Renovating the old library on Main Street in Sylva for a new police department is on something of a hiatus until a new town board convenes.
The town board will get a new member following this month’s elections. Lynda Sossoman will replace current town Commissioner Ray Lewis. Sossoman said Monday that she fully supports the renovation of the old library for a town police department.
Town leaders must identify where the estimated $700,000 needed for the job will come from, interim Town Manager Mike Morgan said.
“The next thing we would want is to get an architect to do detailed plans — but (commissioners) are not there, yet,” he said.
Until then, the 15-member town police — counting only fulltime employees — will continue to squeeze into the current police department on Allen Street. The officers share just 1,000 square feet. The old library is 6,400 square feet in size.
Jackson County owned the old library, but agreed to a property swap at the town’s request earlier this year. The county gave Sylva the old library building on Main Street, and in exchange the town gave the county the former chamber of commerce building on Grindstaff Cove Road.
As takes place currently, any prisoners detained by police will be transported immediately to the county jail at the administration building instead of being held at the police department.
Sylva merchants have repeatedly requested a greater presence by town police on Main Street. In addition to the prospect of having the department located physically there, a new police officer was recently assigned to foot patrols downtown.
It’s not everyday that you can shop at the local feed and seed store for organic foods and produce, but that’s the case these days in Sylva.
Last year at almost exactly this time, Deb and Randy Hooper took a significant business risk. The couple used the back portion of their building on N.C. 107 and expanded the 40-year-old Bryson Farm Supply by adding a small organics grocery. That means folks can pick up their fertilizers and shovels and other gardening needs from Randy Hooper, then shop in the Natural Food Store section of Bryson’s for that night’s dinner from his wife.
The Natural Food Store carries such hard-to-find delicacies as grass-fed local beef, natural pork, goat cheeses, free-trade coffee from the Cherokee-based Tribal Grounds, bins of grains and beans, locally raised trout and more.
Time has proven the Hoopers’ business hunch a good one: There is a definite local clientele for organics and naturally and locally produced foods, as also evidenced by the rapid growth of the county’s popular Saturday farmers market on backstreet in Sylva and at St. John’s Church during winter months.
The community has been hugely supportive, Deb Hooper said. That includes some free help from residents eager to see the business survive and thrive. Kolleen Begley of the Village of Forest Hills helped build a website for the business, www.brysonfarmsupply.com, free of charge.
“I did their website as a type of community service and really had fun doing so,” Begley said. “I’m thrilled to see this small, local, family owned business carry the local foods as well as organic and Amish foods, and I support that — I hope to see them expand that part of their business.”
Deb Hooper also has her hopes set, perhaps, of one day growing the store still larger. The size of Earth Fare in Asheville, she said, referring to one of the region’s largest natural food-based grocery stores.
But, don’t expect that kind of growth anytime soon: the couple wants to build the organics portion of their business slowly and wisely.
“This is still a work in progress,” Deb Hooper said, gesturing out toward the Natural Food Store, complete with its large coolers, stock laden wooden shelves and bulk bins. “We want to move forward with even more here, first. But I’d love to get big.”
It’s that kind of willingness, one of being open to forward motion after carefully calculating business opportunities, that often spells the difference among local businesses that endure and survive this tough economy and those that don’t, said Paige Roberson, head of the Downtown Sylva Association and head of economic development for the town.
“They’ve changed as needed over the years,” Roberson said of Bryson’s, which Deb Hooper’s parents opened in 1972. “They try and meet customers’ desires for certain products.”
Roberson knows a good bit about the hardware store business: her family once ran Roberson Supply, a hardware store then located a mile or two on N.C. 107 from Bryson’s.
Deb Hooper said opening and running a Natural Foods Store has proven quite an education. She and her husband are eating more local and naturally grown foods themselves these days, supplementing vegetables raised in their home garden.
“He settled right into it,” Deb Hooper said of her husband’s agreeability to try new foods that the expansion into organics has led to.
In addition to meats and bulk foods, the Natural Foods Store purchases and sells local honey and fresh eggs. Deb Hooper tried selling vegetables but discovered that her clientele is apparently made up of the same people who visit and support the farmers market. Seeing no need and little business opportunity, Hooper reversed course on the vegetables, limiting herself at least for now to other product lines.
