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Bringing back the bustle: New businesses move into downtown Sylva

fr sylvaAsk any Sylva long-timer, and they’ll tell you that Main Street today looks a lot different than it did ten, five or even just a couple years ago. There’s an energy, a bustle, and a new cohort of businesses moving in to drive the feeling.

Rosebrook Floral Designs 

“I’ve always loved Sylva,” said Franklin resident Brenda Brooks from her new florist shop on the corner of Main and Walnut. “I love the feel of Sylva, the vibe of Sylva. It’s got all you young people.” 

Brooks, who opened her first florist shop as an 18-year-old in Florida, took a hiatus from the business to raise her two sons, now in their 20s. When her nest became empty again, she knew what she wanted to do, and she knew where she wanted to do it. She opened Rosebrook Floral Designs on Halloween this year, in the same space where Jay Ball’s Jewelry Enterprise had operated for nearly 30 years before closing a few months earlier. 

“This is a miracle, a blessing to have found this unit,” she said.   

People drop in all the time, Brooks said — in fact, a young couple inquiring about wedding flowers opened the door in the midst of her interview with The Smoky Mountain News — so word of mouth seems to be going pretty great. The streets are still busy after the sun goes down, she gushed, guitar players strum on benches along the street and the business community has been more than friendly. 


The Cut Cocktail Lounge 

Jody Hunt and his business partner Jacqueline Laura definitely noticed that friendly atmosphere when they left Asheville to open The Cut Cocktail Lounge in Sylva. A craft cocktail lounge that’s open 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily, the place aims to offer locals a non-sports-centered hangout that promises never to close early, drinks presenting a high level of craft, what Hunt describes as “fancy home-cooked bar snacks” with weekend brunch, and a venue to celebrate arts that aren’t necessarily music-related. Just recently, Laura said, The Cut hosted a puppet show — lots of fun, but not your typical kind of arts showcase.

It’s a different kind of business than what Sylva’s seen so far, but the business community’s reaction has been quite positive, Laura said. 

“All the local business owners have been so receptive to us, and so sweet,” she said. “It’s been really refreshing.”

The friendliness of the community was a draw, but it wasn’t the whole reason Hunt and Laura left Asheville to put down roots in Sylva. The two have friends in town and had been scouting Sylva for more than a year before finally snagging the downstairs space that now houses The Cut. 

“Asheville is very, very, very overpopulated, and as small business owners, things are cheaper here,” Hunt said. 

If the first three months are any indication, The Cut may have found its niche. Since opening in August, the lounge has recruited 600 members — in order to hang out there, a customer has to purchase a $1 membership or be one of the two guests each member is allowed to bring along — a number that Laura finds encouraging, especially in such a small town.

“That for me is one of the really positive things, where we reached that many people and there’s not that many people around here,” she said. 


Sylva Convenient Market 

John Bubacz is hoping for a similar type of community buy-in with his new store, Sylva Convenient Market and General Store. Bubacz, who already owns Signature Brew Coffee Roasting Company, also on Main Street, said he saw a need for a convenience store on Main Street and promptly filled it. There hadn’t been one since Cope’s closed. 

But the new store isn’t just a straight-up convenience store. It’s got a strong focus on local goods, selling such unconventional products as fresh rabbit meat and kale in addition to crafts from area artisans, bakery items, comic books and magazines. 

“We want to establish a supply line for local everything, because we feel that’s an important focus,” said Deborah Denmark, store manager. 

The challenge will be developing that identity, getting the word out on what the store’s about and what people can expect to find there. That’s what Denmark’s been working on since the store opened Oct. 7.

“I think some people are a little confused about what we are,” Denmark said. “People are used to stores being this or that. I don’t think they’re used to such an odd combination.” 

Bubacz is confident that the store will see success. Sylva’s got a pretty well-traveled Main Street, and the population is behind the buy-local mindset. 

“I have seen the businesses here who embrace the idea of buy local, because that’s what locals want to support,” he said. “We have a very supportive larger community.”


Baxley’s Chocolates 

Over at Baxley’s Chocolates, the support is pretty easy to feel. Customers come in and out of the little retail space quite regularly, and outside on Main Street empty storefronts are quickly filled with business owners eager to get in the downtown scene, said owner Steve Baxley. 

“You go into a lot of other towns and see a lot of empty storefronts,” he said. “(Here) if a space opens up, it doesn’t stay open very long, so that’s a good sign there’s good things happening.”

For Baxley, the chocolate shop is something he’s been wanting to see happen for some time. Years, in fact. 

“It started almost 35 years ago with my dad and I,” he said. “We would get together, particularly at Christmas and other holidays and experiment with making chocolates.” 

They talked off and on through the years of opening a shop, but Baxley had a career — he spent 32 years working for Western Carolina University, first in Residential Living and then in Advising. Chocolate-making was a thing the family would do at Christmas, something they’d give as gifts to friends and family. 

On Oct. 3 Baxley finally realized his dream of opening a chocolate shop, undertaking the endeavor with his wife Beth and daughter Lauren. 

Opening in Sylva was an easy decision. 

“We looked at the mix of shops and thought Sylva should have a chocolate shop,” he said. 

Though the shop does call-in orders, the Main Street location is all about inviting face-to-face communication with customers, something that had been a priority for the Baxley family. Evidently, it’s a priority for the neighbors as well.

“The community feel,” Steve Baxley answered when asked what he liked about the location. “We were really welcomed when we opened. Other business owners reached out to us and offered us advice and wisdom.” 


Trends of change 

That’s not a surprise to Dana Smith, former owner of Jack the Dipper and current president of the Sylva Main Street Association. 

“Most of the time, the feel of the community is what really draws people this way,” he said. That, and of course the lower cost of doing business as compared to other nearby towns, like Waynesville or even Asheville. 

But in Smith’s estimation, the last several years in particular have brought in a definitive wave of new small businesses to downtown. 

“The people that are coming seem to have a more progressive attitude,” he said. “I know that’s a broad-brush statement, but they’re more concerned about small business and survival of small businesses and making sure they’re an integral part of the community as a whole.” 

That might be linked in some way to the growth of Western Carolina University, Smith postulated, the idea being that more students coming through downtown Sylva create demand for more businesses to meet that demographic. 

Sylva Town Manager Paige Dowling, who also directs the Main Street Association, has a slightly different take. The seven storefront vacancies in downtown Sylva existing now represent a figure that’s remained fairly even over the past several years. Sylva wasn’t hit as hard by the recession as some other downtowns were, and the years since have seen a steady ebb and flow of new businesses moving in as others move out. 

What she has noticed, though, is that “More restaurants and breweries are open at night than three years ago. That part has definitely improved.” 

The later hours mean more incentive for people to stay downtown as night falls, and they’ve been doing just that. Dowling also postulates that the fire that destroyed a Main Street building last year, though initially catastrophic, may have done some long-term good for downtown. 

“I think that that incident reminded people of the importance of shopping locally and supporting your downtown,” she said. 

Whatever the reason, it’s easy to find people willing to say that good things are happening in downtown Sylva. 

“I think it’s exciting and attracting a young crowd, drawing people to the area,” said Betsy Keller, a Sylva resident who’d stopped by the Sylva Convenient Mart. 

“It went through a stale period, and it’s starting to wake up again,” agreed Denmark. 

“The business climate’s improving downtown,” Dowling said, attracting newcomers but still feeding the mainstays of downtown. 

“We have a great downtown with businesses that have been there a long time,” Dowling said. “City Lights Bookstore and Motion Makers (Bicycle Shop) both had their 30th anniversary, and for a town our size I think that’s very incredible.”

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