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Princeton tables downtown proposal

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PRINCETON — After a lengthy discussion, town commissioners tabled a proposal from a downtown development consulting firm recently hired by the town of Kenly and being considered by the town of Selma.

Town Administrator Marla Ashworth introduced Mara Dowdy of Pennsylvania-based Town Center Associates at the April 1 board meeting. Dowdy was accompanied by Triangle East Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mike Mancuso.

Dowdy told commissioners her company would attract businesses and investments to Princeton.

A downtown is like a mall,” said Dowdy. “To make sure buildings are full, we provide you with what you need to make good decisions about your downtown.”

For $4,800, which would be financed by a grant, Town Center would provide Princeton with a downtown business mix analysis, vibrancy indicator, sign review and analysis, analysis of available spaces, improvement strategies and consultation and training. Princeton also would have the option of continuing with a 12-month downtown properties tracking system.

Mancuso told commissioners how the firm helped Salem, Ohio when he was executive director of a nonprofit economic development organization there.

“They gave us a report on the conditions of the buildings,” said Mancuso. “We did not have a maintenance code and adopted one, based on TCA’s recommendations. We went from 40 downtown vacant buildings to less than 18 when I left to come here.”

“With the interstate coming, we need to do everything we can to make downtown Princeton attractive,” said Ashworth. “That’s why we created the Downtown Business Improvement District. We have a grant that will pay for TCA’s initial assessment. Then we can decide whether or not continue on an annual basis.”

But Mayor Pro-tem Walter Martin Jr. said he wanted to have “additional conversation” before signing on with Town Center.

“I’m very careful when it comes to using taxpayers’ money,” said Martin. “The people who own the buildings haven’t said they would buy into this. I would prefer to hear a buy-in from them before we spend $4,800.”

Commissioner Mike Rose said he supports planning and vision but shared Martin’s concerns.

“It’s a great-looking presentation,” said Rose. “But what I’ll face is why we spent $5,000 on a document and plan when we could have taken that money and used it for downtown development grants.”

Dowdy said Town Center’s services will help Princeton prioritize its development strategies.

“We can show you how to do matching grants and get seed money,” said Dowdy. “We can help you decide on policies, give you model ordinances and help you leverage funding. We’ve not yet worked with a town that didn’t experience a positive change.”

Commissioner Larry Withrow, in his final meeting, made a motion to approve a Town Center Associates deal that died for lack of a second. Then Martin made a motion, seconded by Commissioner Susan Watson, to table consideration until the May 6 meeting. That motion passed.

Selma Councilwoman Ann Williams said the town council will consider a contract with Town Center at its April 12 meeting.

“The problem we have is that if someone from out of state comes to town and wants to open a business, how do they find out what’s available?” said Williams. “This company maps out our uptown business district and does an inventory. Then when someone goes to the town’s website, they can click on a link to the TCA website, which shows a map of downtown and balloons for available locations. People click on the balloon and get information on that site. That’s very appealing to us because it can be difficult for someone to access that information.”