Vision quest: Waynesville officials attempt glimpse into future
After a full day of brainstorming, the Waynesville Board of Aldermen had thrown a lot of meat onto the table. Ideas, concerns and potential opportunities were written down on giant pieces of paper and tacked up on the walls, canvassing a good portion of the meeting room overlooking Lake Junaluska.
Town officials gathered for their late-March retreat with the mission of “crafting a vision” for the future, but there seemed to be a consensus from the session’s onset that Waynesville wasn’t looking too shabby to begin with. Mayor Gavin Brown said he felt that most residents and visitors perceived the town to be “comfortable,” “enjoyable,” “clean” and “safe.”
“It’s all these things you want to see in that Norman Rockwell painting of Waynesville,” the mayor said.
David Long, a facilitator hired by the town to conduct the retreat, agreed — “If anything, I think you’re held up as a model of the ways things should be” — and explained that the purpose of the visioning session was to prepare for the future, to keep a good thing going and make it better. He cautioned against expecting epiphanies.
“I don’t think anything’s going to come out of today where you’re going to say, ‘I never realized that, I’m stunned,’” he said. “It’s not going to be like that.”
Past town retreats have been much more straightforward. Last year, officials spent the day discussing the possibilities of a Lake Junaluska merger and the town’s information technology needs. In 2008, the board focused on specific issues, including watershed conservation, liquor by the drink and the skateboard park. This year’s getaway was looser, less tangible and more abstract.
Leaders were asked to consider the town’s strengths and weaknesses, its needs and opportunities. They were led through a series of exercises involving note cards and graphs. They were asked not to “overthink it” or “over-analyze it,” but to “just kind of go with your gut.”
“It’s not a science,” Long told them. “It’s just a way of figuring out what’s on your mind.”
Issues on the minds of town leaders were many. They ranged from how to encourage and guide future growth to drawing in visitors during the off-season. There were discussions about fostering a walkable and bikeable community, about the possibilities of bottling local water, about expanding the Downtown Waynesville Association and downtown-specific taxing district boundaries to include Hazlewood, Frog Level and South Main Street.
Just before lunch, the group’s sprawling list was pared down to a suite of themes, which was promptly mapped out and posted on the wall. Priority areas identified by Waynesville’s leaders were the economy; infrastructure needs; maintaining quality of life; promoting the area; protecting and promoting the natural environment; planning and vision; mobility and traffic and finances.
Looking over their initial lists posted along the wall, Mayor Brown suggested filing everything under one umbrella.
“Our focus appears to be the economy,” he said. “All 43 items up there, I could probably just put under the economy.”
Throughout the day, economics did weave in and out of most every conversation. So did other issues. There was natural overlap between identified themes like infrastructure, planning and the environment.
There were discussions about how to square wants for a walkable community with the possibility of easing development requirements, such as mandating sidewalks, to encourage growth.
Officials considered assessing critical infrastructure needs and exploring the merits of bond referendums to fund such needs. They talked about ensuring efficiency in delivered services addressing social issues.
The mayor asked if perhaps there was a need to launch a town-specific economic development arm. He wondered if the town should be actively seeking out and luring businesses to the area.
“I guess I’m asking a question more than creating a bullet point,” Brown told the aldermen. “Does the town need an economic development department? Is that what I’m hearing?”
Town Manager Marcy Onieal informed the group that prospective business opportunities do come around — “they knock on planning’s door all the time” — but that there were currently no resources specifically directed toward economic development efforts.
“Sure the town could do it,” said Alderman LeRoy Roberson, “but I don’t think you’d be as effective as if you partnered with the chamber or the TDA or even the county.”
Alderman Gary Caldwell agreed. He described the new merger of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce and the county’s Economic Development Commission as “a test.”
“I feel like, at this point, we need to give them that chance to see how it flows, to see where it goes,” Caldwell said.
After aldermen dove into the possibility of expanding the current downtown boundaries that allow for a dedicated source of funding for the town’s core area — such a move would require property owners in areas like Frog Level to pay an additional tax — they began wondering if such an initiative would sink or float.
“There could potentially be a lot of pushback from the business owners and property owners,” said Alderman Wells Greeley.
“There could be,” agreed Onieal. “We haven’t had that formal conversation, yet.”
The town leaders also talked about acquiring easements for Richland Creek greenway connections and making more of an effort capitalize on local recreational opportunities. They considered taking a look at staff training and drawing up a policy procedure for outside funding requests.
They discussed weighing the need for jobs against environmental concerns — “that is just not acceptable anymore” — with the consensus being new endeavors would need to be clean and sustainable.
“It’s not about the environment versus jobs anymore,” the mayor said. “They go hand-in-hand. We don’t think that way anymore. There may have been a time that we did.”
When discussing the town’s financial condition, the town manager noted that the most recent housing evaluations — the basis for the town’s property tax revenue — had reversed a trend.
“In essence, the natural growth the town has relied on has come to a screeching halt over the last few years,” Onieal said. “So, it’s caught up with us.”
She said that there may come a time when the town will need to consider cutting services or raising property taxes. The mayor conceded the reality — “Do I want to raise taxes? No. Am I going to raise taxes? Well, I shrug my shoulders.” — but said he’s hopeful growth will relieve any need to hike taxes.
“My hope and prayer is that we can grow our way out of this,” Brown said. “Let’s see if we can’t tough this out a little bit longer.”
Among the group’s chief concerns was the merger with Lake Junaluska. It made the top of the list during the retreat’s initial brainstorming session.
At one point, Lake Junaluska Executive Director Jack Ewing dropped in on the retreat. He expressed his support for the merger.
“I just want you to know, that is an important issue to us — not just a good option, it is the option, the best option for us,” Ewing told town officials.
Waynesville leaders also pondered the town’s identity. They asked themselves if the area needed to be better defined.
Onieal asked if the town had considered hammering out a brand — “or a catchphrase” — and Alderman Well Greely relayed how some of his Asheville friends “think we live in the middle of the Congo.” Offering an outsider’s perspective, the facilitator noted that the area may be getting overlooked when the outside world thinks of Western North Carolina.
“I’m thinking, Waynesville is sort of the crown jewel,” said Long. “It doesn’t get mentioned, but it should.”
“Maybe we want to be mysterious,” said the mayor. “I say that jokingly, but not really.”
Earlier, Brown had shared his concern that the town’s future growth might come with unwanted consequences. He urged the board to be wary of the area becoming “gentrified.”
“As our communities change, you hope you don’t have gentrification, or stratification,” the mayor said, “with the very rich people sitting up on the top of a mountain kind of sneering at the lowly people down in town.”
As the day’s visioning session wrapped, Long’s prediction appeared accurate. There were no a-ha moments, just plenty of threads to follow into the future. The leaders agreed to go out together for the occasional beer or dinner — in groups small enough to bypass open-meeting rules — and continue talking and charting a course.
“We don’t have all the answers, but I still think we’re the best town in North Carolina,” Brown said before the group adjourned.