Pulling the plug on South Main make-over leaves property owners in limbo

·5 min read

Jun. 15—For more than a decade, South Main Street in west Waynesville has been stuck in limbo waiting for a promised road make-over and widening project that would reshape the run-down corridor.

"They paralyzed all of South Main Street," said Eddie Maynard, owner of Maynard Tire along South Main.

The waiting game has held property owners hostage.

"They have jerked our chain for 10 years," said Lynn Bradley, property owner of what was once a hardware store along South Main. "Nobody wants to invest in a business that's going to get taken for right-of-way. And nobody is going to buy a building getting taken, so you can't get rid of it."

Now, after being pushed back three times, the N.C. Department of Transportation has postponed the South Main make-over indefinitely due to budget constraints.

SEE MORE: Haywood road projects nixed from DOT list

The property owners had tried for years to move parcels along South Main but were unable to attract buyers due to uncertainty over the road project.

"I had a lot of potential buyers for sure, but nobody wants to go in and upfit and spend money starting a business and then have to move," said Brian Noland, a Realtor with Beverly-Hanks who has represented several property owners along South Main. "It was very hard on my sellers. It was definitely a challenge."

As property along South Main languished amid the uncertainty, abandoned buildings grew ever more derelict and became occupied by homeless squatters.

Two years ago, a trio of buildings on South Main were declared a public safety hazard and a nuisance by the town. Those buildings were ultimately razed.

The square city block of rubble left at the gateway intersection of Allens Creek and South Main in the wake of their demolition remains a visual blight. Ingles has purchased the three parcels, but it's unclear what the grocery chain's plan had been other than holding the property until the road project materialized — which is now nowhere on the horizon.

"I think the game board is changing a little bit with this news, but opportunities to improve property along that corridor are still there," said Elizabeth Teague, Waynesville Development Services director. "People just have to do the best they can in their decision-making with this new information."

South Main history

The South Main make-over was first floated in the late 2000s. Property owners dutifully attended a public meeting to study the plans and maps showing where the right-of-way lines would fall.

At the time, a South Main make-over was the No. 1 road priority for Waynesville leaders. Walmart was still the new kid on the block and more development was expected to follow, which would undoubtedly increase traffic counts.

But the project never got past the planning stage. A few years later, it was floated again. And once more, the DOT unveiled maps and plans at a public meeting.

"At that meeting, my father looked at me and said 'Don't do any more maintenance on your building. Just let it go,'" Bradley recalled. "If they are going to take your building, why would you continue to do maintenance?"

The project has been delayed twice more since then, each time being pushed further into the future. The latest timeline was the mid-2020s — almost two decades after the project was first promised by the DOT.

But now, amid budget constraints due to the rising cost of construction and materials, the DOT doesn't have enough money to do all the road projects that were once in the queue.

"This was one of the projects that we do not have the money to program at this time. So yes, it has dropped out," said Wanda Austin, chief of the DOT's western-most region.

What now?

Stuck in a holding pattern, the corridor has become increasingly run-down while property owners and potential buyers waited to see where the right-of-way lines would ultimately fall — namely whether the footprint of the wider road would lop off the front of buildings or parking lots.

"My building doesn't look great, but I wasn't going to spend money on it to make it look better," Bradley said. "But now I've got an old building that needs a lot of work. Our building isn't worth anything now."

With the project being benched indefinitely, property owners face tough choices.

"This is a double-edged sword," Bradley said. "They said 'It's going to be four years, oh it's going to be six years, oh wait, now it's been 10 years and we changed our mind we aren't doing anything.'"

There's a chance it could still eventually come to fruition. But after being "deprogrammed" by the DOT, it would have to start over in the queue, which would likely be a long process to make it back on the drawing board and move up through the priority ranking.

"We're still in the same mindset when they say it might get put back on. So what do you do now? You do the same thing you've been doing. Nothing," Maynard said.

Teague acknowledged the tough spot property owners are in: whether to keep waiting to see if South Main happens or move forward as if it isn't.

"A developer should think 'What is the highest and best use of this property in the moment?'" Teague said. "We'll continue to work with developers presuming this project isn't going to get built. It's a hard place, but honestly, when dealing with DOT projects, it is a long game anyway."

Aside from budget constraints, DOT engineers had encountered a design challenge in the South Main project due to a bridge located in the floodplain.

"We were having to do a lot of extra work to get that one to a point we could move forward," Austin said.

Bradley doesn't understand why this wasn't realized earlier.

"They surveyed our parking lot and surrounding property numerous times. Over several years, they surveyed and surveyed and surveyed," Bradley said.

Maynard questioned the waste of money that's been put into the planning and engineering phase.

"They never stopped surveying through here — the water lines, power lines, sewer lines, storm drains. They marked all that stuff down through there," Maynard said. "Why do all that and then cancel the project?"