Earlier this month, the North Carolina Main Street program named Elmo Vance one of 32 Main Street Champions of 2014. When Garner Revitalization Association executive director John Hodges sent him a note about it, Vance mostly ignored it thinking it was about Hodges.
“He had to tell me by phone,” Vance said. “He called me and asked if I’d seen it, and I said ‘good job, John, good job as always.’ He said ‘No, it’s about you.’”
It should surprise few that Vance was too busy to open a notification of an award he’d earned. He is involved in many elements of Garner’s civic life, all while working a full-time job as a civil engineer for the Department of Transportation.
“I think Elmo Vance is an exemplary citizen,” mayor Ronnie Williams said. “He’s well respected, he earns that respect, and he gives back to the community.”
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The list of organizations he associates with is staggering. He’s an advocate for downtown and used to serve on the GRA board; he’s a board member for the organization that’s marketing the ConAgra site for the town; he’s the head of community civic group Garner Concerned Citizens United; he’s a Lions Club member and Freemason. Vance has also served on the town’s board of adjustment and planning committee. And he’s an associate minister at Springfield Baptist Church, working on a master’s in divinity at Shaw University, and can be found at a variety of civic and charity events in town.
How does he do it?
“I don’t know,” Vance said. “Really it’s a labor of love. This is just me, this is what I do.”
Shaping a community shaper
Vance learned early on about community involvement from his parents, especially his minister father.
“The community was always at my house,” Vance said.
Vance graduated from Chester Senior High School in Chester, S.C., and South Carolina State University. From 1983 to 1993, he was in the Army at Fort Bragg. He then moved to Garner, where he’s been wiring himself into the community while working for NCDOT in Raleigh ever since.
Vance credits his wife and her support as the reason he’s been able to do what he’s done. He has three grown children: a son who is a West Point graduate and lives in Texas, a daughter who is a nurse in Greenville and another son, who’s taking classes at Wake Tech.
With his children gone, he has even more time to focus on improving his community. And the downtown area, in his estimation, provides a great opportunity for positive change. And he’s happy with the direction of the town – the direction he’s helped guide it and which left him holding an award from a statewide organization.
Hodges said Vance’s advocacy and connections to the community have been a massive help to him since he came aboard.
“He has helped us tremendously with outreach on the bond events,” said Hodges, who started helping with GRA in 2007, after Vance, and became full time executive director of GRA in 2009. “He always is able to make sure the right people in the community are getting the message.”
Can’t afford to do nothing
Revitalizing downtown has been among Vance’s top priorities since he joined the GRA board in 2006. And with good reason: He’s seen what happens when a downtown core rots.
Vance’s hometown, Chester, S.C., then a big textile town. But when cotton mills closed and the industry moved overseas, the town struggled.
“Watching that economic base leave was a shaker,” Vance said. “It provided tax money, which provided the town services. So people were without jobs and services. In no way did I think that could happen to Garner, but I wanted to put that energy into helping Garner reach its potential.”
The effort to revitalize downtowns has become a broader trend nationwide. More than 60 towns in North Carolina have joined the Main Street Program, a collection of municipalities sharing ideas and experiences.
While Garner’s downtown remains a work in progress, recent years have seen roads repaved, dilapidated storefronts fixed, sidewalks replaced and new lighting installed. Crime in the area has dropped. GRA had Raleigh paint the fading water tower, a H.O.P.E. handicapped-accessible playground was built and incentives were provided to move businesses into vacant downtown spaces. A summer concert series was started, which along with other advances Vance credited to Hodges.
“Things began to develop, then we got John Hodges on board, who’s been great,” Vance said. “John Hodges just picked up the ball and ran with it.”
The Garner Performing Arts Center, the Garner Baseball complex and the Senior Center sit within walking distance. And the bond passed in March will fund a new multi-gym recreation center as well as road improvements that will improve access from U.S. 70.
Vance knows that some in Garner object to or at least remain skeptical of the amount of time and energy spent on fixing up an area commonly perceived to still be run-down and somewhat dangerous. While it earned 66.5 percent of the vote, a $2 million downtown redevelopment bond passed in WHEN?? with the lowest support of any of the four measures in the $35.7 million bond. The other three bonds each topped 70 percent of the votes.
He said he respects opponents, saying “naysayers keep me in check and make sure my Is are dotted and my Ts crossed.” And he said not investing in downtown is not really an alternative.
“If we do nothing, do we go back to the boarded up buildings? Situations where we have criminal elements moving back in?” Vance said. “If we don’t have a plan, someone else has a plan, and that will not be the plan we want.”
The hope is that with a rec center adding to already significant traffic in the area and road access improved, private development will follow. The town also hopes Wake County’s proposed commuter rail, which has a stop downtown, comes to fruition someday.
With White Oak becoming a nine-figure development over the last several years and more development to come, the question may become how downtown fits in with the development, which sits two miles to the east. But Hodges and Vance say the two are complimentary, not competitors.
“Not every small business is going to choose to or can afford to locate at White Oak,” said Hodges, who said a study the town commissioned indicated downtown could attract $35 million in development with the right ingredients. “We could attract those kinds of businesses. That, in conjunction with White Oak, can make a well-rounded economy.”