Here we go again: Sylva town leaders spar over DSA funding

The organization many credit with helping to create and nurture Sylva’s vibrant downtown scene is facing the possibility of going belly up over funding issues.

During a budget work session last week, a majority of town commissioners indicated they might vote against giving money to the Downtown Sylva Association. DSA, as it’s dubbed, formed 18 years ago under a different name — Sylva Partners in Renewal — but with the same basic mission: to promote the economic growth and vitality of downtown Sylva.

The group is seeking $25,000 from the town as it moves toward dropping what it claims is an unsustainable funding method — begging for money directly from merchants — developed as a defense during previous funding attacks. DSA has created a wedge on the town board, marked by narrow split votes flip-flopping for or against DSA, depending on the winners in the last election.

The town’s support dropped from $20,000 to a low of $2,000 a year, and surged back to $12,000 last year following a brief shift in power on the board that favored DSA. This amount contrasts, by way of example, to the $45,000 a year Franklin’s town board chips-in for its Main Street program.

As happened previously in Sylva, a fiscally prudent threesome is in power these days, meaning the DSA could get far less than the amount requested. Zero dollars doesn’t look farfetched, in fact, with commissioners Harold Hensley, Ray Lewis and Danny Allen making no bones about their overall unwillingness to continue underwriting an organization they have declared too Main Street/Back Street/and a couple-of-side streets-centric. The same three town commissioners were in power when the town first yanked DSA funding seven years ago, but subsequently lost their majority control.

Commissioners Chris Matheson and Stacy Knotts are expressing support for funding DSA. Mayor Maurice Moody is, too, but he doesn’t get a vote unless there’s a tie. That possibility is not as completely farfetched as it might appear.

Because, in the melodrama that is the Sylva town board, Allen a couple of months ago announced he planned to resign … though he wouldn’t say why, when, or how exactly this exit would take place. If history serves as a guide, Allen’s resignation might not happen at all, or even be mentioned again: A few years ago Allen made exactly the same sort of pronouncement, only to continue blithely on without public explanation about why he wanted to leave in the first place, yet never did.

So, while Moody holds the potential tiebreaker, that might be as close as the mayor gets to being able to demonstrate his voting power.  

DSA is fighting back. About 20 merchants turned up at last week’s meeting to demonstrate their support for the group that represents them. Most were DSA members who’ve ponied-up money over the past few years as the town’s financial support teeter-tottered.

One state Main Street requirement is that town programs must have a paid director. DSA’s version is Julie Sylvester, who receives $20,000 a year for 20 hours. She also receives $250 a month for a health-savings account.

Robin Kevlin, speaking for DSA, told commissioners their support is critical.

“We must have active involvement of both public and private sectors for continued growth and prosperity for the town of Sylva,” said Kevlin, who works at the downtown office of Metrostat. “The Main Street program is a proven strategy for revitalization, a powerful network of linked communities, and a national support program that leads the field.”

Kevlin went on to describe downtown Sylva as the “heartbeat of northern Jackson County” and “the reason we move here and stay here.”

Jackson County Planner Gerald Green added his voice in support of DSA, playing off Kevlin’s heartbeat analogy.

“With a healthy heart the rest of the community can remain strong,” Green said in a flash of inspired speechifying.

Sylva in the past has touched on the possibility of forming a special tax district, where businesses pay a surcharge on their property taxes to support downtown initiatives. The idea was not universally supported by merchants or building owners and was dropped, however. In the absence of a tax district, the DSA relies on money from the town and from voluntary membership dues.


DSA puts its future in hands of town leaders

Downtown Sylva Association will no longer ask merchants for membership money, a financial model that has proven unsustainable, according to Julie Sylvester, executive director of Downtown Sylva Association.

The organization hopes to rely more on funding from the town, but this comes at the same time town leaders are poised to cut funding to the organization.

“The DSA has now reached the point where its solvency will be in danger unless the town acts to provide the level of funding the DSA requested of $25,000,” Sylvester said. “Unfortunately, the funding that has been set aside in the town budget for the DSA has fluctuated over the past several years, forcing the DSA to tap into its dwindling reserves to make up the difference.”

Sylvester said the group deserves money from the town’s coffers given its contributions to the community.

“The Downtown Sylva Association provides events that highlight the beauty of downtown Sylva and its community and attract visitors from both the local area, and from surrounding states,” Sylvester said in a written statement. “Without the DSA, the town of Sylva would not have received $100,000 in grants from the State of North Carolina’s Main Street program in the past year alone.” DSA also led a $120,000 fundraising effort to build Bridge Park.

DSA sponsors festivals and concerts that bring visitors downtown to spend money, helping the economy and generating tax revenue. Other DSA events “help us build a strong, family friendly community,” Sylvester said.

“In the past, the DSA received its funding through a combination of fundraisers, sponsorships, membership driven revenue and local government funding. In light of the current economic climate and the fact that only one or two other Main Street programs out of more than 50 operate with a membership based organization, the DSA made the decision to discontinue its local business membership program at the end of this fiscal year,” Sylvester said. “This has put the DSA’s funding in the hands of local government.”

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