Working to improve city’s ‘front porch’

Jim Willis Contributing columnist

January 22, 2014

Laurinburg is said to have it’s beginning as far back as 1785 when the first families settled near what is now downtown. First written as Laurinburgh and pronounced “Laur-in-boro,” the name came from the prominent McLaurin family. As late as 1840, the downtown area consisted of just a few homes and shacks, a single store, a saloon and a blacksmith shop near where today the First Baptist Church stands. The private Laurinburgh High School, established in 1852, was built on Caledonia Road, north of the Church Street, and helped spur growth.

The town was incorporated in 1877, and Mr. Washington Gill was elected the town’s first mayor. Making his living in the railroad industry, his home has been preserved and restored and today houses a restaurant and bakery.

As we made the turn of the century and progressed into the 1900s, downtown was the thriving heartbeat of Laurinburg. Not only the center of commerce, Main Street also served as the “gathering” place of the community; a place to catch-up with neighbors and talk with friends.

As our troops returned from World War II, our — and other communities — began to change. With a “car in every driveway,” citizens realized that they no longer needed to live in immediate proximity to downtown. Thus what began was an ongoing “ebb and flow” as communities continually adjusted to changing urban patterns. While downtown lost some of its residential base, the period of post-war prosperity still found the Main Street area as the focus of business, entertainment, retail, banking and government.

In the early sixties, Urban Renewal was happening in many areas in an effort to modernize and update towns. Accordingly, improvements were made in the style of that era here in Laurinburg as well. The new courthouse was built, streets were extended and new buildings were constructed like Ed’s Tire, Lumbee River office and Belk — now the A.B. Gibson center.

As communities continued to “sprawl” to the edge of town limits and beyond, stores and eateries began to depart “main street” America, setting-up shop near new developments and start-up communities. For downtown Laurinburg, this migration hit home when Belk announced it would be going to a shopping center.

In response to this trend, an Urban Design Assistance Team led by Peter Batchelor was gathered and the Laurinburg Downtown Revitalization Corporation was soon formed. A Public/Private initiative, LDRC is focused on restoring and enhancing the appearance and historic tradition of downtown Laurinburg and actively supporting the development of new and existing businesses in the downtown area.

The base funding for LDRC is provided by downtown property owners. Downtown is considered a Special Tax District and we each pay an ad valorem tax of 21 cents per $100 in property in addition to the city and county taxes we pay. These funds, along with a match from the City of Laurinburg, fund our efforts to keep downtown viable and prosperous.

After the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, the overall appearance of our downtown was, to put it mildly, not something that made us proud. The board of directors of LDRC decided a bold new approach was necessary. Recognizing that the majority of our funds had been going to promotion and administration, we decided to operate with just our volunteer board and to use all of our resources for capital improvements.

We identified some of the most obvious needed repairs and decided to pay for them in full. In the fall of 2011, four bare frames of awnings were repaired and recovered and several signs from long ago closed businesses were removed. Armed with funds provided by LDRC, we then began a comprehensive plan to improve the entire district. “Phase one” of LDRC’s larger plan included painting and pressure washing downtown buildings as well as additional parapet and awning repair. Faced with the challenge of improving so many different buildings, built during many different years and made of many different materials, these efforts are almost complete and our downtown now looks better than it has in years.

Some may question if the public/private partnership in downtown is valuable to the community. Recent results are encouraging as phase one and other efforts have resulted in additional private investment with several new businesses opening in the last year.

Beyond the economic impact, I would contend that, besides the people of Laurinburg, downtown is the heart and soul of our community. It is the historic center, our government center, and in a sense, our “front porch.”

We all appreciate that other shopping areas are vital to the well-being of Laurinburg. Our community is interconnected and every sector is important. We can and should complement each other, with downtown and other areas serving as hub and spokes of the local commerce wheel. But downtown is often the all-important first impression that answers questions like “Is this a place I’d like to live? Is this a place I’d like to hang out, to show off to friends and relatives?”

We have challenges, but we also have many strengths and much to build on. From a personal perspective, after recently visiting another country for a week, it felt good to come home to Laurinburg.

There is no place like home and there is a lot to like about Laurinburg. I am encouraged that key stakeholders here are working together to continue to make Laurinburg and Scotland County a target for business and families. And I am proud that our downtown is to be part of this effort.

Jim & Frances Willis own ShirtTales and The Downtown Club on Main Street. Jim is chairman of the Laurinburg Downtown Revitalization Corporation.