Reporter Becky Johnson’s April 13 story in this newspaper about a recent brainstorming session held by Waynesville’s elected officials revealed that town leaders have several refreshingly progressive ideas about possible future projects and budgetary priorities.

The nothing-is-off-the-table exchange of wish-list items came during the town’s annual retreat, held April 6. For those unfamiliar with the vagaries of local governance, retreats are designed to give board members an opportunity to set aside day-to-day business concerns and forgo the routine matters of regularly scheduled meetings to take a big-picture, long-term, 30,000-foot view.

The less-formal nature of a retreat allows officials to think strategically, not just tactically, about issues and to ruminate — even daydream — about “what ifs.”

So what if the reality check of insufficient funds in the municipal checkbook means it may be years before any of those pie-in-the-sky projects see the light of day — if they ever do? There’s nothing wrong with unconventional, creative thinking when it comes to improving local government and the lives of the people it serves.

Some might argue that, as someone who lives just outside of town limits, I have no vested interest in the dealings of municipal government and that, unlike Michael Vick, I don’t have a dog in the fight.

But I am a resident of the town’s extraterritorial jurisdiction in an area previously eyed for annexation, so, yeah, board activities do matter. Plus, the wise stewardship of our county’s seat should be of interest to any Haywood-ite.

This leads to topics discussed at the retreat. While there was some conversation about the need for much-deserved salary increases for town employees and a new fire station for Hazelwood, the five-hour session included talk beyond staff and brick-and-mortar stuff.

Alderman Chuck Dickson called for town leadership to take a more proactive role in addressing the affordable housing issue, perhaps hosting a summit of community partners to develop solutions to a crisis that is pricing many out of the possibility of home ownership.

Although not a board member, I second that motion, and suggest that local leaders partner with community development offices and experts across the region.

Take it from this parent of two young adults looking to buy or rent in today’s overheated market — this is not just a Waynesville issue; it’s a serious Western North Carolina problem.

Alderman Jon Feichter, longtime advocate for alternative energy and keeping Waynesville on target to meet state energy goals, lobbied for installing solar panels on municipal buildings, including taking advantage of the large swath of roof atop the recreation center.

I second that motion as well, concurring with Feichter’s assessment that the initial costs of going solar would be more than balanced by savings over the long haul. Plus, it would send a signal to alternative energy naysayers that town government is taking this issue seriously.

Other ideas that would be seconded by your friendly neighborhood columnist if he were alderman-for-a-day include Anthony Sutton’s suggestion that the town focus its efforts on hiring an increasingly diverse municipal workforce. This would reflect an increasingly diverse population, including more people of color and members of the LGBTQ community.

Alderwoman Julie Freeman advocated for increased resources for the police department, including higher salaries, improved training and an armored vehicle. While I agree better pay and enhanced education are desperately needed in this era of distrust of police, I’m not so sure about adding to the trend of militarizing local law enforcement. That’s not to say it’s a firm “no” from me; it’s just to say it warrants additional study.

Finally, Mayor Gary Caldwell put forward several ideas to enhance Waynesville’s Main Street and downtown including a gazebo for public events and the addition of sidewalk bump-outs for increased outdoor dining opportunities.

I second that motion and offer an amendment: Waynesville should explore making Main Street through downtown a one-way road, which would create even more opportunity for outdoor dining and an enhanced experience for pedestrians. This would necessitate the shifting of one direction of traffic to either Wall or Miller streets, along with the involvement of DOT.

Transitioning portions of Main Street to a one-way thoroughfare would take some doing, but it seems doable. After all, the downtowns of nearby Sylva and Hendersonville, which both feature unidirectional traffic flows, are thriving.

This amendment is posed as food for thought for Waynesville officials. And, as my tenure of alderman-for-a-day comes to a conclusion, I close with this observation: It’s nice to see municipal leaders living up to the town’s longstanding motto “Progress with Vision.”

Bill Studenc, who began his career in journalism and communications at The Mountaineer in 1983, retired in January 2021 as chief communications officer at Western Carolina University. He now writes about life in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

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