Newman, Phillips vie for Mayor of Sylva
When Sylva residents go to the polls, they will be choosing a mayor to lead the town through several big projects lined up on the horizon.
Between the N.C. 107 road-widening project, the future of Pinnacle Park, Allen Street repairs and constructing downtown public restrooms, Sylva has a lot on its plate.
More than 50 people attended a candidate forum hosted by Indivisible Common Ground WNC on Sept. 28 at the Jackson County Library where candidates answered questions submitted by audience members prior to the event. In addition to speaking their mind on the issues facing Sylva today, all candidates implored people to get out and vote.
In 2021, voter turnout came in at 16.5%, with 249 of 1,511 registered voters casting a ballot. That number was slightly less than the 256 who voted in 2019.
Early voting runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, Oct. 19 until Nov. 3, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, at the Jackson County Board of Elections. Voters are now required to show ID when voting, but a special voter ID can be requested from the Board of Elections during early voting. Election day is Nov. 7.
In the mayoral race, incumbent David Nestler did not file for reelection. Council Member Natalie Newman and Sylva resident Johnny Phillips have filed to run for the seat.
Natalie Newman was first elected to Sylva’s town board in 2021, when she beat out two incumbents and garnered the most votes of any candidate. In addition to her role on the town board, Newman serves on the Main Street Sylva Association Board and as a Jackson County Chamber Ambassador. She has lived in the area since 2011 and works as a property manager.
Johnny Phillips is originally from Sylva and spent 30 years working for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, followed by time in the private sector. Phillips also has extensive experience serving on and chairing public boards.
This year isn’t the first time the N.C. 107 project has been the dominant issue in a Sylva election. Back when right-of-way acquisition was about to begin, candidates in the race for town board in fall of 2019 focused much of their attention on the road project.
Now, with several local businesses forced to close and relocate due to right-of-way acquisitions, candidates running for town council are addressing concerns like how to balance a budget that will see a reduction in revenues due to those businesses closing for the road-widening project, and how best to support those that have been forced to move.
Here are candidates’ answers to the questions.
What qualifies you for the job?
Phillips: Representing the town of Sylva is a part of the mayor’s job. Going out and meeting with citizens, business owners, dignitaries that come to town, whatever that may be. I’ve served on many boards. One particular board I served on for 16 years, the Alarm System Licensing Board, I was the chairman of that board for five years. I was appointed by the lieutenant governor, I was appointed by the governor, I was appointed by the attorney general, so I’m pretty well versed with those folks and that sort of thing.
The budget is the biggest thing going on in Sylva. We’ve got a $300,000 loss in revenue from 107. I have inquired with our senator, Kevin Corbin, and he’s looking into the fact that there may be some legislative money that can be given in lieu of those taxes during the life of this project, which would give us five years to figure out how to build enough businesses back to make up for what we’ve lost.
Newman: “I know I’ve got some big shoes to fill. Lynda Sossamon did a lot for this town, and I look up to David Nestler, our current mayor. David and I don’t always agree on things but one thing I can respect is that he does his research, he talks to people and he speaks up, and that’s one of the things that I admire about him and one of the things that I look forward to giving our community serving as your mayor.
I enjoy helping people. One of the things I really enjoy is connecting people to resources and I think as mayor, you have to look for alternative resources when the budget is not there for things to happen. Lynda did a great job of that. I look forward to looking for those alternative solutions. Most of all I want to go out and represent Sylva in a positive light. I love it here and more than anything, I cannot stress this enough, I want to serve the people of Sylva because I feel led to do that.
How will you manage Fisher Creek Watershed Fund for sustainability into the future?
Newman: Just like our mountains, our waterways are a big part of this community. For a long time, Sylva’s drinking water came from Fisher Creek Waterway, and it was protected and the town owned it. In the 1990s, Tuckaseegee Sewer and Water Authority was formed, and we outgrew that waterway and we now source water from Cullowhee. We, as a town, were left with a 1,000-acre watershed, and the early proposals were to log the land and make money off the timber. There were other ideas like selling off the land. The town decided to preserve that area and in exchange for doing that the state gave us around $3 million, which is now the Fisher Creek Fund. Now Pinnacle Park is protected and maintained. There are educational aspects, recreational aspects as well and 40% of those funds are held to preserve water quality … The biggest thing as mayor is advising the board that we should try not to deplete those funds for any reason outside of preserving that park for our community. In the past money has been taken from that fund to balance the budget, and really that needs to be allocated and used for Fisher Creek preservation and Pinnacle Park preservation. So as mayor, that’s how I would advise the board is to continue to funnel that money to what it’s supposed to be used for.
Phillips: Growing up here, I’ve spent many hours on Fisher Creek. There used to be good speckled trout fishing up there. I’m proud that our town is trying to take care of that. Without the knowledge that Mayor Nestler has right now, I’m not privy to exactly where the money came from and what kind of grants are there, what’s not there, how much is matching, what’s not matching, but I am in favor of taking care of our environment and most definitely our watershed.
How will you balance the budget with revenue losses coming from N.C. 107 ?
