Mebane strives to keep its charm as it grapples with growth

 In October 2018, Town Square

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Built in 1910, the historic Five Star Building in downtown Mebane houses offices, retail shops and loft apartments. Photo by Chris Burritt.

By Chris Burritt

Patricia Bigelow has sold German Johnson tomatoes, yellow squash and other goods at the corner of West Clay and North Third streets in Mebane for 15 years. Increasingly, she says, many of her customers have moved here from elsewhere. Next to her under a green tent, Roosevelt Perkins, another longtime vendor at the downtown farmers market, nods in agreement. “I like the growth in Mebane,” Perkins says. “But on the other hand, more people moving in means it’s not the sweet little town it once was.”

These observations, as simple and unadorned as a pint jar of Bigelow’s pickles, frame the debate about the future of Mebane and how city leaders might reshape its historic downtown to accommodate a doubling of population over the next two decades. Mebane, which sits in Alamance and Orange counties and has a population of about 15,000, is adding about 1,000 residents a year. That growth pushes the projected tally to 32,000 in 2035, says Cy Stober, the city’s development director.

Newcomers are attracted by housing that’s typically less expensive than in its Orange County neighbors in Hillsborough and Chapel Hill. Mebane is also a ’tween town: Its central location on the interstate makes it convenient for commuting to high-paying jobs in the Triangle and Triad.

A short distance from the farmers market, a two-block stretch of West Clay Street has grown in popularity among out-of-towners. They poke around the coffeehouses and shops selling clothing, jewelry, flowers and home accessories without the congestion and parking shortages of nearby Hillsborough and Carrboro. On a Saturday morning in July, more than a dozen cyclists with the Carolina Tarwheels Bicycle Club in Chapel Hill pedaled to Mebane for coffee before returning home.

West Clay Street isn’t Mebane’s only shopping district, and it’s certainly not best known. Motorists exit Interstate 40/85 to shop at Tanger Outlets, Walmart, Lowe’s and dozens of national retailers such as Starbucks that congregate around big-box stores. Given the competition along the interstate, Mebane officials are eager to lure newcomers downtown, figuring many will return to patronize its homegrown, eclectic merchants.

“Once they go downtown, people say, ‘My God, there is more than Tanger [outlet center] here,’” said John Barnhart, a Mebane resident and real-estate agent who’s involved in the downtown revitalization efforts.

By year-end, city officials plan to pull together a redevelopment plan with some features, such as the widening of sidewalks and elimination of some street parking, that have drawn criticism from a few merchants. The debate started last year, when the city received a $50,000 grant from the N.C. Department of Commerce’s Main Street program. Mebane matched the grant and hired Allison Platt & Associates, a Goldsboro-based urban design and landscape architecture firm, to lead planning. A series of public forums about the redevelopment ended in July, and the city council could adopt a plan by year-end, Stober says.

“The vision they have is beautiful and ambitious, and in a perfect world, it would be cool,” says Tracey Broome, owner of Urban Homestead Supply, a store selling organic garden supplies, indoor plants and home goods at the corner of West Clay and Fourth streets. But reducing the number of parking spaces to accommodate wider sidewalks and a bike lane would penalize stores that rely on convenient parking for customers buying heavy, bulky items such as furniture, Broome says. Construction itself would be disruptive to businesses for months.

Not everyone agrees with Broome. The redevelopment is necessary for the town to change, says Addie Lunden, owner of Filament Coffee, one of two West Clay Street coffeehouses.

“Our downtown is a destination in itself, with its small-town urban, hip feel,” says Mebane City Manager David Cheek. “We want to preserve it; we want to enhance it. We want to make it better, but we don’t want to lose the vibe in the midst of doing that.” How the downtown district takes shape over the next quarter century will depend upon the willingness of property owners to sell land to developers for housing such as garden apartments and senior living centers, he says. “Our plan is casting a vision. There are a lot of chess pieces that have to be moved around for this to happen.”

Mebane’s proximity to major highways has spurred local economic development, adding 2,500 jobs and more than $500 million in capital investments over the last five years as Walmart and German grocery chain Lidl have opened distribution centers in the city, Cheek says. They’re located on a tract Mercedes-Benz AG considered in 1993 for its first U.S. manufacturing facility before the German automaker selected a site in Vance, Ala. Japanese candy-maker Morinaga built its first U.S. plant there in 2015, and Belgium-based Lotus Bakeries, maker of Biscoff cookies served on airplanes, is investing at least $50 million in a bakery slated to open in 2019.

While mattress maker Kingsdown Inc., founded as Mebane Bedding Co. in 1904, maintains downtown operations, other manufacturers have departed. White Furniture Co., started in 1881 by brothers William and David White, closed its doors in 1993. The shuttered factory has been converted into a 156-unit apartment complex.

As part of the factory’s redevelopment five years ago, the city invested $1 million on storm sewer improvements, Cheek says. Mebane also is spending $8.5 million on a new park on West Clay Street, a short distance from the business district, with fields for soccer and lacrosse, dog parks, an amphitheater and a splash pad.

Some downtown merchants like what they’re seeing.

“I have a lot of confidence in our city’s leadership,” says Kelli Potter, a former elementary school teacher who three years ago bought Solgarden, a store on West Clay Street selling gifts, clothing, and home and garden accessories.

Angela Bobal, a former Durham police detective, considered downtown Burlington, Graham and Hillsborough before choosing West Clay Street as the location for her boutique, Grit & Grace, five years ago. “Mebane has a charm about it,” she says.

“The biggest fear among some business owners is becoming another Chapel Hill and losing the small-town feel,” says Bobal, who sells soaps, lotions, jewelry and clothing at her shop. “As a merchant, I want to see things grow.”

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