The make-up of Sylva’s town board shifted this week when board members voted 3-1 to replace outgoing board member Sarah Graham with Harold Hensley.
The vote changes the town’s disposition from one with a progressive voting majority to one likely to be characterized by fiscal conservatism and a more traditional philosophy.
Graham, who came to the board after leading the Downtown Sylva Association, stepped down from her seat after moving outside the town limits, making her no longer eligible to serve as an elected town leader. Hensley formerly served on the board for four years, but narrowly lost re-election last year.
Graham and Hensley often had opposing visions for the town and voted on the opposite side of key controversial issues.
It’s the second time in less than a year that Sylva’s board has had to vote to appoint one of their own. Mayor Maurice Moody vacated his seat after the November municipal election, and the board replaced him with Chris Matheson.
In the November 2009 election, board members Danny Allen and Stacy Knotts narrowly edged out Hensley. It was Allen who tipped Hensley for the spot at this week’s town board meeting.
“I think the fairest and the honest thing to do is consider the third runner up, previous board member Harold Hensley,” Allen said.
Only Knotts objected to the motion. In a dignified prepared statement she explained her opposition to Hensley, who was seated in the crowd.
“To respect the voters who voted for me I’m going to vote ‘no’ to the motion,” Knotts told Hensley. However, “I will work with you for the betterment of Sylva.”
Knott’s opposition to Hensley was based on her support for town initiatives like downtown improvements, funding for the Downtown Sylva Association, the expansion of recreational facilities and making a forray into land-use planning. That type of progressive platform is one that was largely shared in recent years by Graham and Moody — and more recently by Knotts, Graham and Matheson — giving them the three votes needed to push an agenda.
Now Hensley, Allen and Ray Lewis, who in general share a vision of fiscal conservatism, now hold the majority voting block.
Hensley downplayed his historic opposition to funding for the Downtown Sylva Association after the appointment.
“There probably will be a difference between mine and Sarah’s opinion, but I’m definitely not against the DSA,” Hensley said.
But he did indicate where is priorities lie.
“I hope I can do what I did before, which is never take a decision without the taxpayer in mind,” Hensley said.
Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody only votes in the case of a tie. Moody shares a progressive inclination with Knotts and Matheson, but has also used his energy to try to create consensus on the board. He had hoped to find a candidate that would result in a unanimous nomination.
“I’m not disappointed,” Moody said. “Harold and I agree on some things, and we disagree on some things. I can work with Harold. We’ve known each other most of our lives.”
Another result of Hensley’s appointment is that Knotts is the only sitting member of the board not originally from Sylva.
Moody said Graham had provided a fresh outlook and great experience to the board, and he said there was little point in attempting to draw meaning from a board member’s birthplace.
“I don’t put much importance on being a native, even though I am one,” Moody said. “I would put more importance on the welfare of the town.”
Funding for the Downtown Sylva Association has caused a rift in the Sylva town board for the fifth year running.
Town leaders last week approved a $2.3 million budget for the coming fiscal year by a vote of 3 to 2. Board members Ray Lewis and Danny Allen cast their votes against the budget in protest.
Lewis said two appropriations particularly irked him: a $12,000 allocation to the Downtown Sylva Association and a $2,500 contribution to the Jackson County Economic Development Commission.
“Ever since I’ve been on the board I’ve voted for a budget, but I just decided this time I wouldn’t do it,” Lewis said.
Allen would not comment on his vote, but he has previously been a critic of the town’s funding for the Downtown Sylva Association.
Town Commissioner Sarah Graham is stepping down from the board in a couple of weeks because she is moving outside the town limits, making her ineligible to serve as an elected town leader. An ardent supporter of DSA, Graham said she wanted to see the budget process through before stepping down.
Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody would have voted in the case of a tie, however, and he has always supported town funding for DSA, a point he drove home following a video presentation shown during last week’s meeting extolling the virtues of the North Carolina Main Street Program.
“That just highlights some of the benefits we do get from the Main Street program,” Moody said, pointing out the town was currently eligible for a $250,000 matching grant through the state and acknowledging Waynesville’s receipt of $300,000 through the Main Street Solutions program.
The funding for the two business development groups was a small portion of the overall budget this year. Sylva will spend nearly $1 million on its police department, $300,000 on streets and another $250,000 on administration.
Overall, the budget reflects a $40,000 decrease from last year, stemming from a decline in local sales tax.
The town of Sylva plans to impose a new parking law to stop shop owners and employees from taking up customer parking on Main Street.
While most towns in the region face the same challenge — what to do about downtown workers monopolizing coveted parking spaces — only Highlands has tried to legislate a solution so far.
