(Voluntary) Exile on Main Street 2013

By giles / On Aug.14.2013

  • Alive at Five in Morehead City
  • Morehead City's famous charter fishing fleet
  • Tom Kies, Executive Director of Downtown Morehead Revitalization Association

We get to visit her native Morehead City at least once a year, and I always try to hook up with the people who do what I do – ‘revitalization’ (rather than regeneration) of traditional downtown areas.

So it was that, just over a week ago, I headed for Morehead’s Katherine Davis park to check out ‘Alive at Five’, a monthly free music event offered by the Downtown Morehead City Revitalization Association (DMCRA) on a Friday evening. The park was absolutely heaving – with at least 1,000 people crammed into a small space – and The Band of Oz were definitely pleasing the crowd with their exuberant ‘Carolina Beach Music’. My friend and colleague Tom Kies, who heads up DMCRA, bore the kind of Cheshire Cat smile that says ‘I’ve absolutely nailed it’!

A few days later I headed down to Tom’s office. He confirmed that, after a couple of years of ‘Alive at Five’, the numbers at Friday’s event had been the highest ever. And – where NC’s draconian licensing laws forbid any beverages (alcoholic or not) to be brought in – more than 2000 cans of beer had been sold!

Morehead City is a classic victim of the so-called ‘Walmart effect’, with the massive retailer coming to an out-of-town site on the western margin, and drawing most of the activity in that direction. A town with just 15,000 inhabitants (albeit with lots of visitors) now not only has a Walmart, but also massive Belk, Lowes, Best Buy and many others – all based on a couple of sprawling mall sites. It is a shock to any European to see that, as we try to steward our limited land resources and to limit the influence of the car, the average American town is going in exactly the opposite direction.

Thankfully Morehead’s downtown has a lot to offer and, overall, Tom continues to feel optimistic. Its principle asset is the delightful and picturesque waterfront, once home to significant commercial fishing activity and now offering a mixture of recreational boats and good-quality restaurants and bars. Its status as a significant statewide destination has been enhanced by the annual NC Seafood Festival (http://ncseafoodfestival.org/) and by the Crystal Coast Boat Show (http://www.downtownmoreheadcity.com/boat_show.html), an event pioneered by DMCRA itself. But the waterfront is most famous for the Big Rock Blue Marlin tournament (http://www.thebigrock.com/), an event now more than fifty years old with a prize of more than a million dollars for the largest blue marlin caught.

It didn’t surprise me to hear from Tom that the next phase of the development of Morehead’s town would capitalise upon the Big Rock’s international status. Tom talked me through the three-phase plan that would see first a massive blue marlin statue on the waterfront (due by the end of August ’13), then a sizeable piazza, and then a striking wooden pavilion, dramatically visible from the sea.

The centre of activity of future Big Rock tournaments will shift to this new site – some 300-400 metres from the current weigh station – and it will be much easier to present other waterfront events. $200,000 of funding is coming from the wealthy Big Rock itself, with $550,000 from the City – a significant contribution in difficult times.

Tom describes his role at DMCRA as ‘doing a whole lot of things for not a lot of money’ – a sentiment with which any BID manager in the UK would probably concur. So, at the same time as he seeks to enhance the City’s visitor-facing assets, he also finds himself lobbying against moves that would appear to take the City back to an earlier industrial era – most famously in the successful campaign to overturn the proposal for a sulphur-melting plant at the nearby commercial harbour. (See http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/07/27/1373742/company-abandons-plans-to-build.html for details.) He also speaks passionately about inequitable zoning laws that can allow the seemingly unchecked development of out-of-town ‘big box’ stores, but which don’t permit a local developer to resurrect a valuable downtown 1904 property as a mixed-use development.

I hope to attend the North Carolina Downtown Development Association’s Main Street conference at the end of January 2014 (http://www.ncmainstreetcenter.com/). In the meantime I can only applaud the sterling work that Tom and his colleague Lisa at DMCRA and wish them all the best in their continuing endeavours on behalf of a great City.