Community Master Plan lays out guide for future growth and development of town

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By David Meade

During the Williamston Town Council meeting Monday, planner Tee Coker, of Arnette Muldrow & Associates, presented information on a Community Master Plan that he and a team of professionals have been putting together for the town. Coker said the team has taken the town through a year long planning process that has been “a community driven project.”

According to Coker, the plan is based on a market based reality of existing businesses and assets in the community. “We built our plan around current opportunities,” he said.

Coker said five town hall meetings were held during the process for residents to give input about their community including what is special about the community, changes and improvements they would like to see.

One of the sessions included a visual preference survey of building designs. Participants related architectural preferences for what they wanted the town to look and feel like, Coker said.

Another was a consumer survey of the types of stores residents would like to see, what they have now and the perceived quality of retail businesses and the downtown area.

Coker said the team took a zip code survey of customers at 30 retailers that allowed them to define the retail trade area and to “get an understanding of the local market.”

Key recommendations in the plan are included on a strategy board which will be made available for anyone interested to view.

Among recommendations in the plan for economic development is a Main Street Challenge.

The small business development competition has been effective in getting new business startups for many other towns, according to Coker.

The competition is of interest to property owners and young entrepreneurs and allows the community to vet ideas, he said. It usually includes a combination of incentives including cash, subsidized rent and possibly fee in lieu of taxes, he said.. “There is a strong incentive for everyone to make this work,” Coker said.

According to Coker, the Master Plan for Williamston is based on a “Walmart capitilization strategy,” assuming the retail giant does open a location in the area.

“You have the luxury to prepare for Walmart,” Coker said. “So that existing businesses can succeed and the retail trade area will grow.”

Once development and growth does begin, a key element of the plan addresses how to get new people downtown, “to strategically get people where you want people to be.”

He used the example of having food trucks to get people downtown to the park area on a Saturday afternoon. “You can change or build that market,” he said.

The plan also addresses how to “recruit and expand business based on retail leakage opportunities.”

According to Coker the planing team has identified more than a dozen business opportunities that could succeed in the area.

The plan also recommends recruiting a “destination downtown business.”

A restaurant/brewry located in the old “hotel” building at Minor and West Main St. was an example of a “cool business that will draw customers from outside the town,” he said. The business would also be a big draw during key events in downtown and the park. (See artist rendering of Brewhouse idea)

The Master Plan includes a planning and design community connectivity strategy through commercial gateways, corridors, recreational sites, trails and greenways.

Coker said Williamston has the ability to tie together a school campus with a historic downtown, arts, and neighborhoods “unlike any other town in the upstate.”

The amenities available are within a walkable, bikable area and according to Coker, “will make Williamston an even better place to live.”

The plan makes recommendations for options to reconfigure commercial gateways to prepare for future development.

It also includes recommendations to make streets and other parcels visually appealing using signage, streetscape, walkways and sidewalks and in the process create corridors that connect to the downtown area. The town recently installed three “wayfinding signs” and has had a banner program in effect for some time.

“It is very simple, but very impactful to your downtown area,” Coker said.

Included in the receational aspect of the plan is better use of the Caroline Center and Brookdale park and the depot as a farmers market.

Coker said eventually the town should focus on the core downtown area which he said offers a “long term major redevelopment opportunity over time.”

The town has the opportunity to strategically redevelop to connect existing ballfields, Mineral Spring Park and the shopping center area to create “a full fledged downtown,” he said.

Coker said that downtown area could eventually include commercial buildings on both sides of Main Street which he said will “complete Main Street with business and retail surrounded by residential.”

A key recommendation to begin the process and bring people to downtown would be to relocate the Lander Library from the current location (near the rumored Walmart) to the Town Square Shopping Center.

Coker said by moving cultural assets closer to the core, the town can begin to “pull pieces together in a way that is walkable and pedestrian friendly.”

The plan recommends a facade improvement program to work with property owners who want to work with the town.

It also encourages marketing and branding through use of advertising collateral and public art and eventually, billboards along I-85, “to let people know we are here.”

Coker stressed organization and volunteerism, suggesting the formation of a “Williamston Go Team” to meet with prospective business owners. “You can cultivate a core group of leaders and specialists,” he said.

He also recommended a volunteer based one day event called Hands On Williamston Day Y’all, or HOWDY.

Coker said the residents have an intense feeling of community pride however there is a frustration with things just not getting done.

Coker recommended a formal adoption of the plan under a designated implementation agent, which he said is the Envision Williamston program, along with a budget of $25,000 for pilot projects.

The plan includes a list of ideas which Coker describes as “quick hit projects to build momentum.”

Williamston Mayor Mack Durham said the plan is a “culmination of a lot of work and that there is a lot to digest in it.”

The mayor said council will further discuss the Community Master Plan at a work session scheduled for next Tuesday, Mar. 29th at 7 pm.

Work sessions are open to the public.