Spaces to Places

Transforming Public Spaces into Vibrant Places for the Community.

A Small Town Looking to Enhance Economic Vitality with Placemaking and More

Written by Michael Cooper, Governmental Affairs Director for the Near West Region of North Carolina, which includes the McDowell County Board of REALTORS®

In 2020, I took a job with the North Carolina Association of REALTORS® as a regional government affairs director in western North Carolina. I was living in Raleigh, but early in the pandemic I started to miss the qualities of life in our foothills and mountains: the space, the privacy, the scenery, the small-town charm. I wasn’t the only one.

Before COVID, the greatest issue in North Carolina was a rural-urban divide as jobs and industries concentrated in cities and rural areas lost population. Now that’s changing. The housing market in western NC is booming because families are spreading out and more Americans have the option of working from home. That’s why I’m thrilled to be working as a GAD in this moment. After taking the job with NC REALTORS® I became familiar with  NAR’s Housing Opportunity, Placemaking and Smart Growth grants and instantly became a fan. My part of North Carolina was built on agriculture, furniture manufacturing and textiles. But those industries employ fewer people now and economic development is now more about placemaking.

My region includes the Town of Boone, which is home to Appalachian State University, and not far away is the City of Asheville. But more common are places like Mt. Airy, a town which is the birthplace of Andy Griffith and the inspiration for Mayberry from his show. There are many communities like that in western North Carolina (Newland, Sparta, West Jefferson, Rutherfordton, and Spruce Pine) that are undergoing a transition and adapting to creating jobs also based on tourism and outdoor recreation. Quality of life now is key. So is walkability, culture, entertainment, downtown shopping, mixed use properties, and a strong sense of place.
That’s why I got excited about the grant opportunities available through NAR. I researched those opportunities and pitched associations in my region on pursuing these grants to support smart growth principles in their communities. That led to three of my associations applying for and receiving Smart Growth Level 2 Grants, the first of which was for the McDowell County Board of REALTORS®.

Main Street, Marion, NC

Photo courtesy of the Marion Business Association

We partnered with the Marion Business Association and their Executive Director Freddie Killough to bring the grant to the City of Marion. And we were connected with Hilary Greenberg, President of Greenberg Development Services, who was available to do a Main Street Development Assessment for the community. It was perfect timing and a perfect fit.

Mountain Glory Festival, Marion, NC

Photo courtesy of the Marion Business Association

The City of Marion is well-positioned for this moment. It’s within a 30-minute drive of Asheville, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Linville Falls, and the tallest mountain on the East Coast, Mt. Mitchell. There’s also a gorgeous lake nearby, Lake James. Tourists come to the area every day for hiking, camping, and fishing, and with the rise of telework, more people will want to stay in the area full-time.

Welcome to Marion sign displayed at the Phillip Building in Marion, NC

Photo courtesy of the Marion Business Association

So it made sense for the McDowell Board of REALTORS® to use available resources to support a study of ways to grow and boost Marion’s downtown. Hilary Greenberg visited Marion in August to conduct the assessment. That included lunch the county manager, a walking tour, business visits, dinner with the Marion Business Association, a breakfast workshop with community leaders including REALTORS®, interviews with stakeholders, and a lunch with economic development officials. Hilary’s report is now being finalized.  But we do anticipate using a NAR Placemaking grant to implement one of the recommendations in the report.

Marion Square, Downtown Marion, NC

Photo courtesy of the Marion Business Association

As the website of the Marion Business Association (MBA) states: “With global economic changes, now more than ever before, a strong representation for rural communities is essential.  Downtowns remain the heartbeat of a community.  The MBA is seeing a renewed interest in the downtown with a variety of new businesses, including a meadery, tap room, breweries, entertainment venue, and a general store.” And the McDowell Board of REALTORS® couldn’t have been prouder to partner with MBA to secure the grant, and to host Hilary and a special visit from Holly Moskerintz and Christine Windle from NAR.

Marion, North Carolina is a quaint little city in the foothills of North Carolina. The quality of life and the cost of living will make this an attractive place now that more people can live and work from anywhere. But that’s not a guarantee of attracting new residents, new jobs and new investment. We still have to do the work. We need to study our assets, highlight the best of what we have to offer, and sell a vision of a renewed and prosperous future for the community, and NAR’s Smart Growth Grant is helping Marion do that.

Group photo taken in front of a gate displaying the City of Marion emblem

Photo courtesy of the Marion Business Association

Other associations in my region are now following their lead.


Community Outreach Programs

Housing Opportunity Grant
Housing Opportunity Grants support state and local REALTOR® Associations’ affordable housing activities. The goal of the program is to position REALTORS® as leaders in improving their communities by creating affordable housing

Smart Growth Grant
Smart growth is an approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, development within existing neighborhoods, and community engagement. The Smart Growth Program offers state and local REALTOR® Associations to way to engage with government officials, community partners and the general public in planning and designing community’s future.

Planned diversity initiatives makes good business sense. REALTOR® Associations with well-planned diversity programs create a stronger sense of community, particularly in neighborhoods with high concentrations of foreign-born and minority residents who are moving up the socioeconomic ladder and are buying homes.

NAR Placemaking Resources

Placemaking Guide: A Guide to Transform a Public Space into a Community Place
REALTORS® and state and local association staff can learn the details of Placemaking, the kinds of projects placemaking entails, how to organize them, and where to go for assistance and resources.

Placemaking Webinar Series
Our Placemaking Webinar Series will provide more in depth information on the various types of Placemaking and how REALTORS® were involved in Placemaking activities in their communities.

Placemaking Grant
The Placemaking Grant funds the creation of new public spaces, like pocket parks, trails & gardens, in a community. The grant focuses on “lighter, cheaper, quicker” placemaking projects, which can be built under a year and cost less  than $200,000.

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Smart Growth

The healthier a community, the better the environment for REALTORS®. Keeping a community attractive, livable and functioning well is a complex task.