Rescinded grant miffs downtown Sylva property owner

fr parkinglotAfter spending $200,000 to build a new parking lot shared by five downtown Sylva businesses, the property owner lost a state grant she was initially promised to help with the cost.

The new parking lot initially qualified as a job creation project under the N.C. Main Street grants program. But Jean Ensley, the property owner who built the new parking lot, is upset the grant was rescinded for what she calls a technicality.

Town officials, who originally supported her application, claim  Ensley didn’t dot her I’s and cross her T’s when applying for the grant.

The disputed grant is part of a state program intended to revitalize Main Streets in small towns and create jobs. Ensley, an 84-year old Sylva resident, submitted an application to help build a new parking lot shared by five businesses — Speedy’s Pizza, Family Dollar, an insurance company, a barbershop and a convenience store. The bigger, nicer parking lot would attract more customers and in turn lead to job creation, Ensley’s application stated.

While the Main Street grants come from the state, applications are administered at the town level. Ensley claims she was told by the town she would receive a two-to-one match in funds. Ensley was banking on a $47,000 grant to help offset the $200,000 cost of the new parking lot.

But this winter, Ensley was told by Town Manager Paige Roberson that she was only awarded $22,000. Roberson said $200,000 was way above the initial project costs that Ensley submitted.

“The estimate for cost of work on the parking lot was $68,000,” Roberson said. “When the work was finished, she brought receipts to the town for $200,000.”

But Ensley claimed that the initial project cost estimate was based on only completing the front half of the parking lot. And after learning she was eligible for the grant money, she decided to do the entire site. However, that didn’t make a difference, Ensley said.

Ensley tried to persuade town board members and also gathered letters from the five businesses leasing from her, as well as the contractor who did the work, claiming the new parking lot helped increase business. She sent the letters off to Raleigh in an effort to plead her case and augment the grant amount.

After the parking lot was complete, Speedy’s Pizza added several jobs, so did the insurance company, Western & Southern Life. The convenience store alone, Mountain Breeze Mart, added six employees, Ensley said.

But the plan backfired. Ensley learned in late December she would get no grant money at all because of discrepancies found between the original application and the subsequent letters.

The town board members voted to withdraw Ensley’s application.

Roberson said key components of the application were completed incorrectly, especially relating to Speedy’s Pizza. The grant application submitted by Ensley stated that the restaurant had nine employees while the letter submitted later said the pizza joint employed 11, Roberson said. Also, Roberson said that neither the managers nor the owners of Speedy’s had signed the application as required. Ensley countered that the signature in question was of the restaurant’s financier and business partner.

Roberson said the discrepancies in Ensley’s application could give the town bad standing with the Main Street grant program and put the town at risk to be ineligible for future funding. During the past 10 years, the town as received nearly $200,000 in similar grant funding, Roberson said.

“The main point for the town is what the town stands to lose by not addressing this issue,” Roberson said. “It would be disservice to the whole town, not just to one property owner.”

Ensley is upset, however.

“I feel I was taken advantage because I’m a woman; I’m old; and apparently, the people think I’m not too smart,” Ensley said.

Ensley said she is now in debt.

“It’s not them that’s in trouble. It’s me that’s in trouble,” Ensley said.

Ensley was also perturbed that another property owner in Sylva, who applied for a Main Street grant, got to keep his money.

David Schulman got $16,000 to perform pressure watching, window replacements and other façade repairs to the buildings he rents downtown.

Ensley questioned the economic development benefits of pressure washing downtown buildings.

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