MOUNT OLIVE – The town of Mount Olive has come a long way since its humble beginnings as “mile marker 70,” and was simply a stop along a railroad route until the late 1800s.
Now known for pickles, agriculture and a well regarded university, the town of Mount Olive has aspirations of attracting businesses to its downtown.
On July 14, the Mount Olive Area Chamber of Commerce sent out a survey by email asking for feedback on downtown Mount Olive. The survey was also posted on the Town of Mount Olive’s website. July 24 was the deadline to complete the survey.
The Town of Mount Olive has partnered with Retail Strategies, a company located in Birmingham, Alabama, that specializes in attracting businesses to locations across the country. Mount Olive Area Chamber of Commerce President Julie Beck was familiar with Retail Strategies after meeting them at a conference several years ago.
“Mount Olive is part of the North Carolina Main Street Program,”said Beck. “I represent Mount Olive at all the small town North Carolina Main Street meetings and conferences. Several years ago, I met Retail Strategies as one of the vendors at our conference. When the town got a grant from the Department of Commerce to try to do some downtown revitalization, they mentioned to me they needed to hire a consulting company, and they asked me if I had any suggestions. I was like oh my gosh, I know who you need to talk to.”
Retail Strategies went through an application process before being hired to assist in helping to attract businesses to downtown Mount Olive. The company also met with Mount Olive officials over a video call before coming to Mount Olive to assess the downtown area in person.
“The thing that we really liked about Retail Strategies is that they work together with you and the community,” said Beck. “We had to put together an executive committee that consists of some town employees, officials, some citizens and plus myself from the chamber. Retail Strategies has a very diverse background. They have people that are from economic development, they have people that were realtors, they have people that are downtown development directors, people that are in tourism, people that are in retail, so they really have all avenues.”
Another major factor in Mount Olive electing to partner with Retail Strategies was the company’s previous experience in working with communities that are home to colleges and universities. Attracting businesses that can benefit students at the University of Mount Olive, their families and school’s faculty, is a point of emphasis for Mount Olive.
“The other piece of the puzzle that we really liked about Retail Strategies is they have done a lot of work with communities that have a college in their town,” Beck said. “That was very important to us. We need to make sure whatever we do, we’re thinking about the University of Mount Olive and all those students and faculty and staff, and how can we incorporate them into what we’re doing.”
Retail Strategies will be back in Mount Olive on Oct. 3 to meet with various members of the community, as well as to look at different locations downtown. Following that visit Retail Strategies will present Mount Olive with a plan consisting of options the town can act on immediately, as well as within the one to three year range, and things that could be done in the next three to five years.
While downtown Mount Olive has become the focal point of the annual North Carolina Pickle Festival, as well as the much newer Pickles, Pigs and Swigs Festival, Beck still believes there are shopping and dining options the downtown area is lacking.
“We need a place to buy gifts,” Beck said. “I’m not talking bad about any place downtown, but we’ve also had a lot of conversations about having a store where you can buy Mount Olive products. In Mount Olive we have Mt. Olive pickles, Methodist church peanuts, Butterball turkey, Hwy 55 has things, Southern Bank is headquartered here and the University of Mount Olive. So just a store that features Mount Olive things and Mount Olive artists. Clothing I think is important, and I think again the restaurants. We have Up North Pizzeria and Ribeyes, and they’re amazing, but we need other options.”
As Mount Olive eyes strategies to grow its downtown, that optimism for growth is also met with challenges. Railroad tracks that run right through the center of downtown, impending construction to Interstate 795 and the town’s moratorium on sewer and water, all present obstacles to growing downtown.
“Most people know we’re under a moratorium with our infrastructure with our sewer and water,” Beck said. “So, that’s a big challenge for us. That makes it difficult to build a building or add a business. The other is a pro and a con is the train. Clearly, we have a train track that runs through the middle of our downtown. CSX owns 100 feet on either side of the train track. On the other hand, we love the railroad because this is why Mount Olive started, because of the train coming through our town. We were mile marker 70 for many, many years until the late 1800’s. We also know that ten years down the road, Interstate 795 is going to run right by Mount Olive. We’ve got to be prepared. We need to get people to come off that exit and come to our downtown and spend money, and have an economic impact in our downtown.”