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Cullowhee bridge could demolish business

fr cullowheebridgeChris Pressley, a third-generation owner of the 65-year-old Cullowhee Automotive Service, has been on edge since learning about plans for a new bridge in the Cullowhee community.

His business potentially stands in the path of a new bridge being built over the Tuckasegee River in Cullowhee on the backside of Western Carolina University’s campus. The existing bridge is being torn down and replaced, and the mom-and-pop mechanic shop could be bulldozed in the process.

Pressley might get a possible reprieve, however. One of two bridge options designed by the N.C. Department of Transportation could spare Cullowhee Automotive Service, which is located just off old Cullowhee Road. The DOT held a meeting about the bridge replacement project last week in Cullowhee.

“I’m still teeter-tottering,” said Pressley on his chances of saving the business.

Pressley said that he did feel DOT officials were being more open about potential impacts, including to his business, from the bridge replacement project than had been the case previously.

“This is about as transparent as they’ve been about the process,” he said.

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Pressley said it previously has been difficult to get information from the DOT on exactly what the bridge replacement project would mean for the community, and specifically his business.

Pressley is the third generation in his family to run Cullowhee Automotive Service. It was started by Pressley’s grandfather and great uncle, and his father had worked there before him, making the business a true family concern.

A DOT meeting in April 2011 about the bridge replacement caused something of an outcry, specifically with some of those attending saying they weren’t provided adequate information about the DOT’s plans for the bridge, including designs and the potential impact on surrounding property.

John Williams, DOT project engineer, acknowledged to the crowd of 60 or so that was indeed the case and that the DOT should have provided more detailed information, particularly regarding property that would be taken because of the project. He said that DOT has received 40 to 50 emails on that topic alone since the April meeting over a year ago.

DOT is now considering two options, with the primary differences between them being the length of traffic delays needed during construction and the number of buildings to be bulldozed. The state would compensate the owners for their property at fair market value. Pressley said that just being paid for his property wouldn’t begin to make up for the loss of the actual business, however.

Many who came in support of Pressley agreed.

“I just don’t see how the DOT can come in and doze someone’s livelihood,” said Cullowhee resident Neal Morgan. “It’s like a family heirloom. It’s not just a business.”

Morgan said the business fills a particular niche in the community because WCU faculty, staff and students can drop off vehicles for repair and walk to campus.

Also on hand were a few members of CuRvE, a Cullowhee revitalization group that is spearheading efforts to create a focal point for the community via a new riverside park. The park would be multi-use and potentially include picnic tables, public beach access to the river and a boat launch.

Maurice Phipps, a member of CuRvE, said either of the two bridge options would work fine.

“It’s not a big deal,” he said of the bridge construction’s impact on a future river park.

Phipps said that there were positives and negatives connected to each of the bridge options but that either would ultimately work when it comes to building a park. One option takes more river away from the potential park, the other more land.

Rick Bennett of Cullowhee, another member of CuRvE, agreed with Phipps, saying the group could adapt the park plans to whichever bridge option was selected.

What might help those efforts is that both the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and Duke Energy are interested in providing river access, according to Williams, the DOT official handling public comments on the project. Williams said DOT was willing to work with the wildlife commission and Duke on such a project to help. He said, like Phipps, that the future bridge shouldn’t harm plans to build the park.

“I don’t think anything we are going to do is going to hurt in terms of possibilities,” Williams said.

DOT could start buying up property for right of way in the spring of 2013. A decision on which bridge option will be selected won’t be made until at least July 13. The DOT is accepting written comments until then.

A review of the written comments as of June 18 showed that out of 29 people, 19 supported alternative one and nine supported alternative two. One of the comment sheets was illegible. Many of those commenting said they’d happily trade longer traffic delays for fewer properties being bulldozed.

“Traffic is the biggest concern,” Cullowhee resident Michael Cannon wrote. “Aside from that I don’t see the need for affecting a family’s livelihood (Cullowhee Auto) for a slight delay in someone’s commute.”

Cullowhee resident Neil Ketting suggested going with alternate one and rerouting traffic, killing two birds with one stone.

“… We can finish the project sooner (thereby reducing environmental impact) and allow fewer businesses to be relocated? That seems like a win-win situation to me,” Ketting wrote.

Still, alternate two has its supporters, including Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. Debnam is a Cullowhee resident.

“I think alternate two will have the least amount of economic impact on the community due to less time involved with the project,” he wrote.


Weigh in on options

The Department of Transportation is considering two options for replacing a bridge on old Cullowhee Road. One option would spare more of the surrounding properties by building the bridge back in essentially the same place it is now, but it also would means more traffic delays during construction. Here’s the details:

• Option one: Rebuild the new bridge in the same place as the old one. Half the bridge would be built, then the other half.

Pros: Cost is cheaper at $6.766 million. Would probably take fewer people’s property, with the plans calling for three buildings definitely being demolished and possibly up to four more taken, too.

Cons: Because only one lane of traffic would be open at a time, there would be a five to seven minute delay during the heaviest traffic hours. Other times of day, traffic would experience only one to two minute delays. Also, the bridge would take longer to build at 18 months.

• Option two: Rebuild the new bridge upstream of the existing bridge.

Pros: The bridge would be built more quickly, in just 12 months. Traffic delays during construction would be nonexistent because the old bridge would be in use until the new one was built. The old bridge would then be torn down.

Cons: The second option cost more at $7.443 million. Also, more property would be condemned. Under this option five buildings would definitely be demolished and two more might be, too. However, this option would require more property condemned in Cullowhee to make way for the bridge.

People have until July 13 to comment. Send comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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