Main Street Program begins new direction for Williamston

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“There is a lot of potential” but the program “just starts here.” – National Trust Main Street Center Senior Program Officer Norma Miess

By David Meade

Local government, business and community leaders met with representatives of the National Main Street Center and Main Street South Carolina Program this week to begin the process of identifying where the town is and where it would like to go. The Baseline Assessment and Visioning process began Monday with Main Street SC Director Beppie LeGrand and National Trust Main Street Center Senior Program Officers Kathy LaPlante and Norma Miess getting feedback from more than 50 people attending four sessions.

The baseline assessment included looking at the strengths and opportunities of the downtown area; identifying specific needs and obstacles and outline services that meet local needs. The responses received will be used in establishing a vision statement, a mission statement and to define priorities and goals for a working plan for Williamston’s new Main Street Program.

During a community Vision session on Monday, National Trust Main Street Center officer Norma Meiss said the process is designed “to build consensus of what is needed and to work together to make that happen.”

Meiss told the audience of about 25 people that the organization provides national and state resources to local Main Street partnerships, providing a leaadership focus, consensus and committment to a proven methodology. She said the program focuses on quality of life through the organizations four point approach.

The four points of the Main Street approach include organization, promotion, design and economic restructuring.

The program, which has been successful in 2000 towns and cities nationwide, brings together resources to revitalize, both public and private and brings in “all of the community,” she said.

Meiss said the advisors were there as resources to help identify the character of the area, what the community offers and what needs attention.

“It is likely that someone has done what you are trying to do, ” she said. Lessons from other communities’ efforts can help direct Williamston with what has worked and what has not, she said.

“The program is not a cookie cutter methodology,” Meiss said.

Kathy LaPlante, who has been involved in the national level program for seven years said, “There is no other community like Williamston in the country. There is something that makes you unique. We are here to find that and to build on it.”

Assets mentioned during the first session include Mineral Spring Park, successful events and festivals, great eductional system and the Municipal Center and the history of the area.

Of course, one of the town’s biggest assets is Mineral Spring Park. One bit of information brought up during the sessions is that recent research shows that it may be one of the oldest, if not the oldest public park in the country.

Other assets include geographic location, quality of life, low crime, unique people who persevere, a local newspaper, five banks and lots of churches.

Also local businesses including the Pink House and All About Fabrics, that bring in a lot of people and a number of businesses that have been here for awhile.

Needs identified included a grocery store, boutique shopping, job creators, nice restaurant and a walkable community.

Negatives included attitude toward change, storefronts, need for improvements and empty buildings

LaPlante gave examples of towns she has been involved in that have been sucessful with the program. “You can make it happen in your town,” she said.

Meiss said they see, “a lot of potential” but the program “just starts here.”

“You own this effort. you can make it happen,” Meiss said.

The advisors met with other representative and members of the community Tuesday morning.

During the first of three sessions, there was discussion about present businesses and new ones they would like to see. There was discussion about financial loans and grants.

LaPlante, who began her work with the Main St. program as the Executive Diretor in her hometown of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, told the group about a successful contest that provided funding of $25,000 to a new business. In addition to the winner, three other prospective businesses that entered the contest also opened in the town, she said.

Information was shared about several organizations that could provide capital or micro loans and other information to new businesses.

There was discussion about the boundaries of the downtown or business core district with varying responses including from Hardees to Burger King; Academy/Belton Dr. to Hamilton Street and from the creek to Grace Methodist church or to First Baptist.

Local artist and historian, Thomas Addiston shared information that the town’s Mineral Spring Park may be the oldest in the country. Addison said that Central Park in New York was established in 1853. Research on the town’s park show it may have been established in 1844 or 1854. Documents are still being looked at to determine the exact date, he said.

Addison said that when the town’s founder, West Allen Williams set aside property for a park and surrounding town, it was done during a time when the country was being pioneered and there wasn’t much thought of public parks.

Addison said there is the possibility that it is the first in the country or real close and that “the man had that vision.”

There was considerable discussion about education.

School District One Assistant Superintendent Robbie Binnicker said there is considerable nvolvement of schools, groups and organizations, students and the Career and Technology Center. He said student groups are involved through service learning projects such as helping with Meals on Wheels and others.

Later Tuesday afternoon, the Williamston Main Street advistory board worked with the National Team to develop a vision statement and a mission statement.

They will soon begin working to develop a work plan and directives for the first year of the three year program.

Tenatively they agreed the program will focus on Economic Restructuring first, with promotion, design and organization following.

The group will have a Main St. SC architect meet with them in January to begin looking at the downtown area.

Williamston’s Main Street SC Program Advisory Board has seventeen members.

They are Beppie LeGrande (MASC Program Executive Advisor); Boyd Greene (Financial) , Mayor Mack Durham, Joan Ragsdale (Business Owner/Pink House), Debbie Chapman (Vice Chair/Business Owner/Something Unique); Chris Trotter (GWBA, Business Owner/Central Vac); Lee Cole (Chairman/Legal).

Also TonyTaylor (Public Safety/WPD); David Meade (Media/The Journal), Jim Simpson (Business Owner/Ace Hardware/ GWBA liason), Rockey Burgess (Councilmember/Autech), Vernon “Mustang” Brown (Business Owner/Mustang Car Detail); Juan Salcido (Business Owner/Fiesta), Rocky (Business Owner/Clock); Robin Tucker (First Citizens Bank), Rev. Darrin K. Johnson (New Prospect Baptist).