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Development strategies discussed

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Evan Chavez, left, Kimberly Van Dyk, center, and Liz Parham take turns talking at the 2019 Emerging Executives Forum on Tuesday at the Rocky Mount Mills.

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BY WILLIAM F. WEST
Staff Writer

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Redevelopment was an extensive subject of discussion on Tuesday at a meeting at Rocky Mount Mills of the Tar Heel State's younger economic development executives and their backers in the private and public sectors.

Approximately 50 people gathered for the morning-long session, which was led by the state Economic Development Association and focused on real estate. One of the segments was about proven strategies for redevelopment.

The panelists for that segment were Kimberly Van Dyk, planning and community revitalization director for the city of Wilson, Evan Covington Chavez, development manager at Rocky Mount Mills, and Liz Parham, the state commerce official working with the Main Street revitalization programs in North Carolina.

The three offered their advice and shared stories about their experiences. Van Dyk in particular spoke of the announcement in 2010 to create the public park in downtown Wilson featuring the large, now world-known whirligigs.

She noted there was skepticism about repairing and putting in the giant sculptures, which were obtained from someone just outside Wilson. That was because Wilson, once the world's largest tobacco market, was in the aftermath of the burst of the nation's housing bubble and the collapse of the financial markets on Wall Street.

Van Dyk said there's at least $61 million in public and private investment either in progress or announced in downtown Wilson resulting from the whirligig project.

"And I will tell you that those didn't happen by accident," she said of the hard work getting redevelopment in the heart of her community. "I mean, we're talking about Wilson."

The vacant former Cherry Hotel building is going to the scene of an approximately $18 million transformation into a boutique hotel and BB&T's towers are going to be replaced with an approximately $35 million structure.

Additionally, downtown Wilson is the scene of an approximately $12 million renovation of a former tobacco warehouse into what's going to be the Whirligig Station commercial and residential development.

Van Dyk emphasized the importance of having an authentic amenity to drive interest in the community, as well as having a long-term vision for redevelopment, having a local government "buy-in" and encouraging those in the community to understand the long-term theme.

Noting that Americans want quick gratification, she added, "I think educating your community members, getting your stakeholders really involved and engaged, listening to the community, learning from what they have to say, is really important."

Van Dyk also noted restoring the whirligigs took people with skills, so Wilson successfully applied for a grant from the N.C. Rural Center to help fund job training in the name of art conservation.

"And then that helped to build bridges and build the trust in the community — and show that you were not just considering art, but you were adding value to the community by creating jobs," she said.

Chavez had also stated the importance of having a long-term view and partnering with municipalities in redevelopment.

"You have to have that perspective of where you want to be in 20 years, not where we're going to be tomorrow," she said. "We can't be dictated by election cycles. We can't be dictated by our investors. We have to be able to have something that gets us over the hurdles that we're going to encounter to be able to reach that end goal."

She also humorously recalled what happened after word got out that Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting Co. was going to transform the former Tar riverside textile mill into a commercial and residential development.

She told of a huge banner being put on a still-dilapidated building about a future brewery incubator and subsequent postings of elation on Facebook.

Then, she said, the local planning officials stepped in and advised the banner was too large.

She said even though Capitol Broadcasting agreed to put up a smaller banner, the subsequent postings on Facebook were along the lines of, "Well, we told you they weren't real" and, "They were just pulling our legs."

"So a lot of it is really gaining public confidence that we're here for the long term and that we're not a fly-by-night," she said.

State commerce official Parham said she believes if one asks most communities what their biggest challenge is in redevelopment, they would say money.

Parham said she'd counter this probably isn't true because she believes one can find greenbacks from absolutely any source if one can sell a project as a "win-win."

She noted in Lexington, a street-scaping project was funded with approximately 200 different sources — unheard of in the Tar Heel State.

"It's crazy, but what it did was establish a real community 'win-win' process," she said. "And everybody was excited about it at the end of the day because they could invest $10 and be a part of the process."

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