When schools throughout Macon County opened their doors in early August, one school shut its doors for good. Although Cowee Valley Elementary school will no longer be filled with students each year, it will continue to teach generations in the community for years to come.
A plan that has been several years in the makings is closer to coming to fruition for what to do with the historic school, which first opened its doors in 1941. Last Tuesday, Stacy Guffey with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee River presented county commissioners with a business plan to turn the former school into a multi-purpose facility for the Cowee Community.
After commissioners made plans to combine Cowee and Iotla elementary schools into one facility, a huge community interest was generated and plans to protect the school started being batted around. “It’s really amazing the interest this has generated,” said Commissioner Ronnie Beale. “We hope that continues and it can be a place of destination for not only that community, but for the county.”
According to Guffey, the proposed plan will allow Cowee School to be preserved as a historical landmark while still being used by the community. “Thanks to this process the Cowee School will continue to be the center of the community; provide Macon County with a great place for venues; a place to learn traditional skills such as cooking, farming, arts, crafts and music; a place to relive the history of our area; a place for families to gather and I think most importantly, a place to build entrepreneurship and develop traditional skills-based businesses,” said Guffey.
According to the business plan’s executive summary, the purpose for creating the Macon County Heritage Center at the historic Cowee School is to develop a community center and visitor destination that can benefit the county by serving as an educational, cultural, recreational and economic development resource.
To get started, Guffey informed commissioners that the Macon County Heritage Center project will be funded by a mix of sources including private donations, fund raisers, county funds and grants. He informed commissioners that although the project will need funding assistance for the first few years, eventually he anticipates the project will become self-sustaining by its third year with funds coming in from retail, rental, donations and grants.
“The center will be seeking non-profit status during its second year of operation so that it may relieve the county of its financial responsibilities,” said Guffey. “A focus in the center’s third year will entail securing funds to hire a full-time executive director responsible for operations, marketing and fundraising.”
Guffey assured commissioners that the new facility would receive adequate funding because organizations such as Southwestern Community College, Cooperative Extension, Macon County Schools, Eastern Band of Cherokee, Historical Society, Western Carolina University and the Blue Ridge National Heritage Association have all expressed interest in working in conjunction with the heritage center.
The business plan will remain just that, a plan, for now. Commissioners are currently working with the School Board to transfer the property to the county for further use. During the meeting commissioners agreed to appoint a coordinator to oversee the Heritage Center project to ensure that the community interests and intent of the Land Trust of the Little Tennessee are all taken into consideration.