Creating a business-friendly vibe in Harrisburg

Dave Damone, owner of Rocky River Coffee Co. located on Main Street in Harrisburg Town Center, chats with some of his regular customers.
Dave Damone, owner of Rocky River Coffee Co. located on Main Street in Harrisburg Town Center, chats with some of his regular customers.

When Dave Damone bought the Rocky River Coffee Co. in Harrisburg in 2007, he found the town to be a perfect fit for his small business.

Located in southern Cabarrus County, the town’s 14,000 residents are enough to support local trade, but too few to attract a wave of large chains.

“We have a great tight-knit customer base that wants to support local businesses,” says Damone, whose coffee shop is located inside Town Center, a retail and residential development that’s also the site for Town Hall.

Boosting the image of a town that’s friendly to small businesses has been of particular interest to government and business leaders in recent years, as they plan out Harrisburg’s economic development and shape its future growth. Consider some recent happenings:

▪ In September, a new “Welcome to Harrisburg” sign went up at the town’s border on N.C. 49, which officials describe as the first step in a multi-year plan to boost the town’s identity.

▪ This summer, a grassroots group of business and community leaders launched the Harrisburg Business Alliance to encourage people to shop locally and support Town sponsored events. The alliance is compiling a new business directory for Harrisburg’s approximately 400 registered businesses.

The group made its debut in August at a Small Business Briefing forum sponsored by Town Hall.

“It’s important to us that we have the town’s support because we want to be a liaison between the town’s small business and the government,” says alliance board member Dana Richie.

▪ Also this summer: A partnership between Harrisburg and Rowan Cabarrus Community College Small Business Center brought monthly seminars for business owners on mobile marketing, email marketing and social marketing to Town Hall.

▪ And businesses along the N.C. 49 corridor between Morehead and Roberta roads can apply for matching grants worth up to $20,000 for facade and site improvements. Businesses of any size are eligible. Applications are due by Jan. 31, 2016. It’s the first time this type of grant is being offered, according to the town.

Building business corridors

It’s not unusual for municipalities to take deliberate steps to support mom and pop businesses. What’s happening in Harrisburg now, leaders say, is the results of an intentional branding campaign in the works since 2013. As part of that effort, the town created two new full time positions: a communications director and an economic development director, both of whom work with businesses.

Looking ahead, town officials are turning their focus to three areas that could be developed as business corridors.

There’s Town Center, a 97-acre mixed-use development at N.C. 49 and Roberta Road. It’s home to the town’s Main Street, and is developed in a grid pattern to encourage pedestrians to walk to shops and offices. Small retailers include Damone’s coffee shop and a collection of restaurants and hair and nail salons.

Other areas are the N.C. 49 stretch, a corridor for people traveling to and from uptown Charlotte., and areas surrounding the Interstate 485 and Rocky River Road interchange.

“We’re just trying to establish an environment that makes folks want to come to us,” says Steve Sciascia, who was elected mayor in 2013 after eight years on Town Council.

What’s next

These potential development plans have some worried about retaining Harrisburg’s small-town feel. Population today is nearly triple from its 2002 count, when the town had 4,600 residents.

“It’s stressed that retail follows rooftops, but building homes causes stress on other areas, like schools, infrastructure, and utilities,” says Anna Lu Wilson, the town’s economic development director.

And Harrisburg retailers face competition in the form of Concord Mills, which is about 10 minutes away.

Damone, who is looking to expand his coffee shop, looks forward to alliance and government leaders working together to complete the Town Center, which broke ground in December 2000. Retailer occupancy is about 85 percent, and there is land available for new construction, according to Wilson.

“I would like to see more foot traffic based businesses, boutiques, things where people want to get out of their car and walk around on a Saturday afternoon,” says Damone.

That’s the vision that drew business owner Amber Fadio, who opened the southern chic boutique, Love You Back, in Town Center in 2012. She draws customers from Concord to Mint Hill.

“When I had my child I liked to shop boutiques so I didn’t have to go down a toy aisle,” Fadio says. “I wanted to bring that experience to the area.”