Sunday, March 26, 2023

Town leaders look to improve downtown Burgaw aesthetics

The Town of Burgaw’s tourism authority is looking to improve the downtown streetscape by adding uniform features and reducing clutter on sidewalks. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

BURGAW — The Town of Burgaw’s Tourism Development Authority (TDA) is taking first steps to beautify downtown and create a uniform look — but not without some public resistance.

At a special-called meeting with TDA and the Town of Burgaw Board of Commissioners, discussions about planters and benches escalated when a handful of business owners decried too much town control.

The committee’s goal was to discuss improvements it could make to the downtown streetscape, especially along Freemont and Wright streets, considered “the heart of the town.” Burgaw has seen steady growth over the last few years and is eyeing future expansion, said Mayor Olivia Dawson. Sprucing up the area would not only attract tourists but also create new opportunities for businesses, she added.

With a budget of roughly $8,000 per year coming from the town’s hospitality tax, limited resources mean TDA can only implement change in small steps. By laying out streetscape plans, the committee was seeking approval from the board to move forward and requesting additional funding.

Comprising volunteers and local business owners, TDA has a mission to promote and enhance Burgaw with assistance from the town parks and recreation department. 

Last month, the committee ordered and installed roughly 30 banners at $100 each, welcoming travelers to town. Mayor Olivia Dawson said it is a way to connect the business community with downtown as a cohesive location. Members said they want to expand on that momentum.

At Thursday’s meeting, TDA proposed replacing planters in front of businesses to create a uniform look, cleaning up clutter from sidewalks and upgrading the deteriorating wooden benches with black iron decorative ones. 

As a way to decrease walking hazards and improve aesthetics, TDA chair Jennifer Hansen suggested limiting items on the sidewalk to outdoor dining furniture and signage. Implementing those changes might require an adjustment to current town ordinances. Right now, code enforcement is only handled via complaint, Dawson explained.

Burgaw’s municipal code does not allow outdoor storage in the back of businesses within the downtown district. Anything placed outside can only remain for 24 hours; however, merchandise on sidewalks is exempt from the ordinance, so the town would need to amend it to enforce guidelines for storefronts.

Some business owners in attendance were opposed, saying the town should not be “over-regulating.”

“When it comes to the safety of people, I understand that, and it makes sense,” Midas Sales president Everett Durham said. “But I think you need to be really, really careful because you’re about to get on a hell of a slippery slope.”

Supporters stressed the need for a tidier look, ridding the “modge-podge” of items on sidewalks, including an old couch. This prompted Burgaw Antique owner Johnny Westbrook to go on the defensive.

“You mean I’ve got to remove my rocking chair?” he said. “You can’t imagine how much people enjoy that double rocker. And I don’t want everything looking the same. Then it will look like nothing.”

Parks and recreation director Cody Suggs clarified enforcing regulations and installing corresponding features would create a “flow down the sidewalk to make everything look aesthetically pleasing.” He also said it would ensure businesses all follow the same guidelines — not necessarily banning all merchandise out front, just creating order. 

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but we’re not trying to limit the businesses on what they can put out there because that’s their job is to make money and sell product,” he said.

The committee said what makes Burgaw special is it’s small-town character.

“Nobody wants to detract from the individual aesthetics of the businesses downtown. That’s part of what makes Burgaw feel welcoming and feel like a Hallmark movie,” TDA board member Emmaline Kozak said. “I think what we’re saying is, we want to keep the foundation of the town and make it beautiful for businesses to thrive.”

Commissioners decided the town would have control over maintenance of installed landscaping or other features. Right now, it’s not clear who is responsible for the planters, so upkeep is not consistent.

“The town doesn’t have a very good track record, as far as I’m concerned, about the planters at all,” commissioner Vernon Hill said. “I’ll have to take some responsibility as I haven’t pushed it. But if we, the town, are going to maintain the planters, then we should maintain them.”

There was continued discussion on who that person would be. Director of public works Alan Moore said his team would do “anything the board asks” but does not feel qualified to do landscaping. Suggs suggested creating a new position that is solely responsible for downtown cleanliness, while commissioner Wilfred Robbins brought up organizing a “Green Team,” discussed for a few years now, to handle town landscaping.

Westbrook, the antique shop owner, was adamant the town should hire a professional landscape architect to ensure the proper plants were chosen and layout flowed correctly. He suggested using WithersRavenel, designers of the Courthouse Avenue green space. (The remaining Courthouse Avenue Streetscape Master Plan is currently on hold with a $3-million price tag.)

“We need a plan that looks to the future, that we have faith in, that can be implemented incrementally,” Westbrook said. “Let’s don’t do it piece-meal. Let’s do it right with professional assistance.”

Additional support and funding from the commissioners would go a long way, Kozak added.

The board agreed to move forward with replacing and modernizing trash cans and updating the benches. TDA and parks and recreation will present a requested number of each, as well as a budget, to the board at a future meeting. The board will then decide if it will supplement funding.

Suggs said since many of the current benches have signage dedicated to loved ones, the town would allow business owners to take those benches home or transfer the signage to the new ones.

Updating the planters will require additional conversation, as the ones chosen by TDA faced scrutiny.

“Look at the planters now, they’re the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,” Westbrook said.

He wasn’t impressed by the replacements either.

“This is even worse,” he noted upon seeing the suggestions. “At least the planters that are out there right now are covered with ivy, and you want to clean them up and expose an ugly planter, again? So leave the ivy on my planter in front of my store.”

The board acknowledged downtown’s trees and holly bushes also needed to be removed or maintained more efficiently.

“I believe we all can agree, change is coming,” commissioner James Malloy said. “In order for Burgaw to meet the 21st century, we have to be willing to change some things but maintain the foundation of who we really are. Downtown Burgaw needs some change and I believe we can do it without hurting anybody.”

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