The years-long effort to recharge downtown may be turning a corner, but town leaders insist it won’t happen without the entire Zebulon community on board.
“Any venture can’t be one-sided,” said Town Manager Joe Moore. “You’ve got to have private involvement, but not only businesses and property owners participating in whatever effort we’re talking about. You have to have citizens at large who are concerned about their downtown participating as well.”
Moore also said shaking up the often sleepy business district will require more than just making the area look better.
“Downtown has to function better and function better means not only businesses that are thriving there, but it’s thriving socially,” he said. “People can work there in office space, but people can live there and go there – a mix of business and social activity.”
Zebulon commissioners have been asked to start considering several means by which the town can help shape that type of environment – through financial incentives, legislative incentives, public/private partnerships, private engagement and community engagement.
Moore noted public/private projects, like art displays and murals, garnered much attention as the town board discussed possibilities for downtown at its annual retreat earlier this month. Like other major capital improvement projects covered at the retreat, however, it has yet to be determined if and where any downtown undertaking fits into the budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Other methods for reshaping downtown discussed by commissioners included facade incentives, ordinances, historic preservation, festivals and other social events, and stakeholder meetings like those local civic leaders organized in recent years in hopes of spurring change in the district.
Town staff is still sorting through feedback from the retreat, and projecting revenues and expenditures to give commissioners a better idea of what may be feasible in the year ahead. Moore expects either a specific project or a program will be recommended when staff presents the first draft of the town’s spending plan on May 2.
“That budget will include ways to fund some of these things we talked about,” Moore said. “As far as the next step beyond that, it comes down to whether those ventures are funded or not.”
New leaders, new ideas
Moore said a strengthened alliance with the Zebulon Chamber of Commerce – one that helps the town measure economic development – is going to be important not only for the future of downtown but also for Zebulon as a whole.
“That stronger partnership may result in some improvements downtown but should result in improvements in the economy as whole,” said Moore, who was hired about a month after the chamber named Denise Nowell its new executive director last summer.
Nowell said she doesn’t take for granted the opportunity to work in a town with so much potential. She also appreciates that town leaders recognize Zebulon can grow on its own, or they can help guide how the town wants to grow.
“There’s this sense that growth is coming,” said Nowell, who attended the board’s retreat. “What’s our plan for managing that growth, and as we manage it what are the things we would like to see? With so many opportunities in front of us, this would be a good time for some good partnerships with public and private partners to get things done.”
‘Pockets of energy’
As for downtown, Nowell already sees forward progress.
The chamber’s new Holiday Happenings events steered steady crowds toward local merchants in December.
More recently, some local businesses have relocated their offices to the downtown area, while others already there have modernized their storefronts.
“There is belief in the opportunity for downtown to have new life, and I anticipate the chamber to partner and help continue those conversations,” Nowell said. “There are so many pockets of energy I keep discovering, energy from businesses and (residents), and I would like to figure out how to pull those pockets of energy together and synergize that to make it even better.”