COVID-19 threw a wrench in plans for many in 2020, but the city of Morganton persisted.
Whether it was finding creative solutions for local business owners who were facing the lockdown, finding ways to keep some traditions alive or continuing to look toward a COVID-19-free future, the city of Morganton stayed busy throughout 2020.
“I think the easy thing for this year would have been to kind of curl up in a ball and just wait for things to get better, and we didn’t take the easy route,” said Main Street Manager Abby Nelson. “We’ve continuously thought of things … We didn’t shut down. We just persevered and continued to roll with the events, the ideas, the outreach, that we were able to do even during a pandemic.”
It was early in the pandemic when restaurant owners first had to close their dine-in services.
Instead of balking at the news, the city looked for ways to alleviate the stress business owners were feeling, Nelson said.
“When the shutdown first began in March, it was probably, it was within a day that the Main Street office was able to get the curbside pickup signs in collaboration with a GIS map to show people where curbside pickup was available,” Nelson said. “At that point, restaurants were all but shut down except for the curbside pickup.”
About two months later, when restaurants were able to open at 50% capacity, the city still looked for ways to help out downtown business owners. Despite restrictions being eased, people still didn’t feel completely comfortable dining indoors, leading the city to look for outdoor dining options.
“Restaurants really draw in visitors and enhance our downtown, even beyond the normal eight to five,” she said.
The corner of King and West Union streets made an ideal spot for a streatery to be blocked off, offering additional tables with umbrellas. Parking spots near downtown restaurants also made ideal locations for a benches, chairs and tables, to add even more outdoor dining.
“We were blessed with warm weather and all that, and immediately the streatery and parklets were being used,” Nelson said. “They were a lifeline to restaurants that already suffered so much, just on the day-to-day, with narrow profit margins. You combine that with a pandemic and reduction to indoor dining, outside space is super important, now more so than ever. I attribute the success of our businesses making it through, even to this point, I attribute that to our streatery and parklets.”
And now the streatery and parklets are here to stay, at least until Jan. 14. Warm weekends – and even some chillier days – have seen the areas full with people enjoying a cup of coffee or lunch from a local restaurant.
“I think they’ve been used up to this point because we’re just now starting to see the colder weather that turns some people away, but even … when it was chilly, I saw people outside having a cup of coffee,” Nelson said. “Just because the pandemic, even now, is worse off than it was this summer, so people are seeking outside and we’re fortunate enough to be in the south to not have too bad of winters, so I think we’re going to see people utilizing it even still.”
There wasn’t much of a way to have the Historic Morganton Festival with COVID-19 restrictions.
Instead, the festival, which is typically celebrated the second weekend in September, was put on hold for the year with plans to dive back into the festivities in 2021.
It was a decision that the Historic Morganton Festival Inc. put off until June, Nelson said, when much of the festival’s plans finally get set in stone.
“As we waited and we watched and looked at our sister festivals to see what they were doing, we knew when we got to June that there was absolutely no way that we could pull off the festival in the same manner as it is typically done,” Nelson said. “That was hard because, the Historic Morganton Festival, it brings our community together.”
It not only brings the community together, but it has a huge economic impact on vendors, sponsors and downtown businesses alike.
“To say that we’re not going to have a festival that brings in that amount of people and the money, you know, to downtown, it was hard on so many levels, but it just couldn’t happen,” Nelson said.
Instead, the city looked for ways that it could incorporate some festival programming into safe, socially distanced activities for residents.
They teamed up with the Burke Arts Council for their art crawls this season, and had one of the performers who was booked to play at the festival instead play for an art crawl, Nelson said. The Sunrise Run 5k and 10k went virtual this year, and limited edition T-shirts and posters were sold to commemorate the year without a festival.
“We looked at other ways that we could pull elements out of the festival, which is just a two-day event, and provide that essence throughout the year,” she said. “It was really challenging and it wasn’t the same by any means, but we had to work with the guidelines that were given and for the safety of our citizens and visitors.”
