Waynesville’s window dressing: Candidates, others weigh in on whether town’s reputation for hampering business development has merit
Some candidates running for office in Waynesville are accusing the town of running off businesses and claim the town’s development rules are hampering development.
“We have a horrible reputation as a difficult place to do business,” said Waynesville mayor candidate Jonnie Cure. “Why? What is wrong with the process? What is wrong with the attitudes? What is happening?”
But ask for examples, and the story gets murky.
Town Manager Marcy Onieal questioned whether the accusation holds water.
“There is more rumor of that than there is fact,” Onieal said. “When we talk to big developers their response is Waynesville is a breath of fresh air. It is an easy place to do business in. We are a very accessible community. You know who you are supposed to talk to and you can pick up the phone or you can walk right in and talk to them.”
Those who work in commercial real estate and site planning say the town’s ordinances aren’t really that tough.
“I have never seen nor experienced developers saying ‘this is a walk away because of your ordinances,’” said Patrick Bradshaw, a civil engineer based in Waynesville with Civil Design Concepts. “If they felt like they could make money here and could find a piece of ground, they would come.”
Bradshaw works for developers in a three-state region crafting site plans.
“I would not say Waynesville is unfriendly to business,” Bradshaw said. As for the toughness of its ordinances, they are middle of the road — “not inherently easy and not inherently difficult,” Bradshaw said.
Cure disagrees, however.
“These are not rumors. Where there’s smoke there’s fire. Let’s not sweep it under the rug,” Cure said.
Lonnie Crawford, the owner of Diamond & Gold Exchange, agrees with Cure.
“There is a saying in business in Waynesville: ‘you can make a million dollars in business in Waynesville if you start with $2 million,’” Crawford said.
To local business owners, the land-use regulations in place now aren’t what they’re used to be.
These days, the town requires trees in parking lots, sidewalks, awnings over entrances, facades with a sense of architecture, windows as opposed to lifeless cinderblock walls.
In fairness, the town’s land-use regulations were trend-setting — particularly for a rural mountain community — when they were first put in place in 2003.
“We went from playing Little League football to playing the NFL overnight,” said Patrick Bradshaw. “At the day it was unveiled, it ranked right up there with Asheville’s as far as complexity and depth.”
Bradshaw said the town’s new development regulations were “forward-thinking,” at the time. But now, not so much.
“If you look at towns in other parts of North Carolina, our codes are not nearly as stringent as theirs,” said CeCe Hipps, president of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce.
Furthermore, commercial developers have stepped up their game of their own accord — realizing the public doesn’t want to eat fried chicken in a lifeless, dingy cinderblock box.
“You just don’t see many canned designs in the marketplace anymore,” Bradshaw said. “I think retailers and commercial entities have certainly made strides to try to fit in to the local vernacular to some degree.”
Bradshaw is better versed in Waynesville’s land-use regulations than just about anyone, having been on both sides of the table — as a site planner who works for developers and as a planning board member who reviews proposed plans.
Danny Wingate, the president of Haywood Builders Supply, said he’s also heard the rumors for years. When he became a member of the town planning board, he was curious to see if developers were indeed skipping over Waynesville because the development regulations were too strict. But so far, he’s not been able to find any examples of that, past or present.
“I don’t think the land development standards are prohibitive as far as the vision for Waynesville,” said Wingate. “I have asked that question before. I would say from a planning standpoint, I don’t think there is anyone who has been turned away.”
The debate over Waynesville’s ordinances being too tough is not a new election theme. It emerged in the 2007 town election and again in 2011.
While some candidates have called for a thorough review of the town’s development standards, the town already did exactly that four years ago.
The result: a line-by-line overhaul of the standards that both simplified them and in some cases loosened them up.
The overhaul was “comprehensive and included significant public input,” said Jon Feichter, a candidate for alderman who also serves on the town planning board. It was led by a steering committee comprised of businessmen and developers.
“They worked together to come up with the kind of plan they wanted, and then the public at large had a chance to weigh in on that to a significant degree prior to adoption,” Feichter said. “So, I think the current plan is an extremely effective, reasonable document that accurately reflects the wishes of a majority of our citizens.”
