The HDDA holds a vision forum every five years, and the first was held in 2007.
Liz Parham, director of the N.C. Main Street Center, was at the forum and helped facilitate the group activities.
In the first part of the forum, participants in groups were asked to discuss and list economic drivers in the community and the assets that exist in downtown Hickory.
In discussion with her group, Gretchen Oetting, who moved to Hickory from Missouri three years ago, said the weather was a major factor for her and her husband choosing Hickory.
“And a lot of the people that I met that live here that are not from here, a lot of Wisconsinites, have come because of the weather,” Oetting said.
Ralph Griffith, another group member, said for younger people, employment was the primary draw to Hickory.
“If you ask anyone under 40… who has moved here in the last six months or so, every single one of them will tell you jobs,” Griffith said. “There’s a lot of tertiary things that invite us here, but at the end of the day, you can’t live in a great city with great culture and health care and great opportunity unless you can afford to re-locate and to live there.”
Cultural offerings, particularly the Hickory Community Theatre, the city’s low crime rate, and proximity to the mountains, beaches and other major cities also were discussed as overall community assets.
After the community’s overall economic drivers were discussed, the conversation shifted to the assets, strengths and challenges of downtown Hickory.
Oetting mentioned the potential of “untapped living space” in downtown.
Julie Owens, who is on the HDDA board, said the issue of downtown residential space had come up during the most recent N.C. Main Street Conference.
“One of the biggest things, my takeaway was that in order for a downtown to thrive, you ultimately have to have a mixed-use space,” Owens said. “You have to have retail, you have to professional and you have to have a pretty significant amount of residential.”
Owens, who is co-owner of Taste Full Beans coffee shop in downtown, said more residential space in downtown would be vital in creating the consistent traffic businesses need to do well.
Griffith said he sees relatively few “investable” assets in downtown.
“I think events that occur down there…but there’s not a lot down there to grow off of, right?” Griffith said.
Griffith suggested putting in resources to help grow downtown, positively referring to the recently-opened Lowes Foods City Park as a “big thing” for downtown.
The farmers market is another asset that should be studied in terms of the foot traffic it generates to gauge its impact and look for ways to further support the market, Griffith said.
In addition, the high cost of real estate in downtown also might be addressed through subsidies of “local dollars," as some other cities have done, Griffith said.
The high cost of real estate also can mean downtown stores often are higher end, which can be positive but might pose challenges in terms of attracting the broader community, group member Cliff Moone said.
Oetting brought up the spirit of Hickory’s people as one of the city’s greatest strengths, citing the 1944 Miracle of Hickory and the willingness of people in that time to put aside racial prejudice to care for the people of the city.
That spirit still continues to show in a number of ways, Oetting said.
“This town takes care of itself,” Oetting said. “I’ve never seen a place that will come together just to work for the good of its citizens, whether the citizens own a house, rent a house or are homeless.”
While there still are homeless in Hickory, there are also groups that provide support and opportunities for the homeless, Oetting said.
Griffith said he wants to see how that spirit might be re-captured in present day Hickory to face the city’s current challenges.
“It’s almost like it hasn’t happened; it hasn’t hit us enough that everyone is saying, ‘OK, we need to put our racial bigotries aside… our classism aside, all those different things and come together,’” Griffith said.
“It hasn’t happened yet. What’s our next renaissance?”
Moone commented on divisions between minority communities and other parts of the city, and how these divisions can affect downtown Hickory.
“The train, you know, below the tracks and above the tracks, it still exists in Hickory,” Moone said. “And it exists in a psychological sense that is negative for even pulling people from Ridgeview up into your businesses and into the heart.”
Looking to 2022
After the initial discussion on community and downtown assets, the participants reassembled into the larger group and shared their ideas.
The groups were asked to reform and craft a vision statement of what downtown would look like in 2022, which will be the year of the next vision forum.
After groups created and shared their vision statements, participants were given blue stickers and asked to use them to mark the vision statements, or portions of vision statements, that most resonated.
The vision statement that received the most stickers tended to emphasize the city’s history, vibrancy and welcoming atmosphere.
Other participants indicated that accessibility, entrepreneurship, living space and entertainment were important areas of focus for downtown as well.
The vision statements, as well as written feedback from the groups, will be used by the HDDA as the organization creates its own vision and work plan.