Running a grocery store seems to come easily to Hooper. Though she openly acknowledged “I never thought I’d be doing any of this stuff,” her grandparents in fact owned and managed one of Sylva’s most popular groceries, Ensley Supermarket, for years.
“This is really my heritage,” Hooper said.
Annie’s Naturally Bakery, the beloved coffee, bakery and gathering place in Sylva that helped launch a Main Street renaissance of sorts here when it opened more than a decade ago, will close Thursday.
The closure comes as a surprise to many in this Jackson County community, who said they simply can’t imagine visiting downtown Sylva without stopping at Annie’s.
“This gave the community a place to gather where we felt welcomed,” said Susan Anspacher, who was at Annie’s Naturally Bakery on Monday staving off the day’s autumn chill with a hot bowl of southwestern bean and chicken soup. “I think it takes an inner strength and beauty to be able to do that.”
Annie Ritota, who owns the namesake bakery with husband Joe, grew teary frequently while describing the painful process the couple worked through before deciding to close the retail portion of their business. The Ritotas last year moved the wholesale side of their bakery business to Asheville.
The two businesses previously “shared” costs — the wholesale side helped subsidize overhead at their Main Street store. Ingles grocery stores across Western North Carolina and North Georgia sell Annie’s bread, as do many restaurants in the region.
“We separated the numbers, and realized that it was going to be harder for the retail to make it on its own,” Ritota said.
Yes, the faltering economy played a part in making sourdough out of yeast bread, and triggered a slowdown in summer tourist traffic.
“But if we had the energy and time, we could turn this around,” Ritota said. “This is more so that Joe and I can have a life together again. Joe is in Asheville, driving an hour there everyday, and I’m here mostly.”
Kim Roberts-Fer, who lives in Waynesville and works in Sylva, is being hit with a double whammy — Whitman’s bakey on Main Street in Waynesville is coincidentally closing down as well as Annie’s in Sylva.
“We so love a good bakery,” Roberts-Fer said.
There will be a void in the towns now, she said.
“There is something so nostalgic about a bakery,” Roberts-Fer said.
When she married her husband, the couple went to Italy for a honeymoon, “and there were bakeries there to give you that certain feel of relaxation and comfort,” Roberts-Fer said.
The Ritotas moved the wholesale side of Annie’s business to Asheville because the 75 or so accounts they were handling at the time were mostly in that region, not in the state’s westernmost counties, and too much money was being lost in buying gasoline and through wear-and-tear on the delivery vehicles. Wholesale demand for their breads also had outgrown their kitchen space in downtown Sylva.
Subsequent rapid growth on the wholesale end since that shift to Asheville has taken energy from the retail portion of Annie’s, Ritota said.
The Ritotas started Annie’s Naturally Bakery in 1998 in their garage in Franklin. They rented space on Main Street in September 2001, and the retail side of Annie’s was born.
Annie Ritota grew up in Bristol, Va., and comes from a family of cooks. Later, she learned the restaurant business in her brother’s restaurant and studied vegetarian and healthy cooking while living in Colorado. She opened a vegetarian, health food restaurant in Greenville, S.C. in 1985, where she met Joe, a fourth-generation Italian baker.
Once together, Joe Ritota wanted to move to a small town, which brought the couple to Franklin and then Sylva.
When Annie’s Naturally Bakery opened, the community flocked through the doors, and never wavered over the years in their support of the bakery, Ritota said.
“The local clientele remained,” she said, adding that she hopes someone will buy the business and continue it as a bakery.
That’s Paige Roberson, the new executive director of the Downtown Sylva Association’s hope, too.
“The ideal thing would be to have the space providing the same services to the downtown and county,” Roberson said, who then stepped out of her official DSA costume and added her own personal lament for the loss of Annie’s. “I absolutely hate that it’s going out. It was such a neat place, and had such great baked goods and coffee.”
Catt Tyndall is hoping for the sudden appearance of a fairy godmother to take over the bakery and keep Annie’s Naturally Bakery running. She’s worked for two years this week at the downtown shop.
“Where are people going to get their cannoli? And their pumpkin cookies — they are like crack. To not have that anymore, I just hate it,” Tyndall said.
