“About 15 years ago, there was really nothing downtown,” Elton Daniels, Rocky Mount’s assistant city manager said. “I’d say over the last 20 years, there’s been ebbs and flows [in Downtown’s progress], but I think [Downtown] is on a high point now. We have a lot of new restaurants and a lot of new businesses that are opening up just because they were able to get the property at a very deep discount. And now that the property values are rising and things are starting to take place Downtown, it is starting to have a nightlife. That’s something that we hadn’t previously had.”
Downtown wouldn’t be at a high point, as Daniels described, without the impact of the Rocky Mount Event Center (RMEC). The 165,000-square-foot facility transformed the perception of the former textile town from the moment it opened its doors in 2018 in the Downtown area. The announcement of its opening alone drove several purchases of once-shuttered buildings. It also coincided with the development of a mixed-use area on the site of the 200-year-old Rocky Mount Mills. The interest in Downtown Rocky Mount and surrounding areas is a testament to the belief that businesses would be able to capitalize on RMEC’s presence.
While RMEC is fast becoming a success story today, not everyone supported the vision for Downtown. Many residents argued that the small North Carolina city couldn’t afford the $50 million price tag and questioned whether the investment would be worth it. However, the mayor and city council were serious about investing in the downtown core and saw sports and entertainment as an avenue for achieving their goal.
Image courtesy of Rocky Mount Event Center
The Rocky Mount Event Center’s strength is in its versatility. With the ability to host multiple event types, including indoor sports, concerts, conferences, and private events, the facility is a Swiss Army knife of sorts. “The event center is just so multifaceted in that it’s unique that we have the gym operation, which is the basketball courts and the volleyball courts, but we also have a banquet area and a family entertainment area where they have arcade games, rope climbing, wall climbing, and a combination of all sorts of things,” Daniels said.
Though Daniels was familiar with the event center’s versatility before visiting himself, he still had a moment of surprise when he visited RMEC for a monster truck show with his kids.
“I had my hat turned backward with my jeans on, and I’m waiting in line, and there are people with three-piece suits and ballroom dresses not far away. I’m like, man, what in the world? Why would they wear this to a monster truck show? I found out [later] that they actually had a wedding going on at the same time, and we didn’t even know because you couldn’t hear the wedding or the monster truck show in [other parts] of the venue,” he said.
Daniels also noted that his city added additional value to the event center by including services that connect the state-of-the-art facility to other parts of the area, including Downtown.
“[It’s not all] about the physical building. It’s also about the atmosphere we create… offering first-class services, offering transit shuttles from hotels to the event center, and back and forth to different places in Downtown Rocky Mount. We make it about a whole customer service experience rather than just about a facility. A lot of people can build a facility, but what we offer around the facility is what makes us stand out,” remarks Daniels.
Image courtesy of Rocky Mount Event Center and Gerry Brabham
In 2022, 77,000 guests, many of whom supported downtown businesses and restaurants, visited the event center. The overall economic impact for the city totaled $15 million, a 66 percent increase from the $9 million impact the city experienced in 2021.
Besides driving significant economic impact for the city, the Rocky Mount Event Center has also established a vibrant vibe downtown. “It brings people together because we have concerts, we have festivals, just so many different things,” Daniels said. “When people talk about going to a new city, they’re typically not going because you have a good HR department or a good finance department. They’re typically coming to your city because there are some leisure activities that they want to participate in. There are [many events] going on within the city, and the event center provides [the space for] that.”
“Every weekend that we have something going on at the event center, [people] have a hard time parking. But that’s a good problem to have because that means people are visiting our event center, they’re visiting our downtown areas. That means they’re staying in our hotels and they are spending money in our restaurants. It’s a good problem to have,” according to Daniels.
With more activity returning to Downtown Rocky Mount, the city hopes new residents will follow. Right now, an affordable housing project is under construction in the neighborhood, and the city plans on building more residential units in the coming years. As of the beginning of 2023, there were around 150 apartments in the area and 200 more in the planning stages.
“Historically, there’s no public knowledge of people living in the Downtown area, but they are focused on getting people there now,” Kevin Harris, Rocky Mount’s former downtown development manager, recently told a local news outlet. “We have a goal of 500 housing units in Downtown Rocky Mount within five years.”
“A lot of people have moved to the suburbs in the past, but now we’re focusing on the inner city and starting there and building out. I would say the event center, the [residential development], and some of the redevelopment activities that we have with our local pubs and restaurants is really [just] the start.”
Daniels mentioned that Downtown Rocky Mount still has some challenges to overcome, such as lingering retail vacancies. However, the area is on the upswing due to effective local leadership and a strong vision for the neighborhood. With the addition of the Rocky Mount Event Center and new residents, Downtown Rocky Mount is well on its way toward renewed vibrancy and prosperity.