City leaders, merchants mull ideas to reinvigorate downtown

Published 4:57 pm Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Historic Downtown Elizabethton could soon be in for some assistance.

And all it takes is taking a trip down “Main Street.”

That was the focal point during a meeting held inside The Coffee Company as downtown merchants and city leaders welcomed in representatives from the National Main Street and Tennessee Main Street programs to look at ways to help usher in revitalization of the downtown scene. Elizabethton exited the program in the past but is now mulling different ideas to help the downtown scene become more vibrant for the public.

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Kathy LaPlante, director of National Main Street, said the program has been able to reap economic benefits for downtowns across the country, and the state. According to LaPlante, a city’s $1 investment to the program ultimately nets a return of around $30. LaPlante added that an economic impact isn’t immediately noticed, due to organizational pieces needed to be put in place to facilitate growth.

The Main Street initiative is used as an economic development tool that helps downtowns receive assistance by “leveraging local assets — from historic, cultural and architectural resources to local enterprises and community pride,” according to information provided by the Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development.

Main Street’s “four-point approach” includes working on the design of the downtown, economic restructuring, promotion and organization to build partnerships.

Tennessee Main Street has a variety of programs that provide relief to downtown areas: Tennessee Main Street, Tennessee Downtowns, Main Street Entrepreneur Grant and Facade Improvement.

Nancy Williams, director of Tennessee Main Street, praised the infrastructure for downtown Elizabethton and added it fits the qualifications of being a Tennessee Main Street. She alluded to the fact that the downtown has potential and that it’s vacancy problem “is as bad as most places.”

Bristol, Kingsport and Jonesborough are just a handful of the 30-plus cities that are accredited Tennessee Main Street cities. By joining the program, Elizabethton could open its door to possible grant opportunities and other improvement opportunities for the district.

Elizabethton/Carter County Chamber of Commerce staff are no strangers to see the potential of downtown. Coming off a successful Covered Bridge Celebration, Chamber Director Tonya Stevens said Tuesday’s talks were important to at least get talks moving forward toward revitalization.

“Today was important because we are able to learn how to use this program to make improvements to our downtown district and encourage more folks to be in our downtown,” Stevens said. “Any opportunities there are to make those improvements, it really just adds to the quality of life. It’s certainly something we look forward to seeing.”

Both Williams and LaPlante added that the support needs to be there to move forward with the designation, from both the private and public sector, and local government.

Dustin Hensley, Elizabethton High School teacher, has seen firsthand the importance of what downtown has to offer. Hensley has helped usher in different activities downtown with students with the Bartleby Program, where students were able to take a step back through time and go through the city’s history to develop a walking tour brochure.

“Our downtown area has a history worth preserving and a future that’s worth pursuing. It is a point of pride in our community that spans multiple generations. If we desire for that to continue then it would be great to seek out opportunities to further develop our downtown area and ensure that it thrives for years to come,” Hensley said about the opportunity support the project.

April Proffitt, with All Star Sports and Country Crafts, manages her store downtown and stated, “as a downtown business owner, anything that will help our downtown I am all for it.”

Chris Little, IDEAS Group member, added that careful deliberation needs to be taken when looking at ideas for downtown.

“We must be careful what we ask for. Previously, we had side by side parking, then one of these beautification projects added sidewalks but drastically cut down on the number of parking spaces. Then we added more sidewalks with planters which took even more parking spaces,” he said.

Jon Hartman, Elizabethton Planning and Economic Development director, said following Tuesday’s meeting that talks will continue with business owners and local leaders about either moving forward with the project or ceasing action. Another meeting with Main Street representatives is reportedly in the works and will be announced when more information is made available.

Visit online to learn more about Tennessee Main Street.