Rocky Mount has an opening for someone who will take the town’s arts and culture — and retail and manufacturing — offerings to the next level.

The person hired for the newly created position of director of economic and cultural placemaking will be responsible for the business operations of the Harvester Performance Center, taking those duties off the plate of Assistant Town Manager Matt Hankins.

That’s just one part of what this new director would do. “We’ve built the strong foundation with the Harvester and some of the other activities that we’ve created around town and now somebody’s going to come in and add additional blocks to that, to build on it and make it stronger,” Hankins said.

The notion of “placemaking” incorporated into the job title boils down to doing what it takes to shape a community into a place that’s rewarding and fun to live in and to visit, a quality considered vital to 21st century economic development.

“Across the United States, there are acres upon acres of vacant industrial land and all kinds of hungry localities that are willing to sit around the table and talk turkey,” said Town Manager James Ervin. “If you look at localities that are succeeding and thriving in this paradigm, their core focus in the last couple of decades has been on simply being a place where people want to be. If you can crack that nut, the rest sort of falls into place.”

Ervin declined to discuss what the job’s salary range would be. Town officials will begin reviewing applicants next week.

A former hardware store, the Harvester opened in April 2014 with a performance by singer-songwriter Levi Lowrey, followed quickly by the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Indigo Girls. At the time, Rocky Mount’s annual meals tax revenue was $1.1 million, Hankins said. Now it’s $1.8 million, and town officials attribute the lion’s share of that $700,000 increase to the Harvester’s presence, more than enough to offset annual expenses to run the venue that range from $250,000 to $400,000. “Looking at the budget, we’re better now with it than we were without it,” Ervin said.

The town at the center of Franklin County wants to further develop its cultural offerings, from an ongoing downtown mural project to the founding of an annual outdoor music festival. The new director would also run the Rocky Mount Farmers Market and the town’s Community and Hospitality Center inside a historic train depot on Franklin Street.

The new director also would do things that sound like more traditional economic development duties, such as recruiting and retaining smaller business such as retail stores. Hankins still would be primarily responsible for large industrial prospects.

“The reality is they’re two simultaneous ongoing things, creating a sense of place for those who will come and then, if someone inquires, ‘Hey, I really dig your town, I want to sell my custom-made jeans here, or I want to make them here,’ what better person to have that initial conversation than the person who knows what’s going on?” Ervin said. “It involves making that sense of place and welcoming folks to it.”

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Mike Allen covers government happenings in Franklin County and Botetourt County for The Roanoke Times and also writes the weekly Arts & Extras column.

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