New leadership a plus for downtown Waynesville
I have not attended any of the meetings of the new Downtown Waynesville Advisory Committee, but I sense an energy, a commitment, and optimism from those I’ve discussed it with and from the stories we’ve reported. That’s quite the turnaround from the final years of the Downtown Waynesville Association.
The Waynesville Board of Aldermen decided last year to take the money generated by the Main Street taxing district — formally known as the Municipal Service District (MSD) — and use it to fund what is essentially a committee under the umbrella of the town. In doing so, it essentially left the almost 40-year-old DWA for dead, a nonprofit without its primary funding source and its mission now transferred to a new entity.
A quick study of the members of the new DWAC reveals that a lot of very talented people were interested in helping Waynesville’s downtown. The group that has been assembled includes everything from international businessmen to downtown shop owners, locals and newcomers. It’s a diverse mix of downtown proponents with a variety of occupations, skills and backgrounds. This is exactly what downtown Waynesville needed.
Part of my hope for DWAC comes from my own personal and professional connections with the old DWA. I was an executive board member for many years. At the end, there were several board members and downtown business owners who worked tirelessly to get the DWA to grapple with its deficiencies and shortcomings, but most of the board was blind to the fact that the group had strayed from its mission. Thankfully, the Waynesville town board recognized what was happening and stepped in to make a change.
Our newspaper produced several historical perspectives, one celebrating the DWA’s 25th year and then its 30th anniversary, noting all the accomplishments of the DWA and its members to transform Waynesville’s Main Street from a place with half its buildings boarded up or empty into the thriving business district it is today.
It is a fascinating and important story. If anyone searches online and comes across those accounts of the DWA’s history, what you’ll discover is that it was a core group of dedicated individuals who made all the difference. Those early proponents of downtown Waynesville banded together for the greater good even though many of them were business competitors. They said “yes” to higher taxes on their own properties, they made monetary donations and sought support from others when it was time to install decorative streetlamps or to put up benches or planters.
They were also organizing at a serendipitous time. In the 1980s, forward-looking town planners and local governments across the country had begun to realize what the country was losing in its flight to the suburbs and shopping malls. The sense of place that a bustling downtown symbolizes is intrinsically valuable to all communities, especially small towns. And so programs like the N.C. Main Street Center were established through the state Department of Commerce, and these provided grants and education to help downtown proponents succeed. Waynesville was one of the early members of the Main Street program.
I see a real parallel right now to what happened back in the 1980s. There is a relatively new and younger group of business owners in the downtown area willing to give their time and smarts to see Waynesville succeed and thrive. They are the nucleus who will lead downtown Waynesville into whatever future it will have. And that’s why I’m excited for what I see happening. Optimism, energy and smarts. I look forward to seeing where this new group will take the town I call home.