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Wednesday, 31 January 2007 00:00

Downtown Sylva Association weighs the benefits of a taxing district

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When Howard Alligood heard about a group of Sylva merchants lobbying for a special downtown tax, he got a little suspicious.

 

According to its backers, the tax would be used to promote and improve downtown, theoretically increasing foot traffic and bringing more customers into his shop to buy Western-style artwork and artifacts. But that seemed like a maybe at best, and in the meantime, his rent would go up to cover the special tax.

So Alligood rousted up some neighboring shop owners and marched down the street to a meeting last week where members of the Downtown Sylva Association hoped to sell the idea to skeptics. It didn’t work. Instead, Alligood is more determined than ever to defeat the tax.

“If they thought they were going to drive this thing through they didn’t do their background very well. I don’t want somebody jamming something down my throat,” said Alligood, owner of Arsenal Artifacts and Prints.

Several long-time merchants like Alligood don’t resent the monetary cost — for most it would be roughly $200 a year — as much as the tactics of a group of relative newcomers pushing the special taxing district.

“These people have never been in my business before. They’ve never even walked in here and talked to me before,” Alligood said. “I don’t care if it’s $20 or $200. To me it is the principle of the thing.”

Next door at the Barber Shop, Vance Caulkins shared a similar view. Caulkins said the group pushing for the special tax dismissed his concerns and weren’t interested in his opinions when he went to the meeting.

“I am really upset about it,” Caulkins said. “I don’t want to be forced to pay an extra tax. I don’t want it to be shoved down our throats.”

The Sylva Town Board will have the final say on the creation of a special taxing district. The Downtown Sylva Association plans to pitch the idea to the town board at a meeting on Feb. 15.

“We are going to have a show of people there against it,” Caulkins promised.

The pending showdown has divided downtown merchants. For advocates of the special taxing district, the benefits seem obvious. The tax would support the Downtown Sylva Association in its goal to bring more people downtown and create a unified business district.

“If someone was coming downtown and walked by your shop, they might come in and spend money there,” said Sarah Graham, a Downtown Sylva Association board member promoting the idea.

Many merchants have bought into the concept, a popular tool in other downtowns across the state.

“For every car that passes or person that walks by, whether they are here to see us or another business around us, we benefit,” said Sheryl Rudd, owner of Heinzelmännchen Brewery and president of the Downtown Sylva Association.

That view was echoed repeatedly during a random door-to-door poll of downtown merchants last week.

“Anything that draws attention to downtown is a good thing,” said Dave Molin, owner of Motion Makers bike shop. “If you increase the number of people who walk by my store, I’m bound to benefit.”

“I wouldn’t mind helping pay the tax at all if it did more to draw business downtown,” said Patrick Ewart, the owner of Nick and Nates.

Ewart also runs a restaurant in Waynesville, which has a special taxing district like the one proposed for Sylva. Ewart said it pays off.

For example, two years ago the Downtown Waynesville Association started a summer block party series to get locals and tourists alike to stay out past supper. So many people gravitate downtown for the music, Ewart has a 45-minute waiting list the night of block parties.

“Everyone on the street benefits,” Ewart said.

 

Selling the intangibles

Not everyone, according to some business owners. For Caulkins, festivals are a detriment to his Barber Shop business. The street is closed and parking is full, so he simply shuts down for the day.

Kay Clemmons, owner of Sam’s Motor Sales, doesn’t see much in it for her either. It’s unlikely a festival-goer toting a bag of kettle corn will pop in and buy a used car while they’re at it. The same could be said of Ward’s Plumbing.

But according to backers, the payoff comes down the road. If a second-home owner in Cashiers is lured to Sylva and discovers Alligood’s frame selection, they might return when they need a picture framed, or call Ward’s when they’re in the market for a new appliance.

That’s the kind of exposure that led William Maney of Fantasy Travel to support the idea. Collectively, merchants can make downtown more enticing and pique people’s interest. They won’t wander in during an afternoon stroll to book a vacation, but at least they’ll see he exists.

“We still have people say, ‘Oh, we didn’t know there was a travel agency here,’ and it’s been here for years,’” Maney said.

As development booms from Whittier to Cashiers to Balsam, where will these newcomers shop? Will they buy on-line? Drive to Asheville? Support big-box chains? Or can downtown Sylva win them over?

“Do we want the business of the people moving here ?” posed Joyce Moore, owner of City Lights Bookstore.

Downtown leaders promoting the special tax have extolled the feel-good benefits of the Downtown Sylva Association — like creating a sense of community and a gathering place.

“It’s the intangibles of being part of the downtown community. Those are hard to measure,” Mary Beth Druzbick answered when one business owner asked her what was in it for them.

But intangible benefits aren’t going to convince those reluctant to support the downtown tax. Jay Denton, the Sylva town manager, said many business owners will look solely at the bottom line: what’s the cost-benefit?

The tax will cost the average merchant $200 a year, or $16 a month.

“Will it bring in that extra $16 a month to justify that tax?” Denton said. “You are talking about lots of non-tangibles that business owners can’t put their hands on. When they come down to town hall at the end of the year to write their check, will they get their bang for their buck?”

Dodie Blaschik, a Main Street business owner for 25 years, said she would rather make her own decisions about how to market and promote her auction company than pay a tax to someone else to do it for her.

