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Keeping downtown alive: Revitalization organizations debate how to best improve downtown communities, as Sylva refocuses following a major spending cut

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

With a quick trip on Main Street in downtown Sylva, it’s easy enough to see the small town as a quaint collection of professional offices, locally owned restaurants, galleries, clothing and specialty shops.

Each business is located in a historically significant building, many of the old brick storefronts still bearing the name of their original owner somewhere up high in the masonry. Dotted with trees and park benches and old style lampposts, Main Street lures tourists for some lunch and an afternoon of shopping. Gaggles of families come from Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida, indicated by the license plates lined up along the street’s two-hour parking.

Carrying bags and eating ice cream cones, they may stop to press fingers against the window at Penumbra photography gallery where a pale orange cat sleeps in the window, or they may romp in the small flowered courtyard outside Karen’s restaurant before leaving town.

Such visits are too short for visitors to be able to notice the town’s quiet, steady rhythm, the daily cycle of downtown merchants and residents going about their ways — Jay Coward, an attorney, heading out for lunch; Stacy Knotts, town alderwoman, walking alongside her daughter as she pedals a tricycle down the sidewalk; Didier Cuzange on his way to teach yoga classes in his studio above Lulu’s.

This activity earns the town the description of being “vibrant” — a key word in downtown revitalization lingo. But “vibrancy” is a rather esoteric, hard-to-define concept that towns nationwide are struggling to achieve.

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“I think vibrancy is much like beauty; it’s in the eye of the beholder,” said Rodney Swink, director of North Carolina Main Street program in Department of Commerce’s Office of Urban Development.

The question in downtown Sylva lately has been who is responsible for creating that vibrancy — both in the past and for the future. Sylva town leaders recently pulled $18,000 in funding — the majority of their contribution — from the Downtown Sylva Association, leaving the group in the financial lurch and looking for new ways to subsist.

As the association prepares to solicit downtown merchants for their support in creating a municipal service district — a special taxing district that would raise money for the DSA based on local property values — the questions remain... Just what is a downtown association good for and how should it function?


Defining downtown

As small town America has grown and changed, downtowns have lost some of their core functions of necessity. They are no longer the singular destination to conduct business. However, downtown remains the heart of the community, say those in the revitalization business.

“It belongs to everybody,” said Susan Moffat-Thomas, executive director of New Bern’s Swiss Bear Downtown Development Corp.

Downtown Sylva Association president Sheryl Rudd agreed, noting downtown as not just the city center, but a county center as well — not because it’s the county seat, but because it’s a gathering place where familiar faces are common and the pace is set on a more pedestrian scale rather than on the heavily trafficked N.C. 107 strip.

Whether or not people have to go downtown, the area is still an indicator of commercial health and local spirit. A dead downtown surrounded by strip malls and big box stores will do little to attract new residents who have a choice about where they live, said Moffat-Thomas. Downtown New Bern, known for its historic buildings and waterfront parks, is a tool for the local hospital in courting new doctors.

“The way they recruit doctors is they bring them downtown,” Moffat-Thomas said.

Each downtown has its own personality. Some, like Sylva, remain a working downtown.

“I look at downtown Sylva as geared more toward locals, and the tourists are just icing on the cake,” Rudd said.

Other towns, like Waynesville, have taken on the persona of a destination.

“My take — without being critical of Waynesville — is it’s become a New Age downtown for the people that have moved there,” said Swink, director of North Carolina Main Street program.

Who’s to say what’s good and what’s bad? The point is, each town has changed and will continue to change, evidenced in part by increasing tourism revenues. Jackson County’s tourism revenues increased by a record 10.8 percent to $61.71 million in 2005, according to a county-by-county study commissioned by the North Carolina Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development. The county outpaced the overall state revenue increase, as well as that of the surrounding counties. Macon tourism revenues grew by 11.1 percent, Haywood by 5.9 percent, and Swain by 4 percent.

“You’re going to change,” Swink said. “How do you want to change, and is there something about you now that you want to keep? You either manage it or just show up and take your chances.”

Moffat-Thomas agreed.

“If you let it fall apart, you’re allowing a tax base to erode that can be a very important source of revenue to the city and the county,” she said.


The bull by the horns

Downtown associations are created with the intent of managing such change. Their aim is to be a driving force in promoting the town’s future.

