Sylva candidates split on funding for downtown projectsWritten by Becky Johnson
The election for Sylva town board next week will determine the philosophical direction for the town.
The board has been marked by split votes over the past two years, stemming from deep-seated ideological differences.
Two years ago, the majority on the board shifted away from a more traditional mindset toward a more progressive bent, reflecting the growing number of newcomers and young people moving to town. This election, the pendulum could swing back to the traditional camp, or swing further toward the progressive side.
The more traditional camp — consisting of Harold Hensley and Ray Lewis — has consistently opposed town funding for the Downtown Sylva Association. They also opposed funding for the downtown Bridge Park concert pavilion and were against allowing dog walkers in the park for sanitary reasons.
They have been on the losing side of issues over the past two years, however. Danny Allen, who lost re-election two years ago, was once in their camp. If he wins his seat back, they would once again be in the majority.
Town Commissioner Stacy Knotts, who is up for election, has partnered with Sarah Graham and Maurice Moody to pursue a more progressive agenda of town initiatives.
Another challenger in the race, David Kelley, says he wouldn’t join the progressive camp by default but he would be more flexible than Hensley in advancing the progressive agenda.
Kelley, 32, said he straddles the divergent philosophies on the board. On one hand, he’s younger like Knotts and Graham and spends a lot of time downtown. On the other hand, he was born and raised in Sylva and can identify with the more traditional views of long-time residents.
“Sometimes Harold and Ray are more traditional because they have been here longer and are closer to a lot of the natives,” Kelley said. But, “I can see ways of improvement and change that might be good overall that maybe the others can’t see or don’t want to see.”
Whichever side wins the election will have a chance to further solidify their agenda on the board by appointing a like-minded board member to join their ranks come December. Moody will vacate his board seat to become mayor, and the rest of the board members get to appoint his replacement.
Knotts got more votes than Hensley when the two appeared on the same ballot four years ago. Like this time, there were two seats up for election on the board. Both were running unopposed, however, creating a shoe-in for each.
One issue that shows the dividing line on the board is funding for downtown amenities. Hensley and Allen both raised issues with the money spent on Bridge Park, a small vacant lot downtown that was converted into a gathering place featuring a covered pavilion stage with a grassy lawn.
“I talked to a lot of people and they are saying they are not going to use that park,” Allen said. “But who pays for that? It is the taxpayers. That park is not a necessity in these times right now. The taxpayers are on fixed incomes.”
Hensley agreed. He said the town contributed around $100,000 to the creation of the park, including $12,000 on the sod alone.
Knotts supports the investment in Bridge Park and thinks the public appreciates it. She has heard a lot of support for Bridge Park on campaign rounds.
“A lot of people really like Bridge Park,” Knotts said.
Residents tell her they like the progressive projects the town has embarked on, Knotts said, whether it was Bridge Park, the launch of curbside recycling and plans under way for a Sylva to Dillsboro sidewalk.
While Hensley prides himself on penny-pinching, Knotts said he does not have the monopoly on safeguarding taxpayer dollars.
“I think all the board members have been good stewards of the taxpayers money. Many, many of these projects are funded by grants. We are as efficient as we can and definitely scale back,” Knotts said.
Kelley wouldn’t weigh in on whether Bridge Park was a good use of money. He has heard from both sides, he said.
“It certainly is nice and is definitely improves the town overall,” Kelley said. But he thinks the board could communicate better with residents about those types of expenditures.
Allen said the current board’s focus on downtown, like the town’s effort to provide plastic baggies for dog walkers to clean up after their dogs, is excessive. He said Knotts’ camp has been catering to special-interest groups who want to shape Sylva to suit their own lifestyle.
Hensley opposed spending town dollars on the plastic baggies for dog poo as well. He suggested banning dogs from Bridge Park as an alternative solution so that people could enjoy the park without worrying about sitting in dog poo while watching a concert.
Hensley still doesn’t favor a contribution of town dollars to the Downtown Sylva Association — another source of debate on the board.
“I don’t think the taxpayers send their money down there for us to decide to give it to other charities,” Hensley said.
Several years ago the town contributed $20,000 to DSA. But Hensley, Lewis and Allen voted to reduce it to $2,000. When Graham unseated Allen, the philosophy shifted and the town partially restored funding to $12,000 a year, where it now stands.
“I think they are a great organization, but I do not believe in using tax dollars to fund it,” Hensley said.
Knotts said the work of the Downtown Sylva Association is important to the quality of life of all residents . DSA performs vital community service by generally promoting downtown and staging events, including the Christmas Parade and Greening Up the Mountains festival. Knotts sees it as an economic investment, since downtown events bring in visitors, who in turn support businesses throughout town.
Hensley says he is not against downtown, however. He would like to build a public restroom downtown and employ a police officer who walks the streets of downtown like in days gone by.
Knotts said several issues will face the town over the next four years. She sees the town board weighing in on how to solve traffic congestion on N.C. 107. The town will also likely tackle new development guidelines along the commercial corridors leading into town.
A trail and recreation plan for Pinnacle Park will be adopted. And the town will have to decide what to do with a town building occupied by the Golden Age Senior Center once it moves into a new senior center built by the county. Knotts wants to see it turned into a community center of some sort.