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Nonprofit manufacturer expanding in Sylva

Webster Enterprises is settling into its newly leased building on Harold Street in Sylva following the town board’s unanimous vote to approve a conditional-use permit for the nonprofit. 

“We were delighted about it,” said Gene Robinson, executive director of Webster Enterprises.

As part of the permit, the building’s owner will have to put in five-foot sidewalks and plant a 12-foot landscaping buffer along its border with Harold Street. The owner will also continue working through some ongoing drainage issues, said John Jeleniewski, the county’s code compliance officer. Overall, he recommended that the town board approve the permit. 

“We don’t feel that anything that Webster Enterprises is doing there as far as manufacturing is going to devalue the property or add extra traffic to that road,” he told the board. 

Webster Enterprises’ operations will, however, add value to the county’s labor market. 

The organization provides jobs and training for people with disabilities or other employment disadvantages. Currently employing about 65 people, Webster Enterprises has a long history of producing disposable medical devices but has recently expanded its operations to offer commercial sewing services as well, taking on contracts to produce items ranging from baby bedding to grass catchers for lawn mowers. 

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That expansion came with demand for more space. In the short term, Webster expects to add 30 more jobs with the commercial sewing business and to continue growing that number as the business takes off. 

That’s why the nonprofit signed a one-year lease — with option to renew — for the old Ashley Company building in Sylva. Ultimately, they’re planning to expand their existing facility on Little Savannah Road, but in the meantime they need a place to work on the contracts that are already coming in. 

“It’s probably going to be a year before we get everything together and then in six months to a year, depending on what time we let the contract, we should have the building in operation,” Robinson said of the plans to expand. 

Robinson expects the expansion to cost about $900,000 and said a hefty portion of those funds will have to come from grants, fundraising and low-interest loans. 

“A lot of our profits from the manufacturing goes into providing training opportunities, which a normal manufacturing operation would not have,” Robinson explained. So, while business is doing well, Webster Enterprises isn’t left with as much money for out-of-pocket expansion as a typical business would. 

He expects Webster Enterprises to continue to grow, though, because of the demand for both the product and the employment. 

“We have almost 10,000 people in our area that we serve that are working age that have a disability,” he said, adding that Webster targets its service to Jackson, Swain and Macon counties. “Although the unemployment rate is under 5 percent in the normal population, for people with disabilities it’s somewhere between 60 and 75 percent, so there’s a lot of people out there that need help.”

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