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New Bern hosts NC Main Street Conference 

Hundreds of municipal officials, downtown development corporation personnel and convention and visitors bureau staff attended the North Carolina Main Street Conference at the New Bern Convention Center March 31 to April 1.

The two-day conference was packed with speakers from across the nation who discussed topics relevant to downtown development in North Carolina. Don Rypkema, principal of PlaceEconomics, a Washington, D.C., based real estate and economic consulting firm, was one of three keynote speakers. Rypkema spoke about his findings on the Main Street program’s return on investment after a six-month research project. 


Attendees network in the exhibit hall of the 2014 North Carolina Main Street Conference at the New Bern Convention Center. Photo credit: Garry E. Hodges
The Main Street program is a national movement run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in more than 2,000 communities that has spurred $49 billion in reinvestment in traditional commercial districts and changed the way governments, planners, and developers view preservation. Since 1980, more than $2 billion was invested in North Carolina Main Street and Small Town Main Street communities. In return, Main Street communities have seen a net gain of 4,700 new businesses and 18,000 new jobs. Main Street communities are also more stable than non-Main Street communities during recessions – in the most recent recession, Main Street districts outperformed the rest of the state when year-to-year change in jobs was measured.

“It is a new day for Main Street,” Rypkema said. “It is a David and Goliath story for each Main Street that survives, yet, they aren’t just surviving – they’re thriving.”

Monday night included self-guided tours of downtown New Bern, which is filled with stories and examples of historic preservation projects. Attendees were guided to upper story residential and mixed-use properties, downtown public spaces, and recent commercial rehabilitation projects including the Clark Building, a $1.4-million historic preservation tax credit project between the city and WORB, LLC, a partnership of two law firms, whose owners along with three others, formed to purchase and renovate the building.

The Clark Building was built in 1927 with fire proof construction and designs for the addition of an elevator and at least one more story, but those plans died with the Depression. The most prominent space on the corner was occupied by Clark’s Drug Store for most of its existence, with N.E. Mohn above and the rest rental space. After the renovation, the building now houses two law firms that employ roughly 30 people.

The city partnered with WORB to undertake streetscape improvements along much of the block with the city providing labor and WORB funding the materials.

Part owner of the building, Jonathan Friesen of Oliver Friesen Cheek, PLLC, said the tax credit was a driver in the decision to purchase the building. The owners have replaced the former dark windows that didn’t open with new glass and awnings and added structural support that will keep the building standing for another 100 years.

“We could have spent a lot less and not preserved the building as well as we did, the tax credit encouraged us to spend more and make it an attractive part of downtown,” Friesen said.

Tuesday was filled with 15 concurrent sessions with topics ranging from special events to graphic design and volunteering to engaging downtown businesses. Following the concurrent sessions, attendees stayed for the annual awards reception that honored 2013 award winners.

North Carolina municipalities took home 13 awards including:

2013 Small Town Main Street Awards for:

  • Organization, Town of Warsaw Community Public Art Plan;
  • Economic Restructuring, Revitalization of Warrenton;
  • Promotion, Town of Tryon’s Ransom Morris Project; and
  • Design, Downtown West Jefferson’s Streetscape.

2013 Main Street Awards for:

  • Organization Best Public-Private Partnership in Downtown Revitalization, Growers Market of Fuquay-Varina;
  • Organization Best Fundraising Effort, Edenton, Saving the Taylor Theatre;
  • Economic Restructuring Business Incentive Grant Program, Goldsboro City Council;
  • Economic Restructuring Best Business Retention, Expansion, or Recruitment Efforts, City of Concord Carolina Courts;
  • Design Best Outdoor Space Improvement, Clinton Phase III Downtown Revitalization Project and City of Reidsville for Kelly’s Way.

2013 Main Street Champions were:

  • Clinton Main Street Program, Mayor Lew Starling and City Council;
  • Concord Downtown Development Corporation, Mayor Scott Padgett; and
  • City of Statesville Electric Utilities Department Employees.