It’s a typical late afternoon weekday in Hollifield Jewelers on Main Street in Sylva, with four or five customers in the store at one time.
Busy — just the way owner Steve Dennis likes it. But that busyness, the marks of lifeblood in both a store and any downtown district, is posing some problems in Jackson County’s largest town.
Parking — and as difficult an issue as that can be anywhere in any Western North Carolina municipality, there’s an added element of danger to Sylva’s Main Street that is missing in neighboring Waynesville, Bryson City and Franklin.
The diagonal parking on Main Street, with its two lanes of one-way traffic, requires a leap of faith, especially when driving a small car parked beside, say, an SUV for example.
When it’s time to leave, that’s when the fun begins: Back out blindly and hope another vehicle in the process doesn’t smash you in the rear. Or ask a passenger to risk their physical wellbeing by standing in the road to ensure your safety — but not theirs — while backing the car.
Police Chief Davis Woodard doesn’t like the lay-out one little bit. He figures there’s a smashup about once every two weeks. Given the situation, the chief said it’s somewhat inexplicable why there aren’t fender-benders, or worse, 50 or more times a day.
“If you just stand there and watch, it’s amazing there aren’t more,” Woodard said.
The problem isn’t a simple one to solve, though town leaders are trying to sort out what best to do. Commissioner Ray Lewis has suggested angling the parking spaces more deeply, as is done in Franklin. That means, however, losing some 20 to 25 percent of parking on Main Street, according to what Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower has learned from the state Department of Transportation.
“We can’t afford that,” said Holly Hooper, co-owner of Black Rock Outdoor Company. “It is hard to back out, but we just can’t lose any more spaces.”
Besides, both business owners — Hollifield and Hooper — believe the problem needs to first be sorted out at a different starting point: by slowing down speeders on Main Street.
“It’s unbelievable,” Hooper said.
“It’s like they are on I-40,” Hollifield said.
Combine those speeders with motorists jostling for position, shifting from right lane to left, and shoppers backing cars out into traffic or circling endlessly around town looking for parking … oh yes, don’t forget the jaywalkers, and delivery trucks stopping to unload — that’s downtown Sylva in a nutshell these days.
But there’s also a vibrancy to the downtown, a special quality that Sylva needs to be careful not to lose, said visitors Madeline Crawford and Marti MacMillan, who both live near Clayton, Ga. The two women were returning to their vehicle after an afternoon of shopping in Sylva, their arms burdened with shopping bags.
Take away downtown parking and force people to walk any distance to shop, and you can kill a downtown and kiss much of the business goodbye, MacMillan said.
“It really hurts a town if you take away the quaintness. Then you might as well go to a mall,” the Rabun Gap resident said, emphasizing that she, for one, wouldn’t hike from a distant parking lot to shop the downtown area.
One other, quicker fix the town is leaning toward implementing: marking off the parking spaces at the back ends, as well as the sides, to eliminate vehicles longer than about 19 feet.
Tom Rodgers of the Caney Fork community drives a big Ford F-250, exactly 20 feet long (he knows that because, being a careful man, he measured before building a garage). He elected one day this week to park in a nearby parking lot and walk across Main Street to Vance Hardware — both because he knows his truck would be difficult for motorists in smaller cars to see around if he used a street space, and because the back few feet of his truck would jut into traffic. Rodgers wasn’t eager to have a passing car clip the back end.
But not everyone is as thoughtful, or self-considerate of the back end of their vehicles, as Rodgers, so the size-marking of parking spaces on Main Street looks to become a certainty, based on recent meetings of the town’s commission board.
Chief Woodard is also getting ready to interview, then hire, a foot-patrol officer for the downtown, something Sylva has lacked since the late Officer Joe Frigo (fondly dubbed “Officer Friendly” by Sylva residents) retired in December 2003.
The new Officer Friendly will be tasked with enforcing Sylva’s relatively recent rule forbidding merchants and their workers from parking in the prime spaces downtown, and generally providing an official reminder for motoring civility in the downtown area.