Up to nine employees will lose their jobs with the shutdown, Annie Ritota said, her eyes filling with tears once again. Most are college students, or have such strong ties to the community, that commuting to Asheville isn’t feasible, she said.
Tyndall plans to start school at Western Carolina University in January, explaining the job loss prompted her to go back to WCU and finish her education.
Asked if it’s as cool to work at Annie’s as it appears, Tyndall responded: “it’s probably even cooler — everyone who works here brings their own bit of character to it.”
Jackson County is nowhere close to cementing a deal with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad — one that would offer financial incentives in exchange for basing a steam engine tourist train in Dillsboro.
“It is far from a done deal,” said County Manager Chuck Wooten.
The county and the train have yet to agree on key factors.
The heart of the matter is a restored 1913 steam engine and passenger cars the railroad would like to put in service. But there’s a problem. The train is in Maine, and moving it here would cost $430,000, the railroad’s owner Al Harper estimates.
Harper wants the county to chip in half the cost of moving the train, as well as help secure an outside grant to build a turntable and a standing commitment to help with advertising costs.
Discussions have been informal and intermittent since last winter. The deal is primarily being brokered by a Dillsboro business owner and town board member, David Gates, who is acting as a de facto intermediary between Harper and county officials.
Gates recently drew up a draft contract and passed it around to the various parties. Harper lives out of state, but came to town for the train festival in Bryson City in late September. Gates took him a copy — and Harper promptly signed it.
The draft is not a version the county would endorse right now, however, and Wooten was flummoxed as to why Harper would have signed it prematurely.
There’s a key component missing, from the county’s perspective. Jackson County wants a written guarantee the steam engine would be based in Dillsboro for at least five years — not Bryson City, where the rest of its trains depart from.
“We want it to originate in Dillsboro, turn around in Bryson City and run back to Dillsboro,” Wooten said.
Shops would benefit more if people boarded and disembarked in Dillsboro, rather than merely rolling into town for a 90-minute layover before loading back up and heading out.
The trip from Bryson City to Dillsboro and back lasts four hours total, including the layover. Tickets start at $49 for adults and $29 for children age 2 to 12.
Dillsboro was once the main depot for the train, but the headquarters were moved to Bryson City in 2005. Then in 2008, the train yanked service to Dillsboro completely before partially restoring it the following year.
“When the train left, they lost a lot of traffic,” Wooten said of Dillsboro merchants.
County leaders are skittish that could happen again and want an assurance built into the contract. To pass muster with the county, the contract would have to require the train to keep the steam engine based in Dillsboro for five years. If it is moved elsewhere, the railroad would have to pay back a portion of the county’s grant, Wooten said.
Ideally, the train would promise to run a certain number of trips — such as two a day during summer and fall, and once a day during winter. But the county can’t expect the railroad to make such a commitment not knowing what the demand will be.
The draft contract circulated by Dillsboro stipulated that operations of the steam engine would be based in Dillsboro. But it also stated that “only the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad will have complete authority as it relates to all scheduling and operations of the train set originating out of Dillsboro.”
Such a disclaimer could make enforcement difficult if the railroad ever broke the promise.
Wooten also said if a deal was ever agreed on, the county would shy away from writing a check directly to the railroad. Instead, the county would want an invoice from the company involved in moving the steam engine and would pay it directly.
A must-have for the train to bring a steam engine to Dillsboro is a turntable, a piece of track that can be spun around to get the engine pointed back the right way when it reaches the end of the line.
The train apparently can’t afford the $200,000 to build one. The tiny town of Dillsboro can’t either. But the town will apply for a grant to cover the cost. A lot is riding on the outcome of that grant.
“No turntable, no steam engine,” Wooten said. “That would be a deal killer.”
The train currently runs on diesel engines. When the engine reaches the end of the line on excursions, it goes in reverse until it gets back to the depot in Bryson City.
Steam engines can’t go in reverse for long distances, however, making the turntable critical. The steam engine would run from Dillsboro to Bryson City, so another turntable would have to be installed there.
A turntable in Bryson City has been discussed for years. In 2005, the train got a $7.5 million low-interest loan from the Federal Railroad Administration, in part to construct turntables in Bryson City and Dillsboro. “How many years ago was that and where is the turntable?” asked Hanneke Ware, an inn owner in Jackson County who doesn’t think the county should give the railroad a grant. Wooten said the train apparently purchased the turntables but never installed them.
