The downtown property tax would have funded the Downtown Sylva Association in its pursuit to increase commerce and economic vitality downtown, with everything from festivals to more parking.
“It is one way of pooling your money together for the greater good,” said Sarah Graham, executive director of the downtown association. “The tax was a way for the people who benefit from these services to provide the funding for them, but it is by no means something we want to do without everyone’s support. This isn’t really the right time for the tax.”
The announcement was made to a packed house of more than 40 merchants and building owners at a town meeting Thursday. Most in the audience were against the tax and were primed to speak out if the downtown group didn’t drop the idea. They were also armed with a petition signed by merchants and property owners opposed to the tax.
Controversy over the idea seemed to pit long-time merchants against relative newcomers, albeit that somewhat stereotypical assessment doesn’t fit in all cases. It appears both sides are ready to forge a new alliance, however. Many of those opposed to tax said they would pay dues voluntarily to support the work of the Downtown Sylva Association.
“I am very supportive of a voluntary organization,” said Dodie Blaschik, owner of Dodie’s Auction. “I think everyone should step up the plate. We can do that knowing nobody put their hands in your pocket and took one dollar you did not want to give.”
Orville Coward, a long-time attorney on Main Street, agreed.
“I believe in it and I believe it should be done, but a special tax area is not the best way,” Coward said. “I don’t oppose the improvements. I think I contributed as much as anybody to the improvements that have been done downtown in the past and I would be willing to do it again, but nobody’s asked me.”
The Downtown Sylva Association announced a spring membership drive to do just that. But there are drawbacks to an organization funded only by dues. It’s not a stable source of funding and some merchants will get a free ride.
“With a voluntarily funding mechanism, it means some of us will chip in and other won’t, but everyone will still benefit from it,” Graham said.
Response from the audience was promising, however.
“If you presented a dues structure, I think the businesses would sign on immediately,” said Geoff Allen, owner of Balsams Creek Designs. “If you walked into my business today, we would write you a check today. I think property owners are the same way. They know their property values will increase if business is successful.”
Blaschik suggested harnessing the enthusiasm displayed over the tax issue to rejuvenate interest in the Downtown Sylva Association.
“I think everyone in this room should come to the next meeting of the Downtown Sylva Association,” Blaschik said. (The meetings are at 1 p.m. the second Wednesday of the month at town hall.)
Some business owners were concerned the idea would be put to rest for a while, only to re-emerge down the road. Graham said the group has no plans to do that.
“It has to be something y’all want to do,” Graham said. “We do not have any plans to come back with this in six months, no.”
Graham said the Downtown Sylva Association only had the best interest of downtown at heart when exploring the idea.
“We want all of us to get on the same page to help downtown Sylva reach its full potential,” Graham said.
But some long-time business owners seemed to feel like their efforts over the past few decades to make downtown what it is weren’t being appreciated or recognized.
“I have seen such great improvement in our town,” Dodie Blaschik said. “It wasn’t done at a tax supported level. It was done by individuals who put their money at risk to make our beautiful community.”
Orville Coward said that the long-time merchants “voluntarily contributed thousands” to downtown improvements over the years.
“I’ve seen the new people come and they want the same things the old people want done,” Coward said.
Some merchants claim the idea was sprung upon them out of nowhere, although discussion of the special tax has been in the media for at least six months. The Downtown Sylva Association said it sent out 160 surveys to business and property owners in the district, but numerous business owners said they never received such a survey. In Waynesville, where a special downtown property tax has been in place for more than two decades, those promoting it sought consensus from all the merchants in the taxing district by visiting them one on one, from one business owner to the next.
Merchants in Sylva can expect a survey in the mail within the month asking whether they support the idea of a merchant’s association, whether they would be willing to pay dues, if so how much, and what they would expect from the association in return.
The town of Sylva sanctioned the survey. It’s being conducted for free by graduate students at Western Carolina University.