Potential mayors discuss Sylva’s future
Regardless of who emerges victorious from Sylva’s mayoral election, the town will have an experienced face at the center of the table. All three candidates for the seat currently serve as aldermen and hope to guide the town toward a better future as its next mayor.
The mayor doesn’t vote except in the case of a tie, but the person in that position decides on meeting agendas and leads board discussions. According to the candidates, there will be plenty to discuss in the coming years.
Most obviously, they said, the new board will have to deal with the tax issue. Sylva has essentially been living outside its means in recent years, dipping into its fund balance — akin to a savings account — to balance the budget. This year the board had a contentious debate about whether to raise property taxes by 2 cents to make up the difference. They wound up keeping taxes the same and dipping into reserve funds for the shortfall. Some say that’s not a sustainable way of doing business.
“I’m not a tax and spend kind of person, and I know people are really struggling, but we’ve got to be able to pay for our services,” said Barbara Hamilton, a mayoral candidate who’s been on the town board since 2012. Her town council seat is not up for re-election, so if she loses her bid for mayor she will keep her board seat.
A tax increase might be the only way to pay the bill, Hamilton said, pointing to legislation coming down from Raleigh that’s taken away other avenues — such as business license fees — that small towns have used to supplement their income. Add that to an already barebones post-recession government and the countywide revaluation slated to take effect in the next budget year — home values are expected to drop substantially, meaning that the yield of the current tax rate would decrease — and the current tax rate will likely prove too tight to work.
Candidates Lynda Sossamon and Danny Allen agreed that the new board will have to seriously consider the tax issue and said that hiking the rate may be necessary.
“Probably it would have to be (a discussion),” said Sossamon, who voted with Hamilton this year for the 2-cent tax increase. “It’s not something that I can really get a handle on right now without knowing all of the facts,” such as the outcome of the revaluation and receipts from the ABC store.
“We can’t continue pulling from our reserves,” added Allen, who voted against the tax increase this year.
According to Hamilton, town government has already slimmed down as much as it can in the wake of the recession, and there’s not a lot of room left to cut without severely handicapping town function. But Allen said he’s not giving up the search for fat to cut.
“I’ll do everything within my powers to make sure that we have looked inside before we do our tax increase,” Allen said.
Sossamon, meanwhile, said public input would be a priority leading up to any decision.
“We’ll only do what the citizens want us to do,” she said. “That’s why I hope we get input.”
Hamilton is looking more toward the longer view when it comes to the tax question, seeing the merit in seriously considering an increase the next go-around but eyeing some town ordinances for revision to boost revenues in the future.
“We’ve got to really think outside the box because we’ve got to think of some solutions,” she said.
For instance, Hamilton said, what if the town changed its density standards to allow more homes to be built per acre? Right now, depending on location, Sylva requires a minimum lot size between 0.2 and 0.4 acres. If that requirement were loosened, Hamilton said, more real estate value could be built per acre, increasing Sylva’s tax base.
Allen fielded that idea too when asked about the tax issue, bringing up the advent of “tiny homes” — mini houses strategically built to get the most out of every square foot — as a desirable form of affordable housing to bring to Sylva. Right now, the town’s zoning ordinances don’t allow for them.
“That’s going to get people looking like, ‘Oh come to Sylva. You can have a little lot 300-square-foot house and be happy,’” Allen said.
Making downtown bustle
Allen’s all about getting people to come to Sylva, and he said he’s open for ideas as to how to make it happen.
“My goal is to make it like it was when I was a kid that you could have thousands of people walking the streets and shopping and all the businesses thriving,” Allen said. “Downtown is the hub of Sylva, and when it dies, Sylva dies.”
In Allen’s mind, Sylva should do more to capitalize on the proximity of Western Carolina University and claim an identity closer to that of a college town. In his work as a security guard at the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching, across from WCU’s main campus, he comes across his share of students, and a good many of them are under the impression that Sylva begins and ends with the red light near Rite-Aid.
