History in the making: return of the downtown Waynesville arch celebrated with groundbreaking

Aug. 30—Resurrecting the historic arch that soared over Main Street in downtown Waynesville for 40 years is moving at lightning speed.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the new arch was held Saturday, as a crowd of around 80 witnessed history in the making.

"My forefathers walked under the arch, and I want my children to walk under the new arch," said Alex McKay, Waynesville historian and member of the Downtown Waynesville Association, which is spearheading the project.

The public has rallied behind the fundraising call since the arch committee received the official greenlight in July. So far $184,000 of the $200,000 needed for the project has been raised.

"The response to the arch coming back to Waynesville has been amazing. The donations have been rolling in so much faster than we thought and it really has been heartwarming," said Teresa Pennington, owner of a downtown art gallery and member of the DWA board.

It's been 50 years since the arch — declaring Waynesville as the "Gateway to the Smokies" — was removed due to deterioration.

"What I have come to realize is this arch brought three things together: it brought the town, and the people and the park together. The arch symbolized that connection," said Jon Feichter, a town council member and member of the Downtown Waynesville Association.

Time to celebrate

The footers for the arch will be drilled into concrete, but the groundbreaking didn't involve a jackhammer. Instead, a mound of sand was piled on the sidewalk. Eight members of the soon-to-be dissolved Downtown Waynesville Association plunged shovels into the sand, eliciting a round of cheers from the gathered crowd.

The arch will be a final parting legacy from the DWA, the driving force behind downtown's revitalization since the 1980s. A changing of the guard last year turned over downtown operations to the newly-formed Downtown Waynesville Commission, an in-house town entity.

Before the DWA could officially dissolve, however, its members had to figure out what to do with $70,000 still in the bank.

"We realized we had to wind the DWA down. We knew we had to find a way to honor the legacy of the Downtown Waynesville Association," Feichter said. "That organization was the driving force of what you see today. The jewel you see today is that way in large part because of the work of the DWA."

The DWA spent $10,000 on preliminary design and engineering, leaving $60,000 in the kitty to kick-off the fundraising campaign. It was important to the DWA members that every penny of the arch project came from private donations, and not town tax dollars.

"No taxpayer money will be spent on this arch," Pennington said. "This is all a gift. We are even reimbursing the town for the money and labor spent on the site work."

The arch committee could have sought grants from the town and the county tourism authority. But that wasn't the route they chose.

"If it's funded by the community, we have ownership in it," McKay said. "Everyone that gives to the arch has stock in it — stock that's passed to the next generation. The arch in turn belongs to the community because that is who it has meaning to."

That meaning was witnessed by the large crowd who attended the groundbreaking.

"I am thrilled to have this arch. It will be a historical thing for our children and grandchildren to carry on the tradition of our being the Gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park," said Marty Prevost, who came out for the groundbreaking.

The speeches and turning of shovels were capped off by a champagne toast.

"Cheers to this great town of Waynesville we all love and cheers to the arch. May it stand until we are all dead," said Kirk Kirkpatrick, a Waynesville attorney and member of the DWA.

On hand for the groundbreaking was Brian Briggs, whose grandfather Oscar Briggs made the original arch that went up in 1933. It was buried in the town landfill when it came down.

"At one time a town employee thought they might know where it was buried, but we couldn't locate it," Briggs said.

Moving the needle

Since Main Street doubles as U.S. 276 — a federal highway — the N.C. DOT had to sign off on the arch. While restoring the arch has been a long-held dream, it was a non-starter due to a DOT policy. During a speech at the groundbreaking ceremony, downtown business owner Joyce Massie recalled the serendipitous chain of events that eventually secured an exemption from the DOT. The DWA board had been brainstorming what to do with the $70,000 money left in the DWA's kitty.

"We knew we had to do something with this big ole chunk of money and we wanted it to be something very special," Massie said. "We wanted our last hurrah to be something stellar."

One day, Massie was attending church choir practice and struck up a conversation with a fellow choir member who works for the DOT.

"I said 'It sure would be nice if you would talk to somebody and tell them how much we want that arch back.' I told her we needed to talk to somebody and get that rule reversed, whatever the rule was that was keeping us from getting that arch back," Massie said.

The choir member told her to go ahead and pursue it.

"I knew she worked for the DOT, but I didn't have a clue what her job was. It didn't know she was the district engineer," Massie said, eliciting chuckles from the crowd.

It turned out Massie had just gotten a preliminary nod from Wanda Austin, head of the DOT's 10-county westernmost division.

As the arch application advanced up the chain in the DOT and neared a final vote, Town Council member Anthony Sutton called all 14 members on the DOT board.

"This is a monumental occasion," Sutton said.

Town Council member Julia Freeman was also on hand for the groundbreaking.

"It reiterates how important our small town identity is and will add to our special senses of place here in downtown Waynesville," said Freeman.

Arch specs

The arch will be 60 feet wide to span the width of Main Street, with footers set on the outside edge of the sidewalk so pedestrians pass beneath it when strolling. It will be 26 feet tall at its highest point — with a clearance of 21 feet beneath the arch at its mid-point, tapering to 17 feet of clearance under the arch at the curb, and 13 feet over the sidewalk. The DOT required a minimum clearance of 17 feet for any part of the arch extending over the road.

The company fabricating the arch requires a 50% downpayment to begin the work. Thanks to the fundraising success, fabrication will soon get underway and is estimated to take four months.

In the meantime, town crew will be able to begin sitework — namely drilling and pouring the foundations. Stonework encasing the foundation pedestals is being donated by Tim Burris.

Any donor over $1,000 will get their name inscribed on one of the eight plaques ringing the stone foundations for the arch supports. Plaques will honor three donor levels: the $5,000 "Crown" level, the $2,500 "Keystone" level and the $1,000 "Rise" level.

Pennington, a famous artist with a gallery on Main Street, has lent her talents to the fundraising goal by creating an artist rendition of the iconic arch in her signature T. Pennington style. She is donating 100% of proceeds from prints to the cause, along with a raffle for a framed piece.

Donations can be made by visiting waynesvillearch.org, or by stopping into T Pennington Gallery on Main Street.