Albemarle partners with Downtown Strategies to help revitalize downtown

In order to strengthen and help revitalize its downtown, the City of Albemarle is embarking on a multi-year partnership with ElectriCities and Downtown Strategies, a division of the Alabama-based marketing firm Retail Strategies, which specializes in downtown revitalization.

Several officials with Downtown Strategies began their fact-finding mission on Wednesday as they toured the area, talked with local business owners and conducted a strategic visioning workshop in City Hall, as they collected information regarding the needs and wants of various business owners, building owners, stakeholders and others in relation to how best to bolster the downtown.

“Through the input that we hear from you guys, through what we’ve seen on our walking tour and very importantly what we learned through the market data and research…we’re going to put together a five-year strategic plan downtown,” said Downtown Strategies president Jenn Gregory.

The organization has worked with cities and towns across 20 states and while each has its own unique circumstances, “we find that there are a lot of similar challenges really across the country,” Gregory said.

The Downtown Strategies team will execute an in-depth market and real estate analysis to create Albemarle’s customized Downtown Strategic Plan with specific strategies focused around its five key pillars of design, walkability, policy, tourism and economic catalyst opportunities for the surrounding downtown area.

“A healthy downtown really focused on all five of these categories,” Gregory said, noting that through the various upcoming planning sessions, Downtown Strategies will provide strategies to help the city focus on addressing each of the pillars.

Using its advanced analytics and proprietary tools, the organization presented a small sample of market research data showing the current outlook of downtown. When revitalizing a downtown area, a key consideration is making sure it is easy to access on foot, the idea being that a walk time from one downtown boundary to another should never exceed 20 minutes. In assessing its walkability, Downtown Strategies scored Albemarle with a grade of 57, deeming it “somewhat walkable” with room to improve.

Downtown Strategies also found that within roughly 10 minutes radius from the Walmart in Albemarle, there was a surplus for many consumer demands such as general merchandise and health and personal care, but the city seemed to be lacking in full-service restaurants and electronics and appliances, suggesting that people were going to other places for those needs.

When it came time to hear from the public, many questions were asked to understand how people felt about the downtown and what they would like to see improved.

While there were many positives that set the area apart from other downtown communities in the region such as close proximity to natural resources, Pfeiffer University’s Center for Health Sciences building, the Charters of Freedom documents outside City Hall and a robust cultural environment highlighted by organizations like the Uwharrie Players, The Talent Company and the Stanly County Historical Society, there were many areas of improvement.

At least one person mentioned that though there is heavy foot traffic and activity in the mornings, by around 5 p.m. most of the downtown businesses have closed and there is not enough adequate nightlife to draw people to the area.

There were also concerns raised about Pfeiffer students not having enough housing options in the area. Keith Tunnell, the city’s economic director, mentioned that between 60 to 70 percent of students enrolled in the university’s physician assistant and occupational therapy programs are currently living outside the city.

Residents mentioned striking the balance between encouraging growth within the area and attracting new homeowners and businesses while also making sure to not disenfranchise or price out lower income residents who call the city home.

Another struggle addressed was the need for more downtown entertainment for families, especially those with young children.

“I think we have a big market lacking for things to do with your kids,” said Sara Hahn, who is the children’s librarian at the Stanly County Library. “To think of these adult students with families coming to the area, and being able to walk to something, to be able to grab lunch and do something with their family while they’re here could be a real asset.”

Charlotte realtor and residential appraiser Carla Weyrick, who is from the city, said it’s critical that the community get to know the businesses and property owners downtown and across the city because it then becomes easier to identify any obstacles or barriers that might be preventing revitalization from taking place.

“I think that our small business owners know a lot more about our county and our businesses and what’s here than our city council and our government know about them,” Weyrick said.

When asked about their specific vision for the downtown and what they would like to see in the next few years, there were several ideas that were discussed. They included improved broadband access, public murals, a specialty grocery store, a movie theater, conveniences like nail salons and doctor’s offices, indoor play facilities and art festivals.

Gregory and her colleagues with Downtown Strategies will be utilizing the feedback from Wednesday’s workshop along with other sessions in order to craft the strategic master plan, which should be finalized in a few months. They will then work with the city to help implement the various recommendations that come from it.