Connecting Growth to Downtown Revitalization

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Vacant buildings, condemned residences, underutilized commercial property – all are familiar characteristics of many downtowns throughout eastern North Carolina’s small towns.  Ironically, these characteristics are becoming all too familiar in towns experiencing tremendous growth.

Within one North Carolina coastal county, two small towns nestled along Highway 17 grew by more than 100 percent over the last ten years while a third grew by 53 percent. The average income in these communities is also increasing while new homes are being built and sold in rapid fashion. This growth is attributed mainly to the influx of out of state retirees; the availability of cheap land and ease of access to both Wilmington and local beaches make these towns very attractive to this increasing demographic.

Most of this growth is disconnected from town centers and thus threatens the vision of vibrant downtown districts. For example, suburban developers have taken advantage of the influx of retirees and constructed several gated, retirement communities just a few miles outside of these downtowns. Additionally, new commercial developments (Wal-Mart, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Home Depot, Big Lots, and numerous fast food restaurants) are also being built outside of these downtowns along heavily traveled Highway 17.

Despite this increasing population, these communities’ Main Streets have seen little to no revitalization. They are home to distressed strip malls, lack walkability, and maintain little curb appeal. In addition, there is often little connectivity between these towns and their greatest natural asset – the rivers, inlets, and wetlands.

The presence of a walkable downtown district can help these communities attract residents, visitors, and, potentially, commercial developments. Town officials and staff can use several strategies to revitalize their downtown districts even if a town’s population is growing and choosing to live in detached communities.

  • Improve the attractiveness of the downtown area and emphasize the beauty of the surrounding landscape by creating downtown riverfront districts.
  • Ensure certain amenities are offered in the downtown in order to compete with the outlying communities. Public parks, improved streetscapes, amphitheaters, riverfront walkways, and boardwalks can all help attract visitors and potential residents to the area.
  • Link downtown with surrounding neighborhoods in any new plans through installation of greenways or expansion of public transportation.
  • Create a vibrant nightlife with additional restaurants and venues with live music.
  • Pay for the predevelopment work necessary to attract private development and public-private partnerships to downtown districts.

As this coastal county’s population continues to grow, these towns have an opportunity to create a downtown destination combining walkability, livability, and access to nature.


Rory Dowling, a dual MBA/MCRP candidate at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and the Department of City and Regional Planning, is a Community Revitalization Fellow at the School of Government.

Jordan Jones, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student pursuing a joint master’s degree in Public Administration and City and Regional Planning, is a Community Revitalization Fellow at the School of Government.

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