Highlands has an ordinance barring employees from parking on Main Street, a model Sylva now wants to emulate.
The new ordinance comes as part of a larger attempt to fix the parking pinch in downtown Sylva, which has shop owners on Mill and Main streets infuriated by the lack of available customer parking during peak business hours.
To help alleviate the problem, the town board recently decided to rent a commercial lot near the intersection of Mill and Main and designate it for free public parking.
It will provide between 30 and 40 additional parking spaces downtown, but the board felt it needed to go a step further.
Last week, the town’s attorney Eric Ridenour offered the board a first draft of the ordinance, which would bar employees of downtown businesses from on-street parking along the one-way portions of Mill and Main streets.
Ridenour told the board that Highlands’ version of the ordinance includes an exception for service-oriented businesses like real estate offices, which need to keep their vehicles close to serve customers.
Board Member Sarah Graham said she didn’t see the need to make exceptions, particularly given the town’s investment in leasing an additional lot.
“We should free up as many spaces downtown as possible,” said Graham.
Board Member Danny Allen agreed.
“The town (now) has three parking lots, and they’re all in close proximity to one end of town,” Allen said. “It’s not going to require but a hop and a skip for them.”
The board considered a provision that would reserve spots in the newly leased lot for businesses willing to pay a rental fee.
That suggestion didn’t thrill Sylva Police Chief Jeff Jamison, who said it would be difficult to enforce.
“We’re going to be policing that lot as well as Main Street. Is that what I’m hearing?” Jamison asked. “That’s going to be difficult folks.”
The board ultimately struck the idea from the draft ordinance.
Enforcement a challenge
Ridenour said the ordinance would rely heavily on the cooperation of business owners to report violations to the Sylva police, since the department doesn’t have any staff dedicated to parking enforcement.
“The way I drafted it is in the hope that our downtown business owners will work as our eyes and ears,” said Ridenour.
The town not only lacks a dedicated parking cop, but enforcement would hinge on police officers’ ability to visually recognize the vehicles of downtown workers. If a worker’s car is indeed spotted in a parking space that’s off-limits to them, another challenge is determining whether that employee is on their shift — or happens to be shopping downtown on their day off. The board plans to hold a public hearing on the ordinance at its second meeting in July.
Sylva is not alone in confronting the issue of employees and business owners parking in spots that were meant for their customers. Waynesville’s Town Manager Lee Galloway said the problem is ubiquitous.
“I’ve worked in six towns, and I don’t think there’s one that didn’t have the same issue,” Galloway said.
Galloway recalled a running joke in Rockingham about a jeweler named Fox.
“Why does Mr. Fox park right in front of his business? Because he can’t get his car inside,” Galloway said.
Galloway said Waynesville has addressed the issue by adding more public parking –– in particular a large parking deck a block off Main Street –– and by enforcing three-hour parking limits on Main Street.
In addition, the Downtown Waynesville Association has taken on the responsibility of communicating with business owners about the need to keep customer parking free.
“We’ve tried to handle it amongst ourselves,” said Buffy Messer, the downtown association’s director. “I think the merchants try to communicate with their neighbors. We don’t mind if someone parks all day as long as they’re spending money.”
Bryson City has the same problem, especially during the high season, but Town Manager Larry Callicutt said thus far no one has suggested drafting an ordinance to confront it.
“I’m not sure there’s a town where that doesn’t happen,” said Callicutt. “They’ve always complained about it, but it’s not gotten to the point that anyone’s taken action on it.”
Galloway said he understands merchants’ anger over the issue.
“You have to turn those spots over to protect your merchants,” Galloway said. “I understand their frustration.”
Years of complaining by Sylva merchants that there isn’t enough parking downtown has spurred the Sylva town board to lease a private parking lot near the intersection of Mill and Main Streets.
The board voted 4 to 1 to lease the Sammy Cogdill parking lot for $400 per month in order to alleviate a perceived parking crunch and to address concerns about the safety of oversized vehicles parking in diagonal spots.
The ongoing debate over parking in downtown Sylva resurfaced in May when Western Carolina University student Thaddeus Huff published the findings of a downtown parking study he conducted as part of his graduate research. His conclusion contested the idea that there was a parking shortage in Sylva. Huff’s study found there were plenty of spaces in the greater downtown area — people just weren’t willing to walk more than a block to their destinations.
Huff’s study did identify the south end of Main Street as the area most in need of parking, and he suggested encouraging people to park in other parts of town as a solution.
