It started with a church
By Ty Johnson
Published in News on June 3, 2012 1:50 AM
The First Presbyterian Church bell tower stands in downtown Salisbury. The tower was tabbed for demolition in 1974 but a community effort to preserve it saved it. Today, its downtown Salisbury's most iconic building.
This is the first installment in a three-part series looking at the potential and challenges associated with downtown development in Goldsboro. Today's installment cover the journey of Salisbury, N.C. Part Two, to be published June 6, will focus on the efforts of Greenville, S.C. And the series will wrap up June 10 with a look at Goldsboro's options.
SALISBURY -- There's a wig shop on the corner and a more-than-a-century-old train station a few blocks away.
As the county seat, the city sees a multitude of county-dwellers come into town to do their business, which masks its small population.
But this isn't downtown Goldsboro. It's downtown Salisbury, which is riding a high wave of development after 32 years of selling the city center's potential block by block.
Randy Hemann, the director of Downtown Salisbury Inc., is still selling it today.
An aggressive building purchase campaign began by the city about a decade ago featured the municipality buying, flipping and selling countless buildings downtown, and the city is on the cusp of selling one of its landmarks -- the Empire Hotel -- to a developer who will restore the 1855 building to its original use, even as retail outlets continue to do business on the structure's first floor.
The historic city center's infrastructure today is strong, but for all of its economic worth, this downtown's revitalization can mostly be traced back to a grassroots effort to save the ruins of an old Presbyterian Church.
First Presbyterian Church had stood near downtown since 1892 and was partially torn down in 1972, leaving only the church's tower.
When the city ordered the tower be torn down due to safety concerns, the Historical Salisbury Foundation gathered signatures and funds to save it.
"That's kind of what started our preservation movement," Hemann said.
Piecemeal efforts to energize the city fell short in the following years, though, as the city struggled with its identity as a small town off Interstate 85 in the shadow of Charlotte.
Hemann said when Catawba College's new president was installed in April, he noted the countless times he had stopped at the Salisbury exit for gas without ever venturing into town.
That kind of perception dogged the city for years until 2001 when the city drew up its downtown master plan. Streetscape work was prioritized on the city's main entrance, Innes Street, to create a more welcoming gateway into town from the highly trafficked interstate.
Hemann's formula to maximize the city's property values played heavily into that plan. He explains that downtown investment leads to a more efficient return on land acreage than other uses -- including big box stores and shopping centers.
"The investment into downtown has been more beneficial to the town," he said.
The city's emphasis on mixed-use downtown buildings has led to a 169 percent increase in property values since 1980, he said.
Mayor Paul Woodson has an interesting perspective on the plight of Salisbury and similar small cities like it across the state that boomed and nearly busted as textile towns.
Woodson today operates a chain of dry cleaners, but managed textile plants across the region during his career, which came full circle when he returned to Salisbury in 1986 where his grandfather had served as mayor in the 1910s.
"When I moved downtown 26 years ago, downtown Salisbury was dead," Woodson recalls.
He eyes a window in the corner of his office from which his daughter used to watch the city's annual Christmas parade back when City Hall was a bank and this was his father-in-law's office. His wife had also spent time in that window sill, and he's already looking forward to this Thanksgiving, when his grandson will sit in that same window and look down at the spectacle.
It's a personal testament to the value of repurposing these old buildings that carry so much historical and cultural value, but that's not to say the road toward that understanding was always smooth.
The city's path toward downtown relevance -- the city regularly entertains city officials from across the country who look to Salisbury as a model for city center revitalization -- was not without controversy, Woodson points out, even when there was significant private investment ahead of public spending on renovations.
City Hall sits beside the Meroney Theater, which runs down behind Fisher Street where it shares space with The Norvell Theater, a children's theater.
Renovations to those performing arts venues began with citizen donations, Woodson said, which brought about restaurants along Fisher Street, now also known as "Brick Street" after the city laid bricks to some Streetscape work by the city.
"We got a lot of grief for that," Woodson said of the city's investment to produce an attractive "restaurant row." "Some on the council were highly criticized."
