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Josh Bergeron: New incentives could help with downtown vitality in Rowan

The future is residential.

Professional office space won’t fill the various vacant spaces in downtown Salisbury buildings. Neither will retail stores and restaurants. Residential space combined with those other things will.

The city of Salisbury and Rowan County should do everything possible to encourage developers to improve empty downtown spaces and make them into apartments or condos. Costs to adhere to historic standards, change a non-residential space into apartments and redevelop property in a downtown area are significant cost-driving factors. New incentive programs or boosted budgets for existing ones, particularly on the county level, could be helpful for the economic vitality of Salisbury and other municipalities in Rowan County because they’ll cover some of those costs.

Consider Salisbury’s programs as an example.

City government established the Downtown Revitalization Grant in 2014, awarding up to $150,000 to turn transform formerly vacant spaces. In a story published last week (“Downtown bullish on potential for more residential space”), Community Planning Director Hannah Jacobson noted the grants have recently become competitive because of an increase in worthy projects. Those projects include the rehabilitation of a building that now houses Barnhardt Jewelers and two apartments on the second floor of an Innes Street building. The city received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the National Parks Service to award to projects near Bell Tower Green Park and picked good projects for that, too, including turning the Bell Block Building on South Main Street into several apartments and a yet-to-be completed redevelopment of an office building at 121 West Council St.

What’s possible with county government support for similar projects? The Rowan County Board of Commissioners has millions of dollars from sales tax revenue that it can use on economic development projects. Incentivizing developers thinking about making millions in investment to bring full-time residents into local downtowns sounds like a pretty good economic development project. Is it possible to bring new second-floor apartments to China Grove or Spencer? In cases where there aren’t many two-story buildings, would it make sense to incentivize developers to build them if they contain apartments on the second floor?

Downtowns are the heartbeat of small and large municipalities. More residents in a downtown area can be the key to boosting their vitality because they will produce more shoppers, customers in restaurants and attendees at events.

Subdivisions will come as growth travels north from Charlotte. Downtown apartments may require a little more work.

The answer to downtown vitality is primarily residential space because of the makeup of Rowan County’s workforce, which does not necessitate downtown office space.

While large American cities are dealing with questions about whether companies will require employees to in-person work, it’s mostly not a concern in Salisbury and Rowan County, where there aren’t many large office-centric employers in the downtown area. Smaller businesses focused on office work also aren’t filling up downtown. That people are increasingly working from home and getting normal work done means employees of small businesses who can do so will stay in their home offices.

If Salisbury and Rowan County see enough growth, it’s possible enough small businesses fill downtown spaces, but the chances seem lower than ever because of COVID-19. Chances also seem low that Salisbury and Rowan County will lure new office-centric employers to downtown. Proof of that lies in the largest employers that already exist in the county: Food Lion, Daimler Trucks, Chewy, Rowan Regional Medical Center, Gildan, Continental Structural Plastics, a Dillard’s warehouse, Walmart, Swing Transport and Schult Homes.

There are, however, enough people who are interested in living in reasonably priced, small town apartments in a downtown area to make a multi-million-dollar investment worthwhile, particularly if there are some incentives to sweeten the deal.

Retail and restaurants will follow new residents. With any luck, the percentage of vacant square footage downtown will plummet to single digits.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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