The Daily Tar Heel

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Monday December 5th

Outlook for Downtowns Is Moving Up

But prompted by intense downtown revitalization efforts in several N.C. cities, Main Street is back.

At least that's what community leaders across the state have in mind.

After seeing downtowns suffer as a result of suburban growth, city leaders are planning ways to reinvigorate commerce in these areas.

So far, results are promising. Buildings are filling, sidewalks are brimming with shoppers, and residents are more eager to venture downtown after the sun sets.

Wilmington: Battling Suburbia

Like many cities across the state, Wilmington saw its share of suburban sprawl in the 1970s.

The trend was highlighted by the opening of Independence Mall in 1979, with most urban retailers fleeing either to the mall or to other shopping centers on the outskirts of town.

Bob Murphrey, executive director of Wilmington's Downtown Area Revitalization Effort Inc., remembers the fading days of downtown all too well. "(The downtown region) bottomed out in the early 80s, and then it started picking up steam," he said. "It's been steady progress since then."

The re-emergence of the downtown can be credited partially to the work of Murphrey's nonprofit organization, which has been recruiting business to the region since 1977.

With more than $200 million invested in the downtown, Murphrey has witnessed the renovation of 250 buildings, the creation of 250 living units and the addition of between 3,000 and 4,000 jobs to the area since the late 1970s.

In the late 1990s, after realizing many of their goals were reached, Murphrey and his team created Vision 2020, an urban development plan to guide the downtown into the new century.

One of the major parts of the plan is the construction of a convention center on an old industrial site bordering the Cape Fear River.

Murphrey is in favor of a room occupancy tax and a prepared food tax increase to help fund the project, but he said that so far legislators have been hesitant to approve the tax increases.

Murphrey said such issues, as well as those with suburban developers concerned their efforts will take a hit, are inevitable. "There are always those who are going to oppose the changes or think they have a better idea for it."

Raleigh: What Next?

Errol Frailey, president of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, a nonprofit organization looking to improve business in the capital's downtown, said there have been noticeable differences recently. "We've been trying to raise visibility to all the changes in downtown Raleigh in the last five years."

Frailey said there has been a recent interest in visual and performing arts in Raleigh. Several galleries have opened in the last several years, and plans are under way for an art museum.

But Raleigh leaders and residents now are split over what to do with Fayetteville Street Mall, a pedestrian center downtown. While some want to keep the mall and strengthen it with new business, others wish to remove it and reopen Fayetteville Street to traffic.

Steve Stroud, of Carolantic Realty in downtown Raleigh, is adamantly in favor of removing the mall and allowing traffic to once again fill the street.

"The mall is not conducive to true central business activities," he said.

Stroud said wide sidewalks and angular parking would create a business region and attract people to come out after work.

"We understand the importance of having a solid viable core in this community," he said. "It's not what it used to be, and we'd like to see it revived."

Greensboro: Giving It One More Shot

Greensboro's first stab at urban renewal wasn't much of a success.

In the 1960s, the city built a mall to keep consumers' money downtown, said Mike Cowhig, community planner with the Greensboro Department of Housing and Community Development.

Cowhig said the project was a failure and resulted in removal of the mall.

He said after decades of a declining downtown business region, the last several years have been marked by an increase in restaurants and nightclubs downtown.

Cowhig said the city passed a development ordinance last year allowing for townhouses downtown.

Ray Gibbs, president of Downtown Greensboro Inc., said that while his city flourishes during the day the nights leave the city barren.

Gibbs said his company is trying to improve the area by renovating a variety of buildings and managing their sale to various tenants. He said over the past two years, his company has sold 40 properties and helped with the development of three new residential projects.

Gibbs said the public generally has been very excited about the changes in downtown Greensboro and has been drawn to the city's new offerings. "People are coming back downtown again."

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