The next big 'STEP' for Rutherfordton
This is part two of a two-part story on Rutherfordton's STEP projects implementation phase.
After the Town of Rutherfordton's recent receiving of the NC STEP (Small Towns Economic Prosperity) contract from the NC Department of Commerce, which was subsequently approved by the Rutherfordton Town Council on June 4 and signed on June 13, the STEP committees have started using funds from the $100,000 grant as part of the program's implementation phase.
Under current parameters, the town has a maximum of 18 months from a May 1, 2014 contract date to complete its projects, despite the signing of the contract on June 13. This means that the committees must complete their expenditures related to the implementation of the town's STEP projects by October 31, 2015.
After drafting a mission statement, the STEP Leadership Team, consisting of a cross section of Rutherfordton's citizens, developed its plan focusing on three broad strategies with several projects under each strategy. In addition to marketing and promotion, other strategies include destination/tourism and business development.
The destination/tourism strategy budgets approximately $36,500 in implementation funds and aims to transform Rutherfordton from a town that gets the occasional visitor to one that is fully prepared to welcome both visitors and residents to eat, shop and play.
STEP projects designed to support this strategy include development of a heritage tourism plan, enhancement of a Rutherfordton trail system and regional trails, a Central Street feasibility and design study and creation of town ambassador training.
Two additional projects in this strategy include a recreation partnership in coordination with the trail system and implementation of the Central Street study.
"We recently looked at Boone's boardwalk street concept and fell in love," said Lynn Hegeman, chairperson of the destination/tourism committee. "We like the idea of turning Central Street into a wooden boardwalk with a stage for events and outdoor seating for dining."
The final strategy, business development, uses nearly $24,500 in implementation funds and seeks to create a more user-friendly environment that will support local businesses and attract tourists who are passing through town.
STEP projects related to the business development strategy include development of STEMulate Rutherford (an educational outreach program for students to stimulate continued interest in science, technology, engineering and math), improving connectivity through a downtown Wi-Fi project, conducting a downtown parking study and pursuing a Certified Retirement Community status in partnership with Forest City.
The town's awarding of a 2013 Facebook Community Action Grant in the amount of $7,500 will also be put toward the Wi-Fi project.
"Most importantly, we are progressing on the Wi-Fi project for the town," said Steve Seyboldt, chairperson of the business development committee.
Seyboldt said KidSenses Children's Museum has presented a curriculum and budget outline for the STEMulate program, which the committee hopes to have available at Rutherfordton Elementary School this September.
As projects are implemented, the STEP Leadership Team will complete monthly reports to monitor progress and track finances. During implementation, the town can request reimbursement up to a total of $90,000 as long as there are receipts for every expenditure. The last $10,000 of expenses will be reimbursed when all monthly reports and a final report are submitted.
No new projects can be proposed using NC STEP funds during the implementation phase and any major changes in projects or shifting of funds from one project to another must be approved by the STEP Leadership Team and Rutherfordton Town Council before being submitted to the N.C. Department of Commerce for approval.
Once the initial projects funded through the STEP program are completed, the town will continue to work its economic development strategic plan and develop new projects to strive to accomplish its vision.
"We urge those who were a part of the initial STEP Leadership Team who have since drifted away because of the hiatus to make an effort to become involved again," said Rutherfordton Mayor Jimmy Dancy.
Dancy also invites anyone else who is interested in helping with project implementation to become involved with one of the committees — to share information, update project progress, discuss opportunities and challenges, overcome obstacles, celebrate milestones and maintain momentum.
The public is welcome to attend STEP leadership meetings. The next meeting is Aug. 11 at 5:30 p.m. at Rutherfordton Town Hall.
"These people and committees involved in STEP have come together to make an already great place even greater," said Clark Poole, Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce director. "There is a positive tsunami coming to this area that will fill streets with people."