A portion of that loan was also for repairs to the track. But the majority was used to restructure existing debt that had a higher interest rate.
That existing debt and federal loan is one reason the railroad wants grants — not more loans — to move the steam engine and for the turntable. Wooten was told by the railroad that it lacked the collateral to take on additional debt right now.
The train has also asked for money for advertising from the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority — tapping into the pot of money raised from a tax on overnight lodging in the county. The train initially asked for $150,000 a year, but has since revised the request to an unspecified amount of advertising on the train’s behalf, specifically for marketing the steam engine service from Dillsboro.
Opponents to a proposed room tax increase in Jackson County are accusing county leaders of secretly earmarking the money for a grant to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
“If this is about raising funds to get the railroad to move back to Dillsboro, then we are against it,” said Hanneke Ware, owner of the Chalet Inn, at a public hearing on the room tax increase this week. “It is not right to increase the accommodation taxes in a county as widespread as Jackson to provide marketing money to a private business.”
The scenic tourist railroad has asked the county for as much as half a million dollars in exchange for offering steam engine train service to the tourist village of Dillsboro.
The train, once headquartered in Dillsboro, cited the flagging economy when it pulled out in 2008. Dillsboro’s galleries, gift shops and restaurants were thrust into a tailspin over the sudden loss of 60,000 tourists annually.
While the train has since brought limited passenger train service back to Dillsboro, business owners worry the train won’t stick around and still pine for the same level of foot traffic they once enjoyed.
County Commissioner Mark Jones, who spoke to commissioners during the public hearing in his capacity as head of the Cashiers Area Travel and Tourism Authority, said if a tax increase is needed to help the train, perhaps Dillsboro should levy it. In Macon County, Jones pointed out, the county levies a 3 percent tax and the town of Franklin levies an additional 3 percent tax there.
County leaders say there is no connection between the proposed room tax increase and the financial assistance being sought by the railroad.
“We don’t have a motive,” said Commission Chairman Jack Debnam.
Anyone who thinks the room tax increase is aimed at raising money to give the railroad is misinformed, Debnam said. The county has bandied the idea around but is not close to a deal, Debnam said. (see related article)
Several speakers opposing the room tax hike believe there is a connection, however.
“Why are they asking the county for money?” Ware asked.
She said the railroad should do what other businesses do when expanding: namely, get a bank loan.
“Is it because they don’t have collateral?” Ware asked. “If they can’t get a loan, why would the county want to put money into a business whose financial plans are tenuous?”
Henry Hoche likewise questioned why the tourist railroad needs money from the county.
“To me it makes no sense why the railroad isn’t paying for it itself,” said Hoche, owner of Innisfree Inn By-the-Lake in Glenville.
Giving tax money to private business in exchange for creating jobs isn’t exactly a new concept. Incentives to land new industry are common at the state level, and counties often get in the game by offering tax credits to lure new companies offering jobs.
Jackson County has a revolving loan fund designed to help businesses moving to or expanding in Jackson County. Al Harper, the owner of the railroad, previously estimated 15 to 20 news jobs would be created under his plan to base a steam engine train in Dillsboro — a plan predicated on financial help, however.
County Manager Chuck Wooten said the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad steam engine project would not create enough jobs to qualify for the size of the revolving loan request, however.
It wouldn’t matter anyway, Wooten said, because the railroad has since told him it can’t take on any more debt.
Spin-off jobs created by other businesses, such as the tourist-oriented shops in Dillsboro, wouldn’t count toward the job creation quota the railroad must meet, Wooten said.
The scenic railroad wants to base trips on a restored 1913 steam engine and rail cars in Dillsboro, but there’s a hitch. The train is in Maine, and it would cost more than $400,000 to move it down to Dillsboro, the railroad estimates. It wants the county to split the cost, plus pony up money to help advertise the new steam engine service.
Currently, tourism tax dollars can only go to marketing and advertising, not to hard costs like steam trains. The narrow criteria were imposed by the state in the 1980s when counties first began charging lodging taxes.
