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Sylva and Waynesville choose leadership

Waynesville Mayor Gary Caldwell won re-election after a hotly contested campaign.
Felicia Sonmez
Waynesville Mayor Gary Caldwell won re-election after a hotly contested campaign.

With the unofficial results in, two Western North Carolina towns have chosen their top leadership in highly contested races, and one local council member may be selected by a coin toss.

In Sylva, Johnny Phillips won with 255 votes to Natalie Newman’s 174 votes.

In Waynesville, incumbent Mayor Gary Caldwell held onto his seat with 1,283 votes to challenger Joey Reece’s 1,031. Candidate John Barrett garnered just about 62 votes.

These are the unofficial results, provisional and absentee ballots are still being counted.

Eligible ballots postmarked on or before Election Day, will be counted through Monday, November 13. Results will be certified after state canvass on Friday, November 17.

Highway 107 project drives Sylva turnout

In Sylva, council member Natalie Newman faced off against Sylva resident Johnny Phillips for a seat previously held by Mayor Lynda Sossamon.

Sossamon resigned in January 2023 after seven years in office, citing health concerns. Town Council member David Nestler was appointed to fill the vacancy but declined to run, leaving the unexpired seat up for election.

Newman won her council seat in 2021, and was one of the youngest council members ever. She would have been the first Black mayor of Sylva.

Newman said she joined local government to help her community.

“Sylva, this region, has given me a lot so I feel like this is like the least I can do to serve my community and my neighbors and a lot of people who are friends that have become family,” she said.

Newman said she was proud of the work by the current council on Allen Street, Bridge Park and Bryson Park. Leadership in the town is important, she said, because of the NC107/R-5600 project, a plan by the state Department of Transportation to add a grass median and bike lanes along NC highway 107 to the NC 116 intersection. The department has made the plans for more than a decade in order to accommodate more vehicles.

“The biggest thing on everyone’s mind is the 107/R-5600 project just because its looming. We are about a year away from construction starting and we know that’s going to affect our community. Our job as a board is to support our local citizens and businesses and make sure we get to the end of this,” she said.

On Election Day, Newman’s opponent, Johnny Phillips told BPR the project was a key reason he ran for mayor.

Johnny Phillips will be the next mayor of Sylva.
Lilly Knoepp
Johnny Phillips will be the next mayor of Sylva.

“Our Town's facing a little crisis right now with the 107 project. We have 42 buildings being tore down and there's a $300,000 dollars loss in revenue,” Phillips said. “I spent 30 years of my life with DOT. I know the rules and the regulations and I know the people. I think I can be of help to this project for our little town.”

Phillips said two of his goals as a mayor are to bring businesses to the town and to bring the train to Sylva.

“We have a dream of trying to get the railroad to come back to Sylva as a destination and bring that sidewalk full of people and rested up here to spend money.

As for the rest of the town council, Brad Waldrop is the top vote-getter, defeating Mark Jones by 34 votes.

At the current count, the final seat on the town board will be decided on a coin toss. Current town council member Ben Guiney and Blitz Estridge both have 204 votes. This would be the second coin toss for Guiney who won the flip of the coin in 2019.

Provisional ballots will still be counted by the Board of Elections until the canvass period ends on Nov 17.

Waynesville mayor holds on to his seat

Incumbent Mayor Gary Caldwell won re-election to the seat he has held since 2019 following years on the Waynesville Town Board of Alderman.

In Waynesville, the shadow of the Canton papermill closure loomed large in the minds of voters at the polls.

“The more growth you have, the better your community is – the more taxes you bring in, the more revenue for the county, the more improvements that you see in your local communities, from the parks to the streets,” Scott Blair, a 52-year-old local business owner, said. “But you have to have a measured approach by doing it, and you don’t want to grow too fast too quick.”

Blair identified as a conservative but said he voted on Tuesday for candidates of both parties because he wants the town council to take a more “balanced” approach.

 “If you're all on one side of the spectrum – either wrong or right, whatever that is – you kind of really hamstring the community as a whole, because the community is not all on one side of anything,” he said. “So you kind of have to have, you know, advocates for both sides.”

The community may need help, as Caldwell explained in April how the the Canton mill’s closure would also impact Waynesville’s economy.

The satellite Pactiv Evergreen facility in Waynesville mill downsized but Caldwell said his biggest concern is any change to the railroad in the town.

Giles Chemical, one of the biggest employers in Haywood County, and the Waynesville facility currently uses the same railroad as the papermill.

“But we're hoping that they will come still and, and take care of those folks,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell and his challenger, Joey Reece, fought a contentious battle for the town’s top job. According to The Mountaineer, they engaged in a verbal exchange that turned physical.

Reece is former DEA agent and a member of “Team Waynesville” a group of town council candidates focused on “Small Town Values,” according to their Facebook page.

Team Waynesville posted a video the day before the election.
Courtesy of Team Waynesville Facebook
Team Waynesville posted a video the day before the election.

The team posted a video the night before the election from Lake Junaluska with messages from each candidate and a prayer.

“It’s been quite a journey. I’m sure we have made some mistakes. I wouldn’t have done this if it wouldn’t have been for these three folks here,” Reece said in the video.

“When we started this, we had a talk, and this is the way that we were going to prioritize what we did. God was first family was second and everything else was third,” he said.

None of the current winners for the town council spots are members of “Team Waynesville.”

Town Council incumbent Chuck Dickson was the top vote getter with 1,443 followed by Jon Feichter at 1,411 and Anthony Sutton with 1,290.

About 2,300 votes were cast in the race for mayor of Waynesville, a town of about 10,000 residents.

Pauline McDowell, an 82-year-old retiree from Waynesville, emphasized the importance of voting.

“We have a privilege that many, many people in the world do not have. And I feel that if you do not vote, you should not complain. And so, if you want to have a voice in who’s in office, that’s the best way to do it,” she said.

Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.