Next Maggie Valley mayor must manage growth
Maggie Valley may be a small town, but its economic impact on and importance to Haywood County can’t be understated.
After Mayor Saralyn Price announced she wouldn’t seek re-election this year, only two candidates stepped up — Mayor Pro Tem Janet Banks and Alderman Mike Eveland.
Banks decided to forego re-election to her aldermanic seat to run for mayor, so if she loses, she’s off the board.
If Eveland loses, he returns to serve out the remaining two years on his aldermanic term, but if he wins, his aldermanic seat will be filled by someone selected by the new board.
However that all shakes out, Maggie Valley’s next mayor will inherit a strong financial position and a tourism-based economy that appears to be thriving. Rekindled interest in Ghost Town and other recent outside investment in Maggie Valley, though, will demand careful management of resources to ensure a level of growth that keeps Miss Maggie moving forward without obliterating the unique character of the small mountain town.
The Smoky Mountain News: There are a lot of misconceptions about what a mayor in North Carolina does, and doesn’t do. As you understand it, what is the role of a mayor?
Janet Banks: For the past four years, I have been the mayor pro tem of Maggie Valley, so I have represented Maggie Valley in various meetings across the county, the region and the state. One of the reasons I have concentrated on doing that is that you meet people, you forge relationships that you’re going to use in the future. If Maggie Valley is seen and heard, we have a seat at the table. The role of the mayor is set the tone for the town. The role of the mayor is to be the public persona of the town, to be seen out in the community, to be seen in the county, in the region and in the state, which I have done.
Mike Eveland: The mayor does not run the town. That’s done by the town manager. The mayor runs the meetings and handles the board, The other thing is that any time that the town has opportunities, the mayor usually goes with the town manager and stuff like that. If, for example, you have somebody asking about Ghost Town or any of those local things, then the mayor usually gets to be the one that’s the representative of the board. I think that’s probably the biggest thing in North Carolina is that the mayor represents the board and the town in general.
SMN: Maggie, like every other town in this county, is in the enviable position of being able to manage growth as opposed to managing decline. Tell me a little bit about your philosophy on how you plan to manage that growth.
Eveland: I would disagree a little bit in that our commercial over the last 10 or 12 years has been in decline to some degree. I think we’ve leveled off and I think that the last couple of years have shown us that the numbers are better. Growth over the next eight to 12 years is going to be interesting, because there are people within the Valley that would really like to see the valley stay the same. And then there’s a lot of people that look at the valley and understand that it needs to grow. What we have to do is not close the door to growth. We need to make sure that we do it in a way that doesn’t all come at once. We need to find ways to make sure that it’s staged out. Part of the growth is going to be along Jonathan Creek at some point down the road, and that’ll be really cool because that’s going to be expanding the town. The [economic development incentive policy] that we just approved allows us the opportunity now that when we talk to people, this what we’re willing to do for you if you’re doing investments. We need to make sure that we’re on top of that, because we’re going to be competing with other areas and we want the opportunity to make sure that we’re number one on your list.
Banks: I moved here 12 years ago. The population of Maggie Valley, I had been told at that time, was approximately 1,100 people. It’s now up to almost 1,400 people. Most of the growth in Maggie Valley has occurred over the last three to four years since we’ve come back from the recession, so you’re looking at basically a 20 percent growth increase over 10 years. That is manageable. In terms of city services that we offer for both the residents and the commercial entities, I would like to see a slow, steady growth that we can manage within our current budget. Our residential part of the community is taking off. The commercial will follow, so what I want is smart growth. I want to grow steadily and I want to prepare for the future. I am not unwilling to discuss at a future time adding another police officer, and adding another public works worker to handle the increased services that we need.
SMN: Affordable housing is a big issue across the county. What do you see as the extent of the problem in Maggie Valley, and what can Maggie Valley do about it or what can Maggie do in conjunction with the county as a whole?
