03/12/06 — Downtown, next

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Downtown, next

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on March 12, 2006 2:14 AM

Stop the bulldozers -- Julie Thompson, Joe Huffman and the Goldsboro City Council have a plan.

City officials think it's time for a rebirth downtown -- restored homes in the historic district, revitalized businesses.

And they say that they can turn their downtown dream into reality.

"We're trying to develop a plan," City Manager Huffman said. "We're thinking that if we can encourage development downtown through the creation of highly desirable neighborhoods and also provide affordable housing that is consistent with the downtown vision, we will be meeting a lot of different interests and doing something much more constructive financially."

Presented to council at its annual retreat last month, the City of Goldsboro Comprehensive Historic Neighborhood Revitalization Plan aims to identify and restore pockets of distress and decline within the city's historic district.

The final product will be areas of affordable, single-family housing that are attractive, safe and desirable to live in, a new face and reputation for downtown and more money in the city budget.

"This is probably the most exciting project I have worked on since I've been here," said Mrs. Thompson, who serves as the executive director of the Downtown Goldsboro Development Corp. "It's a comprehensive, strategic plan, and I think it will have a huge impact."

That impact, she said, will be both seen and felt by the community and city government. And it all starts with the reduction of demolition orders in Goldsboro's historic neighborhood.

"It seems like every month we're bringing demolition orders before council," Huffman said. "What that means is you demolish a house or structure, which means the property is now of lesser value. You place a lien against that property, and there are attorney fees associated with that. And there's a demolition cost applied to each case. Staff time is significant and the council's time is significant. It's very much a burden. Tax revenue is also affected. So not only are you spending a bunch of money on something, but you lose any revenue that was generated. So it's double impact. The impacts are compounded in a negative way."

The revitalization plan, however, eliminates all that spending and puts money back into the budget in the form of increased tax revenue from restored properties acquired by the city.

"The average vacant lot downtown is valued between $2,500 and $5,500," Mrs. Thompson said. "They're not generating a lot of tax revenue. But if you acquire the property and sell it to a historic homes enthusiast, you might have a home that's valued at $225,000. Then you would have a lot that's not vacant, a family living there adding to the overall downtown fabric and more taxes coming in. So this plan makes a lot of sense economically."

Huffman added that getting the ball rolling on the downtown project would require a relatively small investment by the city, maybe $100,000 -- to bring in millions.

"In the overall scheme of things, this is very doable," he said. "From a city finance standpoint, investment in the project is minimal from a standpoint of taking away all these costs. It's almost like it would be hard to argue against this financially."

But how will halting demolition in favor of restoration help small businesses downtown turn the corner? Huffman believes progress in the historic neighborhoods will spread throughout the city.

"If you have a pond and throw a pebble into the middle of it, there's a ripple effect," he said. "And right now, you have a downtown area that is holding its own, it's got the lowest crime rate of any area in the city right now. But when you look at some of the area that's got a lot of criminal activity, it's right outside that area. I think that there's a ripple effect, and if that core is not taken care of, then that area of neighborhoods around that core and eventually throughout the city will do badly. But hopefully, if we do really nice things, positive things in the core, it will have a positive impact on the rest of the city."

The plan really involves two key elements, he added.

"The two big parts are restoring the homes we already have and then turning them into occupied single-family residences and then the other piece of that will be providing affordable housing," he said.

But those goals are easier said than done, Huffman added. Both involve a commitment from council. Property will have to be rezoned in certain neighborhoods to fit the single-family requirement.

"We talked openly about the possibility of doing some sort of retro zoning where we can go back and change things that were put into place years ago," he said. "Some of these houses are multi-family downtown, and there are up to 12 units in a house. This is a problem. That means possibly 12 families in one building. We can go back and make those single family dwellings. We have an interest in that."

Fewer tenants in a home can mean better neighbors who care about restoring their historic property, Mrs. Thompson said. And good neighbors mean more money for downtown businesses.

"The first dollar that a business or a retail shop in a downtown gets comes from within a mile of its location," she said. "So, in order to have a successful retail shop, I need to have a strong neighborhood around it."

The ideal downtown, she added, is diverse -- a well-blended mix of homes, businesses and government buildings.

"I think where downtown's future lies is a mix in residential, government and retail," she said. "That's what we're trying to do."

And strong neighborhoods are a must to support that mix, Huffman said.

"We're talking about the possibility of creating neighborhoods with identities downtown," he said. "When you think about what that could mean to our businesses and government, the impact is just huge."

But to make the plan a success, Huffman and Mrs. Thompson said they need to find people to buy houses. And they think they can be successful at marketing Goldsboro, even if there is still work to do in cleaning up the area surrounding downtown.

"There's a huge market for people who want to move because they love the historic qualities of a house," Mrs. Thompson said. "So, they come here for that. They've seen a lot worse, and they're not intimidated by it."

Huffman said he believes bringing people in from other communities would all but guarantee the plan's success.

"I think if we can create residential interest in the core area of this city, we are going to hit a grand slam," he said. "I really do. This could be one of the most significant projects this city has ever undertaken, and we're excited and ready."