Downtown needs vitality around it

March 28, 2014 

We asked a friend in town government if a downtown could thrive without a vital town around it. No, he said, at least not a downtown in a small town.

“A successful downtown benefits from visitors, but it has to have that core of local people, both as consumers and entrepreneurs,” our friend said. “If the larger community is not vital, that core is probably missing. For example, a successful restaurant wants to attract new customers, but it depends on regulars. Regulars are probably local.”

As much as we hate to say it, Smithfield is a few heartbeats short of vital, which means it lacks the core of local people needed to make downtown vital. Smithfield boosters will say this is just the newspaper picking, predictably, on the town. But don’t take our editorial word for it. Take what the federal government has to say.

According to the U.S. Census, between 2000 and 2010, Smithfield lost 572 people, its population falling from 11,538 to 10,966 in a decade. Digging deeper into the numbers, Smithfield lost 995 whites and 582 blacks in the decade. The total population loss was only 572 because 974 Hispanics moved into town in the same period.

To make matters worse for vitality, much of the population loss – 760 people – was in adults ages 18-64. Returning to our friend’s words, people in that age group are the consumers and entrepreneurs who give a town, and its downtown, its vital core. By comparison, between 2000 and 2010, Clayton welcomed 8,331 newcomers, including 4,897 people ages 18 to 64. It also welcomed 2,270 future consumers and entrepreneurs, or young people ages 5-17.

In Clayton, downtown revitalization is a work in progress, but suffice it to say, the town has a vital core thanks to a total population that more than doubled between 2000 and 2010.

We write none of this to discourage those people working on a vision for downtown Smithfield. The work they did earlier this month is much needed. Instead, we write to encourage greater Smithfield to come together to talk about how to restore vitality to what was once Johnston County’s largest, most prosperous town. Without such an effort, no vision for downtown Smithfield will succeed.

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