Marion’s North Main Street could become a seamless connection between the greenway and a revitalized downtown as well as being safer and more pedestrian and bicycle friendly while featuring public art, more landscaping and places that could attract millennials to the area.

“It gives you a sense of pride in your community,” said designer Matt Hayes with the firm of Alta Planning & Design. “Morganton has taken advantage of being a gateway to the mountains. Well, Marion is even more a gateway to the mountains.”

That is the vision for improvements along the corridor that runs from downtown Marion to the U.S. 70 West intersection, a corridor most locals still call the five lane. This vision is the result of a three-day charrette held at the Marion Community Building which got input from local residents, business owners, planners and designers, the N.C. Department of Transportation, Isothermal Rural Planning Organization and city of Marion officials. A charrette is “an interactive planning session where citizens, designers and others collaborate on a vision for development.” The planning session started Tuesday and concluded Thursday with a presentation about the possible future improvements to North Main Street.

The presentation was led by representatives with Alta Planning & Design, a nationwide firm which works with communities in transportation planning, designing trails, traffic analysis and helping towns and cities become more active and healthier. “We are committed to transforming communities one trip, one step, one street, park, trail and intersection at a time,” reads the web site for the firm.

For three days, representatives with the firm and city officials held workshop meetings and got input from the public about what they like and don’t like about this corridor. This input and large maps of the five lane were posted to the walls inside the Community Building.

On Thursday evening, around 30 people came to hear the presentation about the present and future of North Main. There were representatives from the McDowell Trails Association, the Marion City Council, the business community and those who enjoy cycling and jogging.

As for likes, members of the public listed the view of the mountains, opportunity for development, nostalgia, open space, the businesses and “cruisin’ the five lane.”

As for dislikes, members of the public said it is bland, lacks curb appeal, no pedestrian access, dangerous with speedy drivers, centered around automobiles, lacks a sense of place or identity and is disconnected from the downtown.

The five lane was built in the late 1960s and is more than 50 years old.

“It is an aging corridor, a little outdated from the 60s and 70s,” said Hayes of the public’s feedback. “It feels segmented, disconnected.”

In the future, North Main Street could become a seamless connection between the Joseph McDowell Historical Catawba Greenway and Marion’s thriving downtown and become an extension of the Fonta Flora Trail, which will run from Morganton to Asheville. It is part of a multi-county trail system that will have significant economic return on Marion and the broader region.

“North Main, believe it or not, is a part of the Fonta Flora Trail,” said Hayes on Thursday. “We want to look at it not just for economic development but how do we make it safer.”

His firm has created artists’ renderings of what it could look like. They show a five lane with sidewalks and trees and flowers. Walls could be placed along the sidewalks featuring murals and public art and these sidewalks could be used by joggers and pedestrians. Another artist rendering shows a gateway to downtown Marion which could be placed along where JoAnne Howle Realty is located. This gateway would have metal artwork and the city’s slogan “Where Main Street meets the mountains,” according to the artist’s rendering.

Another rendering shows a redesign of the Lady Marian Plaza featuring shops, sidewalk cafes and apartments that would be attractive to younger residents and people relocating from Buncombe or other places that are more expensive.

“This is just an idea we want to percolate,” said Hayes of these renderings.

Designers with the firm looked at placing landscaping in the middle lane and reducing the number of travel lanes in both directions.

“Your traffic volumes indicate you don’t need two travel lanes,” said Wade Walker with Alta Planning & Design to the Rotary Club of Marion. “Instead of calling it the five lane, we can call it North Main Street - the road formerly known as the five lane.”

This could make the corridor safer too, according to Hayes.

“If you have a five lane abyss, your natural tendency is to speed,” he said.

Heather Cotton, planning director for the city of Marion, said she and the designers with Alta hand delivered fliers about this workshop to businesses and property owners along the five lane.

“There are some pros and cons here,” said business owner Caleb Parker of the plan. “There is much research that needs to be done.”

At Thursday’s presentation, Cotton asked the 25 to 30 people there how many of them have walked the length of the Catawba River greenway. Almost everyone raised their hands. Then, she asked how many had walked from downtown to the U.S. 70 intersection. Only one person raised his hand.

“It’s almost the same distance,” said Cotton.

All of the plans and renderings are just conceptual ideas of what the future of the five lane could become.

“This is all great but how do we get funding for this?” asked Hayes.

He added funding for these improvements could come from the state DOT, federal government, the city and even some private foundations or grant sources. As an example, Hayes said the Sam Walton family is funding all kinds of trails and greenways in Arkansas.

“I think this is absolutely outstanding,” said Frank Dean, a long-time trails and greenway advocate. “Ten years from now, this is going to be an incredible place.”

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