Without much warning, the Franklin Main Street Program board of directors decided last week to suspend the program.
The board voted to place the program in “inactive status” for the time being until it could regroup and reorganize. The decision comes after several years of criticism regarding the program’s priorities and effectiveness.
Some downtown merchants in Franklin have clashed with town leaders in recent weeks over a perceived lack of support for new ideas and initiatives to boost commerce.
Franklin’s Main Street Program has found itself in an uncomfortable spotlight in recent weeks as Franklin merchants have complained that the town’s formal downtown association isn’t doing enough.
A side drama playing out in the downtown Franklin fracas involves an unusual public display of the tension that often exists between newspapers and the government leaders they cover.
While Sylva’s downtown organization struggles for stable financial footing, similar programs in Waynesville and Franklin are seeing the results that strong support can yield.
In May, Gov. Bev Perdue announced the awards of the first round of state funding for participants through the Main Street Solutions Program. Waynesville was one of the big winners, receiving a $300,000 grant to help with the rehabilitation of the historic Strand Theater building.
Also this year, the Franklin Main Street Program received a $130,000 grant from the North Carolina Rural Center that will help the town refurbish its waterfront on the Little Tennessee River.
The grant hustle is just one facet of Main Street programs, whose work also includes holding events that draw both tourists and residents back to downtowns in order to create a thriving business environment that encourages rehabilitation and growth.
Liz Parham, director of the N.C. Main Street Center, stresses the fact that each community has its own challenges, needs and resources. If there is a commonality between programs, it’s often linked to their maturity.
“A program that is 30 years old and has operated consistently that entire time may be more willing or better equipped to take on a riskier project than a 5-year-old program that struggles to secure their operating funds each year,” Parham said. “It’s a matter of how sustainable the organization is.”
According to Parham, the vast majority of N.C. Main Street programs have a full-time downtown director in place. Some, like Sylva, operate with a part-time downtown director, but it is a requirement to have paid-professional staff in place in order to be considered an active member of the state program.
Mayor Gavin Brown credits the Downtown Waynesville Association, which was started in 1985, with helping to kick-start a much larger effort to revive Waynesville’s downtown business district and, indeed, reinvent the town.
“You have to focus on something, and we’ve focused on revitalizing our Main Street,” Brown said. “We’ve spent a lot of money on downtown, and I think we’ve gotten a good return.”
The DWA, which gets the majority of its funding through a tax on the downtown business district, has two full-time staff and helps organize more than 20 events each year to drive traffic and create a center for community activities.
In the past three years, DWA has also increased its destination marketing efforts with the help of more than $70,000 from the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.
Buffy Messer, the program’s executive director, believes the success has been the result of strong support from the town and its community, especially the downtown business community, and to the creation of a downtown business tax district that provides the bulk of its operating budget. It receives only a minor contribution of up to $12,000 from the town each year.
Brown thinks the tax district is the best way to fund the program because it creates ownership and autonomy.
“It gives them a voice. It takes the politics out of it a little bit, which is good,” Brown said. “It’s a community effort, but I do like the fact they’re independent of me.”
DWA has a 17-person executive board that governs its operation.
Messer said as the program has thrived, its expectations have grown. She sees DWA as a partner in the community involved in every facet of the downtown from building design and infrastructure to marketing and event planning.
“Everyone is encouraged to be a part of the solution,” Messer said. DWA focuses on its strengths when selecting projects. “We do more of what we know we do well and less of what we do not do well,” said Messer.
The Franklin Main Street Program first came into existence in 1990 but failed to gain traction. The town re-applied for Main Street status in 2006 and the second go-round has worked much better than the first.
The town of Franklin funds the bulk of its Main Street program itself, which includes the operating of the downtown merchants’ organization, Streets of Franklin.
The town provides close to $100,000 in operating funds each year, enough to pay a full-time director and have some left for the four major festivals it stages each year.
Town Alderman Sissy Pattillo was instrumental in getting the program off the ground and serves as its liaison to the town. Pattillo remembers how hard it was to get people to take the program seriously.
“When we started we had no support, and now it’s really paying off for us,” Pattillo said. “It’s opened doors for us as a town we wouldn’t otherwise have.”
Pattillo said winning broad support for the program was the first step.
“I went to banks. I went to people I knew. I went to the county commissioners. I went everywhere, and finally they came on board with us,” said Pattillo.
The Franklin Main Street Program is different from the Downtown Waynesville Association and the Downtown Sylva Association in that it is not solely limited to the downtown business district.
While historic downtown Franklin is the only area that qualifies for the state’s program, locally they’ve expanded the vision to include the other commercial districts in the town limits.
“You can’t just do downtown,” Pattillo said. “If you have businesses in other areas, you have to include those people. If you don’t, you’re a dead duck.”
The program’s executive director, Linda Schlott, has been able to build on the support of the town and county to create new relationships with entities that have a shared vision for the town. This year, Franklin became an Appalachian Trail Community, in large part because of the Main Street program’s leadership.
