The Morganton Main Street program has spent more than 30 years working to maintain a vibrant and energized downtown. The program has generated more than $60 million dollars of public and private investment into downtown and that investment has helped downtown Morganton weather the storms that left many downtowns across America crumbling and desolate. Today, downtown Morganton, the heart and soul of the City, is strong and healthy largely due to the Main Street program.
Why Main Street?
Morganton hasn’t always had a Main Street program. In the late 1970s, downtown Morganton was facing the same fate as thousands of other downtowns throughout the country. The City’s downtown buildings were ageing, many properties were in disrepair, and several were boarded up. There was no merchants association and no combined effort to promote downtown businesses. There were no festivals or Friday-night concerts, and public parking was limited. No Main Street program existed to focus on the health of the downtown, but that changed in the early 1980s thanks to the efforts of the group that would become the Historic Burke Foundation.
Alleyway on W. Union Street in downtown Morganton.
In 1980, the National Trust created the National Trust Main Street Center to help communities focus on downtown revitalization. The goal of the national Main Street program was to stimulate economic development within the context of historic preservation, using a comprehensive approach to downtown revitalization. At the same time the national Main Street program was being launched, the Historic Burke Foundation was working to restore the Old Burke County Courthouse. The Historic Burke Foundation members saw the national Main Street program as a way to further their work on the Old Courthouse and promote the renovation of other historic properties in downtown Morganton.
The group brought the idea to apply for Main Street designation to City Manager Doug Bean. Bean agreed that the Main Street program could benefit Morganton by reenergizing the downtown district and promoting economic activity, and he took the plan to Mayor Andy Kistler and the City Council. Kistler and the Council recognized that the program would benefit Morganton and they agreed to fund the effort. In 1982, Morganton was approved as a Main Street Community, the seventh town in North Carolina to receive the designation. The other six municipalities were New Bern, Salisbury, Shelby, Tarboro, Washington, and Clinton.
The Main Street program has been fabulously successful. One of the smartest moves our City fathers ever made was to apply for that designation.
- Barbara Norvell
First President of the Historic Burke Foundation
Today, Morganton is one of 61 Main Street communities in North Carolina, and one of thousands across the country. Morganton’s City leaders had the foresight in 1982 to take part in the program and got a 30-year head start on towns just now applying to assist with downtown revitalization.
The Main Street program has been so successful in North Carolina and the nation that surrounding communities are still applying to become Main Street communities themselves. Valdese received designation as a Main Street Community in 2013. In 2006, nearby Hickory joined the program. Marion joined in 2003. Newton joined in 1990, and Lenoir joined the Main Street Program in 1984.
In the beginning of the Main Street program in Morganton, staff knew they had a lot of work to do. The downtown commercial district had become stagnant. There was no downtown landscaping, and many of the sidewalks were cracked and broken. Public parking was limited and there were few efforts to advertise and market businesses downtown. The Main Street Department started applying the program’s four-point approach of organization, design, promotion and economic restructuring. The goal was to bring business, employment and economic activity into downtown while maintaining the character and charm of downtown Morganton.
Main Street staff started working to get façades painted, put up awnings and start landscaping the streets and sidewalks. Main Street then started working to promote the downtown shopping district through advertising and sidewalk sales, and Main Street held a festival in downtown to promote awareness of downtown businesses; that festival would branch off and become the Historic Morganton Festival, Inc., now in its 33rd year.
Thousand of people fill the streets of downtown Morganton during the annual Historic Morganton Festival. The festival is held every year on the weekend after labor day.
When the City Council approved the Main Street program in 1982, the City funded the program 100% with general fund revenues. In 1984, the Council approved an 8-cent downtown special district property tax to help supplement program expenditures such as façade grants and landscaping. In 1994, the City Council increased the tax to 14 cents to help fund and implement the Downtown Master Plan. Fifty-one cities in North Carolina have established special tax districts with tax rates ranging from 2 cents to 64 cents. Morganton’s 14 cent rate falls in the middle of the pack; 14 other communities have special tax rates in the teens.
Today, the Main Street budget averages more than $450,000 dollars. Those funds are spent on personnel, capital improvements, marketing, operations, public parking, and grants. The downtown special tax generates $114,000, roughly 25% of the Main Street program budget, and the remaining funds come from the City’s general fund revenues. The City puts in roughly $3 for every $1 generated by the downtown tax.
The pie charts above show the breakdown for the Main Street program funding and expenditures for the 2013-2014 budget year. The downtown district tax funds about one fourth of the Main Street budget every year. The remaining funds come from the City’s general fund revenues.
Since its creation, the Main Street program has helped implement a tremendous amount of improvements to downtown Morganton. Property owners have completed 206 façade improvements and 124 building renovations. The Main Street program has installed streetscapes, improved sidewalks and alleyways, installed benches and trash receptacles, and most recently started installing wayfinding signs that direct visitors to the downtown district and throughout Morganton.
