Downtown Newton Storefronts

Small Town Dreams Revived by American Rescue Plan
North Carolina is lifting up smaller communities through the $50 million Rural Transformation Grant Fund

Author: Jessie Holmes

As the 2020 holiday shopping season approached, Seven Seed Soap Company owner Jennifer Samson began looking for a larger space to help her customers socially distance. As a longtime Newton resident, she immediately thought of the city’s downtown, which was undergoing a major revitalization project before the pandemic put everything on pause. She says what happened next felt like a sign.

“I saw this space for rent so peeked in, got the number and I called. The owner laughed and said that we were the third soap maker to inquire,” Samson says. “But it was too big for the other two. So it almost felt like it was meant to be for us.”

Samson relocated to College Avenue that October. Meanwhile down the street, Mitch Ball’s customer base was just beginning to return to normal at B-52’s American Bar and Grill. They had temporarily shut down due to COVID-19. 

“It was an incredibly hard decision, but I had to basically lay the majority of my employees off,” says Ball. 

But through carry out and delivery orders, Ball’s hometown helped his restaurant survive and two years later the growth that originally drew him and Samson downtown is back on track thanks in part to the Rural Transformation Grant Fund. Newton is one of 30 grant recipients so far, with various levels of funding available across several categories including downtown revitalization. The North Carolina Department of Commerce anticipates opening a third round of applications in early 2023. 

Revitalization Back on Track

Newton will use its $900,000 award to complete the Downtown Newton Economic Infrastructure Revitalization Project – an $8 million master plan that was originally scheduled to be finished in 2021. City leaders say the future is bright, again.

Newton Streetscape Revitalization SIgn
A sign in downtown Newton lays out the Newton Streetscape Revitalization Plan which will be completed with the help of a $900,000 grant from the Rural Transformation Grant Fund. 

“We've already seen businesses coming into town because of this project,” says Alex Frick, Public Information Officer for the City of Newton. “By making Newton more of a destination and more desirable, raising property values and having more people in the downtown area living and visiting, shopping and eating, that just makes a more resilient place.”

The streetscape portion of the project includes replacing outdated underground utilities and infrastructure, widening sidewalks, and adding decorative lights, new signage, and benches. With the final piece of funding now in place, the last phase of construction will begin in 2023.

“Right now it's an unfinished canvas and the painting is looking really great, but it's just not completed,” says Ball, whose street is next on the list. “Once that’s complete, I think it will be a really awesome, attractive place for people to come and enjoy, and be a part of our community."

A Long-term Investment in Small Communities

The Rural Transformation Grant Fund was established by the N.C. General Assembly using $50 million in State Fiscal Recovery Funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. It aims to help communities like Newton support projects that will retain businesses, spur private investment, and improve quality of life. Because rural areas typically have fewer resources, they were especially susceptible to negative economic effects from the pandemic.

Downtown Newton
The North Carolina Department of Commerce has awarded grants to the City of Newton and dozens of other rural communities using State Fiscal Recovery Funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

“Rural communities face systemic and economic challenges that get in the way of building vibrant and sustainable communities,” says Hazel Edmond, Rural Engagement and Investment Director with N.C. Commerce. “Demand for these funds was high.”

Edmond says to help ensure communities are also set up for long term success, the N.C. Commerce is providing training and technical assistance to help increase grant recipients’ local government capacity to become more efficient, sustainable, and enhance their public services. 

“Since the first intake of applications, communities are already implementing their transformative ideas and making a big difference towards their goals.”

Making a Comeback

Back at Seven Seed Soap Company, Samson is excited to be part of the momentum for Newton’s downtown renaissance.

“I think about all the neighborhoods that surround the downtown area, how they're able to access more things happening downtown,” says Samson. “I think the economic development created has been really great and I’m looking forward to seeing the next phase.”

The revitalization is especially meaningful to Ball at B-52’s restaurant, who sees the unique character of his hometown coming back to life and is grateful other communities in North Carolina get to experience the same thing.

“I think it's vital that these grants come to the smaller downtowns because I think it's building our community back to where it once was when I was growing up.”

Learn more about the Rural Transformation Grant Fund


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