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Group discusses downtown revitalization

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Members of the North Carolina Downtown Development Association take a tour of the Rocky Mount Brewmill Thursday during the NCDDA Large Cities Event.

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Brie Handgraaf

Sunday, August 9, 2015

A myriad of officials from across the state came to the Rocky Mount this week for two different causes, both highlighting the area’s assets.

The larger of the two groups represented 13 of the 18 cities in the large cities sector of the N.C. Downtown Development Association, which kicked off the annual meeting Thursday with a cocktail reception at the Rocky Mount Brewmill, a bus tour of downtown then dinner at Prime Smokehouse on the Douglas Block. The group of downtown experts gathered again Friday to share ideas and hear from subject-matter experts discussing the best practices of revitalizing the state’s downtown areas.

“The meeting is really to provide an informal venue for downtown managers to share ideas and kind of recharge the battery, if you will,” said David Diaz, the director of the large cities group and president and CEO of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. “The work of downtown revitalization is complex and, often times, people in our roles have a lot of responsibilities but not all the authority to make things happen, so we’ve got to be collaborative and use our powers of persuasion with officials, property owners or developers to do the right thing for the area.”

This week’s meeting was the first chance many of the participants had to check out the Twin Counties, but Diaz said Rocky Mount’s Downtown Development Manager John Jesso made a strong case for having the meeting in Eastern North Carolina.

“We really wanted to go to a new city we hadn’t been to before and when John Jesso told me about the brewmill project and how it was moving forward, it became really appealing to learn more,” Diaz said. “This city, in many ways, is trying to rebrand itself and reintroduce itself to investors and tourists. That made it a very appealing spot for this meeting.”

He admitted the public perception of Rocky Mount colored his and other attendees’ views prior to getting off U.S. 64, but interacting with area officials quickly called for a change of opinion.

“We were very impressed by the energy of the city’s leaders and the vision they had a midst these really fundamental challenges like the natural disaster of a flood and the decline of traditional industries,” he said. “They’ve helped spark new growth and that impressed us.”

While Thursday was centered around socialization and seeing Rocky Mount’s progress first-hand, Friday was time to get down to business. Presentations from Rocky Mount native David Joyner and transplant Mark Shore - both with expertise on tourism marketing - and a presentation by urban revivalist Dan Douglas were book-ended with the culinary talents of local chefs of Milton & Miles and Lou Reda’s.

While all of the attendees represented the state’s larger cities, Diaz said he hoped presentations about projects for towns grossly larger or smaller would still garner valuable lessons and spark ideas. He likened the Rocky Mount Brewmill project to officials’ task in Roanoke, Vir., when the railroad industry declined.

“Everyone was throwing out these ideas, but I remember a council member saying that cities have to look at the area’s perceived weakness and make it a strength,” Diaz said. “They built around the railroad and embraced that history. That was such a valuable lesson and it make me think of that when we toured the brewmill.

“Instead of ignoring the history, there is a chance to really change the brand of the city based on something historic and a lot of cities don’t do that.”

While the brewmill project has been led by private investment, Diaz said he saw positive evidence of officials collaborating with other organizations as well as focusing on educating residents on the strengths of the area.

“A lot of times our citizens can be our best ambassadors or our worst critics,” he said. “Citizens need to know that elected officials and leaders get it. We know there has been a decline and we don’t need to be reminded daily of that.

“But if citizens aren’t educated about where we’re headed, it can be hard for them to become ambassadors. I loved hearing about the positive image campaign geared toward the citizens and calling for them to be all-hands-on deck. Redevelopment can’t just be developers. There has to be citizens saying, ‘What can I do to make my community better?’ and when you achieve that collaboration, that is when things really start to take off.”

Throughout Friday’s sessions, professionals learned about the importance of telling a town’s story in drawing tourists as well as how downtown revitalization plays into the economy of an area.

“We know that if downtown does well, that helps us draw tourism,” said Joyner, the Gateway Centre Complex marketing director. “If downtown starts to be developed, the better chance we have of keeping professionals, especially the younger generation, who wants that urbanization feel and downtown amenities without the commute.”

Douglas said it is essential for towns across the state for a surge of residents with an anticipated three million new North Carolinians by 2030, spurring the need for approximately one million new jobs or 62,500 each year. He said anticipating new developments is essential to recruiting needed industries.

“What I hear from my economist friends is that we are one shock away from another recession something like, heaven forbid, a terrorist attack or a big chunk of the economy takes a hit,” he said. “We’re fragile where we are, so we need to begin planning for that now.”

Officials said a strong downtown is often a factor in the decision for companies to locate an industry.

“They are not just asking for a great site and a great incentive,” Diaz said. “The cultural quality and quality of life of an entire community is just as important and the downtown is a reflection of the success of a city just as much as anything else is, so redevelopment is essential to improving an area.”

A group from UNC-TV also was in town this week, scouting for an episode of North Carolina Weekend about Rocky Mount and the Eastern Carolina BBQ Throwdown.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been home on a Friday evening, desperate for what to do on the weekend and I see promotion for something like the BBQ Throwdown and we’ll drive there in the morning,” said Deborah Holt Noel, the producer and host for North Carolina Weekend and Black Issues Forum. “Highlighting an event like that and telling the story behind it is going to be very beneficial to the area.”

A date for the show, that was pitched by DoubleTree and Comfort Inn staff, has not been set, but Noel said it will not only include a traditional broadcast, but a flurry of social media promotion.

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