Main Street provides regular landscaping and beautification to downtown as well as seasonal decorations, daily trash pickup, daily sidewalk cleaning, and daily parking lot clean up. City staff works hard to keep the downtown clean and litter free, and visitors are routinely impressed by the beauty of the town. Thanks to the Main Street program, downtown Morganton is in ever improving shape and offers a charming and inviting atmosphere for shoppers, workers, residents, and visitors.
Main Street staff also works to help property owners find tenants for their buildings. Staff actively recruits and shows downtown properties to potential tenants, and staff maintains a database of available properties. Staff assists business owners with business plans and recruits new business to move into the downtown tax district. Main Street also provides architectural services to downtown property owners to promote second-floor development. In 2010, Main Street was awarded a $271,455 grant from the NC Main Street Solutions Fund, which was used to provide three grants to downtown property owners and more than $200,000 in loans to nine downtown businesses.
The Main Street Department facilitated the design work and helped fund the upgrade to the facades of My Local Bakery and The Music Center on N. Sterling Street.
Thanks to efforts by the Main Street program staff, the City installed wayfinding signs that will direct visitors to the downtown district and throughout Morganton.
Promotion & Events
The Main Street staff also constantly works to promote downtown businesses and create a positive image of the commercial district. Main Street has created various concentrated marketing campaigns to promote downtown including “Shop Local” and “Get It” Downtown, as well as shopping and dining guides that highlight local merchants and restaurants. Main Street has assisted retailers with retail promotions such as “Girls Night Out”, “Think Third Thursday”, “16 New Faces of Downtown”, sidewalk sales, holiday open houses, and more. Main Street funds three billboards to promote and direct visitors into downtown, and Main Street distributes a biweekly e-mail newsletter (D2U) that highlights downtown events and activities.
Main Street also helps produces many community events including the ACC Chili Cook-Off, the Halloween Spooktacular, and the Christmas Parade, which are sponsored by the Downtown Development Association. The Main Street department staffs the Historic Morganton Festival, Inc., a now self-sustaining non-profit that produces the downtown farmers markets, the TGIF Free Friday-night Concert Series, and the annual Historic Morganton Festival. These events draw thousands of residents and visitors into downtown every year and people from all over the region have the opportunity to see what downtown Morganton has to offer.
Main Street has been instrumental in downtown economic development. Main Street staff found and recruited an operator and a developer to build a 7-screen movie theater downtown, which brought Marquee Cinemas to Morganton. Main Street assisted with the development of an incentive program that resulted in the development of the King Street Town Homes on the corner of King Street and W. Meeting Street. Main Street worked with the City’s Redevelopment Commission to convert an old and vacant hosiery mill into what is now Morganton Trading Company and the home of City Hall, residences, offices, and restaurant space.
Marquee Cinemas Property Before
Marquee Cinemans After
The Morganton Main Street Department was instrumental in bringing a new 7-screen theater to downtown. The City of Morganton paid for conceptual plans and a market study, and Main Street worked to secure an operator and developer interested in a small downtown location.
Morganton Trading Company and City Hall
Morganton Trading Company Property Before
Morganton Trading Company Property After
The Main Street Department helped create the City’s Redevelopment Commission, which was established to improve the eastern side of the downtown. Main Street worked with the Commission and the Development and Design Department to purchase, design and market an abandoned hosiery mill in downtown. That old hosiery mill was eventually converted to a mixed-use development that houses businesses, residential condominiums, and Morganton City Hall. Thanks in part to the efforts of the Main Street program, a blighted property was turned into a jewel of downtown Morganton.
What may be most impressive about the City’s Main Street program is the size of the staff. The Main Street program accomplishes everything it does, year after year – building improvements, merchant promotions, marketing, community events, business recruitment – with two full-time positions and one-part-time position. The Main Street department does receive support from City staff in other departments and hundreds of volunteers, and that cooperation has contributed to the success of the Main Street program.
These efforts, over the course of 30 years, have preserved downtown Morganton as the heart and soul of the community. Downtown is the social center of Morganton and offers a movie theater, restaurants, shops, art galleries, festivals, Friday night concerts, parades, fundraising events and much more. This would not be the case without the continued support of the City Council; downtown merchants, property owners and residents; and the support of the taxpayers who fund the many projects that set downtown Morganton above many surrounding communities.
City leaders could have decided to pass up the opportunity to start the program in Morganton, but they didn’t. Mayor Kistler and the City Council saw the Main Street program as chance to revitalize downtown Morganton, enhance the City’s character, and strengthen the local economy. The Main Street program has been successful in its efforts. Morganton has weathered many economic storms during the past three decades and the downtown district continues to be a vibrant and thriving part of the local economy, the community, and the region. Thanks to the commitment of the City of Morganton and the Main Street program, downtown Morganton has set a high mark and is an example that other communities strive to imitate.