By Beth Lawrence
The Jackson County Board of Commissioners has expressed support for the idea of an economic impact study on the possible consequences of changes to N.C. 107.
The board did not take a formal vote but expressed a general consensus of agreement with the idea of a study.
Jay Coward, a member of the group Smart Roads Alliance, presented the idea to the board at its regular meeting on Sept. 17.
He said the group has not dismissed out of hand the idea of changes to the highway, but they are against moving forward without knowing the effects it might have on the county’s economy.
“We just think the improvements could be made with a smarter design than what we have been given by the engineers so far,” Coward said. “There are always facts and figures thrown out about what’s going to happen, and no one really and truly does know exactly what’s going to happen.”
R-5600 is N.C. Department of Transportation’s proposal for Sylva’s commercial corridor, N.C. 107, including the elimination of the center turn lane with sidewalks replaced and a 5-foot bike lane added. Upgrades are slated for the N.C. 107/U.S. 23 Business intersection, and from U.S. 23 Business to Dillardtown Road and Municipal Drive, near the Sylva Fire Department. NCDOT’s preliminary estimate listed 55 businesses facing potential relocation, though that number is fluid.
Coward pointed out that the number of businesses affected does not represent the number of employees who may be displaced. Estimates have ranged from 100 to 500. NCDOT officials have overestimated the number of employees for some business and underestimated for others, Coward said.
“To me, that’s an absurd situation; that is not how government should work,” he said. “In 1994 when we created the economic development commission, we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars as a county to go out and make business happen and get people employed to create businesses.
“All through the years since then, this county has made efforts galore to try to make sure that there were jobs out there available for our children, and yet right now there’s a highway improvement that is absolutely going to cause an impact that is predictable, and it’s going to be severe,” he said. “We just don’t know how severe it’s going to be.”
Coward called it “crazy” to move forward without having studied the financial impacts to the county.
He reached out to Steve Ha, professor of economics at Western Carolina University, about the possibility of conducting the study.
“What I was proposing is that Western could propose a neutral middle-of-the road assessment about what’s actually going to happen as a result of the construction process and the end results to the businesses along this corridor,” Coward said. “I think we need somebody who can make an academic scholarly analysis of what the impact is going to be and present it to the county and to the town.”
Coward plans to work with Ha and Arthur Salido, executive director of community and economic engagement and innovation at WCU, to create a proposal of what the study might entail.
Once completed, the proposal would be presented to town and county leaders.
The proposal would lay out how the study would be designed, who would be involved, how long it might take, proposed results and any possible costs associated with it.
Coward said any cost associated with it would likely be minimal and smaller still compared to what the N.C. 107 project could eventually cost the county.
“The cost to this community of going forward without knowing what the economic impact is on this community by this project is incalculable,” Coward said. “And I think you need to know that, as county leaders ... before it’s too late to have the opportunity to say, ‘Well, we think it’s worth it or we think it’s not worth it.’”
He hopes to have the study proposal completed within a month.
Commissioner Boyce Deitz asked how an impact study could be done without knowing exactly where the road will go.
Coward said the path of the road is set, according to maps and information he has from the NCDOT. The problem lies in the businesses that will be impacted by relocation, construction or a new traffic pattern.
“You can tell whether or not you’re going to have the front part of your building shaved off or whether the road’s going to move your parking back a little bit or whether there’s going to be a barrier in front of your business that somebody has to drive half a mile to turn around to come back to,” he said. “Those things are pretty much set in stone, unless the town and the county say to the NCDOT, ‘Stop. We need you to go back to the drawing board, and if it’s going to ... ruin the business move the right of way over a little bit so it doesn’t kill it.’”
Like Deitz, Commissioner Gayle Woody voiced concern about not knowing for certain the path of improvements.
“They keep telling us, ‘It’s not final, yet,’” Woody said. “It think that’s what Commissioner Deitz is referring to.”
Commission Chairman Brian McMahan’s thoughts ran in a different direction. He was curious as to new business prospects that might develop as a result of the changes.
“One of the things I don’t hear a lot of discussion about is what the improvements would be to potential properties now that maybe are not accessible,” McMahan said. “For example, once these designs (are) put in place and construction takes place, driveways are altered, accesses are altered, maybe certain businesses or properties are eliminated, then it opens up the opportunity for other properties which may never have been usable to become usable.”
That is one of the questions which could be answered by the study, Coward said.
Eric Myers voiced his concerns about the changes during the public comment period. He told the board that he had followed developments with the project since February 2018 without seeing information from NCDOT about its effects on businesses. Myers said the community had responded in force over the impact, but there had been “a thundering silence from local governments.”
Myers supported the idea of a study but was not hopeful about the difference it might make.
“I think this ordinarily would be a great strategy, but I suspect the NCDOT won’t care about that information given the feedback I’ve heard from them recently,” Myers said. “The only people NCDOT may listen to is local governments, whether you guys have soft power or hard power. I think they will pay attention to you if you raise the issue.”
Coward made a similar presentation to the Sylva town board on Sept. 12. That board has the study proposal on its agenda for its meeting today (Thursday).