On the morning of Friday, September 25, a collection of Mebane elected officials, town planners, business owners, and representatives of the North Carolina Main Street Program came together on a virtual Zoom conference to sing the praises of Mebane’s formal introduction into the Main Street Program’s three-year Associate Community program.
Over the next three years, Mebane will learn about the Main Street Program and its many benefits and systems, while working to become a full-fledged member. Mebane was accepted into the Main Street Program as an Associate Community member in 2019, and will look to join numerous other North Carolina communities, including local towns such as Elon and Burlington, in joining the N.C. Main Street Program.
“We believe that it will be a tremendous program that will benefit not only our downtown, but our entire city,” Mebane Mayor Ed Hooks said in welcoming everyone to the meeting.
Mayor Hooks quoted from the Main Street Program’s website as he spoke about some of the aims of the organization.
“The Main Street Rural and Planning Center works to inspire placemaking through asset-based economic development strategies that achieve measurable results such as investment, business growth, and jobs,” the Mayor said.
“We’re very excited to be chosen this year,” Hooks added. “With this program, and with combined efforts and positive attitudes, this program will be a tremendous success. It will take hard work and from all parties to achieve its success. I want to thank the City Council for the support it gave this program, and the support it gave the (town) staff while we were working on the application for this program.”
Mebane Planning Director Cy Stober conducted a brief outline, explaining the steps that the town has taken to get to this point, and some of the goals that the City is looking to achieve from acceptance into the program.
“Downtown is Mebane. It’s prioritized throughout our plan. It’s the historic core of our city - culturally, socially, and economically,” Stober said. “And it still continues to be our cultural center, with a number of festivals throughout the year. The Dogwood Festival, Autumn Fest, and the Christmas Parade, as well as a number of monthly and weekly pop-up events that are almost entirely organized by the downtown community itself.”
“Downtown Mebane has a number of resources here. We have historic buildings. We have civic services,” Stober added. “We have a library that serves a larger community - the entire Alamance County community. It is a destination already. And we need to utilize those resources, and really expand their appeal beyond just the business community. These buildings have been here a long time, and are attractive to children, seniors, and families. And we need to make sure that when they’re here, they’re going to go in and get something to eat. If they’re coming to look for antiques, that they know they have city services, or some history in the city as well, that warrants a longer stay.”
Stober told the elected officials and the other residents onhand that Mebane has invested over $11 million into the new Community Park, including the completion of sidewalks allowing people to walk from the park to downtown and back, as well as wayfinding signs throughout the city to direct motorists to downtown, and bike boulevards to expand transportation options.
Stober also mentioned that the Mebane Farmer’s Market was relocated from its former location at the corner of Third and Clay Streets to Ruffin Street, in hopes of bringing more visitors to that particular area of town.
“We hope to make the Ruffin Street area of downtown, and the N. Fifth Street area of downtown, a hub of activity similar to what we’ve seen on Clay Street historically,” Stober explained. “However, there are needs, and we need to talk about them.”
Stober indicated that there is a lot of competition from the I-40/I-85 corridor - namely Tanger Outlets - that makes it tough for downtown retailers. Mebane is hoping to learn from current Main Street Program towns such as Salisbury and Clayton, that also sit along freeway corridors, to gain strategies to lure more of this consumer traffic to the downtown area. Another long-term challenge within downtown Mebane is figuring out ways to utilize more space in the second floors of area buildings.
“I know a lot of folks who just get off the interstate, and get right back on. We’d like them to come into town. This is a struggle that a number of Main Street communities have lessons that we can learn from,” Stober said. “Salisbury is in a very similar situation (to Mebane) with I-85. Clayton as well. So there are communities we hope to learn from about how to draw folks to your downtown from the interstate, when the interstates have been developed as they should be for retail and businesses. We do have an under-utilization of second-story real estate, whether it’s for residential or office use. There’s some building code challenges there. We are hopeful to move forward in ways to provide resources to realize the use of second stories.”
Stober acknowledged that the historic downtown has traditionally been from N. Fifth Street to N. Second Street, along Clay, Center and to a lesser degree Ruffin Streets, but that the new downtown plans calls for attention west of those areas, heading towards the new Community Park.
“There are a lot of opportunities to activate that space - whether it’s residential, commercial, or mixed-use,” he said. “We have a lot of options. And we’re not going to be prescriptive of what those properties have to be. But we do want to ensure they’ll be consistent with the downtown community, and not disruptive. That they will have a similar appearance. They will lend themselves to folks wanting to walk, bike, or drive to downtown from those properties. Ideally they will be part of the downtown community. We can’t put too heavy of a hand on that, but we can provide a lot of guidance and ordinance requirements on accessibility, and consistency with downtown community.”
