Waynesville pulls the plug on housing commerce, tourism agencies in old town hall
A plan to turn Waynesville’s old town hall into a visitor center and the headquarters for a suite of tourism, commerce and business development agencies appears to be dead.
Waynesville aldermen initially agreed to explore the idea but decided that they weren’t keen on it after all. They tabled the idea indefinitely last week following discussion at a town meeting.
“It was just an idea out there but it gained a lot of traction very fast,” said Town Manager Marcy Onieal.
Waynesville’s old town hall on Main Street is mostly empty following construction of a new town hall across the street coupled with renovations to satellite town offices in Hazelwood. The old town hall has only three employees left in it.
“It is a shame to have this much empty space in the municipal building,” Onieal said.
So an idea was hatched to let the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce and Haywood County Tourism Development Authority use the space for a joint visitor center and their own offices. Both were warm to the idea.
But aldermen said they hadn’t vetted it themselves yet. And now, after thinking about it, they’ve recanted on the idea.
Alderman Gary Caldwell emerged as the most vocal opponent when it came up at a town meeting last week. Chiefly, Caldwell opposed the shuffling around of town departments to free up old town hall completely.
The remaining employees in old town hall would have moved into the new town hall, booting out the planning, zoning and building permit office, which would be sent to the satellite town building in Hazelwood.
Onieal said the Hazelwood location would be more convenient anyway for the developers and builders who frequent the planning and permitting office.
“Contractors who come with materials in their truck or trailers have difficulty coming into the downtown area,” Onieal said.
But Caldwell disagreed.
“I can’t swallow moving development services,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell added he would rather see the planning and permitting office housed in old town hall.
“It seems like a place where builders and developers can come and sit down and talk, not in a cubby hole,” he said.
Mayor Gavin Brown emerged as the lone proponent for letting the chamber and tourism agency move into old town hall. Brown disagreed with Caldwell’s assertion that planning and permitting would be “crammed in” if moved to Hazelwood.
“You keep saying it would be cramming them in,” Brown said.
“That’s what it would be,” Caldwell replied.
Caldwell said the planning and permitting office deserve to be in a visible and prominent location, one that reflects well on the town when interacting with developers.
“Has anyone surveyed the building community?” Brown asked.
“It would benefit them to be on Main Street,” Caldwell replied.
“We don’t know that,” Brown countered.
Caldwell said the original plan for old town hall — devised by previous town manager Lee Galloway — called for housing the planning and permitting office there. Caldwell said he wants to stick with that vision.
Although Galloway retired three years ago, he has made his own views on the issue known. Galloway penned a letter to town aldermen last month urging them not to let the chamber and tourism agency occupy old town hall.
“I did not really want to get involved now, but I feel I must,” Galloway wrote. “I would ask the town board to reject the idea of giving up the Municipal building to the agencies mentioned ... and preserve the space to meet the current and future needs of the municipal government.”
Galloway also told Onieal personally that he was disturbed by the idea.
It’s unusual for a former manager to attempt to influence the decision-making process once he’s gone. But Galloway was compelled to intervene with something as sacred as old town hall on the line, according to his letter.
Galloway also detailed the rationale of his old master plan for where various town departments should be housed — a plan that called for eventual renovations to old town hall for town offices.
But Onieal questioned whether that old plan was financially wise anymore.
“The old plan of putting in an elevator and carving up the municipal building, I couldn’t justify that under any circumstance,” Onieal said.
By contrast, if the chamber and tourism authority moved in, outside money would be put up to cover the cost of readying the building.
“We were trying to find a use for the municipal building that had the least possible cost and greatest value for the community,” Onieal said.
And, while the town would offer a long-term lease, it would still keep the title to the building in the long run.
With Caldwell and Brown at a stalemate, Onieal asked point-blank at last week’s meeting what the board’s consensus was. Both the chamber and tourism authority have only a year left on their respective leases and have decisions of their own to make, Onieal said.
“I feel like I have an obligation to go back to them and let them know if our conversation at this point is closed. Do I tell them we don’t have an availability at this time?” Onieal asked.
Alderman Wells Greeley said perhaps the best course was to hold off.
“I don’t want to close out the co-location, but we have enough on our plate right now to consider,” Greeley said.
The town board had decided earlier in the meeting that its top capital priority was renovations to its antiquated public works building.
And, the town is also readying itself for a merger with Lake Junaluska, which would add a sizeable new population to the town if it goes through later this year.
“We just have more important items to deal with at this time,” Alderman Leroy Roberson agreed.
Onieal agreed the timetable would have been “ambitious.”
“We could make it happen if there was an overwhelming desire to make this happen,” Onieal said. “This really needs to be about what the town’s needs are for each of its departments first.”
The question now is whether the chamber and tourism agency will continue to pursue the idea of colocation on their own. They currently pay separate rent and operate separate visitor centers just three blocks away from each other in downtown Waynesville.
By moving in together, they could not only share on rent and overhead but work together more effectively.
“There has been a great deal of support for the synergies of bringing together the agencies that have something to do with economic development and promoting the community. There are similar missions,” Onieal said.
The idea of sharing space had been percolating for years but never gained traction until town hall entered the picture.
The chamber and tourism agency are disappointed old town hall is off the table.
“The idea is still a great idea in concept, but I certainly understand the town has to take care of their own first,” Haywood Tourism Director Lynn Collins said.
Collins said she didn’t know whether the respective tourism and chamber boards would still want to move in together.
“That is not a subject that has been broached at this point,” Collins said.
Until the town hall option came along, it had not come up recently, Collins said.
Greg Boothroyd, chairman of the chamber of commerce board of directors, said the aldermen’s decision was disappointing news.
“It’s too bad it could not work out. This would have been a great chance to streamline all four organizations and help eliminate some of the duplications in duties and costs,” he said. “In theory this would have helped the chamber’s bottom line enough to give it some options on how to better serve the business community in Haywood County.”
As for moving forward, Boothroyd was unsure of what might happen.
“The right situation would need to present itself. This particular building and its location provided an excellent opportunity,” he said.
It was the perfect carrot: a grand landmark in the heart of downtown Waynesville at the right price.
The town was contemplating free rent as an in-kind contribution to the cause of economic development. “The idea of making this building available as a community asset could contribute at a very significant level toward the economic development and promotion of our community without writing a check,” Onieal said.
The county economic development agency, which operates as an arm of the chamber, would have been housed in old town hall, too, along with the Downtown Waynesville Association.
Meanwhile, the town would have saved $11,000 a year on utilities for the building.
Caldwell added that the county has plenty of empty office space of its own that it could put on the table to facilitate a colocation of the chamber, economic development agency and tourism agency, citing the county’s former planning department and former health department on the Old Asheville Highway, which are both sitting vacant.