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Downtown merchants anticipate homecoming for county workforce

Downtown merchants in Waynesville hope to get a boost in customers when the Haywood County Historic Courthouse throws open its doors to the public Monday, June 29, following a two-year renovation.

Main Street shops lost frequent customers when courthouse construction forced county employees to relocate to temporary offices outside the downtown area. Come lunch time, they were far more likely to patronize the fast food joints along the commercial Russ Avenue corridor than supporting downtown merchants.

That will all change this week. Nearly 50 full-time employees will return to occupy office space in the newly renovated courthouse.

“I much prefer being downtown and able to walk on Main Street,” said Assistant Register of Deeds Becca Cedron, who said the Main Street location is the part of the move she’s most looking forward to. “It’s more convenient.”

Downtown merchants are equally enthused about the return of potential customers. The move could boost area business at a time when shops are feeling the effects of the economy.

“I’m very excited they’re coming back,” said Cary Turman, manager of Smoky Mountain Roasters. “I think it will greatly increase our lunch, and I maybe hope to see them grab coffee before they come to work in the morning.”

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Chris Williams, manager of O’Malley’s, also hopes to intercept the increased traffic flow. Williams already sees a flood of lunch-time customers from the Justice Center, next door to the historic courthouse. He hopes county employees will stop by both for lunch and maybe for an after work beverage.

Meanwhile, the new town office building nearing completion on Main Street will bring even more workers to downtown Waynesville. Half a dozen town employees who have been squirreled away in off-site offices will be returning to work on Main Street by August.

The police department will also take up residence in the new building after a hiatus during construction. While the bulk of positions in the police department are patrol officers assigned to the road, at least half a dozen police personnel with administrative and management roles will add to the full-time downtown workforce.

“Economically, downtown will certainly benefit,” said Town Manager Lee Galloway. People working outside downtown are forced to climb in their cars for their lunch break, and once behind the wheel, “you think, ‘Well, I don’t want to drive downtown and find a parking place,’” Galloway said.

But when stationed downtown, the inverse is true “not just for the restaurants but it will be easy for them to walk to any of the other stores on Main Street,” Galloway said. Between the town and county workers, the foot traffic of 60 new people can’t be a bad thing.

In addition to the tangible bump in commerce, Galloway said keeping civic functions downtown are vital to maintaining a vibrant, working Main Street. That theory was one of the leading arguments in keeping county offices and the courthouse downtown in the first place. The county became embroiled in a bitter debate eight years ago when deciding whether to keep county offices downtown. Town leaders actively joined the voices of those lobbying to keep it on Main Street.

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