Originally published by The Sylva Herald.
America runs on Dunkin and Sylva lost the only one in town. Dunkin Donut
s closed shop in November and more businesses will be closing permanently or moving to a new location soon. With all of this change, Sylva’s economy is expected to take a hit.
In the summer of 2021, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) began work on the road. It started with settling with the property owners who will be impacted by the expansion. According to lawyers Kevin Mahoney and Jay Coward, 152 parcels will be impacted. Of those, 20 businesses and seven residential properties will have to relocate. Mahoney and Coward represent 22 property owners.
Crash analysis data from NCDOT of the road found that “the corridor experiences a high percentage of rear-end collisions which can be caused by congested conditions — a crash rate higher than the state average.”
According to the Traffic Engineering Accident Analysis System, the five-year crash study from August 2011-July 2016 found 254 total crashes on N.C. 107 from N.C. 116 to U.S. 23 Business. That translates to 234 crashes per 100 million vehicle miles (mvm) of travel — a rate higher than the 2013-15 statewide average for all N.C. routes (221 per 100 mvm) but lower than the statewide average for four-lane N.C. routes with a continuous left turn lane.
A NCDOT crash analysis of Highway 107 from U.S. 23 to Evans Road (SR1774) between January 2017 and September 2023, found a total of 707 crashes. Of these crashes, 85% reported property damage, 15% reported injury, and three were fatal.
NCDOT data from 2022, ranked cities with populations of less than 10,000 based on all reported crashes from January 1, 2020, through December 31, 2022. From this data, Sylva ranked 10th of 432 cities included in the data.
Discussions and various plans for improving the flow of traffic through town have been discussed for over 20 years.
Coming up with the plan and the execution of this plan has been a battle.
Many ideas were proposed by the community, like creating a Southern loop through Webster that would aim to divert traffic through Cullowhee and Macon County.
The Department of Transportation explored the idea of a bypass through the Cane Creek area that would have pushed WCU traffic toward Balsam.
Sylva town manager Page Dowling explained, Sylva businesses didn’t want the bypass because it would have resulted in a loss of business.
The 2012 Jackson County NC 107 feasibility study saw talks of constructing roundabouts, replacing center turn lanes with islands, and even adjusting traffic signal timings.
These ideas were ultimately shut down because of environmental concerns surrounding the unique topography of the area.
Eventually, these ideas led to a campaign formed by Sylva residents – “Smart Roads not New Roads”.
The Highway 107 construction project, internally known as R-5600, was first presented in 2017 and has been in development since.
The biggest problem that the R-5600 project faces is the numerous businesses it is tearing down.
“I think the southern loop across Kings Mountain and the other loop that went from approximately where the SCC bypass is now, that would have gone through the mountains over to where Blanton’s Branch is on the other side would have been a much better solution than to killing off half of the business district of Sylva with an improvement [to] 107,” Coward said.
Coward was unable to stop the destruction of these businesses, but that doesn’t mean he gave up. Coward and Mahoney hope to get affected businesses and property owners compensation for their troubles.
Outside of the businesses worry, another big question arises – what will be the financial impact of these lost businesses on the town of Sylva?
“I have contacted other towns that have had similar projects, and also the DOT and there is really not a town with a project comparable to this because so much of this is happening in our one commercial corridor,” Dowling said.
During a candidate forum, then-mayoral candidate Johnny Phillips said that the road construction will cause a $300,000 loss in tax revenue.
“That is an estimate and there really is no way to predict a firm number. However, it is a good prediction,” Dowling said.
However, we do know how much some of the first projects cost. According to Dowling, the brick building that was taken down across from Kelsafe led to a $20,000 revenue loss.
“We won’t start to realize the impact on the taxes and revenue until June 2025,” Dowling added.
NCDOT expects the destruction of businesses and buildings will be done and all the utility relocation will be under way or finished by June of 2025. Actual construction of the project is estimated to take two years, though Cowen is not optimistic about the timeline.
“The project from East La Porte to Tuckasegee just up the road from Western Carolina University was started in 2016. It was supposed to be finished by 2020. It’s three years over scheduled, so based on the experience we have right here in this community, no, that timetable is probably not correct,” Cowen said.
As Dowling explained, there are steps already in place to limit the revenue loss the town and Jackson County may encounter.
“We are going to try to look for any type of revenue stream to offset the burden on the taxpayers,” said Dowling, “We are trying to offset this burden on the taxpayers with other growth within the town and other economic development incentives.”
Bernadette Peters, Sylva’s economic development director said the town has initiatives underway to fill existing spaces and rehabilitate older buildings to increase their value.
Some of these initiatives that Peters mentioned include working with business owners to improve and expand their property use, along with talking with new entities that want to start their business in Sylva.
Businesses that are affected by the expansion are encouraged to stay in Sylva with more than 10 already relocated within Sylva town limits.
“The redevelopment of the corridor and the buildings and businesses that will be in there will add value to the tax revenue that we need and really make Sylva a more updated and better place,” Peters said.
“As the corridor is safer more people are going to be willing to shop there and more businesses will open,” added Dowling.
Both Peters and Dowling are optimistic about the future and what the new road will bring. “I think long term as Western and Jackson County continue to grow, drivers will need this. I do believe that the long-term benefits outweigh what is going to happen with construction,” Dowling said.
“I think that Sylva and Dillsboro, Webster and Cullowhee, is a vibrant, alive place and it’s going to survive, but it’s going to have a…decade of payoffs and then as people see investment opportunities, it’ll probably get built back. But it’ll be 20 years from now before it’s got that vibrancy that it’s got right now, or that it had two years ago,” Coward said.
The story was reported with contributions from Abigail Quinn and Lauren Ramsey. The series was produced by students in News Practicum (COMM 385) and supported by a small grant from the Center for Community News.