Downtown Zebulon merchants may form association

amoody@newsobserver.comOctober 24, 2013 

— Ramona Davis and her beautification committee cohorts have been relentless trying to help an area of town where none of them own a business.

If enough interest is shown by those who do own downtown Zebulon businesses, there may soon be a new force in place to take some of the burden off Davis and the members of the Zebulon Beautification Committee.

Talks of a downtown merchants association began late last year, when the committee established to research the value of an downtown overlay district was finalizing its recommendation to the town board. That committee consisted mostly of downtown business owners.

Local attorney Mike Weeks, who served as chairman of the overlay committee, said he plans to organize a meeting of all downtown businesses in a matter of weeks to see what thoughts they have on forming an association.

While the downtown’s appearance has been one of the main focal points of the beautification committee, so have commerce and addressing ways to fill the 14 vacant properties in the town’s main corridor. The overlay committee spent countless hours researching the same issues. Weeks said the former members of that group are ideal candidates for a merchants association steering committee.

“We are familiar with these problems, and the people on the overlay (committee) were the ones that showed enough interest in the downtown area and eventually made very good recommendations to the board of commissioners,” said Weeks, whose law firm has been based in downtown Zebulon for 40 years.

“(A merchants association) doesn’t exclusively have to be the overlay committee, but it would probably be a good deal of them discussing what to do moving forward.”

Weeks said if an association is formed its members would determine the scope of its involvement in downtown. But he said the ultimate goal of an association would be fostering business.

“First and foremost, it’s a committee that would try to promote commerce in downtown,” Weeks said. “When you say that, there’s lots of things you can do to promote commerce. I’d suspect that would be our primary goal. If we can’t do that, we probably aren’t going to go forward with it.”

The Zebulon Chamber of Commerce supports the idea. Executive Director Kim Valentine sees an association as a vessel for the merchants to be more involved, both in downtown and with the chamber.

“They’re not going to be doing exactly what we’re doing,” Valentine said, noting the chamber serves businesses in all areas of town. “The town by itself or chamber by itself doesn’t know all their concerns and wants, so they have to communicate with us. We have to work together to improve the things that need to be improved.”

Merchant perspectives

Italia Express owner Ray Swaiti thinks an association would give merchants a strengthened, unified voice in getting their concerns across to town hall.

“One person by himself is not going to do the job,” Swaiti said. “Too many things need to get done that aren’t getting done. There is no support for these little shops – they feel like they are left behind, left out.

“If businesses get together and put a little bit of pressure, we can get better response, better support.”

Jim Slaughter, owner of Zebulon Jewelry and Pawn, is on board with the idea but is unsure how effective a merchants association would be in terms of solving downtown’s issues. He thinks the town could do more to attract commerce toward its core.

“I just have my doubts on the influence we would have with the town,” Slaughter said. “I could come up with a lot of things we could do, but is (town) hall going to let me do it?

“(Town) hall is going to have to spend some money and do some things. There’s got to be a happy medium if you want Zebulon to grow.”

A more lively vibe

Davis has, for several years, organized seasonal meetings of the downtown merchants with a goal of uniting them on efforts to improve the area.

Weeks spoke of a merchants association at the most recent meeting, held Oct. 1. Davis said the meeting had a different vibe than those before.

“Everyone was speaking up, voicing their opinion, and there was good discussion,” she said. “Everyone was really coming together on wanting to improve downtown and it really was the first time I've seen so much positive reinforcement for bringing downtown back to life again.”

Moody: 919-829-4806

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