Rocky Mount looks downtown for answers

akenney@newsobserver.comMay 31, 2014 

— Andre Knight has a ring full of keys. They’re not his, but he has the privilege of entry to many of downtown’s renovation projects.

One recent afternoon, Knight, the city’s mayor pro tem, made an office of a friend’s refinished storefront. It’s newly painted with a stark yellow wall and ceiling tiles in black, empty but for two chandeliers and with a metal ceiling. It’s soon to be a beauty salon.

To attract young people, Rocky Mount is rebuilding its downtown. A shrinking population means sales tax revenues and other money streams are stagnant. Yet in the last five years, the city has put millions in federal and state grants – and its own money – into a plan to remake downtown.

“If you’ve got something that’s dying, why not try to go and revitalize it?” said Knight.

In the last few years, the city has put $5 million of federal grant money to refinish sidewalks and landscaping near Main Street where a rail line historically has divided Rocky Mount’s races and classes.

The city is also midway through an $8 million plan to rehabilitate its Douglas Block, a center of black culture through most of the 20th century. The public-private project is funded by tax credits, a federal loan and tax dollars, and already has renovated six buildings.

Workers replaced the arched windows of the Booker T. Theater and lit its sign again, replaced another building’s faded white walls with rust-red brick and tore several more down to the grass. The final plan includes infill construction and dozens of new apartment units.

There’s also the Imperial Centre for the Arts & Sciences. Like the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, it’s a multibuilding mix of brick, glass and metal where huge windows spill light onto old wooden floors. The combined former library and tobacco plant hosts a coffee shop, theater, children’s museum and science center.

Unlike Durham’s repurposed tobacco center, though, the Imperial Centre has no tech tenants, and no economy of universities, hospitals and tech companies to support it.

Even so, these places – to some – are Rocky Mount’s new touchstones, and they’ve fostered a small network of downtown investors.

Ed Wiley III, a restaurateur who ran The Prime Smoke House in Raleigh, last June moved his business here following a courtship by city officials. His primly decorated restaurant seems lonely in its stretch of downtown, and he acknowledges Rocky Mount’s challenges, but the native Northerner sees a “ground floor.”

“We come with a faith that the beautiful cityscape we saw, that it would continue,” Wiley said during a break from his kitchen, “If you don't do anything, nothing will change.”

However, the city is far from unified behind the downtown effort.

A plan to build a new community center downtown met protest at a meeting last month, with some arguing that Rocky Mount should put its resources in the western end of town, near its two major highways and the subdivisions that offer a shorter drive to Raleigh.

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