Tiny town of Forest Hills holds fate of Cullowhee revitalization in its hands
Being the top leader of the Village of Forest Hills isn’t as serene as it once was.
Admittedly, Irene Hooper, the first mayor of this subdivision-turned-town, dealt with some thorny issues after the residential area near Western Carolina University voted to incorporate in 1997. Her job, mainly, was to ferry the town through the mechanics of keeping student housing out. The 350 to 400 people living in the Village of Forest Hills were clear on not wanting students taking over their community.
“We have a lovely area here,” Hooper said at the time. “Or, we did, let’s put it that way. Mailboxes are being torn down, beer bottles are thrown around, cars are racing, parties are going on and dogs are barking.”
The newly sworn town board’s first act after the referendum to incorporate passed? Adopting a building moratorium on everything but single-family, site-built, residential houses with at least 2,000 feet of heated space. The board was confident there weren’t many students who could afford that kind of housing, given the average home in the Village of Forest Hills at that time was just 1,843 square feet in size.
Thirteen years later, the town’s current top leader is also grappling with growth issues. But that’s about where the similarity begins and ends. Mayor Jim Wallace has to help decide: Should the Village of Forest Hills embrace what it once so clearly rejected? Should the town actually agree to annex university land into its town limits, and perhaps even change its name to Cullowhee?
Decision-making time is nigh. Wallace said he believes the town’s board members will vote “yes” for annexation. That is, if WCU, in the next couple of weeks, brings to the town a document containing what the mayor anticipates — a method outlining exactly how the town could best accommodate the mixed-use land plan necessary for the Village of Forest Hills to move forward with the annexation.
See also: How would being a town help Cullowhee?
There isn’t much to be seen in the one square mile that makes up the Village of Forest Hills. Tidy houses, an inn, an informally designed and painted sign posted along N.C. 107 with the town’s name set against a backdrop of trees and some mountains.
That about sums things up, except to note that residents are taxed one penny, the town has hired zero employees to work in its non-existent town hall, and the board’s meetings are held down the road at the county’s recreation center. Oh, and the town hires off-duty deputies to patrol on weekend evenings during the school year to help keep things under control, plus oversee general street maintenance. That includes fixing potholes.
Dawn Gilchrist-Young, a resident of the Village of Forest Hills who serves on the town’s planning board, said she doesn’t fear higher taxes if the annexation takes place.
“My primary reason for moving to Forest Hills was its promise of protection from thoughtless growth, but I think this would be thoughtful growth,” she wrote in an email. “As one of our council members has said, this will allow us a say in what happens around Forest Hills. It would seem a great deal is about to happen just a mile or so below us at the university.”
Justin Menickelli, an associate professor for WCU in the department of health, physical education and recreation, also lives in the Village of Forest Hills. He, like neighbor Gilchrist-Young, favors annexation as a means of controlling the growth that now seems inevitable. Inside town limits, ordinances can control the nature, scale and aesthetics of development.
“I think it is a great idea,” Menickelli said. “I know there are people who are against it, worried about corporate-type chains coming in. I just don’t think that will happen (on a large scale) — maybe a grocery, or a couple of restaurants.”
Gilchrist-Young also touched on the possibility of chain restaurants and businesses in Cullowhee. Unlike Menickelli, she fears the town center WCU Chancellor John Bardo wants to build — essentially, a new commercial district now lacking in the community — will be homogeneous, and without local flavor or character.
“WCU’s population is more a Zaxby’s/Target/Abercrombie population than they are farmers market and outdoor café population, so the planners and businesses will make decisions reflective of that, I’m afraid,” she said.
That is organic farmer Curt Collins’ fears, as well. He is in his third year of farming, running Avant Garden in Cullowhee. But Collins, though fervent and unapologetic in his support for local businesses over large, corporate ones, picked his words carefully.
“This is not ‘me versus the university,’” Collins said. “Ultimately, what the university desires is the end goal that all of us desire — the betterment of this area.”
On Saturday, a ‘Cullowhee Happening’ cultural event will take place at Avant Garden from 3 to 10 p.m. Collins also sees the event as a natural setting for people to discuss plans and share ideas about the future of their community.
What the future might hold
Town center, as conceived and promoted by Bardo, would primarily be a 35-acre commercial hub abutting N.C. 107. It would extend from the Fine and Performing Arts Center to the Ramsey Center. Sites would be leased to restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores and perhaps a specialty-style grocery store.
Bardo has promoted mixed-use development. So there might be condominiums as well as shops. University-type structures would be held to a minimum. WCU wants board members of the Village of Forest Hills to adopt the town-center plan in its entirety, a wholesale approval of the development plans that would be good for 20 years, so that individual businesses wouldn’t need to seek approval by the town.
