Sylva denies pride parade, festival still a go

The Sylva Pride Parade has taken place on Main Street for the last three years. Hannah McLeod photo The Sylva Pride Parade has taken place on Main Street for the last three years. Hannah McLeod photo

The Sylva Pride celebration will look a little different this year after the Sylva Town Board denied the group’s road closure application for its fourth annual Pride Parade, despite support for the event from much of the downtown business community. 

“For me, our local economy comes first,” said Sylva Pride President Burgin Mackey in an address to the board. “Empowering our local businesses is why I am here today, to implore you to work with Sylva Pride.”

The town board is responsible for approving temporary road closure permits and submitting road closure resolutions to the Department of Transportation to stop, block or detour traffic on state-maintained roads. Both Main Street and Mill Street in Sylva, the primary route for parades, are state-maintained roads.

“In 2022, staff updated our park application procedure for outdoor special events,” Town Manager Paige Dowling told the board during its March 21 meeting. “We started working on these changes because of increasingly large events being held at Bridge Park and requests for street closures for events like 5Ks.”

Town administration has two big concerns when it comes to large events that require street closures — safety and town resources.

According to Dowling, during the first pride event back in 2021, a car did not realize that a parade was going down Main Street and followed the group too closely. During a Walk for Hope event, a car wasn’t aware that the walk was happening and started to back out of its parking space on Main Street into the parade. No one was harmed in either instance.

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“Town staff realized that we needed to work to make these events safer,” said Dowling. “So we revised the special event application to encourage bigger events taking place at Bridge Park due to safety and constraints on manpower. Larger events just need more resources.” 

So while town staff can approve park rentals, the authority to request closing the street lies with the board.

Sylva Pride came before the board at its March 21 meeting to request the same temporary, two-block road closure for the march on Main Street that it has done for the last three years. The park rental for the festival has been approved by town staff. Temporary road closures for a march of this kind take up staff time for planning, coordination and overtime the day of the event. But they do not involve all resources that are required for full road closures like those for the Christmas Parade, Treat Street, Greening Up the Mountains or Western Carolina University’s Homecoming Parade.

“Just so you know, the board, when we submit that resolution to the DOT, we’re saying the town is responsible for managing the road closure and accepting the liability,” said Dowling. “So if the march is approved, the board needs to decide whether to charge Pride for the town resources involved with the road closure.”

Commissioners considered the impact on local businesses and churches, especially those on Main Street and how they might be affected by the road closure.

However, during the public comment section of the meeting, Leigh Anne Young, a downtown business owner, presented a letter in support of the Pride Parade signed by other local businesses.

“As representatives of Sylva’s downtown businesses, we encourage you to consider allowing this event to take up space within our community, rather than sidelining and minimizing it,” the letter read. “And if, after careful consideration, you still decide to make this event smaller than it deserves, please recognize that you are not doing so at the behest of many of your local businesses.” 

The letter also said that while “we might see less foot traffic immediately during an event, events draw people into our downtown, many of whom choose to return to shop or dine. The indirect economic impact of events might be hard to calculate, but it is certainly felt in the oft-heard refrains from visitors about how charming, quirky, and welcoming Sylva is.” 

Over 25 restaurants, breweries, coffee shops, retail establishments, studios and other businesses signed the letter in support of the Pride Parade.

At the March 21 meeting, directly following staff’s report, Commissioner Mark Jones made a motion to deny the road closure application.

“I just think it’s not the taxpayer’s burden,” Jones said when Commissioner Natalie Newman asked for his reasoning to deny the application.

Commissioner Mary Gelbaugh asked Jones if he would reconsider his position if Sylva Pride agreed to pay for the town resources involved in the road closure.

“I think we need to eliminate as many parades (as possible), because it will escalate,” Jones said.

While the march was planned for 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, Sylva Pride has organized events to take place both Saturday and Sunday of that weekend in a concerted effort to improve the economic impact on local businesses.

“We do have plans to do a Saturday evening event where we ask our local organizations that partner with Sylva Pride … to be stationed around downtown at several of our local businesses,” said Mackey. “It’s kind of a way to ask people to come to support our local businesses … I really want to make sure that this event gives back to the Town of Sylva, that it relieves that burden on the taxpayers of Sylva because I care about them, I am one.”

The festival itself will take place on Sunday, Sept. 15, in Bridge Park.

Gelbaugh said that in fairness, she did not think it was appropriate to use tax dollars to pay for the town resources required for the march. When she asked Mackey if Sylva Pride would be willing to budget for and pay for the town resources required for the road closure, Mackey said “absolutely. Sylva Pride is prepared to make this happen in any way we can.”

Commissioner Newman was the lone voice of support for the road closure application at the March 21 meeting, with Commissioner Brad Waldrop out for family reasons. Newman said that if the board set the precedent of making Sylva Pride pay to have a road closure, the board would need to keep that consistent across other road closure requests from other groups.

“I do believe in events like this that are cultural and are community focused and involve a lot of different people in our community,” Newman said. “I think that they’re important, so I also don’t want to set the precedent of denying these kinds of things to happen because I do think they’re good for our town to have.” 

Gelbaugh asked town staff about bringing this application back before the board and their direction was clear. If the board voted on Jones’ motion to deny the application, Sylva Pride could not reapply for a road closure on the same day. However, if the board voted against Jones’ motion, or tabled the issue for a later date, it could come back before the board for reconsideration.

Gelbaugh seemed to be in favor of this vote at a later date, asking whether the board could determine an amount of money that it felt was appropriate to cover the town’s costs, and let Mackey go back to the Sylva Pride board to discuss whether it wanted to move forward knowing the town may or may not approve the event at that cost.

However, when Jones refused to rescind his motion at Commissioner Newman’s request in order for both parties to have more time, and the mayor called for a vote, Gelbaugh joined Commissioner Blitz Estridge and Jones in voting for the denial of Sylva Pride’s application.

Commissioner Waldrop later said that as a Sylva Town Commissioner, he was disappointed in the board’s decision.

“The Pride Parade in Sylva has fostered a spirit of inclusivity and energy in our mountain town,” Waldrop said in a post on Facebook. “It has also provided an opportunity for LGBTQ people and their allies from less-accepting neighboring towns to feel part of a larger, open minded and embracing WNC community. I was proud of us, as a town, for representing that opportunity. I’m disappointed we didn’t continue and expand up this spirit, but there is obviously more work to be done.”

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