“It’s the relationships and it’s getting the work out and it’s trying to make everything a partnership effort,” said Schlott.
Schlott said the support of the town has shepherded the organization to maturity.
“It’s much easier when you go talk to someone that you know you have the town behind you,” Schlott said.
What is N.C. Main Street?
Franklin, Sylva and Waynesville all have local organizations that belong to the N.C. Main Street Program, which started as part of a national revitalization effort for historic downtowns developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the early 1980s.
The N.C. Main Street program provides training, planning resources and administrative support for local member organizations that rely on a combination of funding from their towns, private sources and event revenues in order to operate.
The Department of Commerce oversees the N.C. Main Street Center, which supports 61 local organizations that have, according the department’s Web site, generated $1.4 billion in new investment and 13,700 jobs since the program’s inception in 1980.
In North Carolina, the program focuses on communities that have less than 50,000 people and have a full-time town manager.
All Main Street programs are based on four fundamental renewal principles –– organization, design, promotion, and economic restructuring –– aimed at the overall goal of economic renewal in the framework of historic preservation.
A potential clash between downtown Franklin merchants and street vendors was headed off the pass this week.
For years, street vendors have been peddling food and sodas to the large crowds converging downtown every Saturday for the popular Pickin’ on the Square music series. But store owners recently complained that the street vendors were discouraging foot traffic from migrating beyond the square to patronize the rest of Main Street.
For years, most merchants weren’t interested in staying open late on Saturdays. Street vendors selling hot dogs, ice cream, cotton candy and Philly cheese steaks cropped up to fill the void. That was years ago, however, and now merchants want in on the action.
Merchants appeared before the Franklin town board last week to voice their concerns.
The merchants’ primary concern was not so much with the vendors, but how they stationed themselves. Large trailers and trucks set up on the perimeter of the square effectively cordoned off the crowds from the rest of Main Street
One long-time vendor in particular with a large operation blocked the view of Main Street storefronts from the crowd. Mayor Joe Collins and Alderman Bob Scott floated the idea of relocating that particular vendor to a new spot, and it quickly gained traction.
“When we boiled down the issue, it was a line of sight issue,” Scott said of his discussions with all parties involved.
The town agreed to mediate a meeting between merchants and street vendors at the site of Pickin’ on the Square on Monday evening. When Scott and Collins announced the idea that had been percolating in recent days, it was well received.
“The thought process was when you look that way, you don’t see past the stand,” Mayor Joe Collins said, pointing toward Main Street from the square. “We are moving (the vendors) around so there’s not that barrier.”
The town board will still have to officially vote on the solution next week, but it will likely be approved.
“I think it’s a good compromise,” said June Hernandez, owner of Primrose Lane and president of the Streets of Franklin. “This is all we the merchants were asking for. We aren’t trying to get rid of the vendors.”
Scott was proud the community could work together for a solution.
“This was participatory government in action,” Scott said.
Scott said Pickin’ on the Square has become an institution in Franklin.
“I can’t imagine Franklin without it anymore. It’s what I describe as down-home America 50 years ago,” Scott said. People chat, socialize, dance and listen to music as a community.
“There are no strangers at Pickin’,” Scott said.
While Pickin’ on the Square attracts more than 1,000 people some Saturday nights, Betty Merrill, who helped start the series in 1992, remembers its early days. They set up a small 10-foot-by-10-foot tent in front of the courthouse and hung a light from cord strung out of a third-floor window on the courthouse.
When it rained, they forged on, convinced if they appeared consistently every Saturday the event would catch on. It did. They grew the crowd to 50 by the end of the first year, and by the end of the second year it was up to 200 to 300.
“We had so many that came there was a joke that went around town. People would say, ‘I heard they are moving the courthouse to make room for Pickin’,’” Merrill recalled.
Downtown revitalization and drawing in foot traffic for merchants was one of the original intentions of Pickin’ on the Square, said Merrill.
“The punch line is the merchants didn’t stay open,” she said. “For years we urged the merchants to join in and they didn’t. A few did, but the majority wouldn’t stay open. Now some are considering staying open but they want the vendors to step aside.”
Walter Coggins, who runs a concession stand as a fundraiser for the local Shriners Club, questioned whether people will actually wander off down Main Street to shop. Most are there to see their friends and hear the music, he said.
“I think if something is right handy that’s as far as they’d go,” Coggins said. “They can still hear everything and not have to go too far.”
Coggins recalls in the early years when Peoples stayed open an hour later, but the only time they got people in the store was when it rained and everyone ran for cover.
Hernandez is one of the few storeowners downtown who stays open late. Hernandez said she doesn’t judge the benefit solely by the sales she makes that night, as many people will come back the following week after browsing on Saturday night.
“It is always worth staying open Saturday night,” Hernandez said.