“Some things I like about this, some I don’t,” said Bill Supinski, a senior English major at WCU who was sitting outside the Mad Batter restaurant one day last week. “It would be nice to be able to buy alcohol, but that’s not really necessary. Sylva is just 5 miles away.”
Supinski said he was attracted to WCU because it’s the antitheses of his hometown, Raleigh.
“I didn’t want to live like that anymore. If you want those kinds of places (corporate businesses, chain restaurants), you should move there,” he said.
Adam Bigelow, a senior in environmental science, said he wants Cullowhee to become a town “without corporations” that is a model of local sustainability.
Downstate, another town and university partnership
WCU, in not having an incorporated town to help provide that college-town feel, is in an unusual situation. But it isn’t unheard of for a university and a town to join in promoting mutual business interests. Take Elon and Elon University, for example.
Elon, founded in 1889, developed in concert with the university. Though they are two independent entities, the town exists because of the university, said Eric Townsend, director of Elon University’s news bureau.
“The town makes its own decisions,” he said. “That said, part of our strategic plan is to help bring in more private businesses.”
Currently, the town consists of some restaurants, a few boutiques and some retail establishments. It could be more vibrant, Townsend said.
“There’s a series of guidelines we’d like to see happen over the next 10 years,” he said.
The town’s leaders want the same as university leaders, said Elon Manager Mike Dula, whose daughter is Sylva Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower.
Elon and Elon University always have worked closely together, meeting the university’s needs for water and sewer, coordinating police forces, and other joint projects. But the 10-year plan is a high mark in that relationship. For the first time, the two are looking to jointly redevelop and revitalize the small downtown area.
To that end, a committee has been formed that is made up of a consultant, two aldermen, the town’s planner, the university’s vice president for business affairs, and the vice president’s assistant.
“This is to see how we to try to move forward from here,” Dula said.
Back home in the Village of Forest Hills, Mayor Wallace positively bristles over insinuations that WCU leaders are calling the shots when it comes to possible annexation by the town. That simply isn’t true, he said, the town board remains firmly in charge.
“The chancellor has assured us, it is 100-percent negotiable,” Wallace said. “And people have preconceived ideas about what the university will do. They think it will just be an ugly mess — that’s not true.”
What’s also not true, the mayor added, is any possibility that the Village of Forest Hills will get into the business of involuntary annexation — of anyone, anywhere, anytime. That includes along old N.C. 107, or Old Cullowhee Road, which has seen the group, Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor, form for the purposes of rebuilding what, at one time, represented the main corridor into the university.
Cullowhee boosters believe incorporation is key to the successful redevelopment of Old Cullowee. This, unlike the university’s proposal, will mean private property owners will have to sign on to the idea.
“We will not force annexation,” Wallace said. “When old 107 is ready, they can petition us.”
Mary Jean Herzog, a WCU professor in the department of educational leadership and foundations, is careful to separate the work of the Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor from the university.
“This is a community organization, not a university one,” she said. “We’re really just a group of people who got together because of a mutual interest.”
That is, to beautify and invigorate Old Cullowhee Road. There, now, are a few businesses, including restaurants, a tattoo parlor, body shop, an auto-repair shop. After discussing what it would take to revitalize the area — river walkways, streetlamps, a river park, sidewalks connecting students to businesses — members of the group realized they wouldn’t be able to tap sources of money, such as grants, without real-town status.
Efforts in the 1970s to incorporate had failed. But there have been no real attempts made since then, Herzog said.
“I would like for Cullowhee to be a town as nice as Sylva, or Weaverville. … Growth is going to come. Do we want to be in charge of our destiny, or wait for unbridled growth and development?” she said.
Village of Forest Hills resident Menickelli believes the potential for growth on Old Cullowhee Road is tremendous and supports the idea of his town underpinning the revitalization effort.
“I just want to applaud the efforts of the (revitalization) group,” he said. “Old Cullowhee needs to be cleaned up.”
Meanwhile, former Mayor Hooper worries about growth of the Village of Forest Hills. But she worries more about that growth being left unchecked and unplanned.
“I hope we won’t lose our identity as the little village,” Hooper said. “But I think it will probably be a good thing in the long run. For all of Western North Carolina, and particularly, WCU.”
Festival celebrates Cullowhee
Cullowhee Happening, a cultural event and festival, will be held from 3 to 10 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 11, at Avant Garden.
Three bands will perform. This is a fundraiser for the Cullowhee Revitalization Effort, a group dedicated to rebuilding Old Cullowhee. See this week’s Outdoors section for information on a paddling race held on the Cullowhee section of the Tuck in conjunction with the event.