Feichter said elements of it can and should be revisited and altered if problems become apparent, but as for a wholesale rewrite to loosen up the standards — well, that’s already been done.
“Have we corrected them all? No, but we have corrected a lot,” said Alderman LeRoy Roberson.
Still, the perception that Waynesville’s development rules are too stringent has lived on. There’s several theories of how Waynesville has been unfairly blamed for running off business.
The biggest factor deterring commercial development— aside from the recession — has been the cost of real estate, according to Bradshaw.
“People were used to getting outrageous sums for property up until about 2006, and they are still expecting that, but that has been the dilemma,” Onieal agreed. “People are looking for someone to blame that there hasn’t been much development of property, and it is an easy thing to throw it off on the development regulations or staff in the development office.”
Patrick McDowell of Keller Williams Realty has witnessed the difficulties of finding affordable commercial real estate in Waynesville. He was recently working with an entrepreneur starting a new venture to find a suitable location, and the client ultimately chose a site in Maggie because it was cheaper.
“The town’s zoning was not a deterrent to this particular client’s process,” McDowell said.
He recently saw a similar scenario play out with a restaurateur, who explored Waynesville but couldn’t find commercial land for a price he was willing to pay.
Rumors also get started when someone who has bought a piece of property was led to believe by the seller that they could do something they can’t.
“Someone says you can do this and then you talk to the town and find out you can’t, but it is because you really didn’t understand the land use ordinances,” said Amy Spivey, a realtor with Sunburst ERA Realty.
The town has also been maligned by the business community for its building code enforcement. But those aren’t a result of town ordinances, but rather state building codes.
“People get sore about the guys enforcing the code, but that’s life. They have a job to do. They are just the messenger,” Wingate said.
The town’s building inspectors — who permit the various facets of new construction or additions — are often blamed as the bearers of bad news.
Businessmen are often saddled with extra costs for things that seem excessive on the surface, from fire-rated walls to additional emergency exits.
“Building code is not something that is interpretable. It is set for public safety by the state of North Carolina,” Onieal said.
A customer base
Making Waynesville more business friendly is the chief campaign platform of Phillip Gibbs. He would like to see Waynesville land a movie theater and bowling alley, for example.
“We have to go somewhere out of Waynesville for these things,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs’ wish list doesn’t stop there.
“I have no problem with our local eateries, but I think it would be amazing if we had a Cracker Barrel or J&S Cafeteria,” Gibbs said.
But not everyone believes landing a Cracker Barrel is the gold standard Waynesville should strive for.
“I have heard horror stories of companies trying to open restaurants and stores and the town made it so difficult they gave up and went elsewhere,” said Jerry Smith, a Realtor with Keller Williams.
But he doesn’t know if it is true, and besides, is it the end of the world that Waynesville doesn’t have an Applebee’s?
“I am sort of satisfied with the way it is. I don’t think we need a bunch of big box restaurants coming in. I kind of like to preserve the small town,” Smith said.
The challenge for any business is whether there’s a customer base to support it. That variable is a far bigger factor for prospective developers than the town’s development regulations.
“If you look at the Waynesville demographic as any savvy developer will do, on paper we don’t look that strong,” said Patrick Bradshaw, owner of Civil Design Concepts. “That is an obstacle for someone sitting in Sacramento who pulls up Waynesville’s demographic and says, ‘Yeah I don’t think my store goes there.’”
In reality, Waynesville has a hidden customer base that doesn’t show up in the one-size-fits-all financial models of investors and developers. There’s the regional draw of Waynesville, serving as a hub for commerce from Cherokee to Sylva to Canton. And there’s the second-home population which doesn’t show up in the census number crunching.
But Waynesville’s not a standout, if you go by its profile on paper. Its population is older, less wealthy and less educated than average. It’s got the baggage of being a small town in the historically depressed Southern Appalachians.
“We still are a rural community and businesses tend to go to populations,” said Mark Clasby, Haywood County Chamber of Commerce economic development director.
But compared to its peers, “I think the six western counties are somewhat envious of what is going on in Waynesville,” Clasby said.
