Students — and their wallets — return to Jackson County

Aside from the occasional “welcome WCU students” signs, there isn’t much visible evidence in Sylva that signals more than 7,000 students have flooded this community for the start of school.

The town isn’t awash in purple, the school’s official color. You won’t see many images of catamounts, the university’s mascot, splashed about.

But despite the lack of an obvious welcome mat, the influx of students is a critical cog in Jackson County’s economic engine — and merchants and elected leaders here know that.

But it’s not always about the direct exchange of dollars. The economic ties between the university and community are often subtler than that.

At Rick’s Full Service Car Wash, Manager Mark Harwood relies on students for a workforce. And, as a general rule, he said, the students are simply stellar in that role.

“They do a great job for us,” he said, gesturing toward the car washers busy cleaning out a line of cars. “I love having them.”

Without WCU’s students, Harwood said he’d be hard pressed to find the dozen or so workers he needs to keep the 15-year business running. Students don’t usually have enough extra cash to get their cars cleaned here, he said, but they are vital to the car wash’s economic wellbeing nonetheless.

“With the economy the way it is, we are a bit of a luxury item,” he said.

At Super Wal-Mart in Sylva, displays cater to students and parents to shop for go-back-to-college items. That money returns to the community in the form of retail taxes.

“It’s a really big deal,” said Jackson County Commissioner Charles Elders of the economic ties between this county and the university.

Elders owns a gasoline station on U.S. 441 between Sylva and Whittier. Students headed west, or commuting in from outlying communities, help make up his business clientele, too — though gamblers headed to the Cherokee casino are even more important on a day-to-day basis, Elders said.

But at the Exxon service station on N.C. 107 in Sylva, students make up most of the business, and on this day WCU student and worker Samantha Talbert is rushing to keep up. It’s 9:30 a.m., and she oversees both the main cash register and drive-thru area.

Even at this early hour, people are driving though picking up six-packs of beer. It’s a Saturday, and people are eager to start their day of fun.

“It’s mostly locals during the day, and college kids at night,” Talbert said between customers.

Talbert eats at local restaurants and shops at local stores. Though she’s more frugal than many — she prefers to make her own meals most days, for health and economic reasons — Talbert still, like other WCU students, helps bolster Jackson County’s economy.

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