In a recent post, Tyler Mulligan provided an overview of how local governments can use an Urban Redevelopment Area to attract private investment. This post will describe an example from Greenville, NC.
Like many towns in eastern North Carolina, Greenville’s downtown, known to residents as Center City, had experienced significant decline. Once a thriving area, Center City was no longer a prospering place full of commercial and pedestrian activity, instead, disinvestment and development outside of the historic town center had drawn shoppers away from downtown. Center City’s commercial district wasn’t the only area affected – the surrounding residential neighborhoods suffered as well, plagued by safety issues, low home ownership rates, and dilapidated housing. Yet, despite these challenges, residents recognized that Center City had the potential to reinvent itself once again as Greenville’s cultural and commercial destination. East Carolina University (ECU), the state’s second largest university, was the biggest landowner in downtown, bringing a critical mass of students into Center City on a daily basis. And although the number of small businesses in Center City had declined dramatically, residents still frequented the area in order to visit the governmental buildings that remained downtown, such as the Pitt County Courthouse and City Hall, as well as the Museum of Art and County Library.
Motivated by a desire to revitalize and rebrand historic Center City, in 2002 the City of Greenville decided to utilize the state’s Urban Redevelopment Area (URA) designation. An Urban Redevelopment Area, or URA for short, is a state designation used by local governments to support economic development and neighborhood revitalization. In other words, a URA allows municipalities to improve the uses and the state of properties within a particular distressed area or neighborhood. The process of establishing a URA and creating a URA plan involves several steps that require broad-based commitment on the part of elected officials, local government staff, residents, and other stakeholders.
The first step in establishing a URA is the formation of a Redevelopment Commission, a group charged with drafting and implementing the URA plan. Some municipalities find that it works best if the City Council serves the role of the Redevelopment Commission, while others prefer to create an independent Commission whose members represent a broad cross-section of the community. The City of Greensville fell into the latter group. Carrying out a URA revitalization plan takes time, and the City felt that although the involvement and support of elected officials was essential to Center City’s success, it was important that the URA process be depoliticized so that staff could ensure that the plan’s implementation would outlast the City Council’s two-year election cycles. For this reason, Greenville’s Redevelopment Commission membership is comprised of both elected officials (the mayor and one council member) as well as a variety of “major players” with a stake in Center City’s future. The members of the Greenville Redevelopment Commission include representatives from the university, the medical center, local industry, a real estate firm, and a public health organization, as well as a small business owner and local attorney. City of Greenville Senior Planner Carl Rees relayed that, in Greenville’s case, this mix of partners from both public and private sectors was essential to the plan’s success since there was only so much that the city could do given limited funding and staff resources.
Now nearly a decade has passed since the City adopted the Center City – West Greenville Revitalization Plan and the benefits of the URA can be seen in downtown. There has been tremendous success with regard to small business development in the Central Business District, due in part to the Redevelopment Commission’s innovative annual Business Plan Competition. This competition awards a forgivable loan in the amount of $15,000 to $30,000 to four businesses located in the URA each year. Funding for this program is provided by the City of Greenville. Small businesses can use the funds to start up or expand their operations and receive technical assistance from local agencies. The City has also invested in the area through streetscape improvements, increased lighting, and a wayfinding system.
The Central Business District isn’t the only area that has benefited from the City’s commitment to revitalizing downtown – the surrounding residential neighborhood, known as West Greenville, has also turned around. The City was able to demolish the neighborhood’s blighted structures that posed health and safety threats to its neighbors. In addition to streetscape improvements, the City also expanded the area’s library and park, built a community center, and located a police substation in the neighborhood. The West Greenville neighborhood now has a stronger social fabric marked by greater intergenerational engagement among residents utilizing the community’s new amenities.
According to Mr. Rees, the URA Redevelopment Commission has been key in leading the revitalization effort. The Commission uses a consistent, efficient, streamlined, and transparent approach to implementing the URA. Each year, with the guidance of City staff, the Commission creates a work plan with 15 to 20 well-defined actionable items that are in line with the goals of the URA plan. The work plan is well publicized and the Commission publishes quarterly reports updating the public on its progress towards yearly URA goals.
Mr. Rees also emphasized the importance of public participation in developing and implementing the URA plan. When first developing the URA plan, Greenville’s experienced mirrored one that is common the planning staff – they executed an elaborate plan to engage citizens in the URA planning process, holding public forums to gather input on the City Center plan, but very few residents attended. Only when the draft plan debuted did residents sit up and take notice. And they had a lot of questions and concerns. Instead of adhering to a strict timeline and moving full steam ahead, Mr. Rees, his staff, and the Redevelopment Commission welcomed this renewed public interest in Center City. They put down the draft plan and reengaged, meeting with citizens one-on-one and holding meetings and focus groups at churches, town hall, and other community center. Although the URA’s initial timeline was delayed, the new plan was improved and had widespread community buy-in. The entire URA planning process took the City about three years to complete, finally resulting in the adoption of the Center City – West Greenville Revitalization Plan in 2006.
The City of Greenville’s experience with the URA designation in City Center highlights the importance of public participation and thinking outside the box when it comes to downtown revitalization. The Business Plan competition, which required a modest investment from the City, has assisted in drastically decreasing the downtown vacancy rate. And because the City was flexible and engaged citizens according to the residents’ timeline rather than their own, the URA planning process resulted in a better final product. Finally, a diverse Redevelopment Commission membership allowed for a transparent implementation process as well as increased buy-in from the private sector.
Marcia Perritt, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student pursuing a joint master’s degree in Public Health and City and Regional Planning, is a Community Revitalization Fellow at the School of Government.