“A lot of our newer residents - particularly those who live south of the freeway - are not as aware of downtown as they should be,” Mebane’s Planning Director continued. “And so we need to increase this awareness. Downtown is the No. 1 growth priority strategy area in our plan. It is the focus of a number of our goals and adjectives within our Comprehensive Plan. It continues to be an area that staff is directing energy towards. We do have a lot of opportunities for historic preservation. Stories that are not that well-known about the histories of every single building downtown. You all in the downtown community have done a good job of finding those histories, telling some of those stories. We want to recognize that.”
Stober said that fully realizing the use of the downtown buildings in Mebane is another challenge that town planners have heard a lot from local residents about. The Planning Director said that the City wants to deal with those issues head on if they can in an effort to make sure that all stories of downtown buildings are able to be used and expanded upon.
Sherry Adams and Chuck Halsall, representatives of the N.C. Main Street Program, joined on the call to welcome Mebane to the organization.
“We are so excited to have Mebane into the Associate Community Program,” Adams said.
Halsall explained that the NC Main Street and Rural Planning Center works in regions, counties, cities, towns, downtown districts and in designated North Carolina Main Street communities, to inspire placemaking through building asset-based economic development strategies. Mebane is part of the Piedmont Triad Region, joining other N.C. Main Street towns in Alamance, Caswell, Rockingham, Guilford, Randolph, Forsyth, Stokes, Surry, Yadkin, Davie, and Davidson Counties.
“Your area, you have a lot of Main Street Communities right next to you. That gives a good idea (of the potential of the program),” Halsall explained. “We want to build that organizational foundation really strong. The Apprenticeship program is the pathway to move into a NC Main Street Program designation. You have to put up with us for three years, and then we’ll cut you loose. But we’ll always be there to assist you.”
The N.C. Main Street Program started in 1980 as one of the original six states in the Main Street America program. The original five communities were New Bern, Salisbury, Shelby, Tarboro, and Washington. Today, the Main Street America Program exists in more than 200 communities across 46 states. Over the last four decades, the program has resulted in approximately $2.54 billion in public/private investment, the renovation of more than 5,800 buildings, more than 5,900 facade improvements, as well as net gain for more than 5,500 small businesses. The program exists under the notion of economic development within the context of historic preservation.
“Historic preservation - historic structures is one of the main goals of this program,” said Halsall.
The four points of the Main Street Program are Organization - building human and financial resources through public/private partnerships to achieve a common vision - Promotion - selling a positive image of downtown based on the unique assets of the community - Design - improving the physical aspects of town - and Economic Vitality - strengthening the existing economic assets, and expanding and diversifying the economic base.
“Only Mebane is Mebane. You have things that are completely unique to your town,” Halsall said. “This program is about change. You wouldn’t be in this program if you didn’t feel the need for change, or a greater use or definition for your downtown. It’s based on the implementation of the plan. This change is going to be incremental. Which means it’s going to be slow. Which means you have to have a little bit of patience. Ten years from now, the difference between downtown Mebane of today and downtown Mebane ten years from now will be drastically noticeable. But you might not notice it happening as its happening, because it’s going to happen kind of slow.
In addition to the four points of the Main Street Program, the eight principles are comprehensive, incremental, self-help, partnerships, builds on assets, quality focus, change, and implementation.
“This program is a self-help program. This is going to be about folks at the local level really getting after it and making things happen. Partnerships are hugely important, whether you’re talking volunteers for a festival or event, or your local financial institution may be putting in financial investments for redevelopment,” Halsall said.
Some of the tenets of the program will require Mebane to come up with a Five Year Downtown Plan - something it has already done with the implementation of its “Mebane By Design” long-range plan - along with an economic vision statement and diversified long-term economic strategies.
“As you develop in the program, you can do more,” Halsall said, indicating that Mebane would probably be assigned two or three achievable goals to attain during the Associate Community period before becoming a full-fledged N.C. Main Street Program member town.
“What this helps to do is create a solid, sustainable program,” he said.
“We will help you figure out how to find the projects and funding you want to put into place,” Adams added. “Everything we do, we look at it from the standpoint of protecting the historic aspects of your town. That is what makes Mebane authentic. That’s what keeps you all from looking like any other place. It’s what makes people want to move there. We’re excited that downtown is a priority here.”
There will be additional Main Street Program meetings on October 22 and November 12, which are welcome to members of the general public and particularly those associated with the downtown area. In addition, the City of Mebane is tasked with putting together an Advisory Board, as well as hiring a Main Street Downtown Coordinator in the coming weeks and months.
“We’ll be meeting regularly, and we’re looking forward to that. We’re looking forward to convening a Board, and hiring someone to be the primary person you’ll be working with,” Stober said. “We’ll determine more specifically what a Downtown Coordinator’s role will be, relative to myself (the Planning Director).”