Downtown Plans Hold Great Promise For City

Published 5:08 am Sunday, March 16, 2003

By Staff
We welcomed the news last week when the City Council appropriated an initial $2,850 to help kick off the establishment of a downtown nonprofit corporation charged with bringing new life to that part of the community. This organization can serve as the focal point for fresh ideas to help the downtown become the very prosperous place it can be.
Patricia Rawls, chairwoman of the Downtown Washington Development Commission, has been the liaison between the City Council and the efforts to put together this new group. We commend her for her enthusiasm and hope her faith in the possibilities will become infectious in the most positive fashion.
We agree wholeheartedly with Mrs. Rawls' assessment that this new nonprofit group should concentrate on economic restructuring – how to invest money so it benefits the most people with interests in the downtown and waterfront areas. The downtown needs more customers, but it also needs more attractive shops and other businesses to attract those customers. New ventures that have opened over the past several months have joined some of the well-loved, longstanding businesses in creating a small revival downtown, but much more is needed.
In a workshop held last Wednesday, about 20 people took the time to do some brainstorming about the mission of this new nonprofit, which will have to await IRS approval before it officially can make its presence felt. The goal they settled on was developing a master plan for the downtown by Nov. 15. That plan will flesh out the four R's the people present felt best summed up their mission: renew, restore, rebuild and revitalize commercial, social and residential activities downtown.
We recently focused in this space on the potential for a hotel and convention center on the former Moss Planing Mill property, and the delightful prospects for the Turnage Theaters, which has kicked off its major fundraiser. The new nonprofit corporation will be the key to gathering together, so-to-speak, all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and fitting them in place.
Another key, however, that is less palatable to many existing businesses – for clearly understandable reasons – is the establishment of a municipal service district, where property owners would pay a special tax, with the revenues spent in the district to make improvements. The downtown could benefit greatly from the increased revenue an MSD would provide, but, given the current state of the economy, we know it would be a serious burden for most of the downtown merchants. Clearly, some type of compromise is in order.
What we propose is that the City Council, as it already has lent its support to the downtown nonprofit corporation concept, would take the lead by setting up the district and funding it for the first year through the revenue from privilege license fees paid by the merchants in the district.
We know the fiscal 2003-2004 budget is going to be tight for the city, and we know the loss of the privilege license funds would mean the city would have to cut back in other areas, but we truly believe this step could have profoundly positive results for all of us who live in Washington. If the new nonprofit corporation puts the money to wise use, and all the businesses downtown see benefits, then we feel they might be much more inclined to agree to paying a new tax to keep the MSD working.
If one looks up money in a book of quotations, one probably can find more entries than for most other words in the English language. In this 21st century, it still makes the world go 'round. The city and both business owners and residents who are committed to a revival of downtown Washington know that the potential is very strong. They also know that lack of money to make something work can spell the end, before the beginning of a new venture even is realized.
We feel strongly that revenue produced through a municipal service district in our downtown will help fuel the revival in that area that so many of us want to see. This issue is important enough that the city and downtown property owners need to work hard for a compromise. We have made only one suggestion in this space; we can't help but believe other alternatives can be proposed.
Once our city leaders work out an agreement – which undoubtedly will require both sides to make concessions, as the best type of compromise leaves neither side completely satisfied – then, the revitalization efforts for our downtown can be put on a smooth, fast track. The obvious reward will be when Washington becomes a must-see place for people not only in Eastern North Carolina but from all over the United States.
– Rachel Brown Hackney, Executive Editor.