Business owners in Bryson City’s downtown are following in the footsteps of neighboring towns, attempting to put together their own downtown merchants’ association.
The infant group has been meeting for three months, but hasn’t yet gotten around to structure or membership, two issues that will be instrumental to the group’s future.
Currently, the only group serving merchants is the Swain County Chamber of Commerce. Several downtown business owners surveyed last week for this article said they chamber adequately serves downtown interests and they weren’t interested in a second organization.
Chamber Executive Director Karen Wilmot said that the idea of a downtown association has been tossed around town for years, although she expected it to come to from within the chamber.
“We’ve always hoped that when someone chose to start a downtown merchants’ association that they would choose to umbrella it under the chamber so everyone could stay in the same loop,” said Wilmot. By that she means making the association something like a chamber committee.
But that’s not how they want to do it, said Tim Hall, who runs the Storytelling Center of the Appalachians and is heading the effort.
“I want to be able to work beside the chamber, hand-in-hand with the chamber, but the chamber again is — even though they’ve done a good job on promoting Bryson City as the major city of Swain County — they are still a Swain County organization,” said Hall. “It might not be a bad idea to have two organizations that would work in conjunction with one another, in splitting out some of the responsibilities. The chamber could communicate with the county and then the merchants’ association for downtown Bryson City.”
Several towns in the region have their own downtown organizations, including Sylva, Waynesville and Franklin, that operate in addition to a chamber of commerce.
The challenge of maintaining both a chamber of commerce and a downtown group could prove straining for a town Bryson’s size, however.
Buffy Phillips, executive director of the Downtown Waynesville Association, said that active involvement from members and a committed point person are key to actually bringing benefits to downtown businesses.
“Someone has to be in charge,” said Phillips. “There has to be a voice and a committee of others in charge, but there still has to be that one person that makes sure that something is going to happen.”
No officers have yet been elected in Bryson City, but Hall said that’s what he hopes the group will become.
A lot of people have ideas for downtown, but no way to get them off the ground.
“Everybody has their ideas, but what we’re wanting to do is take those ideas and have a clearinghouse for them, to work in conjunction with the other organizations in and around Bryson City to develop a cohesive plan,” said Hall. “(We want) to take the input of the merchants, the input of the visitors, the input of the residents and combine them all together.”
A clear mission with clear goals will be key to raise funds or soliciting members, according to Linda Schlott, director of Franklin’s Main Street program, which is run by the town.
“I think when you ask for that money, you really have to have something, a really good plan,” said Schlott.
In Bryson City, there has been no talk of a town-run program, and since Hall and his associates want to stay separate from the chamber, a dues system is one of the remaining options.
They haven’t yet convinced downtown businesses that banding together would be mutually beneficial — they’re touting things like standardized late opening hours, to combat the view that the sidewalks roll up at five o’clock — but some are just waiting for the group to mature before climbing aboard.
Ron Larocque, owner of the Cork and Bean on Everett Street and the president of the chamber, said he was taking a wait-and-see attitude.
Wilmot said the chamber isn’t against the idea, especially if it’s what the town’s merchants want.
“The chamber certainly is not threatened or does not feel antagonistic in any way towards the creation of a downtown merchants’ association,” said Wilmot. “If this is something that our members feel a need for, then we want to be able to fill that gap.”