Banks: I was chosen by the board to be the representative of the town on the Haywood County Affordable Housing Council, so I’m very familiar with this issue. This issue right now for Maggie Valley is huge. There aren’t housing affordability options for people who are coming here to work, and I think we need to do something about it in conjunction with the whole rest of the county. I don’t buy the idea that the two large complexes that are going up in Waynesville will vacate [more affordable housing units] because salaries haven’t increased that much across the county. I think one of the things that Waynesville should have done is adopt a policy that when large development complexes of multi family housing units go in, that reserves 10 percent of those units for low income people. Many municipalities have that policy. Waynesville does not.
Eveland: Maggie Valley is a very small community. I don’t know that we have a huge footprint on that. Haywood County in general, now that’s a totally different game. We have to define what affordable housing is. To me, even the opportunity for $800 to $1,200 apartments don’t seem to be affordable to some people. But at the same time, that’s the growth that we need to have to be able to get to the point where we can afford different types of housing. We’ve got employees that can’t afford to live because they look for houses and end up with second jobs. Haywood County people are going to move this way, and we’ve got to have people that will be employed by all these businesses. We’ve got a shortage now it’s going to only get worse. I don’t think that trailers and that kind of thing is the answer. It needs to be actual housing, whether it be duplexes, apartment-type things or small houses, but it doesn’t need to be trailers. I think we have enough of that.
SMN: Data from Pathways says that the overwhelming majority of people in that shelter are from Haywood County. It’s no surprise that Waynesville is about 60 percent of that population, but Maggie Valley only provides about 5 percent. What is your opinion of the homeless situation in Maggie Valley?
ME: Maggie Valley does have a problem with homelessness right now. We see it every day. They’re living wherever at this time of year too, because the weather’s been nice. We’re getting a lot of them off the interstate, so they’re not from Waynesville, Maggie or wherever, but we get them down the corridor down there and they come into Maggie. It’s an issue that I think is something that needs to be looked at. As a businessperson, we want to call police officers and have them removed — that’s a knee-jerk reaction to what’s going on, but there’s maybe other facilities or opportunities where we can pull people in. But then you’re going to pull people from other communities outside of Haywood County, and that’s not necessarily something that we want to be able to do either, because we want to try to take care of our own and if we can do that then, then that would be great.
Banks: There are many reasons that people are homeless. It could be mental illness, it could be drug addiction, it could be family problems, it could be loss of a job. As long as the numbers remain small, we should be helping our own. The best way to do that? I have no real idea at this point in time. The churches in Maggie Valley have had a long history of helping people with issues such as food insecurity. Maggie being a tight knit community, this has been going on for years. I would advocate personally for supporting the Pathways Center, but I’m not sure I would commit town funds to do that until we see there is a bigger need and I’m very wary of how our taxpayer money is going to be spent in the next several years because one of the big issues that we are going to face is in 2020, we’re doing a complete county revaluation of property. The last time we were reevaluated in 2017, we lost $34 million and the prediction is we’re going to have a loss again in 2020. I want to make sure that our budget — without raising people’s taxes — covers all the goods and services that we supply.
SMN: Maggie Valley’s financial position is incredibly strong — no debt, lowest taxes in the county, and a fund balance hovering around 100 percent. What was your role in helping the board manage that and where do we go from here?
Banks: We made a decision a couple of years ago when we adopted a tax increase from 39 cents to 43 cents after the devaluation of our property, to take some money from the general fund to pay down debt. By gradually doing that over time and paying off the police department building, we made our last payment last year. We have improved our financial situation tremendously and we made a lot of hard decisions in trying to keep a revenue-neutral budget, but not to disadvantage any of our services that we supply to the people. I’m very proud of that record. However, just because we are now debt-free, you don’t spend miss Maggie’s inheritance all willy-nilly. We have just adopted a new tax incentive policy for people that are making major investments in the town. I think this is a good first step, but I’m not in favor of giving pennies back to the commercial entities and homeowners on their taxes at this point in time until I find out the results of the 2020 tax reevaluation. The other reason I’m not in favor is that, I budget for my taxes, and I don’t want a seesaw tax bill surprise at the end of the year. I want to know exactly what my tax bill is, so I can budget for it and people don’t like up and down swings and I don’t want to give tax money back and then have to raise them again.
