10/02/11 — Downtown businesses speak out against streetscape

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Downtown businesses speak out against streetscape

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on October 2, 2011 1:50 AM

City officials have spent the past month reviewing the bid tabulations for the Center Street streetscape renovations project, but when it comes to the business owners involved in what's planned to be the first of five blocks of street renovations, their minds may have already been made up on the issue.

There are only three businesses in the 200 block of North Center Street where City Hall is located, which is one reason why the officials planning the project chose to start there.

The less traveled the block is, the better chance the contractors can get the work done without impacting traffic downtown, they have said, and will better prepare the crews for when work on the other blocks begin.

But two of the three business owners on the block are staunchly against the project, either because they don't see the point in it or because they're concerned it will run them out of business.

"I don't care a damn thing about it," Allen Umstead, owner of Direct Carpet at the corner of Ash and Center streets said of the project. "I think it's foolish. You're widening the sidewalks to give them people a little more space to sit?"

Umstead indicated that he might feel differently if there was a grant for the project, but still didn't think it was the best way to revitalize the city's downtown.

"I can't see why it's needed unless they've got government money they want to use. It's certainly not going to make downtown any better."

Umstead, whose business first opened up in 1969, said his understanding of the project amounted only to what he had seen in the newspaper and said he was "totally against" the streetscape renovations project.

George Lipscomb, owner of Pet Village across the street, used the exact same term to describe his stance on the project.

"I'm totally against what the city is trying to do," he said. "Nobody has thought this thing out and they haven't revealed to the public what actually is going to happen."

Lipscomb, who has been at the same location for nearly 40 years, said that with business at his store slow already due to economic troubles, any loss of parking or access to his storefront could put him out of business.

"I don't like it one bit. It's a waste of a lot of money and it's probably going to close me down," he said.

Lipscomb said the way to truly bring businesses downtown was to relax some of the restrictions on development. He said ordinances and regulations made it too difficult for entrepreneurs to bring their ideas downtown.

Roy Parker III, however, said he is very excited about the changes coming to downtown where he manages The Little Bank.

Planning Director Randy Guthrie made a presentation on the project to the bank's board of directors, and Parker, whose branch boasts off-street parking, said he's not concerned about the slight inconvenience it may cause his patrons since he believes it will be well worth it in the end.

"I'm very much for it," he said, noting he was concerned with downtown's lack of a pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. "I wish they had started a long time ago."

And while Parker, who is chairman of the Appearance Commission, has heard concerns about the project's funding, he said the money is there.

But after bids for the project were returned last month, that statement appears to be partially true.

Projected to cost $1.38 million, the lowest bid came in at nearly $1.74 million, and the City Council has said that no funding for the project can come from the city's general fund -- a motion that came from Mayor Pro Tem Chuck Allen. However, city officials have identified only about $1.3 million from the utility fund, street bonds and several other sources as available for the effort -- the primary reason the city is looking to reconfigure the project and put it back out for bid.

"Money's money and it's got to come from somewhere," Allen said. "And (the project is) important to downtown -- the question is, at what level is it important. That's the $1 million question."

Still, Downtown Goldsboro Development Corp. officials and committee members believe the project is extremely important and worth funding. DGDC Board President Geoff Hulse, who spoke extensively about the streetscape project during the organization's awards banquet Sept. 23, said the return on investment from similar projects in Raleigh, New Bern and Salisbury have him and others convinced this move is the right one for downtown Goldsboro.

"We would like it done as inexpensively as possible and still maintain the integrity of the plan. It just seems like a small price to pay when you realize that economic investment has been proven (to work) time and time again in all sizes of communities," he said. "It isn't just sidewalks. The infrastructure needs work."

And as far as keeping business owners informed, Hulse and DGDC Director Julie Thompson say that after nearly five years of forums, hearings and meetings, business owners should be aware of the project, and also understand that their suggestions were taken into consideration to prepare the final plans.

"I think we got a lot of pushback from many of the downtown businesses when the reality of it actually started coming through," she said.

Central Lunch owner Larry Hill said his only concern with the project is his lack of knowledge of it.

"I've heard a lot of mixed things, which is kind of the problem out there. People are forming opinions on half information," he said.

Hill took over the longtime downtown diner this year and said it's been his intention to stop by City Hall or the DGDC office to learn more about the streetscape renovations, though he hasn't had time yet.

Still, even some of those in favor of the project aren't totally informed of the plans. Waynesboro Furniture Owner Terry Cottle, who was recently named a member of the DGDC promotions committee, feels the investment will continue to help the development of an area where he's done business for 25 years, but didn't realize the project would encompass both sides of the 200 block of N. Center Street.

Cottle recalled the installation of brick sidewalks on Center Street nearly a decade ago when the city made sure that there were safe pathways to each business during the construction, and said he had no concerns that the city wouldn't be just as conscientious this time.

"I don't see it as being inconvenient, I see it as progress," he said.

Hulse concurs.

"Yes, it will tear up the sidewalk and make it harder in short term, but we believe the businesses are going to thrive," he said. "We want them (business owners) to stay. We want their businesses to grow. We want to attract other businesses so they can all enjoy that success."

He described the streetscape project's timing as something that must be done before the city falls behind.

"If we don't do it now, we'll be 10 more years behind the curve," he said, again citing how it's worked in cities and municipalities of all sizes. "It's something that needs to be done."

Mrs. Thompson echoed Hulse's sentiments, discounting the opinions of business owners who say the project won't bring about a better downtown business atmosphere.

"All I can say is that many of us spend the better part of our weeks, days and years working in the downtown revitalization field and we're more attuned than they with success rates," she said.

And while she admitted that cities, like New Bern, experienced growing pains during the construction, she cited figures showing that aesthetic appeal investments can increase businesses' bottom lines by as much as 30 percent.

"We wouldn't be pushing for it if we didn't believe it would help downtown," she said.