Joe Morris

Joe MorrisMeet Joe Morris. As director of city planning for Salisbury, North Carolina, Morris knows firsthand how transportation enhancement funds can spark the transformation of an entire neighborhood. From East Square’s historic train depot to the newly refurbished Fisher Street, Morris has used federal grants to enhance the quality of life for Salisbury’s 30,000 residents.

When asked how the transformation began, Morris points to former mayor Margaret Kluttz. While serving on the North Carolina Board of Transportation in the late 1990s, she notified city staff about new funding offered by the Department of Transportation for non-highway transportation improvements. This new opportunity dovetailed with the city's desire to improve a major entrance to its downtown.

Salisbury – home of the southern soft drink Cheerwine and the Food Lion grocery store chain – boasts some magnificent architecture, much of which can be found in five local and ten National Register historic districts. Built in 1908 in the Spanish mission style, the Salisbury Railroad Passenger Station served as a mainline station between Washington, DC and Atlanta, GA until train travel declined. To prevent demolition of the vacant depot, the Historic Salisbury Foundation, Inc. purchased it from the North Carolina Railroad Company and Norfolk Southern Company, and then spent over $3 million restoring it.

Awarded $900,000 in transportation enhancement funds, the city of Salisbury and the Historic Salisbury Foundation turned the station's restaurant and baggage areas into office space. In 1998, when the station restoration was finished, ridership rose from 17,299 to 24,147 passengers. According to Ed Davis with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, "We wanted to do the best rehab possible in order to encourage others in the town to do the same."

When you look at the 1908 Salisbury Railroad Passenger Station with its forty foot cathedral ceilings, arched wooden beams and mosaic tile floor, you can understand why the building's restoration launched the transformation of an entire neighborhood. As city engineer Daniel Mikkelson describes, "The depot was the tipping point of that quadrant of town. As long as it looked old and abandoned, the rest of the area looked old and abandoned."

Additionally, once the private sector saw public money invested, they jumped on the bandwagon of revitalization. The local Farmers & Merchants Bank restored almost half a block of old buildings slated for the landfill to the tune of almost $8 million dollars.

On a roll, the community went back for more transportation enhancements funds. The next $600,000 went for streetscape improvements around the depot, including the newly restored walkway – originally called "Easy Street" – which makes walking from downtown to the train station a breeze.

To see if their strategy could help create an "entertainment district," the city applied for and received another $505,000 in transportation enhancements funding. As Morris describes, "The street was all beat-up, but we knew it had potential." Thanks to the new streetscape improvements, Salisbury residents now enjoy three new restaurants and revived nightlife located along the brick-lined block. And the Piedmont Players, a local theater group, have purchased a former pool-hall and plan to renovate the space into a new 240 seat theater. 

"Now there's a new ambiance," Morris said. "On weekends, every parking spot is filled and people are walking there after 5:00 p.m. The improvements literally reinvigorated the neighborhood."

The results are impressive to say the least. According to Morris, "Every dollar of public funds invested in Salisbury over the last decade has leveraged 20 dollars in private development." The transportation enhancements funds helped this town capitalize on its existing resources and create new jobs. A 2004 study commissioned by the North Carolina Department of Transportation showed that the $6 million in transportation enhancements funds and other public funds used to rehabilitate the train station and improve streets in the East Square area will translate into $23 million in wages to North Carolina over a 20-year period. No wonder Salisbury's current mayor Susan Kluttz proclaims the city as a leader in the preservation movement.

With projects completed in both East Square and South Square, Morris reflects, "These grants meant the city was able to stretch our local dollars. Without these federal dollars, the improvements wouldn't have happened on this scale or on this timetable."

These efforts illustrate how transportation enhancement grants work to revitalize older communities.  However, the key to such redevelopment successes is seeing public monies invested in existing infrastructure, which leverages private reinvestment in the rehabilitation and reuse of buildings.