Race for town hall: Sylva board race draws four candidates for two seats
This November, Sylva voters will have their pick of four candidates to fill two seats up for election on the town board. Incumbents Mary Gelbaugh and Barbara Hamilton will face challengers Natalie Newman and Carrie McBane to earn the job of shepherding Jackson’s county seat through the next four years.
As the pandemic continues, Sylva businesses are grappling with a labor shortage and economic uncertainty while also facing massive disruption from the impending N.C. 107 project . If elected, what policies or resources would you support to bolster the local economy?
Hamilton said she’s “willing to do anything to support the business owners,” who have met unforeseeable challenges over the last few years. However, she’s unsure what specifically the town can do to help, and even less sure of what measures the town could fund given other challenges like finding $2 million to fix Allen Street.
“We’re trying to find funds to even run the town. It’s kind of a nightmare for us, because what do you do?” she said. “We don’t have the solutions. We’re looking everywhere we can and looking into every aspect we can, but so far, I mean, Allen Street is a really difficult situation for us, and it has to be fixed.”
If re-elected, Gelbaugh would continue looking for grants and other opportunities to help the town better support the business community. She would also continue to make herself available to discuss these issues with any citizens wishing to talk. Ultimately, though, resourcefulness and strong work ethic will be critical to pulling through these tough times.
“I hope that my role in Sylva, my role in the community helps people see how important work ethic is and where you can go from there,” she said. “Sometimes it’s not a matter of how many employees, but the quality of your employees. I employ about 20 people, and so teaching them how to work is critical to your operation being successful.”
With the recent appointment of Bernadette Peters as Sylva’s Main Street economic development director and Tiffany Henry as Jackson County’s economic development director, Newman believes things are headed in the right direction. If elected, she said, would actively look for new ideas and resources to aid the town.
“I think sometimes it’s easy to only look at what’s put in front of you versus going outside of that box and researching what kind of resources and things you can do,” she said. “In my free time sometimes I look to see what other areas that are similar to us, what they’re doing, because I think that’s a good place to start.”
The Confederate soldier statue has become a flashpoint over the past year as a symbol of conflict over how to view the town’s history and current identity. How do you feel now about the position you took on this issue last year, and if elected, what will you do to help heal the division this debate revealed?
Gelbaugh opposed removing the statue and said that she stands behind that vote, though ultimately it’s a county issue that the town doesn’t get to decide. She was saddened by the deep divisions that resulted and said that mending those relationships would be a priority over the next four years — hopefully through meaningful, in-person conversations rather than social media exchanges.
“It’s up to us to show respect to one another and love one another despite the things that we do or don’t agree on about each other,” she said. “To me it’s a bigger issue than the Confederate soldier. It’s about self-respect and about caring for one another.”
Newman spoke against the Confederate statue during last year’s public hearings, and while she still opposes it, she’s no longer focused on removing it. She wants to see the community heal from that debate and believes that milestones like the Harriet Tubman statue’s arrival, Sylva’s first Pride Parade and collaboration with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on Pinnacle Park signal a move in the right direction. Last summer changed her — in a good way, she said.
“It takes more energy to hold grudges and to be upset with people than it is to understand that sometimes people are just not going to agree with you, but you can still come together and have conversations,” she said. “In those conversations I realized we just disagreed. We don’t dislike each other, necessarily.”
As the mother of a Marine Corps veteran, Hamilton sees the statue as a memorial to the sons Jackson County mothers lost in the Civil War. She stands by her vote to let the statue remain downtown. Going forward, community members need to do a better job of listening to each other and being slower to anger over political issues.
“I have a few (people) that I can honestly say that I can sit down with them — and I did the other day — and we can talk even though we have opposite ideas about things,” she said. “But we don’t get mad. And we don’t just say, ‘No, it’s got to be our way or no way.’ We try to listen to each other. We need more of that.”
As a small town, Sylva is in the unique position of owning more than 1,500 forested acres . What should the town do over the next four years to develop recreation opportunities on this property?
Outdoor recreation opportunities are important for tourists and locals alike, and Newman believes that the Pinnacle Park and Blackrock projects should be a priority. She’s particularly excited about the town’s recent agreement with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to collaborate on master planning for the trail system hopes to continue that relationship in the future. That said, she acknowledges the challenge of reconciling outdoor recreation opportunities with the needs of trailside communities like Fisher Creek.