New Bern’s Swiss Bear Downtown Development Corp. is known for its success in turning around a failing downtown. Created in the 1970’s, the Swiss Bear Corp. (the town was settled by Swiss and has a bear mascot) can take credit for raising nearly $4 million for city government projects. They also successfully lobbied Texaco to donate abandoned waterfront land to the town for a park, raised funds to restore a landmark clock, and created an urban development plan that served as a catalyst attracting more than $50 million of investment for two new waterfront hotels, a county courthouse annex, and riverfront convention center, plus 10 major rehabilitations and new construction projects.

“You’ve got to have clear goals and you’ve got to have a vision,” said Moffat-Thomas. “You’ve got to have a core group of people committed to make it happen. But most of all, you’ve got to make it happen.”

The Downtown Sylva Association has made its mission “to serve as a designer, architect, and builder of a system in which businesses, associations, government, education, and the arts can flourish and achieve individual and collective goals which enhance the vibrancy of downtown Sylva.”

However, the association has been criticized for not producing enough results over the years. Since the 1998 streetscaping project that put trees, park benches and old style lampposts on Main Street, the DSA has yet to see any of its large-scale projects to fruition. Streetscaping on Mill Street — the one-way road that runs parallel to Main Street — is underway, but it has taken years to get beyond the planning phase.

Granted, the DSA has orchestrated the yearly Greening Up the Mountains festival, Fourth of July fireworks, and Christmas parade, and has awarded historic paint color and façade improvement grants to businesses such as Fantasy Travel.

But the association faces a true test of character and mettle. An old plan to construct a pavilion near the town parking lot off Railroad Avenue, which runs parallel to Mill Street, has been revamped and repackaged as a new town/community project. The Bridge Park project, announced late last month, aims to recondition the town parking lot to improve the Jackson County Farmer’s Market (already held in the parking lot), build a pavilion for public performance (which the DSA had already planned to do) and connect the parking lot with Poteet Park via a bridge over Scotts Creek (which the town had already planned to do).

The DSA is working jointly with a host of organizations including the Town of Sylva, Jackson County Greenway Commission, Jackson County Farmers’ Market, Western Carolina University and downtown merchants. The Town of Sylva has said it plans to have the bridge in place by the end of the year. However, the DSA has yet to nail down a time line for its part of the project, potentially problematic as solicitations for donations of in kind support, materials and labor have already begun.

“I can’t imagine anybody giving you money if you don’t have a plan,” Moffat-Thomas said.

Meanwhile, the DSA is looking to accomplish some smaller tasks, such as encouraging businesses to keep their doors open after 5 p.m. and find new ways to bring people downtown.


Revitalization coffers

Money, and having a plan for it, is at the core of the issue. The DSA is making moves toward establishing a municipal service district.

“We’re spending the rest of the year working on that,” Rudd said.

But while there has been much talk of how the tax would work, and how much money it would raise, there’s been little if any mention of exactly what the funds would be used for other than making up the deficit in the DSA’s budget — not that the budget was very large to begin with. Minus the Town of Sylva’s $18,000, the budget totals $39,400.

In New Bern, the Swiss Bear Corp. created a municipal service district when it first was organized, levying a whopping 50 cents per $100 tax on downtown property’s ad valorem value.

“Downtown had died, and it was obvious something radical had to be done,” Moffat-Thomas said.

The money targeted revitalizing four core blocks in downtown left vacant by suburban exodus. Turning a vacant parking lot where a department store burned down into a town plaza was one of the group’s first projects.

As property values have gone up as a result of revitalization, the municipal service district tax has gone down. Today, New Bern’s tax rests at 18 cents per $100 — just above the state average. In Waynesville, the closest town to Sylva to have a municipal service district, the tax rate is 26 cents per $100, which generates around $68,187, said Downtown Waynesville Association director Ron Huelster. Next year, the rate will decrease to 23 cents per $100 due to Haywood County’s revaluation of property taxes.

Charlotte’s Center City Partners raised $1.8 million with tax rates ranging from 2 to 6 cents. There are four tax rates for the city’s four districts. The $1.8 million, about half the organization’s budget, counts as the city government’s contribution to Center City, as it is only with their approval that the tax can be leveraged, as such with any municipal service district tax.

“If we asked for general funds, there would be a riot,” said Michel Smith, Center City president.