While the town’s development regulations are blamed for hurting business, they have made Waynesville a more appealing place to live, and that in turn has created a customer base for stores like Best Buy, Staples and Michael’s.
The town’s emphasis on quality of life — things like sidewalks, art sculptures, parks and community theater — are a form of economic development in their own right.
If it weren’t for the second-home owners and tourists who adore Waynesville’s character, talk of landing a Cracker Barrel would be as crazy as landing a navy shipyard.
“Waynesville is a good hub for people to live,” said Anthony Sutton, an alderman candidate. “A little over a quarter of Waynesville residents commute to work.”
Sutton should know — he’s one of them. He commutes to Asheville daily, but when it comes to where to live, “I would chose Waynesville every time.”
“I can see that continue to be the focus, to have a small town environment,” Sutton said.
Sutton is an executive with Biltmore Farms development company, which has a vast and diverse portfolio, from hotels to planned residential communities. Sutton was part of the team that developed Biltmore Park — a ground-up retail, office and residential community south of Asheville — and could talk all day about the variables that make or break a developer’s decision where to come.
“It is very difficult to summarize in one minute how to generate business growth and sustainable jobs,” Sutton said.
Sutton said the town should be focused on facilitating critical infrastructure — namely natural gas and improved Internet capacity. But recreation and the quality of schools matter, too.
“The entire community has to come together and work to attract businesses,” Sutton said. “More and more businesses make decisions on where to locate based on the quality of life for its employees.”
The challenge comes 50 years from now as the boundary between Asheville and Waynesville blurs. Waynesville could be engulfed as a suburb of Asheville, and in that sense, Waynesville’s development regulations are critical to protect the sense of place that made it attractive in the first place, Sutton said.
Quality of life in Waynesville attracts the very entrepreneurs who ultimately factor in where they want to live before opening a business, agreed Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown, pointing to the owner of Haywood Vocational Opportunities.
“He bought the plant because he could live here and that story goes on,” Brown said.
Waynesville’s appealing character isn’t lost on Cure. During her career as a real estate agent, Cure said she showcased “the beauty of Waynesville and the cohesiveness of our town” as a selling point to potential buyers.
But Cure believes free enterprise should drive the bus, rather than the town dictating what businesses should look like and what kind of signs they can have.
Cure said she doesn’t believe in letting government “steamroll over the top of you.”
“I think it is important to push back,” Cure said.
Earlier this month, Cure took time out from a Saturday morning newspaper interview to hand a stack of signs to a decided campaign volunteer. She told them to go stick signs in the planters on Main Street where the Church Street Arts and Crafts festival was going on.
When asked whether that was legal, she shrugged.
“I don’t know. Show me an ordinance that says you can’t,” Cure said. “Go read the 700 pages of ordinances and see if you can put a sign on Main Street.”
For the record, you can’t put campaign signs in town planters. But Cure believes there is too much regulation when it comes to signs.
“That is a private property issue. Let the businesses negotiate their own signs,” Cure said. “We need to make it easier for businesses to stay in business.”
Cure said those who write the sign rules claim merchants would “go crazy” if allowed to do anything they wanted sign-wise.
“That’s exactly what they would want to do is ruin their hometown,” Cure said sarcastically. “No, they are going to do what is best for their business.”
Signs are a constant source of pushback. The town overhauled its sign ordinances two years ago, making several concessions for the business community.
“I think it struck a very good balance between the two sides,” said Jon Feichter, an alderman candidate who serves on the planning board. “As a small biz owner, I want as big a sign and as much signage as I can possible afford. But by the same token, I think it is important to have guidelines, and I think the guidelines we have are reasonable.”
But the sign ordinance is still too strict for Lonnie Crawford, owner of the Diamond & Gold Exchange on the edge of downtown.
Crawford has neon lights on his sign — dating back over two decades. They wouldn’t be allowed today.
“Neon is the best investment for the dollar in advertising you could do,” said Crawford. “If I hadn’t had that before the town passed all those goofy ordinances, I couldn’t have had that there. They should be bending over to do anything they can to get businesses to come in. Allowing neon would be one of them.”
