The Downtown Smithfield Development Corp. has been named a National Main Street Program.
Director Chris Johnson said the recognition could help the downtown group land federal grant money. “I guess it’s like any kind of resume builder,” he said. “Being a nationally recognized organization separates you from everyone else.”
The National Historic Trust awards the honor to organizations that work to preserve historic business districts.
Liz Parham, North Carolina’s director of urban development, recommended the downtown Smithfield group based on criteria set by the National Historic Trust. Those criteria include preserving historic buildings, tracking economic progress and fostering public-private partnerships.
This is the second time DSDC has been recognized for its downtown preservation efforts; its first honor came four years ago. The downtown group has won the recognition with a skeleton staff – it has just two full-time employees.
“To do it again is a big honor,” Johnson said.
Downtown, like the rest of Smithfield, hit a rough patch during the recession, and again during the closing of the U.S. 70 bridge over the Neuse River. The one-two punch left downtown with more empty storefronts than Johnson would like.
But downtown has managed to pull through the hard times. Two new cafes – Melody’s and Market Street Coffee – have sprung up in the last year, replacing The Cakery and Orchard House Booksellers. The Little Brown Jug, once marked for demolition to make way for bridge construction, continues to thrive.
Companies eyeing commercial districts, including downtowns, are always concerned about occupancy rates. When too many storefronts sit empty, that suggests a business district or shopping center is dying. John Shallcross Jr., owner of commercial developer Partners Equity Group, compares vacant storefronts to a cancer that spreads throughout the body.
Smithfield’s downtown has managed to keep most of its storefronts full. “I feel pretty good about that,” Johnson said.
He also feels pretty good about Smithfield overall. Town leaders have talked about hiring an economic-development director but not have done so because of the cost. Johnson has gladly filled that role, often meeting with industries looking to move to one of the town’s vacant industrial sites. And if a business isn’t interested in downtown, Johnson points it properties elsewhere in Smithfield.
“We’re kind of the face of the town of Smithfield,” Johnson said.