Brittney Burns – Staff Writer
Six years ago, the Macon County Board of Commissioners set out on a mission to create an arts and heritage center for the community, while preserving an historic building. For the last six years, the Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center has been the site for the promotion of Macon County culture, providing a space for entertainment, and entrepreneurial endeavors, and refurbishing the old school and community landmark. Funding for the school is in transition, and Bob McCollum, chair of the heritage center’s board presented the commissioners with a list of accomplishments, with the intent of securing additional funding for the project.
“We are six years into this project and have been receiving county funding for three and a half years,” said McCollum. “We know we are at a point of reevaluation. We were given 11 goals when this project started and many of them have been completed or are well on their way to be completed.”
Since 2011-12, county commissioners have allocated $392,738 in budgeted funds for the school. The actual amount spent on Cowee School is slightly higher, as the nearly $400,000 doesn’t include additional funding requests made outside of the original budget request. The high point of the county’s funding came in 2013-14, when the center first opened its doors to the public, when the county allocated $147,152 for renovations and operations. One of the 11 goals McCollum alluded to includes becoming self-sufficient as an organization, which is why the county has decreased funding each year. While the county has decreased its contributions, the center’s board has worked diligently to gain regional partnerships to promote the center and further its mission, which was another of the requirements set forth in the beginning.
Commissioners first passed the resolution transferring the Cowee School building to Macon County on Dec. 14, 2009. By Jan. 10, 2012, the county moved forward to pay for the property survey and partnered with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee (now Mainspring Conservation Trust) to pay for the business plan for the heritage center, which outlined the 11 goals. On Aug. 21, 2012, Stacy Guffey, who contracts with the Heritage Center at a rate of $3,000 per month to serve as the center’s director, presented the commissioners with the heritage center’s business plan which stated that the center would become self-sufficient within three years.
The Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center serves as a small business incubator for the Cowee community, currently housing five small businesses who use the center’s main building. McCollum noted that the businesses include visual artists, weavers and the pottery school. The building is also currently preparing to become the home for a woodworker who is slated to move in this spring and begin operations.
The school’s kitchen serves as the only publicly utilized commercial kitchen in the area and hosts two businesses who utilize the facility regularly for their operations.
“These businesses can’t operate out of their homes because they don’t have the assets to pay for the commercial upgrades that they need,” said McCollum. “Their businesses are too big to just be home-based businesses so being able to use our kitchen helps fill the void because we are a certified USDA facility.”
In addition to serving as a small business center for the community, McCollum informed commissioners that through events and other activities, more than 7,000 visitors came through the school and volunteers worked more than 1,600 hours. Events such as the annual Cowee Christmas, the seasonal farmer’s market, a folk heritage festival and a summer concert series brought new visitors to the center.
With half of the fiscal year coming to a close, Cowee School is turning to the county to reevaluate funds to help finish out the year. A joint meeting between members of the Cowee School board and commissioners Ronnie Beale and Paul Higdon, and Macon County Manager Derek Roland, will be held at the school on Thursday, Jan. 26, to discuss further funding and the future of the school.