the corridor.
The public seems united on one front: to leave the road alone through the core residential stretch. Widening that stretch would take out the tunnel of mature shade trees arching over the road.
“I don’t want them to destroy the character of our town,” said Pam Kearney, who lives in a neighborhood off the residential stretch of South Main.