Many local merchants, however, believed that Huff’s study — which was conducted in March — didn’t take into account congestion during the most heavily trafficked time of year or during festival weekends. They cited anecdotal evidence that customers routinely struggle to find parking at key times of day.
The town board’s vote to rent the Cogdill lot for a year should put the discussion to rest.
“It’s an opportunity for us to see if it makes an impact,” said Town Commissioner Chris Matheson.
Matheson said her vote was based as much on safety concerns as on the lack of available parking spaces downtown. Matheson said oversized vehicles parking in diagonal spots make Main Street dangerous.
“If you’re on the right side of one of those vehicles, you’re backing into an abyss,” Matheson said.
Board Member Ray Lewis was the only dissenting vote. Lewis objected to the notion of the town committing more money to downtown Sylva and suggested the money to lease the Cogdill lot should come out of the town’s annual $12,000 allocation to the Downtown Sylva Association.
Lewis’s stance on the subject may foreshadow a point of contention in the upcoming budget discussions. Town financial support of DSA has been controversial each of the past four years during budget time.
Mayor Maurice Moody said parking and DSA funding were separate issues, however.
“I think those are two separate issues and the majority of the board wants to leave DSA funding at $12,000 where its has been for the past few years,” Moody said.
The board also discussed other ways to alleviate the parking shortage in Sylva, including the option of adopting a parking ordinance similar to one in the town of Highlands that prohibits merchants and their employees from parking on the Main Street during business hours. Another alternative would see the town rent some of the spaces in the Cogdill lot to businesses that wanted to reserve spaces for their employees.
All of those discussions were informal. Moody confirmed that the Cogdill lot would be open to the public July 1 and that the bulk of the spots would be used for additional free parking.
A parking study of downtown Sylva conducted by a Western Carolina University graduate student has gotten local merchants talking and left the town board facing a puzzle.
For years downtown merchants have complained that the lack of available parking for customers hurts their businesses. But the study concludes that the town’s some 600 existing places are enough.
Thaddeus Huff –– a graduate student in public administration in his last semester at WCU –– authored the study as his final research topic for his professor, Dr. Chris Cooper. Huff circulated 50 surveys to business owners in the Downtown Sylva Association asking five basic questions about their views on parking downtown. The responses showed that 65 percent of the business owners felt there wasn’t enough parking for customers, and 69 percent felt there wasn’t enough parking for employees in downtown.
In March, Huff followed up the survey with a study of the supply and demand of parking in each of the downtown’s eight blocks, counting the number of spaces and the occupancy rate in each block four different times of day on four separate days.
The findings were surprising. Only three blocks downtown in the areas of Mill and Main streets closest to their intersection routinely had more than 70 percent of their parking spaces utilized at a given time of day.
Huff’s summary of the survey reframed the discussion about parking in downtown Sylva as having more to do with how far people are willing to walk from available spaces to their destinations.
“Given that the supply, in this case, is not the problem, the issue seems to be the proximity to certain locations for drivers,” Huff concludes in the study. “The answer is not more parking spaces. Even with no access to private lots, an argument could be made there is plenty of parking to meet the demand given the time periods the counts were conducted in.”
But tell that to the merchants who get phone calls from customers in their cars asking if they can get curbside service because they’ve already circled past the store three times.
Sarella Jackson, an employee of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, testified to that as she walked out of Annie’s Bakery on Monday.
“Most of the time, parking is a problem. It’s relatively hard to find parking close to the building at lunch time,” Jackson said.
She said it is not uncommon for her to circle the block two or three times before she finds a spot.
Annie Ritota, who opened Annie’s Bakery eight years ago, winces when she hears customers complaining about parking.
“We do have a problem on this end of town,” Ritota said.
A parking solution discussed in the past is for the town to purchase or lease a vacant private lot on the prime stretch of Main Street, the former Dodge dealer lot owned by Sam Cogdill.
Ritota said she would support the town leasing or buying the lot, although she wasn’t 100 percent sure it would solve the problem. Instead, Ritota suggested limiting how long people could occupy a prime downtown spots.
“Obviously that lot would be very helpful,” Ritota said. “But I’ve always said maybe if we went back to paid parking so people could come and go, people wouldn’t stay all day.”
Huff has also taken planning courses, and he said from a planning perspective, the town would ideally put the empty car lot owned by Cogdill to some use because vacant lots in a downtown send the wrong message.
But both Mayor Maurice Moody and Commissioner Sarah Graham said they would have a hard time spending the town’s money on parking when it was facing a very tight budget this year.
“Right now we’re paying for a pedestrian plan and directional signage, and I’d like to see those play out before we commit to another expense in parking,” Graham said.