A few years ago, the law changed. Room tax can now fund “tourism-related expenditures,” which can include walking trails, festival bleachers, boat docks, or perhaps a stream train — anything that would presumably lure tourists. The state allows up to one-third of a county’s room tax dollars to go toward such “tourism-related expenditures.”
If Jackson County wants this flexibility, however, it has to adopt new language at the local level reflecting that. It has become part of the discussion over whether to increase the room tax, along with revamping the tourism oversight agency that controls the money.
Clifford Meads, general manager of High Hampton Inn in Cashiers, doesn’t like the idea of tourism tax money going to projects instead of strictly promotions.
“There will be people dreaming up projects so they can spend the money,” Meads said.
Meads said shipping money from other parts of the county to help Dillsboro is “going to be divisive.”
Sylva voters on Tuesday night might have put the brakes on something of a voting trifecta by adding former commissioner Lynda Sossamon to the town board at the expense of incumbent Ray Lewis.
Two other incumbent commissioners, Chris Matheson and Harold Hensley, both won seats at the table.
Hensley, Lewis and current Commissioner Danny Allen generally spoke in a unified voice and voted together when it came to deciding most Sylva issues.
Sossamon, who served a four-year term in the 1990s, described herself as “progressive yet traditional in things such as saving taxpayer money — but progressive in the sense that I want to move Sylva forward in some ways.”
“I’m glad it’s over,” Hensley said before saying he needed to call his wife and let her know the results.
“I am honored to have the opportunity to serve the citizens of the town of Sylva for four more years,” an openly relieved Matheson said.
Turnout was low. Out of 1,593 register voters, just 234 people opted to vote. Among them were Tammi VanHook and her 89-year-old mother, Ida Jean Bryson.
VanHook said she cast her vote for one simple reason: “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.”
Bryson, who registered to vote on Oct. 16, 1965, had a slightly different view than her daughter.
“I don’t complain,” she said softly. “It don’t do no good.”
But Bryson never fails to cast her vote. Board of Elections records show Bryson has participated in every election in which she’s been eligible to vote since registering on Oct. 16, 1965.
Seats up for election: 3
Total seats on board: 5
Christine Matheson (I) 177
Lynda Sossoman 152
Harold Hensley 127
Ray Lewis (I) 88
John Bubacz 72
Here, by the side of U.S. 74 as you start up the Balsams after leaving Sylva, isn’t exactly the place you’d expect to stumble onto a bookstore with some 20,000 volumes of select, vintage books.
A photography shop bookends one side of this tiny, easily missed strip mall. Harry Alter’s used, scholarly and rare bookstore serves to bookend the other. And a thrift store and furniture store fills out the middle of this odd juxtaposition of businesses.
Be that as it may, Alton, 43, is here with his bookstore, and has been for about three years. The Pittsburgh native ended up in Jackson County six years ago after his wife, Elizabeth Heffelfinger, took a position in the English Department at Western Carolina University as director of motion picture studies.
Alter’s book selection in the store is tremendous — particularly choice in the political science and history venues, such as the Civil War, but there is also plenty to peruse for those who want books on gardening and the environment, or philosophy and psychology.
That Alter would grow up to own and operate a bookstore seems entirely natural if you can persuade this shy man to talk about himself. He was born of a book-loving and book-reading family. Alter started his business with about 3,000 books in a spare bedroom of his mother’s house. By the time he actually moved out of her home, he had 6,000 books and had drifted into the mail-order book business.
Go online today, and you’ll find the remnants of that original core business. Alter keeps busy selling through Amazon, and at more select book Internet sites such as Alibris.
“I spend a lot of time in front of the computer,” Alton said. “That’s not the fun, glamorous part of it. That’s a lot data entry.”
In fact, this self-described “passionate” reader is finding it hard to make the time to actually read. Being a small bookseller in a big, shark-eating bookseller world is hard work. Most booksellers these days are into quantity, not by quality — they are making money by selling hundreds and thousands of volumes at low prices, not by selling just a few, rare books at higher prices, as independent booksellers generally do, Alter said.
Business isn’t exactly booming at the bookstore on U.S. 74, which is nice for the book browser in his store but not so good for the bookseller himself. Alter keeps irregular hours, or is available by appointment. His time is often absorbed elsewhere packaging and sending books to fulfill online orders.
Most of Alter’s drop-by customers are searching for Westerns, general fiction or theology, not necessarily what he has to offer them in the more select, scholarly fields.