“Anytime any government body dips into my pocket without my permission it lessens my freedom to do what I need to promote my business,” Blaschik said. “It becomes a freedom issue as to who is best qualified to spend my money. My credentials are more substantial than anyone’s on this committee.”

Blaschick said she supports downtown, as do many of those against the taxing district, but a downtown association should be supported through voluntary dues and membership, like joining the Chamber of Commerce.

 

Who pays?

On paper, the building owners pay the tax. But in reality, most landlords would pass the tax on to the merchants renting the storefronts. That’s not to say building owners don’t stand to benefit.

Success in downtown commerce will create more demand for storefronts and increase downtown property values, allowing building owners to charge more rent and get more cash when they sell. The special tax is an investment that reaps a better return on your assets, according to Ken Wilson, one of the original supporters of a special taxing district in Waynesville.

But some downtown Sylva building owners don’t subscribe to the adage of “spend money to make money.”

“All you have to do is look at the second or third floors or the backsides of buildings and you will see a lot of building owners aren’t doing squat to take care of their buildings,” said Milt Wofford, a downtown resident.

Several of the big property owners in downtown Sylva are reportedly against the special taxing district, according to those familiar with the issue. But in some cases, the tenants of those property owners support the idea and say they would pay higher rents, according to random interviews with merchants last week.

Only a handful of merchants actually own their own building. Livingston Kelley, something of a downtown fixture for three decades, is one of those few. Kelley’s not wild about his share of the special tax.

“I don’t like taxes to begin with,” said Kelley, who runs a photography studio. “That’s a big hike. I would be especially damaged I think.”

But Kelley might have other options. Stroll past his building on Main Street and half the storefront has sheets over the windows disguising stacks of boxes. Instead of using Main Street frontage for storage, Kelley could rent the space and have someone else to pass part of the tax along to.

In the decade since Dave Molin moved to Main Street, he’s seen a new generation of merchants open their doors. A used bookstore, a bakery, a brewery, a pizza and beer joint, and hip clothing stores.

“Sylva is coming of age. It would be interesting to see what they could do if they had a stable source of funding,” Molin said of the downtown association.

But some business owners are less excited about the prospect of change downtown.

“They want to make Sylva like Waynesville, but we don’t want to be like that,” said Alligood.

While promoters of the special tax see an organized downtown group as a way to preserve what’s special about Sylva, some feel it could erode it.

“I think our town is a Rockwell painting come to life,” said Dodie Blaschik, owner of Dodie’s Auction. “We are a national treasure. We don’t need to pattern ourselves after bigger towns and lose our character.”

 

What next?

Those for and against the special taxing district will be rallying support for their side up until the Feb. 15 meeting when the Downtown Sylva Association makes its pitch to the Sylva Town Board. Most likely, town board members won’t make a decision that night but will schedule a formal public hearing on the issue sometime in March.

Alligood said it wasn’t fair that the final decision would rest with the town board. Many downtown merchants live outside the town limits and can’t vote in the election for town board.

“If this thing gets pushed through, we are being taxed without representation. I think there is a little something in the Constitution about that,” Alligood said.

Town board members have said they will make their decisions based on the wishes of the majority of business owners, putting even more pressure on both sides to turn out the troops for the public meetings.

Lots of merchants want to know how the money would be spent if the special taxing district is approved. Other than hiring a part-time executive director, there’s no hard and fast plans, according to Mary Beth Druzbick, spokesperson for the effort.

“This is money for the Downtown Sylva Association to do for the people of the district. We want feedback on what kind of programs or projects you might like to have,” Druzbick told merchants at a series of information meetings. “The people who pay the tax would have their voices heard.”

Patrick Ewart, owner of Nick and Nate’s, said he wants to see an Appalachian craft show and a car show. But it will take a pro-active downtown organization, which in turn takes money to hire a professional director, he said.

“The more successful we get as a town, we have to be more organized and the Downtown Sylva Association is the way to do that,” agreed Matthew Turlington, owner of Penumbra Gallery.

Turlington is trying to interest fellow gallery owners in staying open late one evening a month for a gallery stroll. But coordinating and publicizing the event on a regular basis is beyond the workload of average volunteers.

 

The town’s role

Some business owners feel the town as a whole should fund downtown revitalization, or at least contribute, since the downtown is the essence of a community. Locals take their out-of-town guests for an afternoon stroll downtown, not along the five-lane highway lined with commercial sprawl. The town Christmas parade and July 4th fireworks are held downtown, not in the Wal-Mart parking lot, said Turlington.

The entire community has a vested interest in downtown’s success, and it should be supported by everyone, some merchants believe. That’s why many downtown merchants were upset when some town board members — namely Harold Hensley, Ray Lewis and Danny Allen — cut funding to the Downtown Sylva Association last summer.

“I was distressed by the abrupt taking away of funding by the town board,” said Joyce Moore, owner of City Lights bookstore. Moore said the apparent lack of downtown support from the town board makes her hesitant about the taxing district.

Druzbick said the funding cut shocked the Downtown Sylva Association but has made them stronger.

“It pushed us out of the nest a little bit and helped us clarify what we want to be as an organization,” Druzbick said. “If we don’t get a special taxing district, the Downtown Sylva Association will still be here. We feel Sylva is really ready to do some neat things.”

The Downtown Sylva Association is taking applications for a part-time executive director, which the group plans to hire regardless of if the special taxing district passes, although it’s not clear where the salary would come from after the group runs out of built up savings.

“That’s kind of putting the cart before the horse,” Alligood said.

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