Column: New Bern shows potential for downtowns

Apr. 13, 2014 @ 01:47 AM

Last week, along with Matt Underwood, Keith Nordan and Jenny Wheelock, I attended the North Carolina Main Street Conference in New Bern. This annual meeting was originally scheduled for January but had been postponed due to a winter storm.

Nearly 200 representatives from across the state gathered to learn and share information about the Main Street program. It was a time to be proud of what we have accomplished over the years but to also realize that there’s so much more that can be done, even in communities the size of Lenoir, Hudson, Sawmills or Granite Falls.

New Bern itself is an interesting example of what can be done on Main Street. In 1979 a management committee called Swiss Bear (the name comes from the hometown of New Bern’s founders, Bern, Switzerland, because “bern” is German for “bear”) was created that worked exclusively on enhancing the New Bern Main Street. Hotels have been built, waterfront walkways established, many downtown retail businesses have opened with residential homes above many of the businesses, history is well-highlighted, and a spectacular convention center opened in 2000. Restaurants are plentiful. Homes have been restored, and numerous bed and breakfasts opened. It has the feel of a mini-Charleston, and like other North Carolina communities it is very friendly.

While the conference dealt with promotions, finance, historic preservation and volunteers, what was most inspiring was it also served as a celebration. Main Street has been the most successful downtown economic development program North Carolina has ever seen. In 2013 Main Street investment figures passed the $2 billion mark and new downtown jobs exceeded 18,000. Many of these towns, like New Bern, have revitalized themselves and made their towns destinations.

The possibilities are endless, and our Main Street group is committed into continuing to improve downtown Lenoir.