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National Main Street Center Board visits Edenton

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National Main Street board members listen Friday during a forum at the Chowan Arts Council building in Edenton.

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BY NICOLE BOWMAN-LAYTON
Editor

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

With real estate trends always evolving, rural areas have to do what works best for them, say members of a national organization that helps communities revitalize their downtown areas.

For three days, members of the National Main Street Center Board recently met in Edenton, taking in the sights while also doing some work. The board was visiting Edenton at the invitation of local attorney and historic preservationist Samuel Dixon, who also serves on the board.

National Main Street Center Board members capped off their visit with a question-and-answer session May 3 at the Chowan Arts Council.

During the session, one Edenton resident asked what can be done to attract more affordable housing for workers and working families to Chowan County.

Matt Wagner, the center’s vice president of revitalization programs, noted there is a huge gap between the types of housing available in rural and urban communities.

“It is a common issue. We believe that diversity of housing in a downtown setting can add to the overall health of the community,” he said.

Irving Henderson, a National Main Street board member and principal in Henderson & Company, noted that workforce housing often has an undeserved bad reputation.

“If it is done well, it becomes a thing of beauty that looks the same as any other housing,” said Henderson, whose firm has expertise in community, commercial, residential and enterprise development.

Henderson also said workforce housing has to subsidized if it’s to be affordable.

“If you are making $30,000 a year, you will have trouble paying for your house and other bills,” he said. “You must have a subsidy, and that’s not what makes (workforce housing) bad. It is the ‘not in my backyard’ attitude that gives it a bad connotation.”

National Main Street Center Board member Chris Wilson, director of the Bartlesville Redevelopment Trust Authority in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, noted his agency has worked on changing people’s perceptions of workforce housing.

“The people that need (workforce housing) are your nurses, policemen, firefighters — people who serve us every day,” he said. “When you look at it from that perspective, you appreciate what it does.”

Henderson noted that towns can take advantage of community block development grants and other funding programs from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He also suggested towns create funds that help potential homeowners make a down payment for a home. Another option is to create mortgage-reduction programs for homeowners who maintain their property and live there for a certain period of time, he said.

Edenton Mayor Roland Vaughn noted that in the past, Town Council operated under the belief that having more renter-occupied than owner-occupied properties was a bad thing.

Nationally, 75 percent of households are now single people living by themselves — either young professionals or empty-nesters, according Ed McMahon, National Main Street Board president and Charles E. Fraser Chair for sustainable development and environmental policy at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C.

“A lot of people aren’t as into home ownership or any kind of ownership for that matter,” he said. “It is best if the diversity of housing meets the diversity of your town.”

McMahon noted that developers used to build single-family homes on large lots. They’ve stopped doing it, however, because people aren’t buying those kinds of houses anymore. They’re less popular now because “a lot of people want to live close to where they work,” he said.

Edenton Councilman Roscoe Poole Jr. said that for some Edenton residents, their homes are in a state of disrepair because they lack the funds to improve them.

Henderson noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a rural housing program that offers grants to people whose homes are falling into disrepair. HUD also offers a program that helps redevelop downtown buildings, he said.

Resident Steve Lane asked what board members thought the impact would be of moving John A. Holmes High School out of downtown Edenton. A joint committee of the Chowan Board of Commissioners and the Edenton-Chowan Schools has been discussing that issue.

McMahon noted that most developers look at a town’s downtown before deciding to take on a project.

“If there is not a healthy downtown, it is not a healthy town,” he said.

In the past, most downtown areas had a post office, courthouse, and public school buildings. But 40 years ago or so, people started to change their minds about public buildings and started to move them out of towns, McMahon said.

“People started building out of town because it’s cheaper,” he said. “But that doesn’t always mean that it’s cheaper” when transportation and other hidden costs are considered.

McMahon mentioned the example of Hagerstown, Maryland, home to the University of Maryland at Hagerstown. When Maryland officials first looked into building the college, a landowner offered a spot outside the town, along the interstate. But after the town’s mayor suggested to the governor that the state use an empty five-story building downtown, the college was set up there, he said.

Because the university was located in the downtown site, empty buildings in downtown Hagerstown are now filling up with offices, stores and apartments. Those who use the college want to be able to walk or bike to where they need to go, he said.

“If you take the institutions out of the downtown, other things will follow,” he said. “It’s bad for the town. All over the country, real estate is more valuable in walking locations. The market is telling us that there is an under-supply of walking communities.”

McMahon said he likes the idea of the brew pub coming to Edenton. The town has been in talks with a developer to turn the former Conger building, near the waterfront, into a brew pub.

“With a brew pub, you create life on the street,” McMahon said. “You could have the Arts Council display artwork there and tell people to come here. When you create more synergy, there are more ways for businesses to promote their products.”

Ultimately, Henderson said, it’s important for each community to follow its own path.

“In regards to what you’re doing, do it the Edenton way,” he said. “It doesn’t have to look like Raleigh or Asheville. Do them in a way that looks like the Edenton way. Then the things you are trying to do will work together and be successful.”

Editor Nicole Bowman-Layton can be reached at nlayton@ncweeklies.com.

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