Eveland: Back seven, eight years ago, we went down on our tax base. We lost a big chunk there and in order for us to be stable, we went back to the original tax rate that we had, still the lowest in Haywood County. At this point we believe that we should be able to maintain that. We do have to know that over the next few years, we pay 23 employees now and there’s going to be a point where we need to be able to expand that by a few people. Another thing that we did that saved us thousands of dollars was going to the state [employee health insurance] plan. Every year we were having to change insurance companies and going up 20, 30 percent each time. It has stabilized our insurance to the point where we don’t have to shop anymore. Our budget, I think it was a 3 or 4 percent increase this year, so that’s very minimal and it’s really allowed us the opportunity to be able to have a stable environment for our budget, and that allows us to be more aggressive with employee [benefits] and that sort of thing, in terms of putting the money where they really need it, which is in their pocketbooks.
SMN: Is climate change real?
Banks: Of course it is.
SMN: What would you do as mayor to ensure that the town pays as much attention to climate change as possible in every single issue?
Eveland: We’ve already done a lot of that. We’ve gone to LED lighting throughout our area, including now the streetlights and all that sort of thing. So, uh, this has been a two, three year project process. [Town Manager] Nathan Clark has been very aggressive with this. His leadership in that role for the board has been great because he comes with opportunities and the ability for us to be able to make the changes that we, the little changes that we can make. When it comes to some of the other issues like trash and stuff like that, we do a very good job of making sure that we have opportunities for people to be able to divide their trash out and be able to, so that that’s done properly. Um, and we also have just at town hall here, for example, along with the other municipalities in Haywood County a few years ago, we went ahead and spent the time and money and put in a battery charger that people can come up and charge their cars for free. So those are some of the little things that we’ve done.
Banks: Maggie Valley lives and dies on the weather, and our weather has changed. We’ve just come through a period where we’ve had very little rain in the valley and that affects our festival grounds season, and our ability to keep those grounds in pristine condition for attracting new festivals. What I think the town can do is be ever conscious of our energy use. And we’ve done that to a large extent. We’ve converted to all LED lamps in our town streetlights through a program with Duke energy and we are looking at how much we spend on things that consume energy. So I think that as a board moving forward, we have to be conscious of it now. There are alternative energy sources, and we may want to consider putting solar panels on the town hall 10 years from now. This is something we need to be aware of and it’s acute for Maggie Valley, because we’re so sensitive to the weather.
SMN: I want to talk about that agenda setting meeting. Do you feel like anything improper happened during that meeting?
Banks: I was surprised that Alderman [Phillip] Wight brought forth that motion because it was an attempt to cut off discussion when we needed to have more discussion. And I appreciate the fact that he wanted the North Carolina Department of Transportation to know that the people of Maggie Valley did not want the road reduced. And I don’t want that either, but there is a time and a place to tell that to them rather than have a motion to cut it off.
Eveland: Most of the people I see people every day in my business that are locals, people that live here, that have lived here their whole lives. Some of them vote, a lot of them don’t. But they’ve lived here their whole lives and they came to me with this issue from the first day that we found out that there was a possibility of a three lane at that time. Let’s take this off the table to the DOT and tell them that we want to be interested in any other ideas they have, but more specifically talk about the crosswalks and what we can do to, make those safer and better.
SMN: Janet, if you lose, there will be a vacancy on the board and the board of aldermen. Would you apply to fill that vacancy?
Banks: No. I think the new board as it would be reconfigured needs to choose a different person and someone who will really bring a talent to the board. The board has as its mayor the former police chief. They have me as mayor pro tem. I represent the residents, because I’m a retired resident. They have Mike Eveland and Phillip Wight, who are two business owners in Maggie Valley, and they have Clayton Davis, a retired county agricultural agent who brings the talent of redesigning and beautifying Maggie Valley to the board. That’s why we have worked so well, because we have had multiple interests represented.