Main Street Champions recall changing face of downtown Waynesville
When LeRoy Roberson and his wife, Gale, opened an optometric business on Waynesville’s Main Street 35-years-ago, about a quarter of the storefronts sat empty.
The street was a hub for locals who visited the bank, went to the doctor or picked up everyday odds and ends. The Robersons used to buy emergency office supplies, such as pens and pencils, at a five and dime that was where Pheasant Hill is now.
But like most small towns across America, downtown commerce was drying up, as the epicenter of Waynesville shifted to the auto-centric strip malls on the outskirts of town.
It was the antithesis of today’s vibrant and bustling Main Street — a healthy mix of touristy galleries and gift shops, professional offices, from lawyers to insurance firms, and delectable eateries and coffee shops.
The Main Street the Robersons put their stock in 35 years ago, and stuck by through thick and thin, wasn’t always such a sure bet.
“It was a different time, and definitely interesting,” said LeRoy Roberson, owner of Haywood Optometric Care and also a Waynesville town alderman.
Unlike the quaint bench-strewn, tree-lined street of today, there was no landscaping or antique lampposts back then, and a tangle of overhead power lines ran up and down the street.
“Tourism was an afterthought then,” LeRoy Roberson said. But, he added, Waynesville has adjusted well.
Now, the power lines are underground, giving people an unencumbered view of the façades; the sidewalks are perfectly laid brick; old-timey-looking streetlamps decorate the street.
The Robersons’ work and devotion to downtown were recognized last month at the North Carolina Main Street Annual Awards Ceremony, where they won the honor of “Main Street Champions.”
As a mainstay of Main Street, the Robersons have been active in the Downtown Waynesville Association, which in addition to bringing the street’s merchants together, works to maintain and improve Main Street’s appearance. For that reason, people are more willing to invest in their own building’s appearance, LeRoy Roberson said, just as he and his wife did.
Main Street nearly died out as businesses like Belk and Dollar General moved to the outskirts of town. But, during the last two decades, the strip of downtown storefronts has experienced a renaissance and transformed into a collection of small, locally owned businesses — a positive improvement in LeRoy Roberson’s opinion and one he’s had a bird’s eye view of.
In fact, when he ran for alderman for the first time in the 1990s, one of LeRoy Roberson’s campaign priorities was supporting small businesses. When locally owned shops and restaurants are making a profit, they invest it back in the town.
“They employ more people; they pay better; they return more to the community,” LeRoy Roberson said, spoken like a true Main Street Champion.
The downtown Main Street shops also sell more items made in the U.S. and more unique products.
“You can find things downtown that you can’t find in big box stores,” said Gale Roberson, who buys what she can from the Main Street merchants and encourages others to do so as well.
Gale Roberson joined the Downtown Waynesville Association board of directors in 2004 to keep up with the goings-on among neighboring merchants and help improve Main Street.
As a town alderman, LeRoy Roberson has supported projects that beautified Main Street and brought more people downtown, including renovating the old town hall, constructing a new town hall and creating the Waynesville Public Art Commission, which led to several art installations that currently decorate Main Street.
Although many improvements have been made to Main Street, there is always room for more. For the Robersons, the main, and perhaps only, downside to downtown is parking. A parking deck was built just down the street, but the couple said they wish there was more on-street parking and have heard comments from patients struggling to finds a spot near the doctor’s office during the busy tourist season.
“That is a drawback,” Gale Roberson said.
But both would much rather be on Main Street than elsewhere.
“It’s so much nicer,” Gale Roberson said.
Originally, they planned to open Haywood Optometric Care in a medical complex in Clyde but chose to setup shop on Main Street in Waynesville instead. And looking back, they are glad they did.
“It’s more entertaining being on Main Street,” LeRoy Roberson said.
In a medical complex, people come for one thing — an appointment. The traffic is a steady flow of patients. But Main Street today is a tourism hub, attracting lots of thru-traffic. People will drop in to buy a pair of sunglasses or have their glasses repaired.
The location also exposes the doctor’s office and glasses shop to more potential customers. Rather than relying on people to find his business in the Yellow Pages or online, Haywood Optometric Care has a steady stream of people flowing past its door.
“I get a different type of business,” LeRoy Roberson said.
Plus, it makes for great people watching, and the couple can easily take their lunch break at one of downtown Main Street’s many eateries.