After several days of touring downtown and conducting interviews with numerous locals, a resource team with the N.C. Main Street Center made general recommendations Thursday night on how to promote and market the downtown, enhance existing programs and bring new efforts that would help grow and revitalize the county’s hub.
Throughout the week, the team evaluated issues and opportunities in the downtown, talking with a cross section of community members, participating in group interviews, walking the downtown area and conducting independent research. At Thursday’s public meeting, team members presented their impressions and ideas to residents based on the “four points” of the Main Street program — organization, promotion, design and economic restructuring.
Clinton is in its 30th year with the Main Street program, which operates out of the Urban Development Division in the Department of Commerce.
“We think we have lots of great ideas to move your program forward for the next 30 years,” said Liz Parham, director of Urban Development and N.C. Main Street, who spoke to the organization aspect. “You’ve done a lot of projects over the years. Now we’re transitioning, from projects to a more comprehensive program. Organization is the starting point. It’s about planning for downtown success, managing the Main Street program and promoting the successes.”
Parham presented the Economic Vision Statement that members of the Clinton Development Corporation, the Clinton Main Street group and members who participated in the recent forum. “Downtown Clinton is as destination rooted in its rich agricultural heritage. Anchored by the court square, our downtown is the center of opportunity for social, cultural, commercial and governmental activity in the heart of Sampson County,” Parham read.
She recommended the formation of committees to handle each of the four points of emphasis, including organization, design, promotion and economic restructuring. Those committees should start meeting in September, after a written report of the team’s findings is submitted to the city. That report could become an annual plan of action.
“You have to make sure to tell your story so that other people can connect,” Parham said, noting newsletters, mailing and press that could act to attract many who have a vested interest in the downtown. “You have to consistently and comprehensively talk about downtown’s changes and the value of those changes. Organization is the foundation that makes promotion, design and economic restructuring work.”
Sherry Adams, western N.C. Small Town Main Street program coordinator, spoke to promoting downtown Clinton, notably the “Milling Around” public art piece showcased in the downtown.
“Promote downtown Clinton as a destination,” said Adams. “We love ‘Milling Around Downtown.’ What a great image.”
She brought back the Vision Statement and said it was key to build around the existing cultural amenities, while also incorporating Sampson’s rich agricultural heritage — ‘Milling Around’ falls into both categories, while the farmer’s market at the City Market could be another destination. Parham recommended expanding the farmer’s market by 50 percent by next year.
“For the city, promoting your town means increasing the sales tax revenue,” said Adams. “For the businesses, you want increased foot traffic, increased retail sales activity, and coordinated and increased marketing efforts. For the property owners, less vacancy rates, and for the community, increased quality of life, activities, attractions and events.”
She said it was about developing an image, then communicating and “getting the word out” about the town’s image. She recommended a tagline.
“Your tagline should be ‘Milling Around Downtown’. We also recommend that you look into licensing the ‘Milling Around’ image for merchandising,” Adams said. “I can see various pieces you could sell as part of fundraising. ‘Let’s Mill Around Downtown.’ It’s great.”
Adams was impressed by business storefronts, and recommended that vacant buildings have storefronts enhanced and “activated” in some way. Another recommendation was to rename the annual Court Square Street Fair to “Clinton Farmer’s Day” and change the name of the “Alive After Five” summer concert series in a similar way in an effort to make the events more Sampson-centric. The music series could also showcase local musicians, she noted.
She also suggested an outdoor movie series, which could be shown downtown on the sides of buildings.
“Those are great spaces to project movies on blank walls,” Adams noted. “It ties back to that (vision) statement, by offering a cultural activity. What a cool thing to do.”
Putting on new activities and events can take long hours, just as enhancing existing events can. It takes the effort of many people, working in partnership to develop ideas and bring them to fruition. Adams said that work can pay off when a good idea comes to life.
“Don’t pass up an opportunity because it looks like work,” she said. “The rewards will be great.”
