Story By Sarah Shew Wilson
Photography By Chris Campbell

Shallotte native Elwood Cheers vividly recalls his hometown’s past. He can tell stories for days about growing up by the Shallotte River and how his family cared for the land and watched the town progress from a shipping and agricultural area to a bustling business hub.

Not surprisingly, he was raised on Cheers Street, where town hall now stands. It was the first official road between Main Street and the riverfront and was dedicated to the town by his father.

“It was part of a cultivated farm that produced tobacco corn, peanuts, sweet potatoes and always a lush vegetable garden,” Cheers recalls.

Cheers remembers tying ropes to the nearby trees and swinging into the river with his friends on summer days. He remembers watching construction crews improving Cheers Street with sand clay replacing the crude plank roadway.

“I would stand on our porch and watch them in amazement,” Cheers says. “The road was constructed entirely by men with hand tools, crude horse drawn equipment and the sweat of the brow.”

As Cheers got older, the methods of improving the town’s first road to the river became more sophisticated, and the town itself busier and more populated.

“I like to think of the early days in Shallotte as ‘the good old days,’” Cheers says. “But that would be too much of a cliché.”

These days, as a member of the town planning board, Cheers is just as happy looking forward to the town’s future as he is daydreaming about its past. He has a vision for the future of what his family used to call “down the road,” the area from the top of Cheers Street to the riverfront.

“I can see tree-lined streets that are walker-friendly,” he says, “with ample places for small parks and benches that invite the shopper or stroller to sit a spell. I see kids playing within view of their parents in the shade of a tree.”

That’s exactly what the Downtown Shallotte revitalization committee had in mind when it first commissioned the town’s vision plan, which the Shallotte board of aldermen and planning board are now beginning to put into action.

The Downtown Shallotte committee formed about five years ago after local merchants, vendors and residents had become disenchanted with various attempts to start farmers markets, free community events and a revitalization of downtown.

When the committee was being formed, then-mayor Gerald Long approached planning board member Walt Eccard about serving as chairman.

“I said, ‘Absolutely, on one condition: I really feel we need to do a vision plan to decide how the town will look 20 to 30 years from now,’” Eccard recalls.

The town’s board of aldermen told Eccard if the committee could raise some of the money to finance a vision plan, the town would be supportive.

“We got commitments for $20,000 from merchants and businesses, and the town appropriated the rest—about $30,000,” says Eccard, now a town alderman.

The town contracted with Allison Platt & Associates, a Baltimore-based design firm, and organized public forums to receive the community’s input on what the vision should include.

After hearing from residents, business owners and developers, Platt and her team created a plan that calls for an expanded waterfront area, new streets, a riverwalk and a mix of commercial and residential development.

Cheers Street, the place where Elwood Cheers grew up, played in the river and watched his hometown grow, is designated as the major access to the river. There, new residential and commercial growth would begin. The street would be widened, creating a bridge between Main Street and the riverfront, which would be set aside as a public gathering place.

“The core part is our history of the Shallotte waterfront,” Eccard says. “We’ve hidden it.”

When Eccard was soliciting support for the vision plan, he would visit with locals whose families had been in the community for generations.

“I spent 45 minutes to an hour with each one, learning their family histories and looking at pictures,” says Eccard. “Our heritage is something we need to recover and rediscover. It’s a wonderful area. I want to be able to use Downtown Shallotte as a vehicle to do that.”

Of course, no one can talk about revitalizing Shallotte without mentioning the traffic congestion on Main Street. If the vision plan continues to move forward, Eccard says he envisions “movement off Main Street toward the water, new venues for a variety of shops, restaurants and specialty stores.”

Cheers agrees and says now that the Smith Avenue extension project, connecting U.S. 17 Bypass with Holden Beach Road via Main Street, is near completion, some of the bottlenecks that traffic drivers have to deal with will be lessened, but more work will still be needed.

A road running parallel to Main Street is a major need, he says. The organizers know they need to work with the North Carolina Department of Transportation to get these needs met.

Downtown Shallotte member Linda Herrick says another key to improving Main Street is moving fast-food restaurants off Main Street and re-routing 18-wheelers to the bypass.

“I’d like to see people, families, older people, walking, laughing, enjoying a day out,” Herrick says of her vision for Main Street.

To meet these goals, the town planning board and planning staff have begun revising some of the town’s ordinances in accordance with vision plan standards.

“We’re allowing shared-use parking and on-street parking in the central business district and limiting the number of driveways,” explains Town Planner Allen Serkin. “We’re specifying parking areas. For instance, front-yard parking is limited.”

Serkin says the planning staff has a “long laundry list” of other changes and that the town is working with a local land owner to create a mixed-use ordinance that will allow combination residential and commercial uses.

“That will enable a better mix of uses in all districts,” Serkin says.

In addition to the physical changes described in the vision plan, Downtown Shallotte has also organized free community events drawing people to town and allowing them to better connect with their community.

Linda Herrick, who decided to get involved with the town soon after moving to Shallotte several years ago, joined Downtown Shallotte and became excited about organizing a farmers market.

Under her leadership and with the help of her committee members, the Shallotte Farmers Market moved from the former Western Auto parking lot to town hall and ultimately to Riverside Park, a shady spot that offers plenty of room for local growers as well as arts and crafts vendors.

Since moving to the park, the numbers of both vendors and customers has increased, with more than 300 customers showing up every week between May and October.

“The town maintenance department, I can’t say enough about them,” Herrick says. “They’ve really kept the area clean and done grading and anything we need. They’re happy to do it.”

Last year, the farmers market received a state Tobacco Trust Fund Grant to install bathrooms and a storage building on site and to increase advertising. Herrick says 2010 has been the market’s most successful year.

“The local food movement is really taking off,” Herrick says. “Vendors with chicken and eggs sell out before the market opens. People want to know where their food comes from.”

Downtown Shallotte has also put together an annual summer concert and movie series in Rourk Gardens, a small, landscaped area near Shallotte Plaza featuring a gazebo and plenty of room for kids and families to enjoy the outdoors.

Lynda Lynes has chaired the movie/concert series, now officially known as “Summerfest,” for two-and-a-half years.

Last year’s series proved especially popular, as free outdoor movies for kids and families, such as “Hannah Montana,” and bands popular with adults like “The Embers” attracted a variety of locals and visitors.

“It has been a joy, but a lot of work,” Lynes says.

The committee starts planning the series in February and solicits merchants in the Shallotte and Ocean Isle Beach communities to sponsor the activities.

“The people visiting the beaches come in and say, ‘This is better than what we have back home,’” Lynes says. “The donations of food from the sponsors and the quality of concerts we have attract a lot of people.”

Eccard says people are looking for good entertainment, and the lack of admission doesn’t hurt either.

“With the economy with way it is, people like having free entertainment for families and free food,” he says. “The movie and concert series is an effort to make people feel better about the community they live in.”

Even though the new events have proven successful, Downtown Shallotte is not losing sight of the goals of the vision plan.

“I’m most proud of the vision plan,” Eccard says. “Most significantly, we’ve been able to involve the existing business community and the town. Now we’re getting the ordinances in place.”

And even though Cheers still occasionally reminisces about Shallotte’s “good old days,” he is also ready to embrace the future of downtown Shallotte.

“My hat is off to the downtown revitalization committee, but this vision should be nurtured by all of us because Shallotte is going to change whether we like it or not,” Cheers says. “But hopefully, when it does, it will fulfill a lot of dreamers’ dreams.”