05/27/09 — Fremont working to attract people to downtown

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Fremont working to attract people to downtown

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on May 27, 2009 1:46 PM

Continuing a discussion begun in April, members of the Fremont Board of Alderman and several town residents met Tuesday night to discuss economic development and to toss around ideas of how the town should proceed next.

And while no decisions and little tangible progress was made, the 10 or so people in attendance left feeling a bit more hopeful about the future than when they arrived.

Leading the discussion was Larry Moolenaar, the executive director of the Eastern Carolina Council.

He began by asking what types of businesses used to occupy the now empty storefronts in downtown Fremont.

He was told that the area used to be a thriving commercial center, with a hardware store, men's and women's clothing stores, a 5&10, a movie theater and a train station. He also was told that the town used to boast three car dealerships, six grocery stores and a feed mill. All of those are gone now.

"There are a lot of communities in eastern North Carolina just like Fremont," Moolenaar said. "That was the typical downtown, but those kinds of stores and that kind of downtown are probably not going to come back, so you have got to reinvent yourself. You have to find a different model -- a different way of bringing people and money into Fremont."

And that's what Fremont officials are hoping to be able to do.

"In Fremont, we used to have what Goldsboro has and we lost it. Now we need to do something different," said Alderman Leroy Ruffin.

Moolenaar told the group assembled that he wasn't there to focus on economic development in terms of industrial recruitment. Rather, he said, his focus was on commercial development, particularly in the downtown -- businesses that not only give residents a reason to keep their money in the town, but also businesses that attract people from outside Fremont.

"You want that new money, that money coming in from the outside," Moolenaar said.

But to do that, he continued, there are several things that are needed -- most notably, the downtown commercial buildings have to be suitable enough to attract interest from prospective businessmen and investors.

"I drive through, I see a great little main street, some great old homes and some great architecture," he said. "But I also see a lot of buildings in town with boards in the windows, and if I'm driving through town and I'm looking to start a business, I don't see anything that says it's 'for sale.'"

That, he said, has to change.

He recommended that somebody take a list of the most desirable locations in Fremont and contact the owners to see if they might be willing to sell, and if so, at what price.

But, said Town Manger Kerry McDuffie, that's part of the problem.

He feels many of those property owners are unwilling to deal.

"There are some buildings for sale, but the owners are putting the price so high, it's not worth it," he said.

For example, he said, the three building across from town hall, including the old theater, are all owned by a man from Raleigh who has said that despite their dilapidated state, he would not do anything to fix them, and that he would not take anything less than tax value for them.

Still, the group agreed that it was worth pressing forward to see if other such buildings might be for sale, and if so, what grants or other forms of help might be available for renovations.

The key, though, said resident Charles Bruton, will be getting more people in town working toward such a goal.

"You've got to have a group of people with a genuine interest in seeing this community move forward," he said -- much like what happened with the town's library, which was saved from closure, and is one of town's strong selling points.

Then, Moolenaar said, once that process starts, other people will want to become involved.

"Once you get that thought process going ... then you can get more business in town and increase the sales tax (revenues)," he said.

The key, though, he said again, will be to give people that initial reason to come into Fremont, whether it's a unique store or restaurant -- like Southern Exposure in Faison -- or something that ties into the "green revolution," or even better, something that fits with the town's daffodil identity.

"People have branded and done a lot with things less than the daffodil," he said. "You've just got to find your niche. It's going to take some work, but there are strategies and ways of doing things. I'm excited and I want you to be motivated.

"This is the quintessential small town. This little town's got it all."

Now, McDuffie said, it's just a matter of using the momentum they've started and making something happen.

"The board's dedicated to seeing it happen," McDuffie said. "We've got the pieces here. We're just exploring ideas right now until we get it right."