‘This is your heritage’
Lauren Malinoff, Urban Development designer, spoke to design. Like the others, she started with the colorful “Milling Around” wall at the center of Clinton.
“It’s so remarkable and stunning and unique,” Malinoff said. “It’s one of the finest pieces of public art I have ever seen. To have it here, you must be so proud.”
She showed slides of the various buildings downtown and importance of preserving them. She said more old photos need to be tracked down, a way of telling the story of the city and the history of its buildings.
“This is your heritage,” Malinoff said. “It is who you are as a people. Your downtown was built one building at a time, by your ancestors. Every building tells a story of who built it, who’s lived there, who’s worked there, who’s owned it — there are so many stories to tell. They’re all historical buildings and they’re all worthy of preserving. Some of the stores may be gone, but the buildings are still there and the memories are still there.”
Getting to the downtown is not easy for someone who has never visited, Malinoff said. Being able to get downtown, and find the way to available parking, is crucial, she noted.
“You only get one chance at a visitor’s first impression, so it better be good. This is going to be a destination,” Malinoff said, again pointing out the public art piece. “People are going to come from all over to see this.”
“Way-finding,” notably parking signs, are needed. Malinoff said the initial concentration needed to be on installing simple signs denoting parking lots. Malinoff said the resource team heard time after time of the supposed parking problem downtown. She said that was simply not the case.
“All I saw was oceans of parking lots,” said Malinoff. “You have lots of parking. People always want to park right in front of the store. You don’t want them there. You want them to park in a parking lot so they’ll get out and walk around and spend their money all over downtown. You have lots of parking, you just need to get people in those lots.”
She recommended more pedestrian-friendly entrances to parking lots, not necessarily where cars come in, but where people walk in and out. There should be something, like an archway, to denote where the entrance is and let people know they are visiting somewhere special. That is what downtown Clinton is, she said.
Malinoff recommended implementing the Clinton Comprehensive Pedestrian Plan and suggested that alleyways between buildings be dressed up. She noted the alleyways, like the rest of the downtown, were “immaculate” in their cleanliness. They could be the site of lighted overhangs that invite night walks, or murals that make them “fun spaces.”
“They should be opportunities to integrate more public art projects into the fabric of downtown architecture,” she remarked. Vacant storefronts or upstairs floors could also be sites to local art displays or exhibits, bringing the same artistic feel that is present with “Milling Around.”
Bob Murphrey, eastern N.C. Small Town Main Street program coordinator, spoke to economic restructuring, bringing numbers to his presentation on how Clinton can strengthen and improve its existing businesses and attract more business and people downtown.
While the downtown is “exceeding its potential” for business sales, bringing some people from surrounding communities to spend their money in Clinton, Murphrey said there is close to $13.4 million in “identified leakage” — money being spent outside the community that local people have to spend — in a 10-mile radius of the downtown.
“If we could bring 15 percent of that back downtown, we could create $2 million in economic activity and add 13,000 square feet of new space,” he said. Increasing offerings, to include more food and entertainment, clothing, books, sporting goods and grocery type businesses, might assist in that effort, said Murphrey, citing recent surveys that also showed an older contingent downtown. “What we have to do is find better and better ways to bring more of the young folks downtown.”
Keeping residential neighborhoods around downtown is a positive, Murphrey said.
Making some homes into offices is creating a loss in the Clinton’s residential base, running the residents out of downtown and resulting in a loss of business. Those office uses should be in downtown buildings, in upper floors and on side streets, Murphrey said. Most upper floors are currently vacant or used as storage space, he said.
He noted downtown facade grants, incentive programs and tax credits available to businesses that expand or invest into improvement projects. Special grants could be targeted for upper-floor development — all ways of bettering businesses toward getting better business. Like others, Murphrey pointed out the wealth of parking and the need to get visitors into those lots.
“Although consumers in our survey said parking was fair to poor,” Murphrey said, “we really don’t believe that. We do think some manage improvements could make it better and we can talk about that in the future.”
Parham said a full written report would be forthcoming in about a month, and the team would be returning to Clinton in the fall.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.