Eggs in one basket
Some candidates fear the town has been too focused on making itself attractive to outsiders.
“I know a lot of people like for it to be a tourist town, but the young people have to leave here to find good-paying jobs,” said Kenny Mull, owner of Bob’s Sports Store and a challenger for alderman.
Mull reminisced about the good old days, when Main Street was for locals.
“It used to be you could go to downtown Waynesville on Saturday afternoon and you knew everybody up there,” Mull said, recalling the 5 and 10 cent stores.
“You have a lot of the craft shops and stuff now and its tourists coming in from out of town and you go up there on Saturday morning and you don’t hardly know anybody up there any more,” Mull said.
Cure also believes there is too much emphasis on tourism.
"We put all our eggs in one basket,” Cure said. “It is extremely dangerous in the economy to depend on one source of income.”
“People want to keep it a small town atmosphere but we don’t need to depend on tourism for the whole year,” added alderman candidate Phillip Gibbs.
Gibbs said his goal as alderman would be to create more jobs.
But candidate Anthony Sutton questioned the usefulness of comments like that.
“It is all fine and good to say we want to be a business friendly community. If you don’t know how to do it, it is all words,” Sutton said.
Growing the economy is rarely accompanied by grand groundbreakings and job announcements from expanding companies.
It’s something that more often plays out in the shadows.
For example, Waynesville’s street and electric workers installed new decorative street lamps in Frog Level that merchants raised money to buy.
“That’s what you love is when the business community and government can come together and improve a situation or area,” Freeman said.
The town also pursued a grant to put in an electric car charging station downtown.
“We are on the map for that now,” Freeman said.
The town also leases parking lots to support commercial districts like Frog Level and Hazelwood Village, forking over monthly lease payments to landowners to provide public parking, which in turn supported the revitalization of these now-vibrant shopping districts.
Lonnie Crawford, the owner of Diamond & Gold Exchange, said the town’s emphasis on tourism hurts his business, however. He blames street festivals downtown for keeping customers away on Saturdays.
“When they have their big blowouts, if local people get involved in that mess just one time and can’t get to where you are going, they automatically on Saturdays after that just stay away,” Crawford said.
While manufacturing has obviously diminished and tourism has grown, it’s a fallacy to blame tourism, according to Clasby.
Manufacturing was going to dry up regardless as factories moved operations overseas in search of cheaper labor. Waynesville was simply lucky to have another segment of the economy to pick up some of the slack.
Clasby is a student of labor and workforce trends in Haywood County, and begs to differ that tourism is the leading sector. Manufacturing, healthcare and retail are equally strong.
“We are diverse,” Clasby said. “Tourism is up. Sales tax collections are up. The total number of people employed today is more than it was back in the 1990s.”
In the town limits itself, three manufacturing companies have added jobs in the past several years: Sonoco Plastics, Giles Chemical and Haywood Vocational Opportunities.
Those who defend Waynesville’s reputation as a business-friendly community cited concessions the town has made for large-scale development projects that didn’t fit the confines of its land-use regulations.
Exemptions were readily made to pave the way for the development of Waynesville Commons (home to Super Walmart), the recently approved industrial expansion of Giles Chemical and the major redevelopment of the Ingle’s shopping complex.
Ingles first broached the idea of a major expansion eight years ago. Ingles needed an exemption to the town’s land-use standards to pull off an expansion of the scale it proposed, which includes a new gas station and Chick-Fil-A.
The town agreed to exemptions while still getting the elements it wanted — like more trees in the barren parking lot.
But several years went by without Ingle’s breaking ground. That fueled rumors that Waynesville was the hold up for Ingles.
But that wasn’t the case, according to Clasby.
“I don’t think the town of Waynesville had any hurdles for them,” Clasby said.
Clasby surmised that Ingle’s delay was due to the recession, as well as major expansions in Black Mountain and Mills River being carried out.
“Those were large capital investments. As a company you can only due so much at one time,” Clasby said.
During the intervening years, Ingles came back to the town three times with alterations to its site plan, and each time, got approval for the changes. And it came back a fourth time just last week.
