Waynesville leaders chart its future
Should the Town of Waynesville jump into the economic development business? Maybe, said the mayor and board of aldermen at their annual retreat Friday, March 28.
Towns in North Carolina traditionally don't plow property tax revenues into business recruitment. That job is left up to counties and the state which allocate funds for economic development. Locally, the paradigm is shifting now that Haywood County has merged its economic development commission with the chamber of commerce.
"What should our seat at the table be?" asked Mayor Gavin Brown as the board discussed the town's role in entrepreneurship and the ways in which it could become an economic development player in the new structure. "Or, should we have a seat at the table?"
Alderman Julia Freeman, the executive director of REACH, a nonprofit organization which assists domestic violence and sexual assault victims, would like to see breweries use Waynesville's ample water supply.
"We have some of the best water anywhere," she said. "Beer makers need that."
Aldermen Wells Greeley and Leroy Roberson both own businesses on Waynesville's Main Street and emphasized that the town and its staff should be business-friendly.
"How friendly do you want to be?" Brown asked the board as they talked about costs. "How far do you want to go?"
The board agreed that the first step is to assess the merits of a town economic development program.
"As of now, there is no funding nor staff resources devoted to economic development," said Town Manager Marcy Onieal. She and Town Clerk Amie Owens were the only staff members in attendance.
Onieal advised the board that for areas to be a part of the downtown Municipal Service District, the areas have to be contiguous. The MSD (the Downtown Waynesville Association) imposes an additional tax upon itself in order to provide certain amenities which property taxes alone would not take care of.
Board members agreed they would like to see Hazelwood's and Frog Level's empty buildings in use before expanding business opportunities further out of town.
Friday's meeting was facilitated by David Long of Greensboro, whose list of clients include Black Mountain where Onieal previously worked. Long uses what he labels 'a structured brainstorming process' in conducting his planning retreats. "It's the cornerstone of the process."
"It points clearly to a visible path of consensus. None of this is set in stone. It's a tool for the board to use," he said.
During a morning break, Onieal said the planning session was extremely valuable to her as the town's manager.
"I'm hearing ideas articulated here today by the board that I haven't heard them address. I always think I know what they're thinking, but sometimes that isn't the case," she said with a chuckle.
Waynesville's focus question was, "What are the most important issues, needs and opportunities facing the Town of Waynesville over the next three to five years?" It took almost two hours to compile a list of 49 topics. After whittling the list to nine, economic development came out on top.
Infrastructure was next. The board discussed the current $32 million need and talked about the challenges of the town's pay-as-you-go policy.
"Because of the economic downturn, we're falling behind," said Onieal. Brown reminded the board that the town owns only four streets. The others are N.C. Department of Transportation roads.
A new needs assessment will be developed, as well as a cost analysis of "fixing versus replacing." Waynesville historically keeps a healthy rainy-day fund balance and does not carry a heavy debt burden. The board agreed to explore the merits of bond funding for its infrastructure needs.
Brown noted a need for a more defined policy about contributing tax dollars to nonprofit organizations.
"We've always been able to do some of that, and I certainly hope we continue, but we need a policy," he said. HART and Folkmoot are just two groups which need an infusion of funds. Both bring visitors to the town.
Environment, promotion and public relations, planning and vision and quality of life were some of the topics that made the short list. Waynesville's retreat was held in the reception room of Lake Junaluska's Harrell Center, and the Lake's Executive Director Jack Ewing stopped in to welcome the board.
"Thank you for being patient with us as we work through this process," said Ewing of the expected merger between Waynesville and Lake Junaluska. "This is not just a good option for us. It is the only option."
Ewing went on to say that Lake Junaluska's Community Council and the board of directors are now unanimous in their support of the merger.
The merger cannot occur without legislative approval and is expected to come up again during the short legislative session held in May.
In wrapping up the amicable day-long meeting, Brown commended board members on their participation. Roberson said he'd like to see board members get together two-by-two between regular board meetings to "talk things over."
Greeley agreed, adding that since the mayor and all board members have regular day jobs, such discussions would make it easier to stay up to speed on town business. State law does permit members of boards to discuss board issues outside of convened meetings as long as there is not a quorum. On Waynesville's five-member board, three aldermen together constitute a quorum, but not two. Town board meetings are always open to the public and citizens may speak before the board.