Many ideas at Smithfield’s vision forum for downtown

pseligson@newsobserver.comMarch 21, 2014 

— Last week, about 50 people gathered at First Presbyterian Church to answer a question: What will downtown Smithfield look like in five years?

A final answer remains up for debate, but the group took steps toward charting the course downtown should pursue.

The Downtown Smithfield Development Corp. staged the forum with the goal of creating a vision for downtown.

Creating a vision will help downtown identify opportunities for growth, said Liz Parhom, head of the Office of Urban Development in the N.C. Department of Commerce.

“We define the economic role that downtown plays in the greater economy,” said Parhom, who helps run the state’s Main Street Program. “And with that, we’re able to identify new partnerships ... that will help us to accomplish our goals.”

The vision leads to a mission statement and eventually to a specific plan with goals and objectives, Parhom said. “If you can define the economic role the downtown plays, then you can focus your attention,” she said.

In Smithfield, downtown runs along Market Street from the Neuse River bridge to Rite Aid at the corner of Market and Bright Leaf Boulevard. It runs north to south from Bridge Street to Johnston Street.

Forum participants included town councilmen, a county commissioner, business owners, people on local government committees and people who live in Smithfield and want to see downtown grow and flourish. The forum was open to the public.

By the end of the night, the 50 people had not agreed on a singular goal or direction, but they did have a list of ideas. At the start of the forum, the participants split into six groups to answer a series of questions. They then came back together to share their answers with the whole group. Each group wrote its ideas on large sheets of yellow paper.

This process asked the groups to identify downtown’s strengths and weaknesses. Among the weaknesses:

•  A lack of retail businesses on Market Street.

•  The perception that downtown is for older people.

•  Not enough parking.

•  Empty buildings.

•  A lack of lighting.

•  Truck traffic on Market Street.

•  No public transportation.

•  A lack of families with disposable income and a lack of things to do on the weekends.

“The courthouse brings all these people in, and then at nighttime, the town is dead because most of the people don’t live here,” Teresa Daughtry said in her small group.

Johnston Community College also brings people to Smithfield, she said. “We just got to keep them,” Daughtry said. “We got to have a reason for them to stay in the area.”

Dean Anderson, who was in Daughtry’s group, said he was trying to think both big picture and micro when listing strengths and weaknesses. “Why do people move here? That’s what I’m looking at,” he said. “What do people need? What do people want?”

Many groups listed the courthouse as a strength, bringing in many people every day. But Smithfield needs to branch out and have more reasons to come downtown, one group said.

Some groups mentioned recruiting an industry or business that would bring people downtown. Its workers would eat out and shop for clothes, groceries and specialty items. Then, with the increased customer base, more businesses would open, bringing other people downtown.

The groups came came up with a number of strengths, including:

•  The Public Library of Johnston County and Smithfield.

•  The Neuse River, its amphitheater and river walk.

•  The Ava Gardner Museum.

•  Downtown’s exposure to U.S. 70 and its proximity to Carolina Premium Outlets on Industrial Park Drive.

•  Special events like the Ham & Yam Festival.

•  Downtown’s compactness.

To add to those strengths, some wanted to see more recreation downtown and more arts and cultural events. Others wanted to emphasize Smithfield’s history.

One group focused on Smithfield’s size: Downtown is compact, meaning once a person parks his car, he can walk to all of downtown. That’s an important strength, Tara Dunn said as she took notes for her group.

Other groups talked about a lack of housing downtown. If downtown had more housing nearby, then more people would be around on the weekends to spend money. Resident Eddie Foy said many families, like his, drive to Raleigh on the weekends.

The final task was to create a vision statement, about a paragraph long, to describe the downtown Smithfield people want to see five years from now. Every group had a slightly different vision, but words like “historic” came up often, as did “local” and phrases like “nestled between the Neuse River and Interstate 95.”

The Downtown Smithfield Development Corp. board met the following day to begin to bring together the different ideas. Parhom will return in about a month to help turn these ideas into goals. Smithfield will add the vision statement to a pending update of its economic-development plan, due sometime in May.

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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