Sylva candidates support helping downtown
The town of Sylva has struggled this year with balancing its budget and keeping businesses filling its downtown storefronts.
Going into next year, those same problems will likely continue to challenge town leaders, and whoever is elected as mayor and to the Sylva town board this November will have to grapple with how to overcome them next year.
Five people have stepped forward this year to run for the open position as mayor and two town board seats. Current town board member Chris Matheson and first-time candidate Jeremy Edmonds are competing for the mayor’s chair. Mayor Maurice Moody announced in June that he would not seek reelection. If Matheson should win, the town board will need to appoint someone to complete the last two years of her current term.
Incumbents Danny Allen and Barbara Hamilton are running to retain their current seats on the town board but must beat out newcomer Mary Kelley Gelbaugh.
Like in other small tourist towns, businesses in Sylva tend to come and go. While there are the old standards that have stayed open year after year, there are also storefronts that seem to constantly change or sit empty. Keeping new businesses in town was one of the main issues that candidates in Sylva’s elections this year wanted to tackle.
“We want to see our stores thrive,” Matheson said.
Sylva is a diverse, welcoming, small town, she said, and the board is trying to find ways to let business owners know that.
“I think Sylva can sell itself. It is a matter of getting that word out,” Matheson said.
However, with other towns surrounding it competing for the same tourism business, it can be difficult to stand out.
Hamilton said she is concerned that Sylva’s downtown will get lost amid larger business districts in Waynesville and Franklin.
“I want this little town not to go away,” she said.
Every time a new business moves into town, Hamilton said she visits it, personally welcomes the owner to downtown, and asks why they chose Sylva and what town leaders can do to keep them there.
“I think the public needs to see you, and you need to be out there participating and asking what more can we do for you?” she said.
While businesses need to plan to ensure their own success, town board candidate Gelbaugh also said that reaching out, talking to business owners and learning their needs will allow town officials to be proactive in trying to keep shops around. Town leaders can also work on attracting shoppers who will patronize the stores.
“I want to come up with creative ideas that will bring people downtown,” Gelbaugh said.
Although each candidate said they want Sylva to grow, it must be smart growth.
“I want to keep downtown a quaint little village. I want to try to get businesses in here that will fit in with what is already here,” Allen said.
One of the keys, Allen said, is students at Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College. Sylva must communicate with the students to see what the town needs to keep them around on weekends, which could help boost the economy, he said.
Allen also said that he wants to build public bathrooms in downtown, which Sylva is currently lacking. The bathrooms would add to the town’s amenities and give people somewhere to go when there are events downtown.
Mayor candidate Edmonds touted alcohol sales at festivals, concerts and other public events as one way to attract downtown visitors. The sales could also mean additional revenue for the town.
Cuts or taxes
This year, the Sylva town board had to either increase taxes or cut its budget to cover a $193,000 deficit. In the end, it chose cuts, but with no large sources of new revenue, the town could find itself facing a similar decision again next year.
This year was “very difficult,” and the town board held many long meetings to find a solution to its budget balancing problems, Hamilton said.
She doesn’t regret the choice not to raise taxes and hopes it won’t come to that next year.
“I would hate to do it, but it depends on what our funding is,” Hamilton said. “We understand how families are really, really struggling.”
Hamilton and her fellow candidates all said raising taxes would be a last resort should the town need to fill a budget hole.
“The budget issue is a big thing. I would like to be able to balance that if possible without raising taxes,” Edmonds said.
But on the flip side, continued cuts would result in fewer services. It’s about finding a good place in-between.
“You can’t tell people you will give them more for less,” Edmonds said.
Sylva has not raised its tax rate since 2003 when it increased to 42 cents per $100 of property value. In 2008, following Jackson County’s property revaluation, the town dropped 12 cents from its tax rate.
Matheson said she won’t promise not to increase taxes, but she will try to find spending cuts. However, funding coming from the state continues to decline, causing towns and counties to pay for more, which could force the town board to make hard choices like it did this year.
“Sometimes, we are impacted by things out of our control,” Matheson said.
If the town can attract new businesses and residents though, it can increase its tax base without raising its tax rate.
“I have been working hard to try to get other businesses in here to offset,” Allen said. “If I am reelected next year, I will do anything and everything to offset a tax increase.”
Allen added that he would like to bring a national chain restaurant into Sylva’s town limits.
Gelbaugh felt similarly. Increasing the tax base would be the first option over cuts or tax increases. Gelbaugh said her personal experience handling her family budget will help her if elected.
“I think I am personally very financially responsible in my life. I hope that trait can be carried on as a town board member,” she said.
For a roundup of all of The Smoky Mountain News’ election coverage — including past stories on the municipal races in Franklin, Maggie Valley, Canton and Bryson City — visit www.smokymountainnews.com.
Early voting started last Thursday in North Carolina for the Nov. 5 municipal elections. The only races on the ballot are town elections. Depending on what town you live in, here is where you can go make your voice heard:
• Maggie Valley, Canton and Clyde residents can vote from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, from now until Nov. 1, and from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, at the Senior Resources Center, 81 Elmwood Way, Waynesville.
• Sylva residents can vote from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, from now until Nov. 1, and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, in room 246 of the Justice Center, 401 Grindstaff Cove Rd, Sylva.
• Franklin residents can vote from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, from now until Nov. 1, and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, at the Board of Elections office, 5 W. Main St., Franklin.
Early voting is not available in Swain County this election.
Jeremy Edmonds, 26, mechanic
Edmonds is mechanic at Whittier Automotive who just married this past weekend. As a Sylva native, he said he wants to help the town any way he can and to represent the average residents who aren’t involved town politics or attend the board meetings.
Although he lacks political experience, “You have to learn as you go a lot of times.”
Chris Matheson, 54, business owner
Matheson, a Sylva native, has served on the town board for four years. She currently owns gift shops and apartments but was previously an assistant district attorney in Western North Carolina.
“I love the town of Sylva. I am committed to the town of Sylva. I am committed to its growth in a controlled way.”
Danny Allen, 57, former Sylva police officer
Allen is the longest-serving town board member, with 10 years under his belt. He is formerly a police officer with the Sylva Police Department but works still part-time as an officer at the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching. The Sylva native said he decided to run again after residents asked him to.
“I just want to work for the people.”
Mary Kelley Gelbaugh, 34, office manager
Gelbaugh is the daughter of two downtown Sylva business owners and works for Wilson Family Chiropractic. In addition to those two roles, Gelbaugh is a native of Sylva, mother and wife, which she said allows her to identify with many of the town’s resident and business owners.
“I feel like I could meet a lot of different demographics in our community.”
Barbara Hamilton, 69, retired nurse
Born in Bryson City, Hamilton grew up in Chicago but has lived in Sylva with her husband, a native, since 1971. A former nurse at Harris Regional Hospital, Hamilton was appointed to the town board two years ago. After her and a friend retired, they wanted to volunteer. In addition to helping at The Community Table, she got involved in town politics.
“We just felt it was our time to give back to the community. I feel God have been very good to my family.”