Phillips: Everyone knows that the N.C. 107 project is a tremendous blow to the Town of Sylva. I don’t know exactly how we got to where we’re at with sitting back and watching 42 businesses be torn down, but that’s where we’re at. So, it’s a $300,000 loss of revenue, and we’ve got to figure out how to make that up. There are several avenues. One, is the fact that there is some legislative money that we can get in lieu of the missing taxes during the life of the project. There’s also a way to get our hands on some of the excess right-of-way where we have total takes — they’ve taken a whole building and they only need 30 feet, the rest of that is considered excess right-of-way. The first option for NCDOT is they can sell it to the adjoining property owner for fair market value. The second option is one not many people know about, but municipalities can acquire it for free. It’s supposed to be for public use, but there has been a precedent set that two different governors have allowed it to be used for business development. Some of the businesses that are relocating will make up for some of that and will stay in the Sylva city limits, but the last thing I want to do is cut back on services and I do not want to raise taxes.
Newman: There are a lot of things that we can control and then there are a lot of things that we really can’t control. Whether you like it or not, the N.C. 107 project, the R-5600 project is happening. What I’ve loved about being on this board so far is seeing how forward-thinking and how intelligent the people involved on the board and in our town staff and our town manager are; going to our retreat and seeing that we’re looking years down the road as to what we can do to support our community and to overcome the challenges that we’re going to face with the R-5600 project. When it comes to the budget, focusing on our needs … nobody wants to raise taxes. We have long hard discussions before we raise taxes. [Last budget cycle] it came down to, we had to raise taxes to be able to keep the quality of life that the people in Sylva have … But as far as raising taxes, if it comes down to it and we have to, it’s really a last resort.
Top three things you want to change or improve in the town?
Newman: I think top of my list would be building and strengthening our relationships with our county representatives. I think that’s important, and they are there to help us get things done. There are some things that we can’t do without the help of our county commissioners, our county leadership. I think it’s also important to focus on those relationships that we have with the leaders in our region. I like talking to people, I like meeting people, I like having those relationships and having those conversations and I think that’s why I would be a great mayor.
Housing is an issue in our community, affordable housing is an issue in our community. We may not be able to make a huge impact; however, we can make an impact in building those relationships and advocating for affordable housing, mental health, substance abuse, all of that. We can advocate for that and build those relationships with our county leadership and with the leaders in our region that can help make those things happen in our community and in our area.
Lastly, I want to see a bigger connection between our board and the people in our community. There are so many times that we are in a boardroom by ourselves. I want to see more of an open house type deal for the people that live in Sylva. I want to be able to inform people about the goings on in Sylva and be even more transparent than we already are and to be able to have those communications and those relationships with each and every citizen in Sylva.
Phillips: I would like to see a streetscape project on Back Street. We’ve done a nice one on Front Street and it looks much better; Back Street is a little embarrassing for those of us that are from here. That’s one thing I’d like to see done.
I am very proud that we’re building these [public] bathrooms, our town desperately needs them. I hope we can upgrade the ones at Poteet Park after those are finished. I’ve met with Paige [Dowling, town Manager] and I’ve also met with Jake Scott [public works director], I’ve been on a tour of the Allen Street fix, I would propose that we promptly put a two or three-month wait on Bryson Park to make certain the fix stays before we spend park money on it, I’d like to see that done.
We’re having a whole lot of citizens building substandard sidewalks that are not ADA standard and they are really a danger to the handicapped folks out in our community. The better way to do that is to reserve the right-of-way to do that when you have a change of use, and the DOT grant money to build sidewalks that actually meet ADA standard, but you have to go by DOT standard.
Five years from now, how would you like Sylva to remain the same and how would you like it to be different?
Phillips: There are some repairs that need to be done to the railroad between Sylva and Dillsboro, and there’s possibly some infrastructure money within the Department of Transportation that we might be able to get for that. If we could convince the train to come back to Sylva and bring that sidewalk full of people in Bryson City up here for about three hours to spend money every day, you might be surprised how many businesses pop up. I’d be your mayor that would be making an appointment with Mast General Store trying to get them to come to Sylva once we have a sidewalk full of people. That’s the most visited place in Haywood County. We already have some very nice events going on at Christmas time, but wouldn’t it be nice to have Thomas the Train?
Newman: Five years from now I would love to see the NCDOT has finished up the N.C. 107 project and people are building on 107, local businesses and that sort of thing.
Housing is really important to me. I work as a property manager. I manage 76 properties in Sylva and Cullowhee. So, a lot of times I’m getting those calls from people in our community — now these are teachers or people who work in the trades, people who make up the fabric of this community — that are calling me, sometimes crying because they don’t have a place to live. Or they’re telling me ‘I’m living in my car and I need somewhere to go’ or ‘my landlord is selling my house and I need somewhere to live.’ What I would like to see different in five years, I would love to stop getting those calls. I want people to have the housing and the resources that they need and have a safe place to stay in this beautiful community that we have here.
As far as staying the same, it comes back to community. I want to continue to see us be this tight-knit community. Regardless of whether we agree or not I care about every person in this community. I would love to see Sylva continue in five years to be the place that I’m proud to live in and proud to work in and proud to raise my two little girls in as well.