“I am a big believer in balance and finding a compromise that works for everyone to make everyone comfortable,” she said. “Can you make everyone happy? No. But I think as long as you’re putting the effort in to show people that we’re doing everything in our power to not put you out, I think you can make it happen.”
Expanding outdoor recreation opportunities is important, especially during a pandemic, when people are looking for outdoor spaces to socialize safely. However, Hamilton has “mixed feelings” about some of the development discussions due to Fisher Creek residents’ concerns regarding traffic, vandalism and parking issues at Pinnacle Park.
“We need recreation areas for people to be able to do these things,” she said. “I don’t like it that they feel overcrowded and worry about the traffic, but I think we need to come together and try to work together and try to solve these things instead of just saying, ‘It can’t be done.’”
As an outdoor industry business owner with a degree in travel and tourism, Gelbaugh appreciates the value public lands can bring to a local community. She sees the trail plans for Pinnacle Park and the Blackrock Tract as a “win-win” — but said quality communication will be key to success. Additional development will impact law enforcement and emergency services, and already residents of the Fisher Creek neighborhood are reporting issues at the Pinnacle Park trailhead. Installing security cameras and creating new entries to the property are possible solutions.
“Ultimately communication is going to be the best thing,” she said. “We have to communicate with everyone that’s involved to handle those circumstances.”
Sylva stands alone in the western seven counties in that, with the exception of an outdoor meeting in April, its board has not met in person since the pandemic began. Do you support the ongoing remote format ? In your opinion, when should in-person meetings resume?
Virtual meetings make quality community difficult. It’s hard to have a quality conversation when you can’t look a person in the eye as you’re talking to them, or when a dropped connection kicks you off the meeting mid-sentence.
“I for one would like to back to in-person,” Hamilton said. “(We can) wear masks, we can social distance — I’ve said that all along. And we’ve also got that new system that we have ordered that should be coming, so that we can use that to let everybody see what’s going on in our boardroom.”
The remote format has allowed board members to fulfill their responsibilities without going beyond their comfort zone regarding COVID-19, and it has improved members’ attendance. As the parent of two children dealing with remote learning, the virtual format has made it easier for Gelbaugh to balance her personal and professional life.
However, she acknowledged, board members never see each other now, and the absence of friendly conversation before and after the meetings makes membership less personable. Gelbaugh said she’d be willing to go back to in-person meetings once her follow board members are comfortable with it.
While she’s happy to move back to an in-person format once board members want to, Newman said she doesn’t think the board should be “rushing into it” and doesn’t believe that the virtual format hinders the town’s ability to do business.
“My entire master’s degree was an online program — everything was remote,” she said. “My job as a property manager is 90% remote. So I’m used to the remote world, and I definitely don’t mind it. I think there’s a lot of benefits to remote.”
Affordable housing is an issue regionwide, and Sylva is no exception. What can the town board do to improve that situation locally?
Recent police efforts to eliminate drug houses in town have helped ensure that existing homes in Sylva function as safe family residences.
“I’m optimistic that this is evolving right before our eyes — we just don’t necessarily realize it,” she said. “I can visualize one particular neighborhood where that has happened. I smile and think about it. There’s small children safely playing in that neighborhood now, and that was not the case a year ago.”
While she was sorry to turn down the senior housing development that came before the board this spring, she stands by her position that the proposed location was not right for that project, basing her opinion on the time she invested in researching the matter and talking with the people poised to be affected.
The town and the county are currently discussing a potential partnership to create a low-income housing facility in Sylva, and Hamilton hopes to help shepherd that project through. She also supports smaller-scale projects like the five homes Mountain Projects is building on Second Street using “sweat equity” provided by the members of the local workforce who will ultimately own them.
Like Gelbaugh, she voted against the senior housing development on Skyland Drive, and while the additional housing units would have been good for the town, she believed the proposed location was not right for the project.
There aren’t any easy answers, but Newman thinks a series of seemingly small moves like Mountain Project’s development on Second Street can have a cumulatively large impact. She was also in favor of the nixed senior living development proposed for Skyland Drive this year. As a property manager, she too frequently finds herself on the phone with people whose unsuccessful housing search has left them on the verge of tears.
“We want to make sure we’re respecting our area and people’s space and things like that, but also we need to respect the people who live here and that they need somewhere to live,” she said.