‘Retail follows rooftops’

Published 9:44 am Thursday, March 28, 2024

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GATESVILLE – Development of the Merchants Commerce Center needs to use the “retail follows rooftops” scenario.

That’s the opinion of Anne Darby, Planning Department Manager at Summit Design & Engineering, the company under contract by Gates County local government to provide a conceptual plan for the development of the property along US 158 across from Gates County High School.

The county purchased the 144-acre site in 2022 in an effort to attract new businesses, particularly those offering goods/services that are now only available outside the county.

While the business model of that plan remains intact, Darby suggested starting with “rooftops” (housing) that will build a customer base for those businesses.

“We want to develop incrementally and intentionally,” she said at the March 20 meeting of the Gates County Board of Commissioners. “We are aware of some business owners who wish to locate there.”

“If you create housing in a concentrated area then you don’t interrupt the rural nature of the rest of the county,” Darby noted. “Permit the housing first, which develops population and increases density to make future commercial development possible.”

Darby also encouraged county leaders and citizens to think creatively about the use of resources and how to combine uses where possible. As an example, she pointed to the Gates County Community Center, located across US 158 from the Merchants Commerce Center. A “combined use” there could add a senior center and a daycare center.

“The sky is the limit for collaborative uses,” she stressed. “Direct growth to this area and build on the energy that’s already there. The library is there; people are coming to the bank there [State Employees Credit Union]; the restaurant [China King] is there; and obviously the high school is there. Build on that and think about how these uses interact with one another.”

Other than the suggestion of developing housing opportunities at Merchants Commerce Center, Darby made another recommendations. They include addressing the myths about multi-family housing, incremental development, a new community center, and addressing the need for a place to purchase healthy food.

“With a little research and building trust, I think it will become clear that multi-family housing will be good for the county as a whole,” Darby said.

It’s not impossible to build a great commerce center. It just needs to be creative,” she stated.

The opening portion of her presentation included the findings of a survey conducted last year regarding what the public saw as best usage of the Merchants Commerce Center. That survey attracted 515 responses. Additionally there were public forums held at the county’s public library.

Darby said there were four key takeaways from the survey: concerns about the cost/reality of the project, protecting the rural lifestyle enjoyed in the county, the need for access to a grocery store, and the need for additional housing options.

There were questions from the public as to where the money would come from to support a project of this magnitude as well as those questioning if the infrastructure needed for this project was in place, and if not, from where would the funding come for that.

“We heard a lot about the need for a grocery store,” Darby said. “I did a lot of research on this and the sparse demographics of the county, the population, means the site we’re talking about is not going to fit a traditional grocery store.

“We reached out to the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association,” Darby continued. “They reached out to Food Lion, Piggly Wiggly and a couple of other grocery stores that generally locate in rural areas and this location does not meet their Pro Forma [a method of calculating financial results using certain projections or presumptions].”

With that said, Darby stressed there are many rural communities that are finding alternative grocery store models and ways to bring healthy foods into rural areas.

“I know this is a big concern you have. My recommendation is to explore alternative models for grocery stores,” Darby suggested.

She cited an example in Surry County, Virginia where a public/private venture is about to open in that rural area. Darby has contacted local government officials there to offer insight to Gates County officials about how to make this type of grocery store work.

As for the housing part of the Merchants Commerce Center project, Darby said the survey and the public forums showed the lack of available housing in Gates County.

“We heard from those who had to find housing in nearby counties,” she said. “We also heard concerns about multi-family housing leads to a rise in crime. There are no studies I’m aware of that correlates multi-family housing with an increase in crime.”

Currently, Darby said Summit Design & Engineering is studying if the infrastructure in place, most notably the public sewer and wastewater treatment facility, is enough to support projected residential/commercial growth at Merchants Commerce Center.

At the conclusion of Darby’s presentation, Jonathan Craddock, vice chair of the board, suggested the commissioners conduct a special workshop regarding the findings and recommendations of Summit Design & Engineering from where a master plan for the commerce center can begin to take shape.


About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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