The Downtown Smithfield Development Corp. plans to restructure now that the nonprofit has a new, permanent director.
Earlier this month, the DSDC board hired Sarah Edwards as its full-time director and lone employee. She had been interim director since last September, when former director Chris Johnson moved on to become Johnston County’s economic-development director. Before that, Edwards had been Johnson’s assistant since 2009.
Edwards, a Smithfield native, said she hopes to stay in the job for years, like her predecessor, who stayed for more than a decade.
With “interim” removed from Edwards’ title, DSDC board chairman Barry Long said he wants to use this time to reevaluate the nonprofit’s focus and programs.
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“I would like for us to be involved in more of the downtown activities,” Long said. “I’d like to see us make a bigger difference downtown. I’d like to see us communicating with the community downtown.”
With just one employee now, Long wants the board of directors to play a more-active role in the DSDC. To that end, the group recently formed a number of committees to focus on such topics as promoting downtown businesses and reviewing the nonprofit’s bylaws.
“The board needs to support Sarah and make sure we’re giving her the support and direction that a board of directors should be giving, instead of just meeting once a month and talking about the weather,” Long said.
Long also wants to focus more on economic development. Downtown Smithfield used to be Johnston County’s retail center, but now its storefronts struggle to compete with the shopping centers on North Bright Leaf Boulevard and Industrial Park Drive.
“But retail is something we need, and we need night activity, we need the stores to come in and be able to stay open after dark, after 5 o’clock,” Long said.
In March, a forum organized by Edwards drew about 50 people who offered their ideas for the future of downtown. Using that input, the DSDC has redone its vision and mission statements and settled on four overall goals. Those are bringing more stakeholders and money to downtown, attracting more local residents and visitors through events and creative advertising, improving the physical appearance of downtown and increasing commercial investment.
In her first year, Edwards plans to focus on three things.
First, she wants to promote both downtown Smithfield and what the DSDC does. She wants to use social media, advertising and a newsletter to show off downtown and attract visitors. She also wants to make sure people know about DSDC resources, including grants for new businesses.
Second, she wants to rehabilitate some of the older, vacant buildings. These include the old Pontiac building, the former town hall and the former water plant. To do that, Edwards plans to put together packets that show potential developers how buying and renovating the buildings would be profitable.
Third, Edwards plans to support existing businesses. That includes organizing cross-promotions, such as a store selling local artwork and then referring the buyer to a local shop for the frame. Edwards also wants to help businesses get online on such sites as TripAdvisor and Yelp.
Not being online is like “not having your front door unlocked,” Edwards said.
She also wants to start a low-interest loan pool for businesses.
Long said the board didn’t conduct a formal search for a new director and chose Edwards because she had been doing good work.
“She did an exemplary job,” he said. “She did a lot more than being secretary, so it was a nice transition when Chris left that Sarah was there to carry things on.
For now, Edwards doesn’t plan to ask for an assistant, the position she held for the former director. She’d rather find a different way to use the money. Instead, she’s hoping to find high school or college interns to help out.
Edwards said she’s honored and excited to have the job. “This is my hometown, and I see opportunity for improvement, and I want to make it better,” she said.
To contact the DSDC, call 919-934-0887 or visit downtownsmithfield.com.