After months of discussions on where to build a downtown, Morrisville leaders selected the land off of Jeremiah Street just behind Town Hall.
The town already owns 10 of the 25 acres on the site. The Town Council decided, after heated debate, to continue developing the site, even though outside experts have said it stands little chance of attracting retail, especially shops and restaurants.
And while the council did not take an official vote at its workshop last week, six of the seven members said they prefer Jeremiah Street. Mayor Mark Stohlman instructed town staff to begin drawing up plans for possible projects on that site. It’s unclear how much it would cost to buy the remaining 15 acres.
The lone dissenter, T.J. Cawley, said he didn’t oppose the site, but he’s concerned about the lack of traffic counts required to bring in retail. What’s a downtown without stores and restaurants?, he asked.
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“If we were being told by experts that Jeremiah Street would support retail, I would be all for that,” Cawley said.
He added that he’s worried this decision “would set us back a lot.”
“I don’t think we’d end up with something we could be proud of as a destination,” he said.
Several other town council members also said they were apprehensive of the expert reports. Kris Gardner and Steve Rao said Cawley is correct that a good downtown needs those private businesses to draw visitors.
But they also said spending even more taxpayer money to buy another site is too risky because there’s no guarantee retailers will come.
“Maybe the consultants were wrong (about the town-owned land),” Rao said. “That’s what I’m hoping for now.”
Gardner said several council members toured one city’s downtown that was full of beautiful buildings political leaders there had built in hopes of drawing businesses. They were all empty.
“That was a big-risk, big-reward, and at that point they had gotten it all wrong,” he said.
At least with Jeremiah Street, Gardner said, the town knows it can build a park and also possibly move the Morrisville Fitness and Aquatic Center there, with major upgrades. Wake County also will pay for the construction of a library there.
He said he’s not sure if that alone is enough to create a bustling public space. But it’s better than empty, expensive buildings.
“If we go with Jeremiah Street and we, quote, ‘fail,’ it might be because we don’t have the restaurants,” Gardner said. “But we would still have a library, a green space.”
Stohlman added that even if the town were to buy a piece of land more suited to drawing retail, there’s no guarantee that it would fill up with restaurants and quaint shops.
“We have no control over what goes in,” Stohlman said. “So what are you going to when it’s nails, dry cleaning, a police substation and a GameStop?”
“We’d at least get the people who are going there,” Cawley said.
Cawley said if the area is nice and draws attention from drivers, the market would sort itself out.
Residential vs. retail
Others, however, said there’s a chance the consultants could be wrong about the Jeremiah Street site’s potential to draw retail.
Some new townhouses already exist across the street, and Stohlman said there’s talk of more development along Church Street because of the town’s discussions of building a downtown nearby.
Council member Michael Schlink also suggested allowing a developer to build residential units on the Jeremiah Street site, creating a built-in customer base that would be attractive to private retailers.
“The big gap I look at is residential,” Schlink said. “As a small business owner: More people living downtown, those are the ones that will be walking around, spending money.”
Mayor Pro Tem Liz Johnson, on the other hand, said the council needs to find a private developer willing to partner with the town in building this new downtown.
She said people are getting too hung up on the site. Even if the town builds only on Jeremiah Street now, she said, that doesn’t preclude it from looking to other sites in the future for expansion. The option Cawley preferred, for example, is just hundreds of feet away on Morrisville Carpenter Road.
“Maybe in time, in years to come, it expands and becomes over on the other side of Morrisville Carpenter, too,” Johnson said. “I don’t have a problem with that. Because when I look at this, it’s a vision for years to come. Maybe we’ll never be finished with it.”
Vicki Scroggins-Johnson agreed, saying the important thing now is to move forward instead of continuing to debate the merits of one site over another. And since the town owned land on one site and not the other, she said, it was an easy choice for her.
“I want us to do something and have the confidence of the public that we are committed,” she said.
After the meeting, Cawley said he will work with his fellow officials to try to make any site a success. However, he said, he feels like the council took an easy way out without spending enough time seriously considering other options.
“You have to try to explore the possibilities, and it seems like we sort of skipped that step,” Cawley said.