A Look at Downtown Goldsboro

This past summer, I spent some time working on a project in Goldsboro, NC about an hour and a half east of Durham. Goldsboro is a small city with a little over 35,000 residents in eastern North Carolina, a part of the state that is traditionally agricultural and manufacturing based.

More recently, this part of the state has struggled both economically and has also been hit with multiple hurricanes. It's a region that faces a lot of headwinds in terms of growth and prosperity. Goldsboro faces all of these challenges, but to me, it feels as though there is great life and hope and growth for the city. I wanted to share a little about what they have done, not because I think Durham should mimic Goldsboro in its efforts, but because there are probably more general lessons that Durham can learn, even from a much smaller city in the eastern part of the state.

The People

If Goldsboro succeeds, it will be because of the people who care so much about their city. Downtown Goldsboro Development (DGDC), an organization dedicated to growth, historic preservation, and culture in the downtown area has employees who work to bring businesses and life back to a downtown that has had high vacancy rates for quite a while. For the people who work for DGDC, Goldsboro is more than just a job. They will act as a real estate broker and take developers from building to building, showing off the historic, underutilized assets that the city has. I also heard a lot of stories about other people who are involved in the community.

There are entrepreneurs. One individual bought a dilapidated building downtown, fixed it up with his own labor, and then opened a coffee shop. The work ethic combined with multiple skill sets allowed for a local owner-occupied business to sprout up downtown.

Labrar Coffee in downtown Goldsboro. Sign is unfortunately (fortunately?) blocked by a beautiful street tree.

There are groups of investors who look for opportunities to invest in small businesses in Durham. These aren't investors who can put millions into a business, expecting a silicon-valley level exit, but can help a business order supplies they need to stay in business and ramp up sales for 6 months or a year.

In a small city, you have people willing to contribute time, energy, skillset, and money to the revitalization of downtown. It's pretty inspiring.

Main Street

In 2007, the city create its first master plan of downtown Goldsboro. This plan called for the redevelopment of Center Street, the main street that runs through downtown. In 2012, they started implementing the first phase of the project, just one block on Center Street, a project that cost $2.3 million. There was infrastructure work that was necessary including water, sewer, and storm drains. Additionally, they completely changed the look and feel of Center Street above ground. From a DGDC report"

"Above ground work included a complete transformation that returned the space to the pedestrian experience, added safe, dedicated bike lanes, buried overhead utility lines, created greenspace, installed attractive pedestrian-scale light fixtures and mid-block crosswalks with a central median pedestrian space including benches and landscaping.  The entire corridor was dotted with trees; smaller ornamental ones along the sidewalk side and large canopy trees in the center median to provide a “ceiling” to address scale issues resulting from the vast width of the space.  The sidewalks were made more gracious taking them from 12 feet to 19 feet and a central sidewalk in the median was incorporated.  These changes took the 140 feet of right-of-way from being 95% impervious surfaces to 70% and from about 85% vehicular dedicated space to approximately 60%."

The transition back to a scale that was right for Goldsboro and a focus on creating safe, comfortable space for people over cars has really shown through. After securing grants and enacting a larger additional phase, downtown Goldsboro has set the table for businesses and businesses have shown up. Also from the report:

"The private sector responded in a big way with 51 property acquisitions, $20.2M in private investments, 140,000 square feet of vacant, historic building space rehabilitated and put back into productivity, 281 net new full-time jobs, 45 net new part-time jobs and 53 net new businesses."

Walking downtown, it feels like a lively small city. If you look closely, there are still quite a few vacancies and underutilized buildings, but it is amazing what a redevelopment of public spaces can do for the feeling of a place. I was aware of the vacancies, but I didn't feel them.

The public spaces and the attention to public art also enhance this feeling. There are places for people to sit, enjoy a coffee, lunch, or snack. There are interesting art installations for people to look at and interact with. Goldsboro has put a lot of attention into creating comfortable spaces that fit the aesthetic of an old Eastern North Carolina downtown. They have added new life without sacrificing their identity.

I can't predict the future and the economics of the eastern part of the state are still fighting a decidedly uphill battle. That said, Goldsboro has put in the work of setting the table and given themselves the best chance for success possible.

And I can't write about Goldsboro without celebrating the fact that one of the most important towns for Eastern North Carolina BBQ recently found out that Wilbur's, a BBQ institution has been saved and will be reopening soon.

I am rooting for Goldsboro and am optimistic for the town. For Durham, I don't think the aesthetic is the same, but working on the walkability and vibrancy of downtown, beyond just adding sidewalks, could go a long way. The city might think about creating compelling places with great public areas, maintaining historic buildings, attracting accessible and approachable retail storefronts, fixing the downtown loop and the Durham Freeway gash. With a booming economy, Durham's efforts could be rewarded pretty quickly.

Have any thoughts about what Durham could do to improve Main St, Chapel Hill, St, Parrish St, etc? Visit the forums and share!

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