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Sylva reorganizes public art efforts

Just over two years after forming it, the Town of Sylva has voted to disband its Public Art Committee — but with the intention of reassembling it under the auspices of the Main Street Sylva Association. 

“A lot of what the committee would do is the same, but there’s more flexibility with it being a Main Street Committee that isn’t considered a public body and appointed by the board,” said Town Manager Paige Dowling during the April 11 town meeting. “The art committee has struggled with membership. They’ve gone through quite a few members and then there’s the constraints of a majority living in town or not having a quorum and having to cancel meetings. I think they’d get more support if they could go under the Main Street Design Committee.”

The vote stemmed from a discussion that Dowling introduced during a March 28 budget meeting. Commissioners were receptive to considering the idea, though some were uncertain as to whether they would end up in favor when it came to a vote. 

“Will it fall apart and become a nothing committee?” asked Commissioner David Nestler.

Commissioner Greg McPherson said he’d rather have it under the town and added that, “I would be very against it if the board was funded, but it’s not.”

However, Mayor Lynda Sossamon as well as Commissioners Mary Gelbaugh and Barbara Hamilton expressed support for the change. 

When the issue came up for a vote April 11, Gelbaugh was quick to make a motion in favor. 

“This is kind of hard for me, because I’m the one that started the committee,” said McPherson. “The committee was a little bit lackluster. Having said that, they came up with this idea for a mural and it’s a reality now, and it’s one of the things that brings people into Sylva, and I don’t want to take away from the seriousness of that.”

The mural, 22 by 53 feet and painted on the side of Mill Street’s Ward’s Plumbing and Heating building, was completed last summer following a $10,000 state grant for downtown revitalization awarded by Jackson County. 

McPherson said that the board could still move its meetings around while remaining under the town, especially if it appointed one of its members as the secretary so town staff wouldn’t have to be present to take minutes. The problem, he said, was that the committee never organized a fundraiser or had anybody actively looking for grants — but the art committee is “more serious than a quasi-committee on the Main Street board” and should remain a public body, he said. 

Sossamon disagreed. 

“That (design) is one of the pillars of the Main Street program,” she said. “I think you’ll have some of the same people. It sounds like two of the people that have been working on it want to be on the committee when it becomes part of the Main Street Association, and then we also had town people that are interested.”

“It would basically be the same committee,” she added.

“A watered-down version of the same committee,” said McPherson. 

“I don’t think it’s a watered-down version of it,” replied Nestler. “I think it’s less constrained by inconvenient rules … It lets it move around, be more dynamic. I think it could be good.”

Nestler added that the Main Street Association is stronger than it’s been in the past.

“This helps make it stronger,” he said, “which might play a large role in convincing a majority of the town board to fund it in the future.”

The new organization could make it easier for the group to fund its projects even apart from town support, said Dowling. Under the Main Street Association it could apply for grants as a nonprofit, where before it was considered a governmental entity. And its members would be better able to work with MSA’s promotions committee, which puts on fundraisers that could perhaps eventually benefit public art projects. She added that art committee members and MSA members had expressed support for the change. 

While design is one of the pillars of the national Main Street America Program, there isn’t currently an active design committee in Sylva. Once resurrected, the committee will be able to choose its own members. Under the program, design is anything that enhances the attractiveness of the business district, including historic building rehab, street cleanup, landscaping and lighting.

“This isn’t solely art, but the Design Committee can focus only on art or expand it the focus to more elements of streetscapes,” said Dowling. 

Getting a public art program started in Sylva has been a priority of McPherson’s ever since he was elected in 2015. The town created a public art fund in 2016 and then a public art committee in January 2017. The committee sifted through applications and managed the design for the postcard-style mural now on the side of the Ward Plumbing and Heating building but has not launched any fundraisers or secured additional grants to fund more ideas. 

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