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News Highlands asks N.C. Senate to not forget about small towns in WNC

House budget proposal would cut support for Small Town Main Street Programs

Highlands town manager Jim Fatland believes that in these economic times, it is more important than ever to support local small businesses.

“When you have a down economy, you need to be proactive in stimulating jobs,” said Fatland. “We feel the Main Street Program does just that.”

The Town of Highlands, which was selected a year ago to participate in the North Carolina Small Town Main Street Program, has made great strides in moving its downtown forward, in part through the strong support from staff who coordinate the program in the Western North Carolina region, says Fatland.

However, the state budget proposal for fiscal year 2011/2012 approved by the N.C. House of Representatives earlier in the month would cut all funding for program support in the western part of the state.

Looking to find its way out of a $2.7 billion deficit, state legislators have been hacking away at everything from public health to education. If the present version of the budget is adopted by the Senate, all support services for small town partners of the main street program in WNC will end on June 30, 2011.

Some might say the proposed cuts to the Main Street Program, established by the state Department of Commerce, show that the legislators are willing to attack programs favored by either side of the political spectrum. But Fatland suggests that the state would be sacrificing precisely the kind of stimulus it needs to pull itself out of its economic morass, and he adds that funding one half of the state while sacrificing the other is unfair at best.

“Terminating the N.C. Small Town Main Street Program for the western part of the state does not make sense,” Fatland wrote in a recent memo which called for people and merchants to lobby their representatives. “The program has been very successful and should be continued for the entire state.”

“Terminating the N.C. Small Town Main Street Program for the western part of the state does not make sense. The program has been very successful and should be continued for the entire state.” — Jim Fatland, Highlands town manager

According to Department of Commerce statistics, the state’s Main Street Program which was established in 1980, has been a proven success. The program, which utilizes a four-point approach of organization, design, promotion and economic restructuring, has generated $1.4 billion in new investment, added 13,700 new jobs, seen the renovation of 3,300 buildings and been responsible for a net gain of 3,300 new businesses.

The department established the Small Town Main Street Program in 2003, as a complement to the primary program, to provide technical assistance to downtowns in smaller communities that did not have the resources to hire a director of downtown development activities. In 2006 the program was extended to the western part of the state.

The House approved budget eliminates the positions of the two Asheville-based Small Town coordinators that serve the WNC region. Over the past year, these coordinators have helped to facilitate the monthly meetings of the Highlands program and have brought invaluable insight about what has and hasn't worked on other Main Streets in the state.

“Certainly, it will impact us directly,” said Bob Kieltyka of the potential loss of support for the program in Highlands. Kieltyka, executive director of the Highlands Chamber of Commerce, notes that Highlands is just one year into a two year process that acceptance into the program initiated. The first year saw goals established for the Highlands Main Street along with priorities and a working plan to execute those goals. “The second year, the implementation phase, is where we would lose our support.”

While the largest impact would be to towns like Highlands that do not have full-time Main Street directors, larger Main Street Programs would also be effected. Linda Schlott, director of the Main Street Program in Franklin, says the town has often used the resources of the Asheville Small Town Main Street office for such things as its design services.

Schlott says that what frustrates her the most is that it is communities in the western part of the state that will suffer most. On the other hand, she says it's not an unusual state of affairs. “It's sort of normal. The west always gets the short end of the stick.”

“We’ve got a lot of momentum going,” Fatland said. He added that whether or not support is cut, he and Highlands Mayor David Wilkes are committed to continuing the program, holding monthly meetings, and carrying forward the principles and goals that have been established after a year of planning. The loss of support would be a blow, he said, “but we’re still committed to working with the downtown merchants in the program regardless.”

The budget has now moved on to the Senate, where legislators are expected to approve a counter proposal in the coming weeks. “We hope that the Senate will consider funding Main Street programs throughout the state, not just in the eastern part,” said Fatland.

Highlands was recently approved for $200,000 through the Main Street Solutions Grant, funding for which is also eliminated in the House budget. However, Fatland says that funding for communities already approved for the grant will not be jeopardized.


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