City’s heart is downtown

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 31, 2013

Gov. Pat McCrory was not just speaking figuratively when he mentioned “Main Street” eight times in his inaugural address on Jan. 12. Virtually every North Carolina city and town has a Main Street, in spirit if not in name. And as McCrory said, “they are the hearts of our communities.”
Those must be welcome words to the 450 or so people gathering in Salisbury this week for the N.C. Main Street Conference. Now a part of the Department of Commerce, the Main Street program helps communities across the state revitalize their historic downtowns, and Salisbury is one of its early success stories.
The program entered Salisbury’s life at a pivotal time in the early 1980s. The “mall-ing” of America was going full steam, and downtowns everywhere were at risk of fading into irrelevance. Ever-conservative Salisbury was late to the mall game, but the shift in shopping patterns was keenly felt here, too.
Becoming one of the state’s first five National Main Street cities sparked what has been a steady record of restoration, improvement and development for downtown Salisbury. What started with a few facade grants and low-interest loans grew, and it’s no coincidence that the downtown tax base grew, too — 169 percent since 1989, by some estimates.
No one has emerged from the recession unscathed, but downtown Salisbury continues to have a good mix of shops, banks, restaurants and businesses, as well as the courthouse and offices that come with being the county seat. This is the heart of not just the city but the entire county. Many take this critical mass for granted, not realizing the work that has gone into nurturing and developing the area. It is a constant work in progress.
Lately, Downtown Salisbury Inc. has handed off its promotional tasks to the Rowan County Convention and Visitors Bureau, a partnership that might also be held up as a model for other communities. The two organizations are working together to host the conference, fittingly titled “Innovation, Collaboration and Impact.”
McCrory speaks of Main Street because it’s something citizens can identify with on a personal level. Main Street is not Wall Street, it’s not the halls of Congress, and it’s not a cul de sac. Main Street is our town, the public square — a place to embrace rather than abandon. And it can be a strong economic force.
Combined with the hard work of small business owners, community institutions, citizens and local leaders — a town’s real lifeblood — programs like N.C. Main Street help make a healthy Main Street a physical reality, not just a lofty concept. So welcome, N.C. Main Street Conference attendees, and thanks for helping many North Carolina towns survive and thrive.