Over the last 20 years, the City of Rocky Mount has struggled to attract private investment into downtown. The Douglas Block project in Rocky Mount is an example of city-led redevelopment using creative financing to catalyze development in a distressed area.
Rocky Mount is located roughly one hour east of Raleigh and straddles the county line dividing Nash and Edgecombe counties. This county line is also the centerline for the railroad tracks that runs the length of the downtown area and physically divides the east and west sides of Rocky Mount’s Main Street providing a unique context for redevelopment. The downtown was a vibrant part of Rocky Mount from the 1930’s through the 1970’s until suburban development reduced the commercial viability of the center city.
Today, disinvestment remains a significant problem, while Rocky Mount as a whole also struggles with unemployment and high rates of poverty. Since the mid-1990s, the City has invested significant public resources into revitalizing the downtown area. These projects established Rocky Mount’s model of using both Historic Rehabilitation and New Markets Tax Credits.
The Douglas Block Project, a 3-block redevelopment of a historically African-American business district was completed in mid-2011, is considered by many to be one of Rocky Mount’s most successful initiatives. Under the leadership of the City in 2003, Rocky Mount sought to create a public-private partnership to redevelop the site while striving to preserve its’ history and integrity by maintaining architecturally significant buildings, allowing context-sensitive infill development, promoting a mixed-use downtown, and creating useable public gathering spaces.
To do this, the city designated the three-block Douglas Block site as a Redevelopment Area by creating a Redevelopment Plan for 16 parcels on approximately 1.5 acres of land. At that time, the site contained 12 exiting structures that were used mainly for commercial operations or were vacant. Phase I redevelopment, which was completed in mid-2011, consisted of the renovation of 6 major buildings (25,500 of ground level space and 8 second floor apartments). This approximately $8 million project was financed with a Section 108 HUD Loan, a Brownfield Grant, Historic Tax Credits, and New Markets Tax Credits through two private partners.
A project like Douglas Block demonstrates some of the advantages and challenges of City-led public-private partnership. The public-private structure not only catalyzed the City’s redevelopment goals without waiting for private capital but also allowed Rocky Mount the flexibility to develop their own vision for the project site that fit into broader municipal goals. This also pushed Rocky Mount to refine a finance structure that was beneficial to both the City and their private lending partner. The public-private partnership also provided an opportunity for the public sector to take on a large-scale, meaningful project.
While public-private partnerships do offer rewards, they also involve large time commitments to build relationships, work out logistics, and develop plans. This could not have occurred without commitment and leadership by key Rocky Mount city staff that oversaw the Douglas Block project from start to finish.
Anisha Steephen is a recent master’s degree graduate from the UNC Department of City and Regional Planning.