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Wednesday, 26 September 2012 12:36

South Main renaissance may be in Waynesville’s cards yet

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When Super Walmart opened in Waynesville in 2008, it was viewed as just the beginning of a business boom that would reverse a long, steady downward spiral of South Main Street. But, the economy had other plans. The hoped-for land rush of new stores and development along South Main stalled out before it ever got started.

 

Today, the economy seems to be rebounding from the recession, and new businesses are becoming a part of South Main’s façade. A PetSmart is already open, with Belk, Rack Room Shoes and Michaels soon to follow. The town plans to open its new ABC store in that same area, and Old Town Bank has broken ground on its new headquarters (see related story).

The advent of the new stores has area leaders saying it is the coming that everyone heralded a few years ago. It just took time.

“It just got slowed down a bit,” said Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown.

The recession kept people from buying property or opening new businesses — and perhaps more critically it kept banks from handing out the commercial loans typically needed by developers.

“That had a tremendous impact on development, just incredible,” said Mark Clasby, executive director of Haywood County’s Economic Development Committee.

The recession was directly to blame for Home Depot canceling plans to build alongside Super Walmart on South Main. It took nearly three years to fill the hole left by Home Depot — which will now be the collection of aforementioned retail stores.

Despite its initial struggles, many still think that South Main is where Waynesville can and will expand. It’s what led Old Town Bank early on to get in on the ground floor of an eventual South Main renaissance.

“The founders of the bank believed that the growth of Waynesville would be in that direction and believed that there would be a lot of opportunity,” said Charles Umberger, president of Old Town Bank.

 

Darn the credit crunch

The new growth has lined right up with the passage of Waynesville’s new revitalization plan and long-range vision for South Main Street.

Based on a report conducted last year, the South Main corridor is plagued by dilapidated buildings, no distinct image, scrubby patches of overgrown and unattractive weeds and little pedestrian traffic — all hallmarks of urban decline.

To remedy such problems, the town in May approved a comprehensive plan for the street’s future development, which includes bike lanes, a continuous sidewalk, street trees and crosswalks, a roundabout and intermittent planted median.

As more businesses move to South Main, pedestrian-friendly features would make the corridor look and feel more inviting, allowing people to park and walk from store to store.

“They are going to park, and they are going to walk,” said Brian Noland, a Haywood County Realtor. “You have a lot more choices” now in businesses.

There is currently no funding or timeline to make the street improvements envisioned by the town, and the N.C. DOT has not necessarily embraced Waynesville’s idea for a South Main makeover in its entirety.

But at least it is on paper now. The plan was crafted not only to improve the appearance of South Main, but also to attract businesses to move there.

Although there has been a burst in activity this year with regards to new business, don’t expect more companies to flood suddenly into lots on South Main. Growth will continue, but it is not expected to be rapid, Clasby said.

“It will happen. The question is how fast it will happen,” Clasby said. “I see new development happening; it’s just going to take time.”

Part of the ongoing struggle to open a new business is the lack of available loans.

Two years ago, Noland developed plans for a commercial building with six retail storefronts on a South Main beside Super Walmart, but he has been stymied by the credit crunch. He even had blueprints approved by the town of Waynesville in 2010 and already had interested tenants lined up. But, he couldn’t get a bank loan to cover the project costs and is still having troubles.

“I am just set back and waiting right now,” Noland said. “The lending for commercial is absolutely dead.”

Clasby agreed that banks are still being cautious with whom they lend to.

“It is pretty difficult to get the loans you need,” Clasby said. And, businesses don’t necessarily want to front the money to open a new location.

Another snag in attracting specifically chain stores is the town’s size. No matter what other national chains come to Waynesville, some will likely never find a home in the town because it lacks a sizeable consumer base to entice some companies.

 

Critical mass

Customers at the nearby Super Walmart parking lot were generally happy to see new businesses cropping up along South Main.

Bill Hartley, a Waynesville resident who was shopping at Walmart with his wife, said the additional stores would make it more of a “one-stop shopping” destination.

It also offers customers some alternative if they can’t find what they need at the longstanding Super Walmart.

“I am glad PetSmart is here. It saves me a little bit of money,” said Shawn Bresnahan, a Waynesville resident. Bresnahan said he typically has to visit a veterinarian or drive to Asheville to get special items for his pet.

He added that the additional businesses will like bring more people into that area. “It will probably help this shopping center,” Bresnahan said.

Bresnahan’s only concern was the traffic, he said. On weekends, it can be difficult to navigate the traffic on the single two-lane road that leads back to the shopping center and will only be exacerbated during the holidays.

Jackson County resident Betty Davis was in a similar situation to Bresnahan. She needed pet food but wasn’t sure she would find exactly what she was looking for at the Super Walmart. But, with PetSmart just a few doors down, Davis wasn’t worried.

“It would have been an alternative,” Davis said.

Davis said she and her husband often come to Haywood County and usually stop at the South Main complex.

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