“They want to go back to original sources,” Alter said in explanation of the unexpected hunger he’s found in this region for theology texts. “Older versions of the Bible, mostly King James. Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and other old Protestant classics.”
Gary Carden of Sylva has been down the road Alter is now traveling. Some years ago, he opened a bookstore in Cullowhee called The Down and Out.
“I didn’t do very well at all and yes, I suffered under the illusion that college students read,” Carden said. “Instead, I got a steady stream of ladies addicted to those romance novels that are so generic, they are sold by numbers, not titles: ‘I’ve got a No. 65, but I can’t find a No. 78.’”
Then Carden opened a store in downtown Sylva, where he “dreamed of spending my life … with a thriving crowd of eccentrics who would sit and drink coffee while we talked about Thomas Wolfe, Fitzgerald and maybe Hemingway. The coffee-drinking eccentrics never arrived. Instead, what I got was teenagers: boys looking for soft porn (which he finally stocked) and girls who read the fashion magazines but never bought anything.”
Joyce Moore bought Carden out, keeping the name City Lights — the name comes from a Charlie Chaplin movie of that name, not the famous bookstore in San Francisco. Chris Wilcox, who worked for Moore, now owns and operates City Lights in Sylva.
Carden likes to drop by Alter’s bookstore. Alter, with a grin, said he is suspicious that Carden is somewhat “relieved that I’m not doing a booming business with academics, either.”
Carden — a voracious reader — is certainly a huge supporter, however. He said he would love to get locked up in the store for a couple nights.
“He has a fantastic store,” Carden said.
Alter isn’t down on the bookselling businesses, though it’s a tough time to be an independent bookseller — contrarily, he believes this is an ideal time in history to be a book buyer, because the choices of what and where to buy are virtually endless. And he’s been impressed with how many people in these mountains truly love to read.
“There is so much access to books and information,” Alter said. “This is truly a great time to be a buyer.”
There’s still no reprieve in sight for WRGC, Sylva’s radio station and a five-decade community mainstay for local weather, news and more.
The station, broadcasting at 680 AM, went off the air at the end of August.
Gary Ayers, a regional radio personality living in Jackson County who has an intense interest in locally owned and operated radio stations, previously indicated that he might try to buy WRGC and get it back on the airwaves. Ayers once worked at WBHN in Bryson City, and previously owned a radio station in Canton.
Art Sutton, president and CEO of Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Company, which owns WRGC, said local advertising didn’t generate enough money to keep the station running. WRGC had about 8,000 daily listeners.
Sutton said many of them have called or emailed to express their sadness over losing the station.
Ayers said the door remains open to the possibility of buying the station, but he’s not sure it’s a good business decision to walk through that open door. Local advertising support, Ayers said, seems tepid at best. In talking with business owners, Ayers found few have interest in radio as an advertising medium.
Since 2008, the radio station’s revenue in Sylva had declined by 40 percent. The broadcasting company owns two stations in neighboring Franklin, one on AM and the other on FM, and there the revenue, despite the economy, grew nearly 10 percent over the same period.
Sutton said last week that the station’s lease on its office and studios and tower site expires at the end of the year. The immediate urgency for a buyer would come if a new owner wanted to use the present site. Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Company leases the office and tower site from the station’s founder and longtime owner, Jimmy Childress of Sylva.
The FCC will allow the station to remain silent until Aug. 31 of next year before pulling the frequency, Sutton said.
“At that time, it must return to the air waves or the license will be deleted,” he said. “If a buyer does not come forward very soon, and wish to build the station’s tower in another location, yes, we will move the frequency to another market.”
Sutton declined, citing competitive reasons, to say where the frequency might go.
He said the company plans to begin removing the towers and equipment next month.
“I still believe a local operator could do well with WRGC,” Sutton said. “The station had a large audience for a small town station.”
Sutton described WRGC as a “unique situation,” but one “I think a local person living and working there could figure out, respond to more quickly than an absentee operator like us, and be successful.”
This November, Sylva residents will elect three commissioners, deciding who will control the majority on that five-member board. All three incumbents are running for re-election, plus two challengers.
