City officials agree on use of downtown revitalization money

MIKE CONLEY/MCDOWELL NEWS

At Tuesday’s meeting, city of Marion officials talked about façade improvements for the backs of buildings on West Henderson Street, next to the railroad bank and visible from Main and Railroad streets. City officials have said they want to improve the look of the eroded railroad banks and the backs of the buildings between Main Street and the Tailgate Market.

City of Marion officials seem to have reached a consensus about how to spend more than $94,000 in state money that is intended for downtown revitalization.

They plan to use this money to provide grants for downtown businesses, make sidewalk improvements, repaint the backsides of certain buildings along the railroad banks and build public restrooms in the downtown.

These projects and more were talked about at another special meeting of the Marion City Council. However, Mayor Steve Little and Councilman Don Ramsey were out of town and unable to attend this meeting. In addition, Councilwoman Juanita Doggett could not be there due to illness. Therefore, city officials were unable to take any formal action at the Tuesday meeting but they seemed to have reached an informal agreement about how to use this money.

Marion is one of 53 cities and towns in North Carolina to get money from the N.C. Department of Commerce which is intended for downtown revitalization. Marion’s amount is $94,340. This money has to be used for downtown revitalization and it must be spent by March 31 of next year. The state’s guidelines say it can’t be used for salaries of employees or bringing in entertainment, according to City Manager Bob Boyette.

Boyette said Tuesday he heard from an official in another nearby city who was envious of Marion getting this money. Marion did not seek this money from the state.

Last week, city officials held a special meeting and talked about 30 different proposed projects for revitalizing downtown Marion. After considerable discussion, they narrowed the list down to six:

• Using $10,000 of this money to create 20 grants of $500 each to downtown businesses for exterior improvements or projects. Such projects could be in addition to and supplement the façade grant applications or be separate projects. The $500 grant for each business could be used to create a new sign or some other improvement.

• Restrooms for the Tailgate Market. These would be open during daylight hours or when a special event is held there.

• Restrooms and a shelter that can be used for events and on a daily basis by the public, to replace the existing gazebo in the North Main Street Gazebo Park. These restrooms would likewise be open during daylight hours or special events.

• A sidewalk with a decorative railing between the Tailgate Market and Main Street.

• Façade improvements for the backs of buildings on West Henderson Street, next to the railroad bank and visible from Main and Railroad streets.

• Railroad bank improvements between Main Street and the Tailgate Market.

On Tuesday, they continued their discussion. They were joined by Lynn Alsbrooks and her sister Carol Devroude (who together own and operate And Justice for All), Bob Masiello and his wife Bernice (who own and operate Mr. Bob’s Do-Nuts), Rachel Withrow (owner of the Crooked Door Coffee House) and Tony Long (who helps operate Shucks Pearls).

The city’s staff came up with cost estimates for each of these projects. The improvements to the railroad banks between Main Street and the Tailgate Market turned out to be the most expensive by far. City officials estimated it could cost anywhere between $394,000 to $653,232 to improve the look of the eroded banks on both sides of the railroad tracks, which would far exceed the $94,340 provided by the state. In addition, the city would have to work with Norfolk Southern Corp., which owns the right-of-way along there.

The business grants would cost around $10,000 (20 businesses each getting $500 grants) while the sidewalk and decorative fence between Main Street and the Tailgate Market would cost an estimated $13,000. The painting and making repairs to the backs of the buildings along the railroad banks would cost an estimated $5,000. The public restrooms at the Tailgate Market would cost an estimated $30,800 while the public restrooms/shelter at the gazebo park would cost an estimated $36,900.

Despite the very high cost and the problems of dealing with the railroad, city officials still hope something can be done to improve the look of the eroded railroad banks. Last week, City Councilman Everette Clark said, “The railroad tracks are the ugliest part of downtown Marion.” On Tuesday, he repeated this concern.

“We need to embark on doing something about those railroad banks,” said Clark. “If this was Charlotte or Raleigh, they would be fixed. We need to get something started.”

Mayor Pro Tem Billy Martin said he too would like to see the beginnings of an effort to improve that area.

“I’d like to see us take care of this,” said Martin. “I don’t know how much longer we will be on council.”

The city could also use $10,000 of this money to provide downtown businesses with grants of $500 each. The grant money would be intended for businesses to erect a new sign or awning and improve the overall look of their buildings.

“The purpose of this is to enhance the appearance of buildings,” said Clark.

Any business in the downtown could apply. This includes retail, restaurants, bars and law offices.

Parking in the downtown was also a concern among city officials. “If we are ever going to get the floors on the second stories occupied, then we’ve got to have parking,” said Clark. “We’ve got to get started on those upper floors.”

Clark added he’s concerned about putting the bulk of this money – more than $60,000 – on public restrooms.

“I think there’s other things that need to be considered,” he added.

Other city officials hope people will see what has been accomplished.

“I would like for the public to be able to see what we did with it,” said Martin. “Something they can see and appreciate.”

Another idea that has been talked about is the creation of a permanent and more attractive stage on the courthouse lawn that could be used for festivals and special events. This would require the consent of county officials, since the courthouse is county property.

“We’ve had preliminary talks about the stage at the courthouse,” said Boyette.

He added Marion Business Director Freddie Killough prefers a mobile stage that can be transported to different places around town.

On Wednesday, Boyette said the city got some “sticker shock” when it came to prices for a mobile stage. So, the city will submit a category for “stage improvements.”

In addition, the city has been unable to get the consent from all the owners of the properties between Main Street and the Tailgate Market for a sidewalk to be built along the rear of their buildings. So the city will tell the state that they focus on overall parking and sidewalk improvements for the downtown.

And the day after Tuesday’s meeting, city officials were busy working to complete their plan on how they will use this money. Boyette said Wednesday he was able to contact Little, Ramsey and Doggett and get their input as well.

A proposal regarding the use of the state money must be submitted to the N.C. Department of Commerce by today.

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