Capitol projects, however, are specially budgeted with requests entered through the city’s planning department. Each year Center City signs a contract with Charlotte of what the organization is going to accomplish. The organization is held accountable to the city, but Smith said that he feels as though he has their support.

On a smaller scale, some of DSA’s largest expenditures this year will be $14,100 for office administrator Linda Gillman’s salary, benefits and payroll tax, $12,000 on special events, $5,000 in paint and façade grants, and $3,840 for rent and utilities. Nearly 36 percent of the association’s $39,400 budget is spent on staffing an office with only a part-time employee, someone who does not serve as an executive director. The Downtown Waynesville Association directs approximately 55 percent of its $141,931 budget toward the salary, benefits and payroll tax of two employees, an executive director and promotions coordinator.

Those in the revitalization business say you get what you pay for. The average N.C. Main Street salary (according to March 2005 statistics for 32 cities) is $43,011 for a director and $28,056 for a part-time promotions coordinator. If the DSA is unable or unwilling to fund an executive director position, its success will be limited.

“I think Sylva, from the beginning of their program, has always tried to do this cheaply,” Swink said.

If the DSA cannot pay for an executive director, will they be able to raise the funds they need? If they cannot raise the funds they need, can they pay for an executive director?

Rudd said that hiring an executive director is not the DSA’s top priority at the moment. First, funds have to be raised through the municipal service district.

However, with so little money to spend, the DSA should examine whether they’re getting enough bang for their buck, Swink said. For example, façade grants may be popular, but a year from now after the $5,000 budget has been spent, will it have been worth the cost?

“Maybe that money would be better spent on a market analysis,” Swink said.

Waynesville is in the midst of a zip code market analysis. Retailers collect shoppers’ zip codes, providing valuable information about the economy driving the town. Figuring out where shoppers are from will help merchants hone in on their market.

Preliminary results show that foot traffic in Waynesville is more diverse than any other town the company conducting the study has analyzed. The Downtown Waynesville Association instigated the study and it expanded to include other districts in Waynesville as well as Canton. Grants from the Haywood County Economic Development Commission, AdvantageWest, town government and several local banks fund the study.


Where to from here

Taking a closer look at its funding, the DSA has decided to redirect its mission. The organization’s name change from Sylva Partners in Renewal to the Downtown Sylva Association last year, reflects a shift toward becoming a merchants’ association, Rudd said.

SPIR focused on revitalization. That part is largely through, Rudd said. The DSA will focus more on marketing and adding vibrancy to the existing downtown community.

Generally speaking, merchants’ associations are more concerned with promotions aimed to get people shopping — Valentine’s Day sales, two-for-one deals, and so forth — and are separate from downtown revitalization organizations. In New Bern, the Swiss Bear Corp. helped create a separate merchants’ association because director Moffat-Thomas felt stretched too thin trying to also do merchant promotions.

“I could not do both,” Moffat-Thomas said.

Together, the two organizations could focus on creating a nice environment for shoppers — the Swiss Bear Corp.’s role — and offering sales to make cash registers ring — the merchants’ association’s role. Roles sometimes overlap with the merchants association bringing in live music during Christmas or hosting gallery strolls. However, the group most likely will not tackle a streetscaping or historic restoration project like the Swiss Bear Corp. would.

Similarly in Waynesville, merchants’ associations target specific retailers like the Downtown Waynesville Gallery Association, which puts on the monthly Art After Dark gallery stroll. The Gallery Association brings people downtown and might partner with the DWA on select projects but most likely would not look to increase public parking or improve pedestrian safety on its own.

The DSA’s decision to focus on merchant services may only provide ammunition for the town government to continue to withhold funding.

“If they shift to that, they will have narrowed down their focus too much to justify a whole lot of city support,” Swink said.

Independence is what town leaders were hoping to teach the DSA. The association was supposed to become self-sufficient years ago. Town board members never made the move to slowly decrease funding. And instead of delaying the takedown any longer, board members Danny Allen, Ray Lewis and Harold Hensley cast the votes to reduce DSA’s funding in one fell swoop from $20,000 to $2,000.

However, Moffat-Thomas said that independence is hard to gain.

“I don’t think anybody can be totally self-sufficient,” she said. “You’ve got to have some comfort zone and the city has to buy in to what you are doing.”

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