A Tuesday town board governing board meeting could lead to a new operating model for the embattled Downtown Waynesville Association.
The organization has been operating without a town contract to handle funds from the municipal service district whereby merchants pay a fee to fund special promotional efforts. DWA’s five-year contract expired in June.
Alderman Anthony Sutton has been scrutinizing DWA operations and found much was lacking. Last month, he advocated bringing the organization under the umbrella of the town until accounting and structural shortcomings were addressed, and said he would again bring the issue up Tuesday.
At an special-called meeting on Aug. 11, the DWA board members asked for more time to resolve issues, and the Waynesville Board of Aldermen gave the organization 90 days to complete specific tasks before deciding on how to spend the $100,000 or so collected annually through the downtown area’s municipal service district.
Since that meeting, however, the organization’s president, Carolyn Brunk, stepped down, as did the vice-president Jonathan Key and four board newcomers who were seen as key to revitalizing the organization — Mike Coble, Lorelei Garnes, Joey Fuseler and Morgan Beryl.
A new president was to be chosen at a Sept. 9 scheduled meeting, but that never happened because a public meeting notice hadn’t been sent out to the media and the public as was requested by Town Manager Rob Hites in an Aug. 31 email.
When Sutton learned the meeting hadn’t been properly noticed, he left, saying he could not participate in an illegal meeting.
Both Beryl and Fuseler resigned that day, Key resigned Monday, while Garnes and Brunk had resigned earlier.
Beryl, who was a DWA board member by virtue of being the Haywood Arts Council’s executive director, said board volunteers have spent an enormous amount of time setting clear performance measures and direction for the interim director, creating new committees with clear action items, determining a 5-point plan for improvement by the end of the 90-day period, and meeting twice monthly beyond multiple committee meetings a month to accomplish the goals.
After the events of Sept. 9, Beryl alleged Hites had acted in poor faith and said it appeared the town wanted the group to fail — claims Sutton disputed.
“Rob provided them with the statute and guidance as to what was required and they chose not to follow it,” Sutton said, adding this wasn’t the first time the public notice issue has surfaced.
Fuseler’s resignation letter said Thursday’s meeting highlighted “deeper issues that need to be discussed before a future can be forecasted, and I believe that those are just out of my wheelhouse.”
That, and the fast-approaching busiest retail quarter of the year, prompted his resignation, Fuseler said.
Teresa Pennington, long-time DWA board member and past president, said Beryl and Fuseler were excellent board members.
“Instead of helping us, it seems the board of aldermen are determined to destroy us,” she said.
Brunk cited no reason for her Aug. 30 resignation, but said she accepted the position as chairman, even though she didn’t solicit it.
“I have served on the board for years and have given it my all,” she wrote. “I realized that I had much to learn, but tried my best to fulfill the requirements of that position. It was not easy to garner much of the experience needed since we were in the middle of a pandemic.”
In his resignation letter Key, wrote that the quasi public downtown association format was the most common in the state and would solve the issue DWA is having with hiring and providing competitive pay and benefits for an experienced executive director.
“We are all aware that the process of applying for the Waynesville MSD contract has become much more complicated than anyone could have foreseen,” Key wrote. “Alderman Anthony Sutton has made a suggestion to switch the DWA format. ... I think it is a good one.”
Mike Coble with Georgia Colt was part of the leadership to help get DWA on a better track. He resigned within months of working with the board, citing the lack of financial accountability and other management concerns within the organization he feared could possibly come back to haunt board members.
Currently, the DWA has no contract with the town to administer the municipal service district funds, but continues to operate, he pointed out.
“The reason I resigned was the organization didn’t have its financial books in order,” he said.
He spoke of another organization he is forming, Start Now, that is a 501©3 nonprofit. He feared association with a 501©4 organization such as DWA that didn’t have its act together could jeopardize his other businesses.
“There was more concern about moving forward with festivals than building an organization that had its structure, finances and paperwork done correctly,” he said.
Even though the town governing board gave DWA until mid-November to get its act together, Coble sees no use in waiting.
“As a merchant, I feel there is no clear leadership with the town and DWA,” he said. “There is a lack of events and communication. I mostly blame the town because the DWA doesn’t have a contract.”
Lorelei Garnes, a downtown business owner who was recently recruited to serve on the board, has also resigned.
She said she was excited about the direction of the organization, but concluded DWA’s success will rely heavily on those who participate wholeheartedly.
“At this point in my career, I’m highly overextended,” she wrote, “and the prior commitments deserve what I promised to them.”
Time to act
Sutton said the mass resignations have definitely tipped the balance when it comes to making a decision. He said he will bring the DWA issue up at the Sept. 14 town board meeting where he will again suggest the town directly administer the proceeds from the downtown area’s municipal service district.
He foresees the DWA operating much like the town’s cemetery committee where the town handles finances and hired staff while an appointed committee makes decisions subject to approval by the town governing board.
“I believe DWA did a fantastic job over the years, but in the last couple of years has lost its way,” Sutton said. “Id love to see it get organized and perhaps it can go back to being a nonprofit.
Sutton disputes allegations that he or the town wanted the DWA to fail.
“We’ve gone above and beyond to give the board a chance to come up with a better plan,” he said.
Main Street rules
Liz Parham, director with N.C. Main Street and Rural Planning Center, works with downtown organizations across the state, setting forth best practices to build a strong organizational structure.
“Once those are in place, organization leaders are able to do planning work to develop an economic development strategy,” Parham said. “If they don’t have that, they can’t move forward.”
There is an organizational check list that spells out all the necessary steps.
“From what I understand, DWA has documents in place, but is working on updating policies and getting job descriptions for staff and volunteers,” Parham said. “We’ve been working with them on these. We tell them a good Main Street program should be run like it’s a business.”
The Main Street program leaders have offered to facilitate a planning retreat to formulate a plan of work that will help the organization know the kind of volunteers that will be needed, the type of work to be done and the amount of budget that will be needed, Parham said.
Sutton said he’s concerned the DWA’s state of disarray could jeopardize accreditation as it related to Main Street organizations.
Parham said the state N.C. Main Street designation is not in danger because of the of the current state of affairs at DWA, but said national accreditation could be.
At the national level there are both accreditation and affiliated designations, she said, and neither are possible unless a program has a Main Street designation, which isn’t in danger because all required reporting has been done.
When communities change directors, it is common for Main Street organizations to have to back up and look at some of the documentation.
“They may lose accreditation for a year and become an affiliate before rising back up,” Parham said. “I have no doubt Waynesville will rise back up.”
The accreditation issue won’t surface until January, she added.
There are three common structures for Main Street organizations, she said, with the most common being a public-private partnership whereby the town hires a director who works with a nonprofit arm comprised of committee members who work with the executive director.
There is also a model where the MSD tax proceeds are administered by a department within the town, something that happens generally in smaller communities. The other model, currently used by DWA, relies on a nonprofit organization to administer the downtown district.
“There are pros and cons to every structure,” Parham said.
As to the open meeting laws that led to Thursday’s chain of events, Parham said Main Street organizations don’t fall under a clean determination as to whether they fall under the open meeting guidelines, so the organization defers to the UNC School of Government.