ECU student planning project helps town revitalization

The town of Maysville in Jones County is celebrating the award of an $850,000 American Rescue Plan grant to revitalize its main street — and an East Carolina University class project helped make it possible.

With its location in eastern North Carolina and with the wealth of knowledge and resources it holds, ECU is charged with being of service to the surrounding community and leading the way for rural transformation. ECU leaders, faculty, staff and students are often appointed to help find solutions to local challenges in support of advancement efforts.

ECU’s service mission in action is evidenced in programs like RISE29, the Public Fellows Internship program, the Rural Education Institute, rural health and dental programs, community engaged research projects and more. Adding to the list is a planning studio class led by Merrill Flood, planner-in-residence and the director of research and innovation campus development.

A rendering of what the town of Maysville, North Carolina, could look like after revitalization efforts from an $850,000 American Rescue Plan grant that was secured in part thanks to the work by East Carolina University students in the Community and Regional Planning Program.

A rendering of what the town of Maysville, North Carolina’s, main street could look like after revitalization efforts from an $850,000 American Rescue Plan grant that was secured in part thanks to the work by East Carolina University students in the Community and Regional Planning Program. (Contributed graphic)

Each year in Flood’s planning studio class, upper-level students are assigned projects in which they assist organizations in taking steps to improve or advance a community.

“Part of my job with the university is to reach out to local communities to help them with a challenge. Sometimes that’s me helping them or it’s me partnering them with students to help them,” Flood said.

In the summer of 2021, Flood and a colleague were doing just that, working with Jones County on several projects. It was suggested that Flood meet with Maysville’s town manager to see how ECU could assist with its efforts.

Maysville is a small town of more than 1,000 residents, according to the 2020 census. It’s located about 20 miles from Emerald Isle and is lined on one side with the Croatan National Forest. Maysville has served as a beneficial “final stop” for food, gas or other facilities before the last leg of a trip to the beach, but in 2019, a bypass around Maysville and neighboring Pollocksville was completed. The bypass allows for smoother traffic flow and quicker access to coastal destinations, however, without the usual summer traffic, the town has seen several businesses close.

During their meeting, Maysville Town Manager Schumata Brown presented a block of buildings in the downtown area that leaders want to revitalize to get things started.

That fall, Flood brought the Maysville project to his planning studio class (PLAN 4096) and assigned a team of three students to help the town accomplish its goal. The team included project lead Love Ott, along with Lionel (Leo) Cruz-Cruz and Laney Rivera.

“By this time in that studio class, students have a good background and planning foundation. I give them direction and fine tune their work to a degree. It still is very much a student project, but I try to sit forward to help them come up with a realistic, doable plan. Something out of the plan can be implemented by the client,” Flood said.

Ott said the team met with Brown via Zoom and made several trips to Maysville to capture images of the downtown area.

“It is a town with so much potential, and I was really excited to get started,” Ott said.

Community and regional planning associate professor Misun Hur said, “The students saw the substantial potential that the Main Street rehabilitation could bring to the town. Renovating dilapidated buildings would bring layers of possibilities, including the aesthetical improvement of the streetscape, infrastructure upgrading, economic development potentials, changes in the public perceptions about the town and the sense of community, and removal of the public nuisance and potential dangers.”

“Laney was the best at graphic design applications, so she handled that aspect of the project. Leo wanted to do the research for funding, so he handled that aspect of the project. I did most of the writing. We all worked really well together throughout the whole project,” Ott said.

At the end of the semester, Brown brought several of his elected officials to view the group’s final presentation, which included strategies, preliminary designs and funding options for downtown revitalization.

“The feedback that we got after our presentation was extremely positive, so it was reassuring to hear that the work we did was actually something they wanted,” Ott said.

Around the time of the final presentation, the North Carolina Department of Commerce was coming out with a second round of rural transformation grants.

Utilizing the deliverables from the class project, Brown put together a grant application with the group’s work as the foundation.

In December, the commerce department announced that $19.7 million from the federal American Rescue Plan had been awarded to help boost local economies. In the Downtown Revitalization category, Maysville was slated to receive $850,000, one of 42 municipalities in rural areas throughout the state of North Carolina to receive funding.

According to the application project descriptions, the grant will assist Maysville with the purchase of 502-508 Main Street. The plan includes rehabilitating existing space to include high-quality store fronts leased for retail, restaurant and professional services, while making the second floor available for residential workforce housing that can be leased to town employees or teachers.

Regarding the collaboration with ECU, Brown said, “When we talk or think about collaborative relationships, we understand that we are working together for a common goal. However, I like to feel that we are being effective. The collaboration proved to be both, and it showed with us being awarded the rural transformation grant.”

Hur said, “The community and regional planning program exemplifies ECU’s motto — servire. The program’s curriculum promotes community-engaged projects in student learning. Students have provided the groundwork for a community by offering and prioritizing action items to solve or relieve their problems, establishing collective visions for them, and researching funding resources to seek further changes.”

Ott, now graduated and working as a land development specialist for the Town of Clayton, said the experience helped when interviewing for jobs.

“This project gave us ‘real-world’ experience not only with presenting but also working with others, clients, and figuring out what works best for that community,” she said.

Ott said the group is thrilled to learn that the work they did for a class project paid off.

“I am very happy and excited that Maysville received the grant; they deserve it, and I can’t wait to see what they do … I hope the project brings businesses into those downtown storefronts and more families see the potential Maysville has,” Ott said.