Just a few blocks east, the city purchased and renovated the old Flowers Bakery -- another testament to the city's similarity to Goldsboro and yet another unpopular decision.
"We've had a lot of sensitive votes," Woodson said. "A lot of people criticized us, but we didn't want our downtown to deteriorate, so we bought the buildings ourselves."
That, though, exaggerates the city's direct investment. When these purchases were taking place, there were a handful of federal and state grants to allow Salisbury to make these transactions.
Those grants have dried up in the subsequent years of economic contraction and slow recovery, which leaves cities like Goldsboro to promote their downtowns with local funds, but Salisbury struck while the iron was hot, getting its downtown's revitalization off the ground early in the decade.
Today Fisher Street is the city's signature street, lined with gas lamps and restaurants, attracting a sizable clientele even on drizzly Tuesdays.
"It's now definitely a destination," Hemann said.
The Flowers Bakery has been renovated and now contains a handful of law offices just south of the Rowan County Courthouse.
Woodson said those who had opposed the investments changed their tune after they saw the results.
"They came back six months later and said it actually was a good idea," he said.
Even the city's government-loathing eccentric, known only as Clyde, can hardly contain himself when he shows visitors around downtown, ushering them around the Meroney's historical hallways.
Woodson proudly speaks of how busy the streets downtown are on weekends -- filled with families, young professionals, students from Catawba and Livingstone College -- but also of the city's enduring southern charm.
You can't enter City Hall without being offered a cold drink -- proof of the area's maintenance of its personality as a close-knit community, even as new mixed-use buildings and trendy restaurants are woven into the town's centuries-old fabric.
And it's that quality that brought Kirk Knapp to Salisbury.
He and his wife decided to move back to Rowan County to be near her family, but downtown presented some options for Knapp, 60, to open his own business.
The couple bought a building next door to The Plaza, an apartment building that also houses Hemann's department, and decided to open up Tastebuds, a coffee shop, beneath their loft apartment.
Being able to own a business and to live above it was one of the major selling points of downtown, he said, adding more credence to Hemann's formula to promote mixed-use buildings.
And the relationship with DSI has also been a boon, he said, comparing it to other places where he said downtown businesses didn't get much attention from the local government and lost out to malls and big box stores.
"What DSI has done seems to make sense," he said, calling the department a liaison between City Hall and businesses. "Even in the five-and-a-half years we've been here, they've been driving business downtown and have been a clearinghouse for questions."
Still, he sees more potential lining the streets of the city's center.
"Randy has done a lot, but we're just scratching the surface," he said.
The city's growth isn't due only to public investment though. Conversations about downtown Salisbury's comeback typically lead to one private benefactor: F&M Bank.
Not only did the bank decide to renovate one of the town's oldest buildings into a first-class facility that now houses its financial center, it also donated a building to the Waterworks Visual Arts Center in 2003 with a challenge to renovate the old structure.
The nonprofit responded by raising $2.8 million to create a facility of galleries, studios and classrooms to enrich the area's art culture.
Anne Scott Clement, the center's executive director, said much of the development in the immediate area was spurred on by Waterworks move downtown.
"The arts led the way," she said, noting the examples of public art scattered across the downtown, creating plazas and destinations where only brick would stand otherwise.
Waterworks and the F&M Bank building are near Easy Street, a pathway from Main Street to the train station from yesteryear that was recreated through bricklaying and landscaping. The pedestrian walkway now, once again, leads to the train station, which benefited from $3.1 million of renovations by the Historic Salisbury Foundation.
Trains roll through Salisbury's Amtrak station now just as passenger trains did when the railroad town was on the main line from the nation's capital to Atlanta in the early 1900s.
As a small railroad town still showing the scars of an abandoned textile industry set just outside of a major metropolitan city, it's not a far stretch to see Goldsboro's path to downtown revitalization in the path blazed by Salisbury, but a lack of grants and direct investment into economic development can't be ignored as Wayne County's largest city looks to its future.