Sheryl Rudd, co-owner of Heinzelmannchen said Mill Street’s problem is almost certainly the result of too many merchants and their employees occupying the handful of prime on-street spots readily accessible to customers.
The result is infuriating for Rudd.
“We lose business,” she said.
Rudd attended the town board meeting where Huff presented his findings and said she appreciated the information but would like to have seen the results of a similar study conducted during the high part of the tourist season.
Rudd said she favors the idea of the town leasing the Cogdill lot and either the Downtown Sylva Association or merchants reimbursing the town for a particular number of designated spaces.
Huff, who lives in Asheville, said most of the studies he used as models dealt with bigger towns. But he still thinks Sylva’s free parking could be part of the problem.
“If you give out free pizza, there’s never enough pizza,” Huff said.
Huff recommended a number of measures that could alleviate some of the strain the merchants are feeling around parking. He advocates better signage to steer people to the town’s public lots. He also recommends a firm policy against employees parking in spots for customers, and reviewing the idea of metered parking on Main Street.
The issue of downtown employees taking up prime on-street spots in front of businesses has been a topic of heated discussion the past, and a number of downtown business owners agree that it is a starting point for the discussion.
Recently one downtown merchant anonymously left flyers on car windows that read, “Dear customers. I work downtown. I took your parking space and you, the customer, had to search for parking.”
Steve Dennis, owner of Hollifield Jewelers, also thinks employees parking on Main Street all day are a large part of the issue.
“The enforcement needs to be addressed in terms of people staying a long period of time,” Dennis said. “You don’t need to drive up and walk straight into your job.”
Mayor Moody said he needed to study the results of Huff’s project in more detail before he responded to it directly.
“I think we all need more time to look at it closely,” Moody said.
Huff agreed the same type of parking count he conducted should be repeated during the high tourist season and on a festival week, but he really believes the town has to look at the parking issue holistically and not a simple shortage of open parking spaces.
As the holiday shopping season nears its final frenzy, Sylva’s business community is stressing the importance of buying local.
The Downtown Sylva Association has seized on a national campaign called the 3/50 Project to encourage local people to patronize their own business community. It’s built around the idea that if half of the country’s employed population spent $50 per month in three locally-owned, independent businesses, it would generate $42.6 billion in revenue.
Downtown Sylva Director Julie Sylvester learned about the 3/50 Project from several local business owners. The association’s merchants have decided to use it as an ongoing promotion that will stretch beyond the holiday shopping season.
“I really see it as an education campaign,” Sylvester said. “I want people to understand that if they spend a total of $50 at three local businesses each month, that’s really what will make a difference.”
Steve Dennis, owner of Hollifield Jewelers in downtown Sylva, has embraced the 3/50 Project’s mantra at his store.
“When Julie first came in, I was impressed with the idea,” Dennis said. “Folks should be aware of the impact of buying local, but sometimes you have to rattle the cage a little bit.”
Dennis said it’s difficult to convince consumers to pay more at a time when they are struggling, but he said the campaign encourages them to think about the long-term value to the community where they live rather than merely price points.
“Folks will use big boxes and convenient set-ups out of habit more than necessity,” Dennis said. “They go because they’re convenient — not because they’re better. That’s where the education comes in. The cheapest isn’t always the best.”
Dennis has placed a 3/50 Project flyer on his counter and has enjoyed explaining the program to his patrons.
Sylvester said the DSA members have embraced the campaign as an organizing principle.
“There’s so much you can get out of a local store,” Sylvester said. “The money you spend in your own community comes back and helps grow the community.”
While the DSA is focused on 3/50 the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce is spreading a similar message through its “Love The Locals” coupon campaign. Director Julie Spiro has dispersed 1,000 coupon books featuring local retailers to high-volume traffic locations in the county.
Spiro said it’s hard to tell exactly how much the books are used, but the campaign delivers an important message.
“All we can do is put something out there to try to help the local retail and business owners and get some people to their stores,” Spiro said.
The Chamber also maintains a holiday shoppers’ hotline that helps customers locate specific items in local stores.
The Downtown Sylva Association has dropped the idea of a special downtown property tax due to a lack of support among merchants.
The Downtown Sylva Association has dropped the idea of a special downtown property tax due to a lack of support among merchants.
Controversy among downtown Sylva merchants and property owners could either escalate or come to a close this week, depending on what route the Downtown Sylva Association takes at a town board meeting Thursday expected to draw crowds of merchants.
When Howard Alligood heard about a group of Sylva merchants lobbying for a special downtown tax, he got a little suspicious.