Cullowhee advocates seek to sharpen vision of community plan

fr cullowheeplanningJake Flannick • SMN Correspondent

Building consensus among the increasing number of residents and business owners in Cullowhee is critical to shaping the identity of the area. Growth is outpacing steps to establish a long-term plan for building and economic development, community planners and advocates here agree.


This was one of several refrains among the two dozen or so community stakeholders who appeared at Cullowhee Valley School for a public input meeting in November. The meeting brought together local officials, longtime residents, business owners and community organizations that spent two hours trying advance what already has proved an extensive community planning process.

Such ideas, of course, are hardly new in an area with few rules dictating what development should look like. But they are particularly relevant given the advent of new student housing complexes close to Western Carolina University and a growing number of student nightlife spots — which have raised the sense of urgency among advocates of managing growth in Cullowhee.

“This is where we live,” said Rick Bennett, a member of a Cullowhee planning task force appointed by Jackson County commissioners. “I’d like to see planning.”

Gathered in small groups at tables no more than two feet off the floor in the elementary school library, many at the forum appeared eager to offer suggestions, sometimes raising their hands and leaning forward as planning consultants, funded with a grant from the Southwestern Commission to arrange the forums, jotted down their suggestions.

They pored over maps of the planning district covering at least 640 acres, using colored markers to highlight business hubs and residential areas, among other details like flood plains. The exercise was meant to distinguish sections deemed for conservation purposes from others considered fertile for development. The campus of WCU is not subject to any proposals in the planning district.

Suggestions ranged from building bike paths and sidewalks to conserving greenways and parks on the Tuckasegee River. Some called for rebuilding what longtime residents recall as a vibrant downtown Cullowhee decades ago.

“I’d like to see Old Cullowhee revitalized,” said Craig Forrest, a painter who has long lived in Cullowhee. Old Cullowhee, as it’s known, declined after a new highway was built on the opposite side of campus, funneling traffic away from the traditional business district. That stretch has remained a central focus of the community revitalization group CuRvE.

Others suggested repairing roads deemed hazardous or building new ones to serve a growing number of motorists. That is particularly true around the university, whose back streets are familiar to Roy Osborn, a longtime resident who lives nearby.

“I don’t mind driving on campus, but it’s just another vehicle that doesn’t need to be there,” he said, adding that building an additional road skirting the university would likely reduce traffic.

Other specific suggestions included establishing standards for the appearance of streetscapes and developing additional parks for recreational use on the Tuckasegee.

It was the second such public forum held in November.

The forums are part of a broad planning process steered by a nine-member task force the county appointed in the spring. The creation of the planning task force came after a year of pressure from people in Cullowhee concerned about the lack of development regulations amid a steady increase in population.

Between 2000 and 2010, Cullowhee grew to nearly 9,500 residents from about 6,000, according to the latest data by the U.S. Census Bureau, an increase of about 47 percent.

Over the same period, shopping centers and restaurants, among other businesses, have proliferated. Two large student housing complexes have come online, with a third slated to begin construction soon.

Community advocates are careful not to exclude WCU in discussions of plans to shape future development in Cullowhee, acknowledging its presence as the main economic engine here.

“We are a college town,” said Bennett, the task force member who also is a longtime resident of Cullowhee.

At the same time, they are seeking involvement from the university — a representative of which appeared at the most recent forum — in their efforts to tailor the setting of the area to the student population partly with the kinds of college-town trappings that beckon elsewhere.

“They want to look seven miles down the road, but they don’t want to look seven yards out of their front door,” Bennett said at the latest forum, referring to the university extending support to Dillsboro, where WCU has been engaged in various economic development projects in concert with the town.

The task force, which has started gathering public input in informal surveys and discussions among residents, will continue weighing potential land-use rules and other suggestions over the next year. It is expected to submit any proposals to county commissioners for approval by the end of next summer.

Whether such a planning process takes shape, some say, hinges largely on the resolve of its proponents.

“It’s not going to happen unless you start saying, ‘You,’” County Planner Gerald Green said in what turned into an impassioned appeal to those at the latest forum. He noted that the county could consider setting up a fund for improvements to Cullowhee if a plan comes into focus.

For others, it is a matter of capturing the attention of local businesses and organizations as a way to draw investments.

“I’ve been to meeting, after meeting, after meeting,” said Myrtle Schrader, a member of the task force who has lived in Cullowhee since the early 1960s.

“Who’s going to want to pay for all this?” she added, pointing to the dozens of pieces of paper bearing the ideas of those at the forum that were arranged in columns on part of the library wall. “Whatever plan is designed must be attractive to people who have the means to create the desirable change.”

To submit comments online, visit For more info, call the county planning department at 828.631.2255.

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