A new day dawns for downtown Waynesville
It was tough to witness the demise of the Downtown Waynesville Association. The DWA has a long, proud history, one of dedicated volunteers who through hard work and smarts filled empty storefronts and changed Waynesville forever.
As a business owner, as someone who has served on the DWA board, and as a journalist who has been covering this group’s many successes for nearly 30 years, though, I’m convinced that — right now — this is the best move for property owners, merchants and the town.
Waynesville aldermen made the unanimous decision last week to take the downtown property tax money away from the Downtown Waynesville Association. That tax money is raised through an extra levy on what’s formally known as the Municipal Service District, a stretch of Main Street running for about a mile and including some properties on side streets such as Depot and Church streets.
How dedicated were those property owners and merchants who formed the DWA in 1985? At that time Waynesville’s Main Street had a 23 percent vacancy rate and shoppers were skipping downtown in favor of retail centers on the town’s outskirts. That led to something I don’t think would even come close to happening today — those who worked and owned buildings downtown agreed to a tax increase on themselves in order to come up with money to hire an executive director and fund improvements.
After the business owners agreed to the tax, the town committed to helping out. Through the MSD tax, fund-raising and with town labor, amenities like benches, landscaping, brick sidewalks, buried utility lines, decorative lampposts, shade trees and more all came to Main Street. Through the years this public-private partnership — with the DWA leading the way in raising funds and corralling business and property owners to the cause — created the downtown Waynesville we have today, one often cited as the best-looking business district in the state.
When I interviewed those who were involved in the DWA’s creation, one of the things that most impressed me was the early emphasis on the arts. Haywood Community College already had a successful crafts curriculum and Haywood Arts Repertory Theater was producing plays on Main Street at the time, so focusing on art to lure businesses and people to downtown made sense. Think Church Street Arts and Crafts Festival, think Folkmoot, think Haywood County Arts Council and of the artists who have called Main Street home through the years.
Waynesville was practicing heritage tourism before it became a catchphrase. Now, 36 years later, Waynesville’s arts community is vibrant and a big part of its culture, something that gives the business district a distinctive flair.
So how did the DWA lose its way? I sat through meetings where clear differences on how to promote the district and what events to hold were argued. There were factions on the board who wanted to move in new directions while other long-timers argued for the status quo. During this time there were abrupt board resignations and split votes until a general dysfunction settled in just a few years ago. Unfortunately, these differences lasted until an almost Machiavellian drama played out, one side dumping those they disagreed with and taking over the executive board.
Then, when it came time to hire a new executive director, that executive board did not have the time or the expertise to make it happen. Remember, these board members are all volunteers who have jobs, businesses to run, families to spend time with. In the last couple of months there were mass resignations from the executive board.
In effect, the town has swept in to rescue the Municipal Service District. The vote was unanimous and all aldermen were on board. Merchants will witness a professional hiring process for an executive director and the promise to form a volunteer committee to advise the new executive director and do much of what the DWA was doing.
Who knows what will come of the nonprofit DWA with no funding mechanism and very few executive board members left. This, however, can be said of the DWA: from the late 1980s into the early 2000s, it saved and over time transformed downtown Waynesville. That group is largely responsible for what one sees today as you walk Main Street.
Now, it’s up to the current elected and business leaders to step up and lead downtown Waynesville into the future, whatever that may hold. It’s time for the leaders we’ll be writing about 20 years from now to step up.