Town leaders have heard the criticism: The western entrance to downtown, near the Neuse River bridge, is unattractive at best, blighted at worst.
But Smithfield hopes to change that this year.
The town, with a big assist from the N.C. Department of Transportation, has begun a West Market Street beautification project that will stretch from McDonald’s to the river bridge. The makeover includes landscaping and curb cuts for businesses.
The project is one long in the making, said Councilman Perry Harris. “There’s been interest in something to beautify that area for a long time,” he said. “Now we’re making it happen.”
Harris said he was excited about the work because some people think the town’s tired-looking western entrance hurts business recruitment. “In talks with economic-development folks, they say they don’t bring people in that way to Smithfield,” he said. “I don’t refer to it that way, but they call it ‘blighted,’ and I worry about that.”
Harris hopes the project will improve the town’s looks so that when businesses and families visit Smithfield, “it will be more attractive to them.”
“This will absolutely help make our entrance to downtown more attractive,” said Smithfield Planning Director Paul Embler. “That area needs help, and this is such a great project at no cost to the town.”
More than a year ago, the Town Council met with DOT representatives to talk about how to beautify West Market Street. The DOT came back with a state-funded project; all the town had to do was get property owners on board.
The beautification project will require landowners to cede some property to the DOT for landscaping. They’ll also have to put up with the work itself – large trucks, equipment, workers.
Drivers in Smithfield have already seen cement trucks and crews working on Market Street, which has been down to one westbound lane for much of the past two weeks.
Harris said he and Public Works Director Lenny Branch spoke personally to each affected property owner and received his or her full support.
“We met with each landowner out there to see if it was going to be a problem, or if they were going to try to fight it,” Harris said. “Not one single one of them had a problem with it.
“What we found out was they were very interested in making their property look better, and, hey, it was free for them.”
All of the project’s $349,000 tab will come from the DOT. Embler, the town planner, sketched the design.
“The city is not going to have to pay a penny,” Harris said.
Once the project is finished, the town will have to maintain the landscaping.
“It does come at some cost to us long term,” Harris said.
Because of the wet winter, Harris doesn’t expect the project to wrap up until the fall. Summer isn’t a good planting season, so the trees, shrubs and other greenery will likely have to wait until the cool of autumn.
The West Market Street work is one of two projects Harris is looking forward to in 2016. The DOT is also replacing Smithfield’s old Neuse River boat ramp with a new one.
“It’s going to be a state-of-the-art new, floating boat ramp,” Harris said.
The new ramp will be accessible to the handicapped, as will some parking spaces. The DOT is footing that bill too, Harris said.
“Both are going to be a tremendous improvement to the area,” Harris said of the street project and boat ramp. “They’re going to be something very beneficial to downtown and the entire town.”
Harris thanked former DOT board member Durwood Stephenson and Smithfield businessman Ruffin Johnson for pushing the projects.
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Harris said, laughing. “In my opinion, neither of these projects would have happened without them.”
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett