Story by Les High, The News Reporter
Two officials from the state Main Street program showed slide after slide of successful downtown revitalization projects in other cities during a meeting of nearly 30 downtown business, property owners and city officials Wednesday evening.
Their message was clear: this could be you.
Sherry Adams of the North Carolina Department of Commerce North Carolina Main Street and Rural Planning Center said there is hope for downtown Whiteville, which received significant flooding damage from Hurricane Florence, just as downtown seemed poised for a comeback after Hurricane Matthew.
Looking at progress in places like Hendersonville, Bessemer City, West Jefferson and Shelby, Adams said there is reason for optimism here.
“You might say we’ll never be like that, but you can, you can,” Adams said.
Among the keys to those cities’ restorations, she said, was planning, partnerships and measuring success in phases.
Whiteville already has some advantages. It has been accepted as an associate member of the state’s Main Street program, with hopes of being fully vested in two years.
It is also on the cusp of having enough conforming structures to create a historic district, which would allow property owners who restore their buildings according to U.S. Department of Interior standards to receive a 40 percent tax credit on renovation costs.
Adams said one misconception about historic districts is that they impose design limits on all buildings in the district. That’s not true, she said; the standards are applied only to building owners who want the tax credits.
Sean Martin, the city’s new economic development director, told the group about Lexington, the hometown of his wife.
“When we started dating, they were just like us. Now, they’re thriving and bustling. We all want something like that here that will last.”
Martin said city council will consider implementing a façade incentive grant program to help building and business owners restore their storefronts.
“Historic districts really make a difference,” Adams said.
After the meeting, Adams and colleague Chuck Halsall, took the group on a walking tour of Madison Street. They asked participants to make mental notes about what they liked and didn’t like about downtown, and to consider potential wins, both big and small.
Starting at Vineland Station, Halsall pointed out weeds growing between the memorial brick pavers and in nearby plant beds.
“See these weeds?” he asked. “They matter.”
The group continued south, noting downtown’s pluses and minuses.
“Look at downtown as a blank canvas,” Martin told the group. “It has a lot of character.”
The tour concluded at Vineland Station, which was a dilapidated eyesore before a $1.2 million community-wide effort to restore the historic building in 2005.
“Everything you’ve seen tonight,” Adams said, “think what you want visitors to see and say about your town.”