Bringing new businesses to the county seat is the next step in Warrenton’s participation in the Small Town Main Street revitalization program.
Warrenton was chosen last July for the self-help program facilitated by the N.C. Department of Commerce, which offers technical assistance with revitalization to towns having populations under 7,500. Since then, program staff, Warrenton officials and local citizens have met monthly or more often to develop action plans for addressing downtown design, promotion and economic restructuring.
A report on the first year’s activities includes a number of projects that were already in the works before the Small Town Main Street program began here, but shows the type of improvements and business development possible in Warrenton, especially with a concerted effort under way to revitalize the town.
“I think it speaks very well for a town the size of Warrenton,” said Warrenton Commissioner Woody King, who heads up revitalization efforts. “The number of new jobs created speaks volumes.”
Despite the closing of two small businesses—a retail store and a law office—Warrenton had a net gain of three new businesses and a net increase of at least 19 new jobs. Two new apartment units were added above a downtown business, which is set to open soon, and nearly $1 million was spent in private investments. Also in the past year, the town of Warrenton established a revolving loan fund that offers local businesses low interest loans for various improvements.
King said the bulk of next year’s work with Small Town Main Street is to continue building relationships between commercial property owners here and people interested in starting a new business.
“Until you start building those bridges, we can look at all the reports we want to,” he said.
King described the mood during a recent meeting with downtown property owners as “overall positive.”
“The collective mood was, ‘We like what Small Town Main Street is doing,’” he said.
Recruitment of new businesses will be the main focus going forward.
“We don’t have the ability to recruit business to town without these buildings here,” King said. “Before we can recruit, we have to have a place to put them. We need to marry folks together, get the property owners to talk to potential business owners, and they both ask, ‘How can we help each other so the whole town of Warrenton benefits.’”
Independent business owners or small franchisees will likely be the best fit here, King said. A market study completed by Small Town Main Street staff earlier this year indicates a $34.9 million loss in sales due to local residents shopping outside the area. Businesses of highest demand include clothing, health and personal care, building materials/lawn and garden, food services and drinking places, among others.
King noted that after Roseboro, a Small Town Main Street program participant, identified the types of businesses needed, a committee there got in a car and visited with business owners within a 50-mile radius. They were successful in recruiting to the town a restaurant, furniture store and pharmacy.
“That’s what it’s going to take here,” he said. “All these things have got to happen in a similar fashion. It’s a huge task, but you’ve got to dream big.”
Downtown beautification such as creating pocket parks and adding benches is also part of the program, as are improvements to building exteriors, which don’t have to cost a lot of money.
“We need to get people to think, money can be for small things. Small money can make a huge difference. All it takes is elbow grease, manpower and attitude adjustments,” King said. “Vision is key, what do we want our community to be, to look like, and make steps to bring that vision to pass.”
The Small Town Main Street group is taking a break from their monthly meetings until September. In the meantime, King hopes a shared vision for growth will continue moving the town forward in its revitalization efforts.
“We all want Warrenton to grow, we all want Warrenton to look nice, to attract not only tourists, but potential new residents,” he said. “If we pool our efforts, it’s not as difficult as you think to make things happen.”
Small Town Main Street meetings will resume on Tuesday, Sept. 18 and will be held monthly on the third Tuesday at the Warrenton Rural fire station on South Main Street. Meetings, which are open to the public, start at 6 p.m., and participation from anyone who wants to help revitalize the county seat is encouraged.