“We had lots of discussion to make sure it was within range of the master plan, but we approved everything,” said Danny Wingate, who serves on the planning board.
To Cure, the stories about large developments like the new Ingles or Giles Chemical complex aren’t representative of the average experience.
“Big companies know how to do this. They have done it in hundreds of towns across the nation,” Cure said.
Those who have trouble navigating the development codes are the small business people, she said.
“They have a concept in their head they are trying to make work but they also have a budget they are trying to work with,” Cure said. "It is discouraging."
That’s one point where Town Manager Marcy Onieal might agree with Cure. Big developers are more accustomed to navigating local land-use regulations or state building codes.
“Where we are criticized are by our own local folks who do not regularly and frequently develop and who perhaps do not fully understand what it takes to develop,” Onieal said. “Some people are woefully unfamiliar what it takes to develop a piece of property.”
Paving the way
Haywood Chamber President CeCe Hipps said she can see both sides of the argument.
“I think there are two sides to the argument and both have merit,” said Hipps, when asked whether perceptions of Waynesville as hostile toward business were true.
Hipps said the biggest barrier isn’t the regulations, however, but communication.
“We have to understand that not everyone comes to the table with the same amount of knowledge, skill set or financial resources and may require additional time in the process,” Hipps said.
The town isn’t deaf to criticisms of its customer service in the planning and zoning department. Town Manager Marcy Onieal said the town has two efforts underway aimed at addressing concerns of the development community.
One is improving the internal process for permitting and zoning with a more seamless team approach from town staff.
Part of the shift was renaming the planning department: it’s now called “development services.” The town hired a new department head, whose title is “development services director.” Onieal said the name change is intended to put an emphasis on the role of planning and code officers on providing support and customer service to the development community.
“The focus is more about development services as opposed to just code enforcement,” Onieal said.
Onieal said she also realized the team of building inspectors, code enforcement officers and planners need a more formal framework to coordinate the various steps in the permitting process — from site plans to sign permits to electrical inspections.
The town’s development services team now meets jointly under the banner of a technical review committee to help move development projects through the process more seamlessly.
That is allowing the town to essentially serve as mentors for those trying to bring a development plan to fruition who need more hand holding.
Another step the town has taken is the creation of a business and development advisory committee. The town assembled a focus group of developers, Realtors and builders to help the town identify the friction points.
“One of the reasons we established that is that I was hearing a lot of complaints but not a lot of fact. It was a lot of innuendo. I was trying to bring to the table knowledgeable people rather than hearing rumor and disgruntled notions about development,” Onieal said. “I wanted to hear ‘what is it that would make development better in the community and where is it lacking and what do you see as the challenges to development?’”
Those who have participated in the roundtables commend it.
“I think Marcy has taken major steps to make the process more user-friendly,” said Amy Spivey, a Realtor with Sunburst ERA.
Spivey said the town is being unfairly criticized in some ways, but certainly has room for improvement.
“I don’t want to say it is all just a perception. There are some things we need to revise and update,” Spivey said. “I think we are on the right path.”
Spivey said the new development services director who started this summer is also a positive move.
New entrepreneurs are sometimes their own worst enemy, however. They don’t know the process or building codes, yet approach the permitting process with a preconceived idea of what they want to do.
Patrick McDowell said he found town planning staff overly helpful when he moved his real estate firm to a location inside the town limits, especially navigating the amount of signage he could have.
“Instead of saying this is what I want and if I can’t have it I am unhappy, I went and said ‘What can I do?’” McDowell said.
Nine candidates are running for five seats on the Waynesville town board this November. Pick four for town board and one for mayor.
• Gavin Brown, 68, attorney and current mayor
• Jonnie Cure, 73, real estate agent
• Gary Caldwell, 62, printing rep for Clarke Communication, current alderman
• Jon Feichter, 50, owner of New Meridian Technologies, an IT service firm providing computer and networking services
• Julia Freeman, 48, director of REACH domestic violence nonprofit, current alderwoman
• Phillip Gibbs, 70, retired paper mill worker
• Kenny Mull, 61, co-owner of family-run Bob’s Sports Store
• LeRoy Roberson, 71, retired optometrist, current alderman
• Anthony Sutton, 43, accounting and systems manager for Biltmore Farms development group
* Lynn Bradley’s name will also appear on the ballot for mayor, but he has chosen not to actively run.