“I want to attract them to come downtown because they have money to contribute to our revenue,” Allen said.
What if, for instance, Sylva restaurants partnered with the university to accept student meal cards? Or maybe one of the big breweries in Asheville, like Sierra Nevada or the upcoming New Belgium brewery, could be convinced to set up an outpost in Sylva? And what about those inexpensive-but-filling eateries college students so love, like Applebee’s or Fatz — could Sylva get one of them to build a branch in town?
Sossamon agreed that Sylva needs to capitalize on its proximity to so many college students, and not just at WCU. There’s Southwestern Community College next door in Webster as well.
“I would love to see more students and faculty and staff downtown,” she said.
As mayor, she’d want to encourage the town to take a hard look at what kinds of business might attract those populations and plan accordingly, working hand-in-hand with the college and university along the way.
“I think there’s so much potential in this area,” said Sossamon, who originally came to the area as a student at WCU.
Hamilton, meanwhile, said that she’d look to generally encourage more small business growth, with a special focus on looking through town ordinances and regulations to get rid of any unnecessary hurdles for new businesses. She praised a recent policy change by the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority allowing businesses to rent water and sewer allocation, rather than paying thousands of dollars upfront to buy it, as an example of the kind of change she’s looking for.
“New businesses and especially younger people, it was very difficult for them to come up with funding and follow everything they have to follow,” Hamilton said. “Some of them just felt they could not afford to come here.”
Things seem to be looking up in Sylva right now, Hamilton said — she recently made the rounds to welcome two new businesses, Baxley’s Chocolate and Sylva Convenient Market & General Store — but Sylva still lags noticeably behind some of its neighbors in the bustling downtown department.
“I look at some of the towns around us and I really want to go over and ask, ‘What are you all doing?’ Even Waynesville, Bryson (City), there’s people there all the time,” Hamilton said. “They’ve really done a good job. I’d like to hear what their ideas are.”
Tourism, obviously, is a strong driver for Sylva, but it can’t be the one and only. For starters, the tourist season lasts only part of the year — Sylva needs to add to its year-round economy. The town doesn’t have the real estate, really, to accommodate any kind of larger industrial operation in town limits. But town leaders should keep their eyes open for opportunities, Hamilton said, and set the stage to welcome new enterprises to the fold.
“You want to keep your character and your hometown flavor, and yet you want to be welcoming to other people,” she said.
The traffic conundrum
As part of that, the new town board will be dealing with — and, likely, putting to rest — the issue of traffic and parking downtown. The town board has been through discussion after discussion about traffic patterns, even commissioning a study and holding two public hearings on the feasibility of changing Main Street to two-way traffic, as it was back in the 1950s. The opinion is nearly unanimous at this point that two-way is not the answer — traffic congestion, the fact that vehicles are larger now than 60 years ago and logistics surrounding truck deliveries on a two-way main street are some of the considerations in play — but there are other traffic-related issues to consider.
“Now we need to work with that and with DOT (N.C. Department of Transportation) and decide what best fits what the citizens want with what the DOT can do,” said Sossamon.
One of the things the citizens want, she said, is more parking on Mill Street. Several merchants had voiced approval of the temporary lane closure on that road after a fire burned downtown in 2014, which allowed for some extra parking spaces.
Allen supports changing Spring Street, a tiny cross-street that connects Mill and Main and becomes Allen Street after the intersection, to a left turn only street. Right now, the “straight” of way to Allen is more of a slight right turn against traffic, and its presence necessitates a traffic light that during peak hours causes traffic on Mill to back up.
Hamilton agreed with that proposal for Spring Street, adding that if one of the lanes on that street closed, bike racks or diagonal parking could go in its place. The town should also take a look at loading zones, she said, trying to find a solution so that big delivery trucks don’t block storefronts for extended periods of time. However, she cautioned, it’s not entirely the town’s call.
“DOT has the power,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that we don’t make the decision.”
