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Wednesday, 03 September 2014 14:11

Shakeup on Main Street: Franklin aims for Main Street Program makeover

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fr franklinThe Franklin Main Street Program has been soaking up some criticism lately, and the issues came to a head at an Aug. 19 meeting of Franklin residents, town administrators, business owners and board members. The verdict: Shape up by January, or lose town funding.

 

“Let’s just put it this way. They have been put on notice that they need to get back to the four principals of what the Main Street Program is,” said Mayor Bob Scott. 

Those four principals — organization, promotion, design and economic restructuring combined to result in economic development — had been abandoned in favor of disjointed beautification and event planning projects, said Scott and downtown merchants interviewed for this story. 

A change in leadership was the first step toward establishing a more effective program. 

The program is now without an executive director following the semi-retirement of former director Linda Schlott. Schlott will still work part-time to carry out special events she had already begun planning, but the town hired Tony Angel of Tony Angel Media as a consultant to help coordinate the program in the meantime. 

Come January, the town will start thinking about whether to hire a new executive director or abandon its support of the Main Street Program. The program is a registered nonprofit but receives all its funding from the town, usually around $90,000. 

“Absolutely we would because we want to do what’s best for the town,” Scott said when asked if the town could potentially switch its support to another organization such as Venture Local, a citizen group that promotes economic development in Franklin. “We would certainly consider all of the options.”

In the meantime, both the town and the board are looking for ways to make the current situation work. Elections to appoint a new executive committee, which will have more, defined responsibilities than it had before, were held in August. And the town invited Liz Parham, director of the N.C. Main Street Program, to come give an educational presentation about what a functional Main Street Program should be. 

“It’s just bringing everyone a breath of fresh air and just going back to the basics,” said Town Manager Summer Woodard. “It’s giving it more structure, more responsibility within the board itself.” 

Bo Bryant of Premiere Marketing is now chairing the board. She, like all members on the new board, had been serving on the Main Street Program Board before the changes started, but several seats are open after those who held them quit. Scott is hoping to see some new blood step in. 

“What I would really like to see is some new people working with some of the old members of the board, because I think it would bring a new direction to the program in addition to going back to the original stated purposes of the program,” he said. 

 

Charting a course 

Board members aren’t eager to talk about the shakeup. Bryant declined to comment, and phone messages to Joyce Handley, who also sits on the town board, went unreturned. 

But downtown merchants aren’t shy about saying that they like where this is going. 

“I was negative about the way it was,” said Rob Gasbarro, co-owner of Outdoor 76. “Moving forward, I’m very, very positive and optimistic that things are going to be good.”

And Gasbarro, like other Main Street business owners, has some ideas about how the program’s new direction should play out. 

High on the priority list, he said, should be a scope of work that encompasses much more than beautification and event planning. 

“A Main Street director should be like a marketing and business development person for that community,” Gasbarro said. “They are the ambassador for that community. I would expect that person to do the same thing that a marketing director would for a big business.”

That is, develop some focused marketing campaigns, pin down a central message about why Franklin is the place to be and plan events that specifically advance that vision. Essentially, that’s what Parham told the board in her presentation. Every decision should be a strategic step designed to benefit all four areas, never an isolated move. 

Program activity could also include more than marketing, event planning and other projects that cost money. Gasbarro would like to see the Main Street Program start leveraging its governmental resources, bringing in proposals for policies and ordinances to the town board that would benefit the town and further the program.  

“We don’t have a lot of money. We’re not funded like some other towns are,” Gasbarro said. “When you don’t have money, you have to think of ways to do things without money.”

For instance, said Virginia Murphy of Silver Threads & Golden Needles, downtown merchants have long wanted to promote festivals and events with banners and signs above the street. But town ordinances have kept them from doing so. A revitalized program could take the lead on addressing those kinds of issues. 

Murphy, along with other merchants on Main Street, would also like to see a Main Street Program that focuses only on Main Street, rather than the five-street coverage in place now. That’s too broad a mandate to be effective, they say. 

“Main Street should be Main Street,” said Martha Holbrook of Rosebud Cottage and Mossy Rocks. “If Main Street flourishes, the rest of the area will ripple-flourish too.”

“When you strengthen the nucleus it spreads and draws people in. That’s not my opinion. That’s how it works,” Gasbarro agreed. “You can’t possibly do that by appeasing every business on an 8-mile corridor, as much as l love the businesses in Franklin no matter where they are.”

A successful Main Street program can include more than just Main Street itself, Parham said, but the scope has to be proportional to the staff and resources available. Managing five streets with one person could be challenging. 

Going forward, the town plans to take a look at those questions, evaluating what area the program should serve and how representation should be determined — whether by street, industry, time in business or a combination of all three. 

“That’s a topic that will need to be addressed. However, when the Franklin Main Street Program was formed and the plan submitted to the state, it was formed with the understanding that it encompass all those districts,” Woodard said, adding, “I’m certain that will probably be something up for discussion.” 

 

Looking for unity 

Underlying the back and forth over policy and planning, though, is a desire for a program that will unite and empower the downtown community. According to some, that has not been the case thus far. 

“They’ve actually done more to splinter the Main Street community and make us disjointed than they have to foster it,” Murphy said. 

Dissension is a big part of why five-year board member Larry Hollifield of American Computer Sales left his seat, which is still vacant. 

“For it to be continually reported in the paper about how much we’re arguing, I didn’t want to be a part of that anymore,” Hollifield said. 

The board meetings were a lot of talk and not a lot of action, Hollifield said, with any action coming out of them focused mainly on beautification. 

“We’ve gotta pick something,” Hollifield said. “We paid for a master plan. We’ve got a logo. We’ve got branding. It’s time to start using it.”

But it’s easy to point fingers at the board, Hollifield cautioned. It’s harder to take responsibility. 

“I asked them one question,” he said of his conversations with Main Street Program critics. “‘Ok, you say we need to restructure the Main Street program. Are you willing to serve on the board?’ It is amazing how many people find cracks in the sidewalk and the ceiling when I ask that question.” 

Though Tony Hernandez, board member and owner of Life’s Bounty, wouldn’t say what changes the board is currently considering, he anticipates it will be good news for everyone. 

“When it’s time to hit the news they’ll notify it,” he said. “There’s a lot of good changes that are getting ready to happen.”

Make no mistake — there’s been a good bit of bad blood in the Main Street Program’s history. But government leaders and downtown merchants alike are hoping to see all that melt into the past. 

“We have all been through negativity, both from their perspective and the public’s perspective,” Woodard said of the board. “The way I look at this is it’s a fresh, clean slate for everybody moving forward.” 

“We want to leave the past behind,” Holbrook agreed. 

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