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Sylva slashes funding for downtown group

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Faced with a $20,000 budget cut, the Downtown Sylva Association is re-examining its plans after Sylva aldermen voted 3 to 2 last Thursday (June 15) not to renew the town’s annual contribution to the group.

Instead, aldermen chose to give the organization 10 times less in a motion that provided $2,000 each to the DSA, Economic Development Commission and rescue squad.

Aldermen Harold Hensley, Danny Allen and Ray Lewis voted for the $2,000 allocations. Aldermen Stacy Knotts and Maurice Moody voted against. The same vote split applied to voting on the town budget as a whole, a protest against cuts to the DSA.

“We’re terribly disappointed, but we’re not down and out about it,” said DSA outgoing President Max Browning.

DSA funding has been a topic of debate for the past several years as alderman have questioned whether the DSA historically has provided enough bang for town bucks. In 2002, newly elected Sylva Town Board member Eldridge Painter raised the issue. The hiring of a town manager negated the need for the organization, Painter said. Additionally, the funds only went to serve a portion of town merchants, but town government is responsible for the town as a whole, Painter said.

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This year, newly elected alderman Hensley again questioned the town’s $20,000 commitment to DSA for the same reasons.

“Where I was coming from was from the people I talked to and materials I read from the 2002 meeting,” Hensley said.

Hensley said he went through town introducing himself and conducting an informal survey of public opinion regarding the organization. The survey indicated that DSA had not produced enough results.

The DSA — which was previously known as Sylva Partners in Renewal (SPIR) — spearheaded the 1999 Main Street streetscaping project that led to placement of benches, planting of trees and new streetlamps.

The plan was for a similar streetscaping to occur on Mill Street — the one way, westbound parallel to Main Street — but the project has been slow to come to fruition. In 2001, design firm Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon was chosen to work on the project and SPIR officials estimated a six-month design process. However, the project went through several adjustments with plans finally earning public and governmental approval in late 2004. Construction on the first section of the streetscape was completed this month.

The DSA shelled out more than $49,000 for the Mill Street project — a fact DSA administrator Linda Gillman touted in a release issued in response to town board members’ decision to cut the organization’s funding (see page 15). The group produces the town’s annual Greening up the Mountains festival and Christmas parade, and works with the Jackson County Recreation Department on the annual 4th of July celebration and Western Carolina University’s Homecoming Parade.

And DSA also implemented a Façade Grant and Historic Paint Color Grant — one of which was awarded to Heinzelmannchen Brewery on Mill Street, co-owned by incoming DSA president Sheryl Rudd, and now a program that has been temporarily suspended due to budget cuts.

However, town board members may not necessarily be aware of the extent of DSA’s achievements, Browning said.

“I went to a town meeting, and I don’t think the word has really gotten to some of our town commissioners as to what we’re doing out there,” he said.

The same goes for spreading public awareness, as those who go to a festival or a parade or drive down Mill Street don’t always know who has organized it or paid for it.

“We probably need to do a better job on that,” Browning said.

Part of the problem may be that the DSA does not have a full-time director. In Waynesville — a town heralded as a model of a successful Main Street program — the downtown association’s director Ron Huelster works full time, with a part-time assistant Buffy Messer. The two are extremely well known throughout downtown, as it’s hard to go a week without seeing either one or both of them in either a professional or personal capacity.

Making the move toward a full-time director is on DSA’s horizon.

“I really think the organization needs a full-time director,” Browning said.

Huelster spoke to DSA members about the possibility of creating a municipal service district, which designates a special taxing area to raise funds for downtown events and organizational operations. Last year Waynesville brought in more than $66,000 in revenue from its downtown taxing district.

When Waynesville moved to create its municipal service district, the majority of downtown merchants supported the idea, DSA Treasurer Rick Kirkpatrick told Sylva Town Board members. Kirkpatrick — who heads Sylva’s Macon Bank branch, but lives in Waynesville — said he didn’t think he could rally similar support in Sylva.

However, creating such a district could potentially pay for a full-time DSA director, Browning said.

Currently the DSA’s downtown is defined as from the historic Jackson County Courthouse to the intersection of N.C. 107 and Business 23 near Eckerd’s, and up to, but not including, the Jackson Plaza, where the new library is to be located.

“We have not really talked about expanding further,” Browning said.

Which is a problem Hensley said he had with the DSA — and a throwback to Painter’s 2002 remarks about serving the town as a whole.

“Well, town don’t start at the courthouse step and end at The Coffee Shop,” Hensley said.

Whether town board members’ decision not to provide $20,000 to the DSA will prove a catastrophe or a catalyst remains to be seen.

“In response to this incomprehensible decision, the board and staff of Downtown Sylva Association respond with a heightened focus on bringing additional elements of the Mill Street Area Master Plan to fruition through continued grant-writing efforts, intense community outreach, and fundraising,” read the DSA’s news release.

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