Other traditions got modified looks for the COVID-ridden year, too.
Halloween traditions, like downtown trick-or-treating and Spooky Meadows, had to take a break for the year, but the city found ways to still usher the spookiest day of the year into Morganton.
Christmas received a similar treatment.
“Back around the time that we were brainstorming on the festival and what to do with that, I started thinking ‘okay, well, what can we still do? What are our traditional events that we do year after year that people love to attend, and how can we make that still happen?’” Nelson said.
It seemed to be a hit with the Morganton residents.
“We had over 700 cars,” Neslon said. “I know that some people complained about the traffic, but we didn’t know what to expect. Granted it was the Christmas parade, but it was totally different than any other year if it was going to be just a few cars or a steady stream, which that’s what it ended up being.”
It may have even brought out some different attendees than the parade normally would attract.
“I think those that were able to come out and see the parade, I think they enjoyed it,” she said. “Me, just standing there and seeing kids of all ages, from little toddlers that we’re hanging out of the window to even some of our older population that may not have come out to a parade even if it was a normal year because it’s typically a cold evening and it’s a lot of standing and waiting. They were able to come and drive through and see the floats.”
The parade ended up being a highlight of the year, Nelson said.
“I was just very grateful and humbled by the community’s support,” Nelson said. “I think out of everything … it felt like the event that people needed because it was something that was recognizable with the parade and Christmas holidays, but it was able to still happen. I think with a year of disappoints and a year of feeling scared and uncertain, the parade offered something that they could be happy about, and that was really a special moment for me this year after so much difficulties and postponements and cancellations.”
Another highlight of 2020 was the promise of a better future – one without COVID-19 wreaking havoc on everyone’s lives.
In August, members of the Morganton City Council voted to approve a loan for renovations to the Historic Courthouse Square.
Toward the end of the month, the old Burke County Jail and former home to the Burke Arts Council was razed, making way for the renovations that will see more green space added to the square, along with a stage that will be fit with a backdrop of the Table Rock skyline.
Now, the site is a flutter with construction activity to get the stage and all its features up and running by summer.
“It seems to be going quickly, however the project has been coming for 20 years or more,” Nelson said. “The courthouse square started out as an element in the 1997 downtown masterplan, as a goal, as a project that our community wanted to see happen. It never got off the ground until we did the updated masterplan in 2018.”
As part of the 2018 downtown masterplan, the public voted the renovations to the square as one of the top 10 projects they wanted to see happen, she said.
“It was one of those things that had been talked about so much, I don’t think anybody really believed it was going to happen until the ground broke,” Nelson said. “It’s another highlight to this pandemic year because it’s new, it’s change, it’s almost like hope for the normal future where we can all be back together again and hang out under the stars in downtown and listen to music and even watch performances.”
Now, she hopes that the square will be able to take off as a true hub for the community to come together.
“I’m thinking that that stage and that grass area could be the community spot that it’s always kind of wanted to be but never had the infrastructure to make happen,” Nelson said. “I just think that this project is going to really influence and enhance downtown Morganton for many, many years and all the programs that can be offered there once it’s done.”
Renovations should be done this coming summer, and an exact date should become more clear sometime after the start of the new year, Nelson said.
“We’re going to be working with the timeline of the pandemic, of the vaccines, to see what our events look like for the coming up year,” Nelson said. “But our plan is that we’ll have like a weeklong celebration of events to celebrate the opening of the square and the stage there, even before the festival.”
Ultimately, all of the things the city has accomplished this year have taken inventiveness and collaboration, Nelson said.
“I am most proud of the ingenuity, the creativity that our office has had in doing the events, in doing the fun things around town that we’re still able to do,” she said. “I think many communities that aren’t Main Street communities, they’ve suffered because they don’t have that office, that team to turn to, and I’m just very happy that Morganton has the Main Street office and has the support of the other city departments to be able to do some of the dream things that we come up with. I’m most proud of that.”
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