In the next four years, it’s likely that Sylva’s chosen leaders will help decide what should be done, if anything, to the main commercial and commuter artery of N.C. 107. They might pick a new town manager, if a permanent one hasn’t been selected before then by the current board.
In other words, this selection of board members could have ramifications for Jackson County’s largest town for years, if not decades, to come.
N.C. 107, a busy stretch of highway south of town that has in the last decade or so seen the addition of a Super Walmart and a Lowe’s Home Improvement, has proven controversial in Jackson County. The N.C. Department of Transportation has proposed massive widening, which could displace many businesses, or possibly building a by-pass around it, which could level a number of homes out in the county.
A bypass between N.C. 107 and U.S. 74 doesn’t much seem to excite anyone running for town council. Most expressed worries that such a bypass could divert traffic not only around town, but also away from the town’s businesses. But something, each agreed, probably needs to be done to alleviate the growing traffic problem on N.C. 107.
A new town manager is also in the headlights for Sylva. The town board forced former Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower to resign in September. The commissioners, citing personnel laws, did not make clear their reasons for demanding the resignation.
Dan Schaeffer, the town’s public works director, is serving as a stopgap manager.
Bubazc is running as a candidate because he wants to provide voters “a moderate, flexible, informed decision maker.”
He also wants to help the town of Sylva work with Dillsboro to redirect thru trucks around the two towns, unless the truckers have business in the downtowns. Too many concrete trucks and delivery trucks heading for Walmart or the university or elsewhere are thundering through, he said.
“It’s really dangerous with cars having to back out into traffic,” Bubazc said.
Bubazc said his overall solution to N.C. 107 hasn’t been settled on, because there’s a committee made up of various stakeholders studying the issue now. “Why would we ignore their recommendation?” he said rhetorically.
Bubazc, a member of the Downtown Sylva Association board, wants the group to become 100-percent funded again, and for the DSA board to hire and oversee its own director. This does not necessarily negate the need for a town economic development director, who was hired recently in a dual role overseeing DSA, he said. Until then, DSA had its own director, which is what Bubazc is pushing for again.
The coffee roasting company owner has clear ideas about the type of individual he’d like to see hired as the town’s manager: “Someone who is experienced, who knows how to deal with groups of people and who is good at interagency communications, and who is sensible enough to work in a small town.”
Hensley had served on the board previously, but narrowly lost his seat in the last election in 2009. He found his way back on the board last year, however, after being appointed to replace the outgoing Sarah Graham, who resigned after moving out of the town limits.
“I think, really and truly, that I have tried my best to be a voice for all of the people of Sylva,” Hensley said, adding that there are ongoing town projects such as additional sidewalks and the police department’s move to the old library he’d like to see through.
“I think there are some good things going on,” he said.
Hensley believes that the solution to N.C. 107 traffic problems lies, at least in part, with undoing “the bottleneck” that exists at an intersection where hospital and other business traffic dumps into the highway.
“That’s where the traffic backs up at,” he said, adding that in such sour economic times he doesn’t believe Jackson County will get millions of dollars to fix the problem — the solutions must be smaller, such as relieving the pressure at the intersection.
Hensley, too, knows the type person he wants to see as the town’s new manager. They need the necessary qualifications, and people skills, too, he said.
“I would look strongly at some local person, if you get the (proper) qualifications,” Hensley said.
If reelected, Lewis will serve his third four-year term as a town board member. He said the actual job of commissioner “isn’t really a political thing, but I’ve always been interested in politics — and if I can help the people out, that’s what I want to do.”
Lewis is the only member of the town board to flatly support building some new roadway to alleviate traffic pressure on N.C. 107. But his idea echoes one made by SmartRoad proponents in Sylva a few years ago. That of building, or in many ways connecting existing roads, to create a “service road” running behind businesses along the highway, giving some relief to traffic congestion, Lewis said.
Like Hensley, Lewis would like to see a local person hired as the town’s new manager. Someone, he explained, who knows, understands and cares about the community.
Matheson, like Hensley, gained her seat on the board via an appointment. The former assistant district attorney stepped in when Mayor Maurice Moody was elected, leaving a commission seat vacant.
“I feel like I’ve made a contribution to the town for the last two years, but I feel like there’s still more to do,” Matheson said. “I love Sylva. It is my home and my heritage.”
