No silver bullet for downtown problems – Ways to chip away possible
Mount Olive Tribune
BY STEVE HERRING
There is no silver bullet that will remedy the problems of downtown Mount Olive and ways to spur revitalization and growth, even though that is what some people want.
Rather, people need to remain focused on all of the smaller-scale things that can be done over time, and at less cost, but that still make a positive impact.
That was the message Jeremy Murdock, a community development specialist with Retail Strategies, repeated more than once during a stakeholders input session called to discuss downtown development.
The hour-and-a-half-long session, held Tuesday night, Oct. 3, at the historic train depot, attracted 60 people, including 15 University of Mount Olive students.
Earlier this year, Mount Olive received a $175,000 Rural Transformation Grant through the N.C. Dept. of Commerce to hire a company to help develop a master plan of how the downtown area can be improved.
The steps taken by Retail Strategies will include a market analysis, design, look at tourism and promotion, economic vitality, policy and administration.
How to better connect the town and university was one of several suggestions made during the Oct. 3 meeting.
Murdock asked audience members how they would describe downtown Mount Olive in one word.
The words included quaint, boring, vacant, unsafe, a little shabby, pickletown, sleepy college town.
Murdock also asked audience members what they wanted to show off about the town.
The responses included the Mt. Olive Pickle Co. gift shop, R&R Brewing, the Warehouse, UMO, the park, Mount Olive Family Medicine, the town’s faith-based presence and the town’s architecture.
As for what they would like to see in town, the audience said more restaurants, entertainment venues, show support for UMO and housing.
Murdock asked as well about the current momentum in town — who is doing what.
The response included the N.C. Pickle Festival, R&R Brewing, the Warehouse, Southern Ground coffee shop
For members of the core group behind the project, most of the comments were not new, said town Commissioner Barbara Kornegay, a core group member.
Kornegay said she was glad that UMO students had attended the session and had spoken about what they like.
She added she was happy to hear all of the other comments — most of which previously had been made on a survey on the topic and completed by about 300 people.
As such, Kornegay said the mixture of positive and negative comments was not unexpected.
A lot of challenges facing downtown Mount Olive are similar to ones seen in other towns Retail Strategies has worked in, Murdock said.
That includes trying to activate storefronts, beautify downtown and others, he said.
“But there also has been a lot of progress made with murals and public art, the brewery — there is some momentum growing,” he said. “The crowd tonight was great. They were super passionate about Mount Olive and the community.
“It was great to see the university presence here as well because they want to be part of the community. It was definitely a successful workshop to have 60 people show up for a meeting like this.”
Murdock said it was a good sign that 60 people showed up and that extra chairs had to be set up to accommodate the larger-than-expected crowd.
It is easy to get caught up on big challenges, Murdock said, adding that he thinks many people want a silver bullet answer that is going to fix all of the problems downtown.
However, it is important to remain focused on that there is always something that the town can be doing to improve downtown, he said.
It can be as simple as pulling weeds from the sidewalk, adding public art — all small-scale items that can still have an impact, he added.
It is just constantly chipping away at those things, Murdock said.
It will take a couple of months to deliver a plan, he said — one that could be carried out over a five-year period.
Connecting downtown and UMO was a big theme of the session, he said. About 15 students attended the session and were engaged and wanted to be a part of the community while here, Murdock continued.
“So there is a big need to bridge that gap even more — from the community side as well as the university side,” he said.
The students addressed the lack of things to do in town, adding they would like to see things like a movie theater, bowling alley or somewhere they could go dancing.
One students suggested a downtown homecoming parade.
Ryan Roberts, owner of R&R Brewing, said UMO students are a common sight running throughout the town.
Roberts suggested working with UMO to create running groups as a way to build a stronger connection between the two.
It would promote physical fitness as well, he added.
Someone suggested UMO community concerts.
Audience members said a better way is needed to let the town and UMO know about each other’s events and activities.
UMO has made an investment in downtown by opening offices and a theater, said Mt. Olive Pickle Co. Public Relations Manager Lynn Williams, who also is a member of the core group.
The next step is for the team to brainstorm about the recommendations it will make and formulate a plan, market analysis and data piece, Murdock explained.
The plan will be presented to the core group and then rolled out in about two months or so, he said.
“I think the important thing is that the plan is a plan,” Murdock continued. “It is going to take local action to make these things happen. So getting people engaged that want to plug in and be a part of these things actually happening is where the difference is going to be.”
Mount Olive is a town with a lot of potential even with the problem of a state-imposed sewer moratorium, added Elliott Cook, Retail Strategies director of real estate.
“Of course tonight was all about trying to figure out we can fill in the gaps and build up retail in our downtown area,” Kornegay told the Tribune. “That is what this company’s specialty is.
“They are specialized in working with university towns, and that is another reason we chose them.”
Kornegay said she has always has wanted to connect the university and town. She worked toward that goal while she was employed at UMO and now is trying to do so as a town commissioner, she said.
“In many ways I think that people see potential or they wouldn’t have been here,” she added. “We have to capitalize on that. With the (sewer) moratorium the way it is, we have to do what they are saying — take small steps and do the things we can do.”
Kornegay said she is unsure if another session will held once the report is delivered to the core group that includes her, Williams, Chamber of Commerce President Julie Beck, Town Manager Jammie Royall, Town Clerk Sherry Davis and Mayor Pro-tem Steve Wiggins.
“We have to wait to hear what they have to say,” she added. “We hope that we can share some information, but the survey questions are very, very good. They tell you that we heard what the people want.”
As the meeting was winding down, Kornegay invited audience members to a community input session for the downtown streetscape design portion of the downtown revitalization project.
It will be held from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 23, in the historic train depot.
Attendees will be able to share their ideas on how downtown Mount Olive could look in the future.
The town has contracted with Allison Platt, landscape architect and principal at Regeneration by Design, to work with the town to improve downtown public spaces.
Platt has previously prepared plans for Goldsboro, New Bern and Washington, N.C.
For more questions or information, contact Kornegay at firstname.lastname@example.org.