“We will leave no stone unturned during this process. It’s a tremendous opportunity,” says City of Whiteville Economic Development Planner Sean Martin, obviously excited that city council last week approved an agreement with Cary-based WithersRavenel, Inc. for development of a downtown streetscape master plan that potentially could be the first step in a process that changes the appearance of downtown Whiteville.
Work on the master plan gets underway in earnest this month and the final plan is expected to be finished and adopted in February, barring possible unforeseen delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The $44,200 plan is funded entirely by a grant from USDA Rural Development. “We haven’t had an opportunity like this in a long, long time,” says Martin, “and it’s being funded by a
grant, which is like hitting a home run. It has been talked about through the years, but for one reason or another we haven’t had this opportunity until now.”
The plan will focus on Whiteville’s business district, defined as the area of Madison Street from Columbus Street south to the intersection with Franklin and Lee streets. Although the defined area includes Lee to Franklin, most of t
he emphasis will be placed on properties along Madison.
“This is an opportunity to revitalize our downtown, specifically in terms of appearance,” explains Martin. “We’ll study how we want it to look, what we want it to have and how we want to draw people in, particularly beach traffic, to invite them to stop and spend time and money in our downtown. That’s our best way to describe it.”
The project goal is to assess existing conditions and needs, both current and future, and plan to guide improvements in a new downtown streetscape as well as pursuing future funding opportunities and implementation strategies. “We’re going to build a plan and then we’re going to pursue funding to achieve the plan,” says Martin. “This is not just a plan to put on the bookshelf and then come back in 10 years from now and take a look at it.”
Martin says that existing downtown merchants are enthusiastic about the concept. “They are ecstatic, and that might be an understatement.”
The scope of service for the plan starts with project management and administration, which will include a kickoff meeting, project coordination, development of a project schedule and listening to people – residents and merchants. City staff and WithersRavenel will seek public participation, as well as verifying project data, documents and maps.
The study will include looking at comparable downtowns. Martin has an advantage there because, as a participant in the NC MainStreet program, he has traveled much and has seen a lot of comparable downtowns.
This is a first for Columbus County. Elizabethtown in Bladen County did a similar project in the early 2000s, and Clinton in Sampson County had a similar project around the same time. It will be a phased project because of the degree and scope of work. “You can’t just wave a magic wand and do it all in one swoop in terms of funding,” says Martin. “It will continually evolve. The opportunities are limited only by your imagination.”
Various possibilities, like opportunities, are unlimited. Changes can be made by expanding sidewalks by eliminating some parking on Madison St. “We have an opportunity to get sometimes twice as many parking spots by doing such things as angling some parking spaces and updating existing parking lots that might be in a deteriorating condition. That would also allow businesses to utilize the backs of their storefronts, and that creates a whole new dynamic to a downtown,” says Martin “Of course, you’re still going to have your access on the main street, but if you look at our downtown and a lot of other downtowns, this new concept – new in the last decade, anyway – has been to revitalize the backs of storefronts and to encourage traffic through the backs of the buildings.”
Martin offers Brewton, Alabama as an example. That town converted its entire main street model and although the fronts of stores were still decorated as a traditional main street, all business now comes into those stores through the back.
Public involvement will be a big part of the local plan development. “We want public involvement,” says Martin, “and we want people to remember what used to be and what worked well with how it used to be. We want to hear from people that have traveled to other places. What did they like best about what that saw in other places? What would they like to see in their hometown? What is something they feel like is an absolute must-have? We want to hear from people who are hear and have a vision. You don’t necessarily need to have traveled somewhere else to have a vision of what downtown should look like for you. We want to hear from everybody. We want everybody to be a part of this because this streetscape is not just a city thing and it’s not just a business thing. This is something we envision the entire county of Columbus being part of, being proud to associate with it, being proud to call it their own.”
While the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and Tourism will be a big stakeholder, Martin hopes that any other Columbus County agency that wants to be involved will do so. He says it’s not just a City of Whiteville project. “Our doors are wide open and we want the public because Whiteville is a hub of Columbus County, says Martin.
“A lot of our daytime traffic is our working community comes from outside the city. We want them to be involved as well because it is their downtown whether they live in the city limits of Whiteville or not. And we certainly want to hear from people who live outside the city why them come to the city and what they want to see downtown and why they visit downtown because that may influence public gathering places, ideas for parking, or ideas for public parking lots in general. We welcome input from all, including people from outside of Whiteville. I can’t stress this enough: we want this to be a project that the entire area feels like is theirs.”.
Tasks to be completed in development of the plan include project management and administration, site inventory and analysis, development of priority improvements and alternative concepts, public involvement and drafting of the final master plan.
Project initiation and site analysis is expected to be completed in September and October and priority improvement development ideas are expected to be formulated in October. Public involvement and input will be in October and November and, based on all that has gone before, ideas for alternative concept development will be discussed in November and December. Drafting the master plan will occur in November, December and January, and the final master plan will be presented to the Whiteville City Council for final approval and adoption in February.