In age of clicking and big box, downtowns still thrive
By William F. West, Miles Layton and Peter Williams
Wednesday, April 25, 2018
While more shopper dollars are being spent online and much of the public attention seems focused on newer commercial centers like Tanglewood Pavilions in Elizabeth City and the proposed Currituck Station in Moyock, downtown areas continue to thrive.
Elizabeth City’s downtown, for example, is seeing the transformation of a number of vacant properties into spaces for both residential and business use. Two of the largest projects involve the former Weatherly Candy Factory building at the corner of Elizabeth and Water streets and the former Hurdle Hardware building on Water Street.
Two Richmond, Virginia-based developers are currently renovating the Weatherly building for upscale apartments — a project even some downtown boosters weren’t so sure would happen.
Deborah Malenfant, director of Elizabeth City Downtown Inc., acknowledges she once was among the doubters.
"I have had a lot of conversations around the excitement for the project — and the fact they are taking a building that, sometimes here locally, we looked at and thought, 'Gosh, there's no hope for that. Eventually, it's going to either fall down or have to be torn down.' That was the perception — and it obviously it wasn't the reality," she said.
The fact the Weatherly project’s developers plan to convert the building — the former home to both a candy factor and a mattress retailer — into 45 market-rate apartments gives Malenfant and others hope that other vacant properties in the city’s downtown can also be retrofitted for new uses.
That’s already happening with a number of other vacant buildings. The Ghost Harbor Brewing Co. has already opened a microbrewery in a space off Pailin’s Alley, and the Elizabeth City Brewing Company plans to transform the Hurdle Hardware building into a second downtown microbrewery.
"There has been pent-up demand for businesses like that," Malenfant said.
Renovation projects are also underway elsewhere in the downtown.
Jeff Mitchell and his wife, Valerie, are restoring the former Friendly Wig Shop building on Poindexter Street for a mixture of office and residential uses.
Also along North Poindexter Street, the Jannie Mills family is working to transform what had been the restaurant part of the long-vacant Thumpers Downtown Bar & Grille into a bistro. George Jackson, a co-landlord of the former Thumpers, says a pizza business may occupy the other part of the building.
Along East Main Street, Will Raucci and his wife, Laurie Edwards, are working to renovate the former Sidney’s Cafe & Bistro in the former Virginia Dare Arcade building.
Down on South Water Street, local restaurateurs Chris and Jennifer Purcell are renovating the first floor of the former Comstock's Confectionery building and already have a tenant lined up. And at the end of South Poindexter Street, Christ Episcopal Church is restoring the former Regis Dandar dentistry building for two tenants.
Malenfant attributes a lot of the recent renovation activity to new owners willing to invest in facade upgrades and other improvements. Also playing a key role has been city participation through its Downtown Improvement Grants program. Under the DIG program, building owners meeting specified criteria are eligible for up to $20,000 in city grant funding.
"What we've seen over the last three to five years, much more so in the last couple of years, is people are taking pride in their properties again. People are believing in the potential of downtown," Malenfant said.
"Sometimes it starts with the small steps, with someone improving their facade," she continued. "And it takes one or two people taking pride in their property."
Of course, not every kind of business can work in a downtown area. Malenfant said she advises those interested in opening a business downtown to "think outside the box" and try to offer either a product or service that’s unique and includes an experience.
"The small businesses, the mom-and-pop businesses, can't compete with the big-box stores like the Walmarts and the Hobby Lobby on price and on volume," she said. "So, we have to make sure we're making ourselves unique with regard to the experiences that we offer."
Malenfant said her vision for Elizabeth City’s downtown is full occupancy — that is, no vacant buildings.
"I think it's possible," she said. "That's obviously the goal."
Jennifer Harriss, director of Destination Downtown Edenton, has a similar vision for her town’s downtown.
“We want every inch of our downtown real estate to contribute to the tax base, local economy and overall bustle of downtown Edenton,” Harriss said. “That being said, we do have several storefronts that are vacant. Some of these are available for new tenants and several are not.”
While it “can be very frustrating” when a property owner won’t rent or sell their building, Harriss said vacant buildings isn’t a big problem in Edenton’s downtown.
“We are thrilled that Edenton is repeatedly told by the North Carolina Main Street Program that we have the lowest vacancy rate in the Tarheel state. For the most part, we are full,” she said.
Harriss said some businesses are even locating in the upper stories of buildings — a sign of a downtown that is healthy and in high demand.
She noted that the pending sale of the Conger building, which is to be turned into a brew pub, should also spark interest in properties along Water Street. The owner of the former Edenton Bay Trading Co. on Water Street has been working extensively on the building’s interior and plans to open an event venue, she said.
“Downtown is in a very positive and healthy state,” Harriss said. “Our anchor stores are doing well and our creative, hard-working business owners continue to keep things interesting with their ‘pop-up’ shops, social-media presence and good 'ole fashioned customer service.”
With more consumers deciding to do their shopping with the click of a mouse, Harriss said it’s also important for downtown merchants to make sure they have an online presence.
“Our merchants are working extra hard to come up with creative solutions to encourage both online shopping options for their businesses as well as getting customers in their door,” she said. “We are calling this new type of downtown economy 'click and brick.'”
Compared to the downtowns in Elizabeth City of Edenton, Hertford’s downtown is far smaller — it’s really just a block and a half.
Even so, entrepreneurs still have a vibrant presence in Hertford’s downtown. In addition to the Perquimans County Courthouse and Annex buildings, the Perquimans Chamber of Commerce building and the Jim “Catfish” Hunter Museum, there’s Woodard’s Pharmacy, two banks, a dance studio, a hardware store, an insurance agency, several law offices, an internet provider, an antique store, a trophy store, and a jewelry store.
Recently, the Perquimans Arts League purchased one of the largest vacant buildings in the downtown, greatly increasing its space. It had been renting a small space in the Hall of Fame Building across from the courthouse.
Susan Cox, owner of a trophy store on Church Street, said the new arts league building will be a big draw for the downtown once it opens.
Also town resident Frank Jaklic has started renovating a downtown building he recently purchased that was in a bad state of repair.
A new restaurant that will be opening soon will also help, Cox said. It’ll be owned by Alvin Overton, the same chef who operated Bout Thyme Kitchen in Elizabeth City.
“That will be a big plus for downtown,” Cox said.
Cox said the recession hit downtown merchants here hard.
“It’s getting better, but it’s been a long, slow process,” she said. “We’re not anywhere close to being great and there are a lot of mom and pop businesses that are still struggling.”
Dave Goss, Perquimans County’s economic development consultant, said there are positive signs for Hertford’s future. He cites the idea of a high-speed passenger ferry offering service linking Kitty Hawk to places like Hertford, Edenton and Elizabeth City as something that, if implemented, could give the downtown a major boost.
Like other boosters of other downtowns, Goss believes downtown Hertford’s future depends on having unique businesses that offer things other places in the region don’t.