Matheson, like Hensley, wants to help see the new police department built, which will require extensive work to the county’s old public library on Main Street. And she wants to help mold the DSA and town relationship.
“That relationship is growing and defining itself,” Matheson said. “We are meshing two entities.”
Matheson is serving on the committee studying what best to do to “fix” N.C. 107.
“I think the committee needs to do its work,” she said, adding that there’s seemingly no clear solution that won’t adversely impact someone.
Matheson wants a town manager who is willing to learn, who has good communication and management skills, is personable and who isn’t afraid to not know something because they are willing to learn and research to find answers. Most importantly, it must be “someone who loves the community” and is willing to be part of the community, Matheson said.
Sossoman isn’t a newcomer to the town politics — she served a four-year term on the town board in the late 1990s. Sossoman said several people in the community have asked her to run again.
“I really care about my community, and I want to give back to it,” said Sossoman, who is an active volunteer in Jackson County.
Owning a business on N.C. 107 has given her a unique perspective on the problem of what to do to ease congestion.
“I’ve thought about that a lot — the road just doesn’t have very far to grow,” she said.
Perhaps a traffic circle at the intersection where Radio Shack is could help, Sossoman said, who worries that a connector could pull business away from downtown.
Sossoman is deeply concerned about downtown. Radio Shack used to be located there, and she helped form the group that evolved into DSA.
“I want to make sure the downtown stays strong,” Sossoman said, adding that she wants a continuation of downtown events, though she also gave a strong nod to extending the strength of the downtown outside of its traditional limits.
Concerning a town manager, Sossoman wants someone with an education, the proper qualifications and who “is able to communicate with everybody in the community, and with the town board.”
“Occupy Sylva” on Saturday looked and sounded a lot like a Democratic-party function, but with a twist. The message wasn’t necessarily about voting Democratic, though speakers, particularly political office holders, certainly worked that wish into speeches when their moments came to grab the microphone.
The bigger message, and what seemed to have motivated the more than 60 people gathered on Main Street Sylva more than party politics, was about stopping corporate greed, creating jobs and not limiting wealth to a privileged few in a nation with such vast resources at its command.
This was Sylva’s contribution to the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement. The leaderless movement started one month ago in New York City, with protests spreading nationwide and beyond. Occupy Sylva, Occupy Asheville, Occupy Seattle … even Occupy Helsinki, Occupy Rome, Occupy Berlin and Occupy London.
Sylva’s occupiers waved mostly homemade signs at passing traffic, receiving either toots of horns in support or blank looks from motorists as they swung their cars by the water fountain that fronts Main Street where the protesters gathered.
The signs read, “Corporations are not people,” “Get money out of politics,” “No more predatory capitalism,” “Jobs not cuts.”
No tent city emerged in Sylva as in other Occupy events — after about an hour, everyone wandered off, many to area restaurants to grab a bite to eat before heading to their homes. No clashes with police occurred, either. In fact, if there were any Sylva officers keeping an eye on this group, they were deep, deep undercover — there wasn’t a blue uniform in sight.
While small-town civility ruled this particular Occupy event, the people who gathered were clearly serious in their intentions: They were one voice in demanding that change, real change, must take place.
“We are not a poor country. Our money is just in the wrong place,” said Marsha Crites, who attended the event.
Kurt Lewis, a member of the Young Democrats at Smoky Mountain High School, was somewhat disappointed that few people in his age group showed up. He held a sign that read, “Wall Street is America’s largest casino.”
“They need to care now instead of caring later, before it is too late,” the 17 year old said of his fellow teens.
This being Jackson County, where a preponderance of WNC’s literati call home, poems were of course read, too. Ben Bridgers, retired from attorney work this year, said he’s turned to writing as a means to funnel his growing frustrations with what’s taking place nationally.
“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” Bridgers told the crowd, before reading aloud a few poems that spoke to why he believes this country is in trouble.
The Occupy Sylva event looked quite a bit like the left’s version of the Tea Party movement, though the speeches and political aims couldn’t be more different.
Political junkie Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University professor who teaches political science, noticed and enjoyed that irony, too. He turned out to observe the nation’s latest grassroots movement at work in small town WNC.
“It’s very interesting,” Cooper said. “Both (groups) are saying they are fed up, but they have such radically different solutions.”