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Wednesday, 06 August 2014 13:41

Focused on Franklin: Residents pack in to sound off at town hall meeting

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fr focusfranklinThe boardroom in Franklin’s town hall was so packed last Wednesday that town employees had to scavenge chairs from the kitchen and closet to accommodate everyone.

It was a welcomed inconvenience. Mayor Bob Scott hoped a meager half dozen people would show up to the town’s first Focus on Franklin meeting, but more than 60 people came, ranging from 20-somethings to senior citizens, from born-and-raised Franklin to Florida transplant. They were all there for one reason: to lend their voices about what Franklin’s future should hold in a forum where the town aldermen could hear.

“We have problems facing the town,” Scott said as he opened the meeting, held July 30. “We must come together and look to the future. What’s worked in the past may not be what’s going to work now.” 

Scott had been trying to hold just such a meeting ever since he was elected mayor in November, but some of the other town board members had reservations about the idea freewheeling, town hall-style meetings outside an official capacity.

Last week’s third-party moderated meeting wasn’t exactly the standing monthly discussion over coffee and donuts Scott had envisioned, but it worked. Scott and the rest of the town board sat in the back of the room and turned the show over to representatives from the Public Policy Institute of Western Carolina University, who ran the meeting. Todd Collins, associate professor with the university and director of the institute, came with graduate student Brian Burgess to direct the discussion and distribute written surveys.

“Since we’re an outsider, in some ways we’re more neutral,” Collins said. “I think being open to what everyone wants to say may help people feel like they can voice their opinions a little bit more.”  

 

Becoming a destination 

Many of those opinions centered on how to make Franklin a destination for tourists while keeping its local-friendly character. 

“The outdoors is probably going to be our new niche in the world and we’ve gotta do all we can to press the outdoors, because that’s what’s going to bring people here,” Scott said.  

Traffic passing through Franklin is notorious for continuing on to Cherokee or Asheville, meeting attendees said, so the challenge will be figuring out how to make those cars stop for longer than it takes to fill a tank of gas and grab a fast food meal. 

“I think there’s very little here that’s a destination that people come to,” said Ken Murphy, co-owner of the coming-soon Lazy Hiker Brewing Company. “It’s an area that people come to, and while they’re here they say, ‘Let’s come to Franklin to eat and shop.’ I think what we ought to be trying to do is snag as many people who are going to other nearby locations as well as construct some destination.”

But Franklin is more than a potential tourist trap, other community members pointed out — it’s also a home. 

“We are a destination because of the positive things around us,” said Renee McCall, who owns Sunset Restaurant. “Our mountains, our hiking — are we willing to change the face of our town to make it the destination in our mind? I don’t want to compromise that.”

The consensus seemed to be that the town should focus on the outdoors as its bread and butter, but many commented that Franklin needed more shopping and restaurants if it’s to lure people off the trail and into town. It takes a critical mass of quality shopping and dining to create that draw. 

“We’re missing the fact that we need to up the ante on what Franklin is about,” said Lenny Jordan, co-owner of Lazy Hiker Brewing. “It’s not a cheap destination. It’s an outdoor destination. Outdoors is not cheap.”

Franklin needs more opportunities to eat and shop, he said, so that tourists will stay there rather than driving on in search of something else. 

 

Partnering with the public

The private business decisions that collectively make up the Main Street landscape aren’t items that the town board discusses and votes on. The town can encourage and foster a welcoming environment, but it’s ultimately up to entrepreneurs to break ground. That’s why the discussion also turned to ideas for public-private partnerships, ways that people and their government could work together to make the town better. 

Burgess suggested a revolving loan program, for instance — loans from the town geared toward start-ups that might have trouble accessing traditional credit lines. Such a program would also allow the town to review and make suggestions on applicants’ business plans, potentially increasing their chance of success. 

Frank Plesner, one of the attendees, commented that he’d like to see “a one-stop shopping place” for town permits, codes and regulations.

“So when I go in and say, ‘I want to do this,’ I can get all the information I need,” Plesner said. 

Participants also talked about restructuring the Main Street program. Tension between various sectors of the Main Street community has been an issue for some time. 

Merchants who felt sidelined by the town’s official Main Street organization formed a somewhat parallel group called Venture Local Franklin. But neither are successfully percolating everyone’s ideas into a shared goal, according to some audience members.

“There has to be a collective vision that everybody can get behind,” said Rob Gasbarro, co-owner of Outdoor 76. 

The need for unity doesn’t end at town limits, some participants pointed out. Town decisions affect county residents, too, particularly those who own businesses in Franklin, so the town should do a better job of reaching out to those people.

“I pay a lot of town taxes but I don’t have a vote, so I’m just more of an outsider. I hear it last. It happens to me last,” said a woman who identified herself to the group as a business owner inside the town limits who resides outside the town limits. 

Some participants said they wanted to see an avenue for getting involved in a hands-on way, particularly when it comes to town beautification. Scott had opened the meeting with a slideshow of some of Franklin’s less sightly parts, and the audience seemed to agree that aesthetics are an issue for Franklin’s future as a destination. 

“I think the town would do well with having a recycling committee working on those problems of litter in the streets, and I know a lot of people who might like to work on it, and I think the town should have a historic preservation committee,” one woman in attendance said. “You would have citizens who are motivated and knowledgeable help the busy alderman make these decisions.” 

Others, however, questioned the logic that more committees equal more action. 

“How many more committees do we need to try to come together?” one man asked. “I think if we could get those people talking to each other that would create momentum.” 

 

Forging forward 

Though the audience members had differing opinions on some issues, they all agreed that they want to see Franklin meet with a favorable future. The question, though, is how to map the path to success. To get there, the Public Policy Institute will take a few weeks to synthesize meeting notes and surveys into a written report for the town board to review and act on.

“Any ideas that are put forth are valuable,” said Verlin Curtis, vice-mayor. “We certainly are going to look at it closely and see what we can do to help many of the situations out.”

However, he doesn’t believe all of the suggestions are within the town’s purview to address. 

“There was a lot of things that they asked for that we absolutely can’t do, and I’m trying to figure out something positive that we can do to make this group happy,” Curtis said. 

For instance, there was a lot of talk about fixing up abandoned or unkempt buildings, but that’s up to the property owner. Curtis, who owned a business in Franklin for 50 years, also took issue with the idea of town government functioning as an incubators of local business. 

“I never looked at the town board to grow my business,” Curtis said. “What I did was put my nose to the grindstone and find things that worked.”

However, Curtis said, he’s all for sifting through the notes to come up with some goals that are workable for the town. 

Scott sees those notes as nothing more than a starting point. He’s hoping hold this kind of forum again, probably two to three times per year, keeping the meetings issue-specific in the future. 

“Who does the town belong to? Think about it,” Scott said. “We’re here to conduct the public’s business, but how do we conduct the public’s business when we don’t know what’s on the public’s mind?”

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