Asking for the vote
Lynda Sossamon has lived in Sylva since graduating from Western Carolina University, marrying and buying a Radio Shack franchise in town. She’s running on her experience in governance, not just on the town board but in the myriad of boards she’s served on.
Aside from the two terms she’s served on the town board, currently as vice mayor, Sossamon has served on or chaired a laundry list of other boards and committees. She served on the inaugural board of Sylva Partners in Renewal, a downtown development organization. She’s active in her church and a board member for Mountain Projects, and she chairs the Arts Advancement Council at WCU. She’s been a board member and chair for the Tuckeseigee Water and Sewer Association, was on the committee for Sylva’s 125th anniversary and volunteers at the Good Samaritan Clinic — this list goes on.
“I think (I have) experience, and not just on the town board but experience leading other boards, and the way I vision things I’m a person that can see the forest,” she said, referencing the idiom about being able to see the forest for the trees.
A big part of that vision, she said, involves public input.
“I would like more input from the people that pay the taxes that run this town,” she said. “What would they like to see?”
As far as the grand vision for Sylva? Sossamon sees “A vibrant town with a nice Main Street, with neighborhoods that are safe and fun to live in.”
Hamilton, a retired nurse who worked 25 years for Harris Regional Hospital, has taken care of a significant portion of Sylva’s population during her years in healthcare. In her political career, she touts that same attention to the individual as her biggest asset.
“I’ve always treated people with dignity and respect no matter what their level was in the community,” she said, and as mayor she’d want to listen and hear ideas for anyone who has them.
In setting herself apart from the other two candidates, Hamilton says that she’s unique in that she’s retired and therefore able to spend the time to participate in the community and let her ear by bent by all takers.
“I consider this to be my fulltime job,” she said. “I have time to be involved, which I know is difficult to do when you work.”
That’s what she’s tried to do in the three years she’s been on the town board, she said, and her involvement doesn’t end there. Hamilton also serves on a variety of boards, including the Main Street Sylva Association, Jackson Neighbors in Need, Jackson County Library and 14 years as treasurer of the Democratic Party of Jackson County.
With 12 years on the town board, Danny Allen is the longest serving of the three mayoral candidates. He feels that should be a strong vote in his favor, as should the fact that he’s the only one of the three that grew up in Sylva.
“I think overall I would be the best choice for all of Sylva,” he said.
Allen also touts his governance style, which he describes as heavy on listening and light on injecting his own personal opinion into votes.
“I put citizens before my own personal opinion, my own personal vote,” he said. “I represent them, I don’t represent me, and I don’t let my personal opinion influence my decision. My decision is based on the people.”
Lynda Sossamon, 68
• Profession: Co-owner of Sylva Radio Shack store
• Political experience: Served on the Sylva town board 1997-2001 and is currently at the end of a second four-year term; has served on or chaired numerous boards including Mountain Projects, the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, TWSA, Sylva Partners in Renewal, among others.
• Reason to run: “I think I have good leadership qualities, and having owned a business for so long I’ve met the public, the residents of town. I’m familiar with those people and I’ve chaired many boards.”
Danny Allen, 59
• Profession: Security guard at N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching; former manager at Quin Theaters.
• Political experience: 12 years on Sylva town board
• Reason to run: “One person can’t do anything, but I just think I would work with the board for the betterment of the people of Sylva. That’s my main goal, my only purpose, the only reason I’m running for mayor is to help the people of Sylva.”
Barbara Hamilton, 71
• Profession: Retired nurse after 38 years of work, 25 of those at Harris Regional Hospital
• Political experience: Three years on Sylva town board after being appointed to a vacancy in 2012 and winning election in 2013. Serves on a variety of boards, including the Main Street Sylva Association, Jackson Neighbors in Need, Jackson County Library and 14 years as treasurer of the Democratic Party of Jackson County.
• Reason to run: “I think my actions and total involvement speak louder than words because they (constituents) know what they can expect from me, and I appreciate that.”