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Changing electorate could shake up Sylva election

The race for the Sylva town board this fall could speak volumes about the changing demographics of the town — namely whether the downtown scene dominated by a young, perhaps more progressive, clientele is truly where the town’s heart is.

There are three seats up for election on the town board. All three currently holding the seats are running for re-election, and face competition from two challengers. One of those, Sarah Graham, bills herself as a progressive candidate. She is mother of two young children, lives and works downtown as the director of the Downtown Sylva Association, and helps her husband with his graphic design firm. The votes Graham garners could provide a litmus test of sorts for where the town’s collective philosophy resides.

A random poll of pedestrians downtown Monday afternoon (Sept. 24) suggested Graham’s progressive platform could resonate with voters. For example, smart growth is the main issue on the mind of Michelle Foley, 34. Foley wants to see the town’s unique character protected through smart growth measures. That happens to be Graham’s top campaign platform.

Foley wasn’t sure if people like herself comprise the majority of Sylva voters, however.

“Sylva is a different place today compared to a few years ago,” Foley said. “I think right now we are at a tipping point with the direction Sylva is going. I think it is at a tipping point with old and new.”

Inside Guadalupe restaurant, owner Jen Pierson was prepping black beans for the night’s fare. When asked what issues she wants the town to address, Pierson’s agenda included more bike racks downtown, recycling containers on the streets for pedestrians, and public transportation, especially between downtown and the university. The issues clearly place Pierson, a town resident and voter, in the progressive camp and likely aligned in Graham’s corner.

Downstairs in a coffee shop called the Underground, customers sipped java while clicking away on their laptops. The owner, Jon Budacz, said he wants the town to install raised crosswalks downtown.

Pedestrian-friendly amenities and traffic calming is another of Graham’s issues — both as downtown director and a mother pushing a stroller. But like many downtown business owners, Budacz doesn’t live in the town limits and can’t vote.

Budacz said it will be interesting to see who does go to the polls. He said the town’s demographic is trending younger, more progressive, and more liberal with an influx of new people. But Budacz questioned whether those people are the majority, and whether they will even vote.

Case in point were two young patrons of the Underground lingering on the street outside. Adam Blankenship, 25, lives in the town limits but didn’t know there was a town election coming up. His friend also lives in the town limits but wasn’t yet registered to vote since recently moving to town.

Back on Main Street, Monica Woodard, 26, was tending shop at Killer Creek Furniture. She lives in the town limits and knew exactly what issue is important to her.

“One of the biggest things I have is leadership that helps in the preservation of the mountains,” Woodard said. Woodard wants to see developers be more sensitive — another issue that falls in the progressive domain.

It’s unclear how much of the town’s population falls under this new demographic, despite its visible presence downtown. The neighborhoods that make up the bulk of Sylva’s population are still home to residents that foster more traditional concerns and values. A stone’ throw from the main downtown drag, town voters coming and going from a popular local diner called the Coffee Shop had a far different slate of concerns than the downtown pedestrians. Two different patrons each named street repairs as their top issue.

“It’s like driving through a mine field,” Jim Turpin said of the potholes on Allen’s Street.

Lee Ewart, a community figure and business owner, offered some perspective on the changing demographics. He agreed it is changing, but he isn’t sure how much of an impact it might have on the election.

“There is going to be some effect there with people who have moved into the town of Sylva,” Ewart said. “But there are still more of the old folks.”

But Ewart, a long-time Sylva resident and one of those old folks himself, said the town could use some new vision and more proactive leadership, however. Ewart wants to see the town address everything from affordable housing to making drivers on Main Street slow down and stop for pedestrians before someone gets hurt.

• Danny Allen, 51, has served on the town board six years. Initially, Allen was not going to run for re-election due to a battle with cancer. But he is optimistic about his outcome and decided to stay in.

• Maurice Moody, 67, has served on the board for 10 years and describes his leadership and vision as progressive.

• Ray Lewis, 64, has served on the board for four years.

• Sarah Graham, 34, a challenger, is the director of the Downtown Sylva Association and with her husband run a graphic design firm.

• Mike Beck, 48, a challenger, is the volunteer fire chief for the town.

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