Is Waynesville business friendly? Are its development ordinances too stringent? Here’s what candidates had to say on the issue.
“We have an economically viable community and it is our job to make sure people know that. Entrepreneurs create jobs, but who invites them? Who makes them feel welcome? It is the the town of Waynesville — its infrastructure, its low water rates, its low tax rate, its good electric rates, its police department and fire department.
“I have spent the past 25 years of my life trying to get entrepreneurs to Waynesville and working for the economy of the town of Waynesville.”
Brown’s served on the boards of the Economic Development Commission and Chamber of Commerce, and currently serves on the Haywood Advancment Foundation and Economic Development Council.
Brown has landed an endorsement from the Haywood County Board of Realtors for being the candidate most friendly to real estate concerns and interests.
— Gavin Brown, mayor
“That unspoken, undefined, unfriendly attitude they feel when they come here must absolutely be eliminated. Government must get out of our way.”
Cure said the town’s regulations are too stringent. The town shouldn’t impose standards on what businesses should look like.
“Who are those five people to mandate to every business in town? It might not look like what you want it to look like but it is not your business. It is not your money. It is government thinking they know what is best for businesses.”
— Jonnie Cure, challenger for mayor
“We have gone in there and looked back and changed it to try to help business, but there is still stuff we hear about that’s in there.”
— Gary Caldwell
“I think Wayesville is a great place to do business in, but there is a perception that town of Waynesville is hard to do business in. I think in some ways that perception is perhaps unfounded. But I will say in a lot of ways perception is reality. We need to first of all be open to new businesses and encourage new businesses and perhaps from the town’s perspective attempt to form partnerships with new businesses. There is much to do and I think we can do it.”
— Jon Feichter
“This is the single biggest area of concern for our business community. Whether it is a persistent problem or not it needs to be addressed and what really matters is that perception is reality and the town is perceived to be difficult to work with. I do not believe that businesses have been turned away, but I do believe that current regulations and codes have deterred businesses from coming to town. The standards should be relaxed to not put undue burdens on those people and companies wanting to develop and open businesses within Waynesville, but not at a loss of our small town appeal.”
— Julia Freeman
“We need to relax the restrictions that cause people not to come in here. We should not deter. We should draw, we should make way. It is stuff that you hear from different people about the town of Waynesville being a little hard to deal with especially when it comes to codes and zoning. Some people think they are and some say they are not. I don’t know if it is true but that is something I want to pursue — is to find out if Waynesville is business friendly.”
— Phillip Gibbs
“We need to relax some of the restrictions on businesses that want to come in to town. I would like to get more businesses interested instead of turning them away. I am not talking just fast food restuarants. I am talking businesses that will come in here and pay good wages. We need to woo those businesses. I had one person tell me they had never seen a town try so hard to keep businesses out. I don’t like to hear that. Right now I don’t know all that much about how you work on getting them to come here but if elected I’ll find out. We’ll work on that.”
— Kenny Mull
“I think the policies in place are trying to maintain the character of the town and not just open it up for people to do anything. There have been comments that big chains won’t come because Waynesville is too hard to deal with. They are more rumors than anything else. Waynesville doesn’t have the population they need to open so they didn’t even consider it. I think the town overall is very business friendly, but I don’t want neon signs up and down Waynesville.”
— LeRoy Roberson
“I want to make Waynesville the best place to live, work and play. It is very difficult to summarize in one minute how to generate business growth and sustainable jobs. There are many things that contribute, such as infrastructure in water, natural gas and broadband, as well as education, community involvement, and recreation. I want to make Waynesville a better place to live, work and play. I want to utilize my background in strategic planning and development to help facilitate the best plan for development and growth for the next 20 years. I believe we can encourage business growth while still maintaining the vision of the Land Development Plan.”
— Anthony Sutton