ROCKINGHAM — Dusty windows in long-vacant buildings could become gleaming showcases for local artists’ latest creations or a streetside museum of Richmond County history.
Downtown business boosters say window displays could be the first step to revitalizing Rockingham by drawing people and prospective building tenants to the city’s core. The idea drew widespread interest at Tuesday’s Rockingham Downtown Corp. meeting.
“This could be an experiment,” President Susan Kelly said. “Could it start something?”
NEW USES FOR OLD BUILDINGS
Members suggested art exhibits and informational displays the Richmond County Historical Society has assembled at Rockingham City Hall as showcases for vacant downtown storefronts. They said passersby would give the old buildings a second look and the displays could draw interest from business owners who may consider leasing space downtown.
Other ideas to rejuvenate downtown Rockingham included pop-up restaurants or retail shops — tenants who would use a downtown building for a week or two — and public art installments like colorful sculptures or brightly painted fire hydrants.
Most suggestions centered on finding new uses for empty buildings, which would require cooperation from the property owners. Members said reaching out to building owners and gaining their support would be an integral first step.
“We want to bring them into the fold,” Kelly said.
Members held a roundtable brainstorming session and compiled roughly a dozen ideas to bring interest and new offerings downtown. Kelly encouraged boosters to “think small” and set realistic, attainable goals that could spark more ambitious changes down the road.
LEARNING FROM NEW BERN
The group’s vision is a vibrant downtown district teeming with businesses and customers. Kelly traveled to New Bern for the N.C. Main Street Conference March 31 and April 1 to share ideas with other downtown development leaders and get an up-close look at one of North Carolina’s small-town success stories.
“It was a really good conference,” Kelly said. “I’m really glad I went. Next year, I encourage whoever it is that someone from here should go. You will get some really good ideas.”
Nestled at the junction of the Neuse and Trent rivers, downtown New Bern has taken on new life in the last two decades. Streets are packed with tourists and residents visiting the city’s shops, restaurants and bars.
“We can be the next New Bern,” Kelly said of Rockingham at a previous meeting.
Settled in 1710, New Bern is the second-oldest city in North Carolina and, as the state’s colonial capital, is home to Tryon Palace, the rebuilt mansion that housed Gov. William Tryon when the state was a British colony. New Bern also is the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola, and residents can order a fountain-fresh Pepsi from the shop where pharmacist Caleb Bradham invented the cola he first dubbed Brad’s Drink in 1898.
Kelly said the availability of loft apartments above downtown shops may hold one of the keys to New Bern’s success.
“People who live downtown are really helping the local economy,” she said, “because they shop, work and eat downtown. We talked a lot about what to do to encourage people living upstairs in historic buildings or providing places for residential (occupancy) right in downtown.”
The city’s Bear Town Bears were mentioned as an example of a successful community art display. Businesses, churches and groups installed and painted 50 fiberglass bears throughout the city to commemorate New Bern’s 300th anniversary in 2010.
Kelly also mentioned the painted fire hydrants in Gloucester, Ohio, that drew nationwide interest.
“A small idea had a cumulative effect and created a whole new buzz in Gloucester, Ohio,” she said.
Kelly gave a brief slideshow presentation called “The Brilliance of Small Wins” before opening a group discussion on manageable first steps to revitalize downtown Rockingham.
Consultant Sandra Ridley said change won’t happen overnight. It’s a long-term process that requires dedication.
“All those downtowns have worked at it,” she said. “Durham, New Bern, they’ve worked at it. If you don’t have a group like this and you’re not working at it, it is not going to happen.”
Other ideas to spur growth included hosting 5K races and downtown dog walks.
The Rockingham Downtown Corp. held its monthly luncheon meeting Tuesday at Discovery Place Kids. The next meeting is scheduled for noon Aug. 19 at the Richmond County Agricultural Services Center.
Reach Editor Corey Friedman at 910-997-3111, ext. 13.