By MIRANDA BAINES
THE DAILY SOUTHERNER
The Town Common and 200-year-old trees providing a canopy over the focal point of Tarboro were the first things that caught the eye of the America in Bloom (AIB) judges when they arrived in town Sunday evening.
“The trees are amazing…the canopy and the shade and the different varieties,” said Ed Hooker, III. “Trees are very important. They have almost a calming effect.”
James “Jim” Abraham’s first reaction to the Town Common was the “size of the piece of land. It’s just huge.” The Common reminded Abraham of the 22 squares around which Savannah, Ga., his city of residence, is built.
“It’s a centerpiece in the community and a lot of pride,” he said. He was eager to learn how the Common functions as a center of activity in Tarboro. Abraham also took note of the trees on the Common, and stressed the importance of an urban forestry plan for the town.
“You’ve got the inventory,” he said. “We’re talking about an activity that will go well beyond our generation.”
Hooker and Abraham’s positive reaction to Tarboro continued Monday during their tour of places of interest around town.
“I’m impressed with what I see is going on. I’m impressed with the enthusiasm of everybody that we’ve met,” Abraham said. “A lot of progress has been made. We’re learning a lot.”
“I think y’all have done an excellent job of preparing for us,” Hooker said. “I think there’s a lot of potential here. It’s just a matter of getting all the key players together with the same vision and working to make it happen.”
Tarboro is up against two other towns in its population category of 7,000 to 12,000 – Demopolis, Ala. and Coshocton, Ohio in the AIB competition. When asked what winning the AIB competition in its population category would mean for Tarboro, Hooker replied:
“It will bring a spotlight because it is a national program. What I hope is that you will use the report to make your community better, bigger, stronger.”
Abraham’s hope is that this year’s competition will “keep the momentum” generated by last year’s AIB report going. He made it clear to the AIB committee that he and Hooker weren’t just in Tarboro to judge the town.
“Ed and I are trying to not only observe but share some ideas,” he said.
“AIB is an ingredient in everything we’re trying to do,” Buddy Hooks, Tarboro’s AIB co-chair, told the judges. “It’s all about how we appear to visitors, how we appear to investors.”
Hooks and AIB committee member Candis Owens shared with the judges Tarboro and Edgecombe County’s plan to promote tourism in the area. Abraham advised the committee to think about ways to promote Tarboro as a “destination community.”
Tarboro’s heritage preservation efforts were a source of excitement to the judges, both of whom have a background in historic preservation.
As a professor at Savannah College of Arts and Design, Abraham works with students on the physical restoration of historic buildings. He took a particular interest in the historic trades preservation school at Edgecombe Community College.
“I took note of your college. I’m quite impressed with what’s going on,” he said. “There’s an excellent program that’s developing.”
Abraham said he would like to see the students in the historic trades preservation school involved in the restoration of a significant historic structure in Tarboro. To him, all of the older buildings on Main Street Tarboro deserve to be preserved, among them the 1919 Colonial Theater.
“You have to use your imagination,” said Bob Nicolosi, as he ushered the judges into the entrance of the Colonial Theater. Abraham’s imagination always kicks in when he enters older buildings.
“I walk into a dilapidated old theater and I suddenly start feeling the humanity of that building. They came there for entertainment,” Abraham said. The last movie shown in the theater was “Jaws” before the theater closed its doors in 1982. New life is being breathed into the theater, as it had the groundbreaking of Phase I of its restoration plan last September. Abraham pored over the floor plans for the theater, and advised Nicolosi to develop a long-term business plan to keep the theater in operation once it reopens.
“A theater, I guarantee you, will be an economic engine in a downtown area,” Abraham said.
Other spots on Main Street that the judges had an opportunity to view Monday were the courthouse square, which was spruced up with new plantings prior to their arrival, and the Main Street art project at 305 N. Main St.
“Wow, look at this. You really brightened up these windows,” Abraham said, as he rounded the corner of Main and viewed the artwork in the front windows of the building that once housed Marrow Pitt.
“Our argument was, ‘If you put something in the window, people are going to take notice of the building again,’” said Joyce Turner, executive director of Edgecombe County Cultural Arts Council and coordinator of the Main Street art project.