City leaders considering joining state downtown development program

The City of Mebane is considering as part of its 2019-20 budget process an opportunity to join the Associate Community apprenticeship program as part of the North Carolina Main Street Program. The three-year apprenticeship program requires a $5,000 annual commitment, and Mebane leaders are also considering hiring a part-time Main Street development coordinator at a cost of $30,000 per year. City leaders will consider the program as part of its upcoming budget discussions. 

The City of Mebane, as part of its budget process for the 2019-20 fiscal year, will consider entering a program that will ultimately allow the town to become a member of the North Carolina Main Street Program.

The North Carolina Main Street Program is an organization run by the North Carolina Department of Commerce to provide resources and information to small town downtown districts throughout the state. 

“The North Carolina Main Street Program requires a three-year apprenticeship program, called the Associate Community program,” Cy Stober, Mebane Planning Director, told the City Council at their April 1 session. “The program focuses exclusively on main streets and downtowns. The Main Street Program grants exclusive access to grants and programs that others don’t have access to. It compels municipalities to convene merchants, city staff, non-profits, and other private interests to work on behalf of Main Street.”

Joining the Associate Community program within the North Carolina Main Street Program would offer Mebane a great deal of technical assistance and guidance in the coming years as it develops Clay Street, Center Street, and connecting downtown streets. The town of Elon in western Alamance County has been a participant in the Associate Community program, and joining the program was recommended as part of Mebane implementing its new Downtown Vision Plan, which was formally approved by the City Council last fall. 

“It is accountable,” Stober said of the Associate Community program. “It has a Board that the staff must report to on a regular basis, that represents not only the city’s interests, but the downtown interests, and balances all those moving forward.” 

Participation will include attending workshops and training held by the North Carolina Main Street Program, and a $5,000 annual commitment to the program that helps financially support their time and their training efforts. 

“It does include mandatory participation in the training and workshops, which are held throughout the state,” Stober said. “It does require staff to establish a Board in those first three years. And it requires an annual work plan to be established. There is a question of who will do that work.”

City leaders will be considering adding a new part-time position to the city’s payroll. This position, which would cost Mebane $30,000 in its 2019-20 budget, will serve as the City of Mebane’s Main Street Program development coordinator. This new position, along with the $5,000 annual commitment to the program, are the town’s projected expenses for this project for the upcoming fiscal year.   

“This position would be representing the City in this Main Street Program,” Stober said. “We intend to hire someone with experience in economic development, non-profit management, a merchant who has shown experience organizing and convening at a local level. They don’t need to be a planner. That certainly is a skill set that would lend itself to this position. But with the position, we will likely be searching for someone with some related experience, but not many, many years of experience, so that they could be trained specifically on the Mebane Main Street Program over these three years. Over these three years, they can advise the city on whether or not joining the Main Street Program after the three years, after we graduate essentially from the Associate Community Program, is a decision that is in the city’s interests.” 

Stober told the city leaders that joining the Associate Community program does not bind Mebane to join the North Carolina Main Street Program if they decide following the apprenticeship program that it’s not in the town’s best interests. 

“This is not a marriage. The resolution is a commitment to try this out for three years, and see if it suits the city’s needs,” Stober said. 

The application deadline for the program’s next two-year cycle is May 10. One of the pieces of the application is a resolution from the City Council for a budget commitment to pay the annual $5,000 fee. The next opportunity for Mebane to apply would be in 2021.

“We have been encouraged by their staff to apply. But we have to apply,” Stober said. “It is a competitive process. They only have four or five seats available to participate in the Associate Community Program each cycle.” 

City Council member Tim Bradley objected to voting up or down on the subject prior to the city’s regular budget discussions, which are being held in over the next several weeks in a series of budget workshops, City Council meetings and public hearings. 

“Why are we rushing this before budget time? I’m totally supportive of downtown development. But to me, this is a discussion that should be held during budget time, like the other budget discussions,” Bradley said. “It’s premature. I feel uninformed on it. I know there’s a May deadline on this. I just think we’re rushing through this. Why is this stuff up instead of the police department’s personnel? This is a budget discussion to me. $5,000 a year when we don’t know who we’re going to put on the Board.” 

“This is the first step of the Vision Plan that we adopted several months ago,” fellow City Council member Patti Philipps said in response to Bradley. 

Philipps and Stober attended a conference that the North Carolina Main Street Program held in late winter, and both came away impressed with the amount of knowledge and resources that the program makes available to its members. 

“I was amazed at the amount of information that was available through the Main Street program,” Philipps said. “Over two days, there were 19 separate breakout stations for people that had separate issues. There is so much expertise out there that’s available through this Main Street program that is bringing in tons of money to other communities throughout North Carolina. It seems to me that investing $5,000 to start this process is going to pay off in spades if we are selected for the Main Street program.” 

“I’m not disagreeing with that,” Bradley said to Philipps. “I’m just saying it’s a budget discussion. This is not the time and place to do it. I’d like to be informed enough at a budget discussion where this is supposed to occur. I would more than likely support it.”

“We’ve got enough items that we know we’ve already planned that we don’t really need to look for ideas. If we had to wait another year to get this program, I don’t know that we’d be slowed down much by what we’ve already got on the books for downtown,” Bradley added later in the session. “I’m totally supportive of the downtown. Always have been. But I just felt like when we considered budget items, we ought to do it, in fairness, to all the things that have come before the Council. Particularly when it involves the possibility of a part-time position.” 

“It’s a completely reasonable request,” Stober said to Bradley. “I think you all should be entitled and given more information and presentation. I’d be happy to do that further research and get it to you.”

The City Council will again address the matter at its upcoming Budget Work Session, which will be held the afternoon of Tuesday, April 16 at 4:00 p.m. at City Hall. The next Mebane City Council meeting is May 6, just a few days prior to the application deadline. 

“It’s a great program, obviously. There’s no doubt. We’ll probably do it,” Mayor Pro Tem Ed Hooks said. 

“We will be discussing it with the other budget items,” added fellow board member Jill Auditori.

Council member Everette Greene closed out the discussion by reminding city leaders that they must address parking first and foremost as they plan the long-term future of downtown Mebane. 

“We have talked about downtown - things we need to be doing, and things that have got to happen,” Greene said. “One of the first things is parking down there. We were going to talk to people about that (the parking situation) down there, and I don’t think that’s happened. We need to do something to initiate that. It’s frivolous to have any talks about downtown until we get a schedule of events that need to happen. And I think we need to do that. I think that’s something we need to do. We need to say, ‘This is what we’ve got to do, where we’ve got to go, and what we’ve got to do about it.’” 

“Parking is the number one thing,” Greene continued. “The sidewalks on Clay Street to the (new Community) park. That finally has come in. And it came in under what we had projected in the budget. We’re going to save money. But we need to get this thing going.”