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Just 18 months ago many wondered if the downtown business district in Morganton could survive. 23 storefronts were empty. Prospects for filling them in the middle of an economic slowdown seemed bleak.
Today, every storefront is filled. The only spaces left are upstairs business offices. "We have had a strong turnaround in just 18 months," said Sharon Jablonski, who heads up the downtown Main Street Organization. Jablonski said a lot of hard work and government grants helped to change the outlook. The money was used for loans to help existing businesses expand and bring newcomers in.
The result has been several new restaurants and shop ranging from consignment to fine art, clothing and more. Randy Morgan has a gold shop downtown and when asked what he thought about having a business downtown these days he replied "It's great."
The turnaround comes as a Wal Mart Supercenter and 52 other stores are being built just a few miles away from the downtown area. A shopping center of that size would normally spell trouble for a small downtown business district but most merchants say they are not too worried.
"I definitely have something to sell that they don't have," said James Wilkerson who owns Fashions on West Union Street. The store sells all sorts of clothing from t-shirts to specialty suits and shoes.
Business has not been strong and Wilkerson said it does need to pick up for him to stay. Just up the street at Kala, a craft gallery, Fransien Schuller said it has been tough lately but her shop is starting to see an uptick in business. "We have to start from somewhere," she said. In her shop Wednesday was a family that was passing through town but felt they just had to stop. "It's just so nice and pretty here,' said Amanda Rausch of Conover. And after having lunch and walking around the downtown Michelle Rausch said "I was impressed."
City officials are hoping that the new Wal Mart Supercenter will actually help the downtown area. "It could attract people to Morganton and they might come down here too," said Jablonski. The new shopping center will employ close to 1000 people and officials say those folks will spend their income somewhere and they hope some of the dollars will flow to downtown Morganton.
Among those hoping for retail spending to grow are Brett and Kelly Simon. They are working to open a bakery in downtown Morganton with hopes of opening September 1st. They're not worried about the big shopping center and local grocery stores cutting into their potential business. "It's food and everybody eats," said Kelly. Brett said people will know the difference between what his shop makes and what they can find elsewhere. "Our flavors are going to be different and better," he said. "This is a hometown bakery."
City officials admit is had been a struggle to keep the downtown area alive but vow to continue the efforts to make Morganton stand out from other towns in the area. "It's just a special place," said Jablonski.