By Les High and Diana Matthews, The News Reporter
Since 2016, the blocks between Walter Street and Soules Swamp in Whiteville have suffered two destructive floods and a series of business closings, but building owners and businesspeople are still investing their energy to bring life to empty buildings.
Naysayers believed flooding from Florence would be the end to downtown, and although some businesses have moved or closed, interest in downtown properties has been high.
Developer John Fisher is optimistic that work on U.S. 701 Bypass will make it easier for north- and southbound traffic to pull into Whiteville via a new entrance alongside BB&T’s planned building at the Columbus Street intersection.
“These are huge positive things for downtown,” Fisher said.
Several buildings have sold or are close to being sold, and some of the people who have bought them have big plans.
A busy block
The block of East Main Street facing the railroad tracks is one area that has seen a noticeable resurgence since last year. The Farmacy on Main salt spa and kombucha bar/retail shop opened in a previously vacant space in November.
Polished Hair and Nail salon occupies the former Body Beautiful location just east of Smith Chiropractic Clinic. When dance instructor Wanda Thorne retired, instructor Summer Hinson reopened the site as Hidden Language Dance Company, with a refreshed front.
Brothers Adam and George Wooten plan to build on the success of their Farmacy by opening a tap room next to Columbus Insurance Company in a now-vacant spot.
Apartments and more
Fisher’s renovation of the Paul Leder Apartments on East Commerce Street is an example of the optimism now taking hold. “I’m hoping to have those ready this fall,” he said. “We’ve rented one and are taking applications. We’re taking our time.” The apartments, all on the ground floor, will have a security system, paved parking and outdoor lighting.
Fisher said his storage facility at 135 E. Main St. was doing well and he was hoping to open an event center in the old Cinema around the corner on South Madison Street.
J.E. Thompson has a plan to turn the former Pope’s Five and Dime along with the adjacent Pawn and Gun in the 800 block of South Madison into apartments and business space.
“The bank is working on the financing,” Thompson said. “It’ll happen in two phases. The first phase is apartments on the second floor.” The building has 5,000 square feet upstairs. For the 10,000-square-foot ground floor, “I’m working with a business to possibly move in.” The business, Thompson said, was formerly located in Whiteville, and the owner is considering moving back.
The old Meares Hardware store next to Thompson’s property on Madison Street has been bought and is undergoing major renovation, and the former Waccamaw Bank call center has been purchased, as has the former Sherwin Williams building. There is interest in the Lewis Smith Shopping Plaza.
Greg and Lynne Hewitt, owners of Nautilus on Frazier Street, expanded their fitness business to one of the former Body Shapers locations at 617 S. Madison Street. The property opened June 28 as a 24-hour women-only workout facility. Members let themselves in the front door with magnetic key cards.
“I think we found the perfect niche,” Greg Hewitt said.
The building was in better shape than it appeared to be after Hurricane Florence; water flooded in because the adjacent storefront’s roof collapsed, but Jeff and Cindy Faulk had previously replaced the roof at the 24-hour gym. The Hewitts updated the flooring and walls, creating a more upscale atmosphere. The facility has more than a dozen cardio exercise and strength training machines, Wifi, self-service cold water and a large-screen TV playing exercise moves clients can follow on the mats below.
Downtown advocates have been working to get the N.C. Vocational Rehabilitation office downtown, as state officials have narrowed the list to the downtown address and a strip center.
Flooding and government interventions
The elephant in the room about a downtown resurgence is flooding. The city is currently in the process of completing a major upgrade of underground infrastructure that will remove more water off Madison Street between the chamber of commerce building and the railroad, extending to Lee Street.
A larger fix, if there is one, for Soules Swamp is in the planning stages, but officials concede that any area that gets 23 inches of rain in three days will be faced with flooding.
A citywide storm water fee has been implemented to provide more funding for flooding issues.
Now is a good time for investors with capital gains from any source to invest them in downtown and skip paying taxes they otherwise would have owed on those dollars, Fisher said.
“Downtown Whiteville is in what they call an Opportunity Zone,” he said.
The tax plan passed by Congress in 2017, Fisher said, makes it easier for investors to take gains they made in the stock market or in other ventures and use that money to improve properties in more depressed urban areas.
“If you had $10,000 worth of Apple stock, for instance,” Fisher said, “and you sold it and made money, you can take all that value and reinvest 100 percent of it in an Opportunity Zone” without paying capital gains tax first.
“It’s a way to attract new investment into areas that need it.”
Another government incentive is the historic district program. The city is just short of having enough complying buildings to have downtown designated as a historic district. This would allow building owners who carry out historical renovations to receive up to a 40 percent tax credit on the project. If the city can identify 11 more buildings that would fit the criteria, downtown would qualify as a historic district. Historic districts have been critical components in the restoration of downtowns across the nation.
JACI Party and Event Rentals at 710 S. Madison St. opened March 9 with the goal of turning customers’ party dreams into reality, said co-owners Joy Green and Carole Higgins.
It’s more economical to rent real dishes than to buy disposable ones, Green said, and customers get the additional benefit of Higgins’ creative and elegant tablescaping ideas. However, JACI will soon have disposable dishes and tablecloths for customers who prefer that option.
Higgins, JACI’s inventory and design specialist, frequently changes the displays in the shop, which spark customers’ ideas for their own events. Most of the shop’s customers have come in for help with weddings, reunions and church events, the owners said.
Both women were busy Saturday as customers came to pick up chairs for a wedding and fill up pink and blue helium balloons for a “gender reveal” party.
“Whoever thought of this idea (of throwing parties to announce the sex of a baby on the way) should be really rich,” Higgins said. “It’s another opportunity to have a party, eat, give gifts and enjoy family time.
“But the one who thought of it first probably isn’t the one who turned it into a big thing,” she said. “That’s how it goes.”
JACI is a member of Columbus Chamber of Commerce and Tourism and will hold a ribbon-cutting and open house with door prizes and party food Saturday, Aug. 3, from 3-6 p.m..
Next door to JACI, Julissa Gachett and Lauren Thurman’s hair salon opened in April. “Braids are pretty much what we do,” said Thurman as she worked on a young customer’s long hair. “We also do dreads, all natural hair,” she said.
Fisher is in serious negotiations with a restaurateur about the vacant Big W site (formerly Southern Kitchen), which they hope to develop into “a high-end steakhouse and a nice bar,” he said.
“There’s a lot of investment going on,” Fisher said. “A lot of it is in anticipation of new developments downtown. This is a great time to invest,” he said. “Probably the greatest opportunity in my lifetime is going on right now. I believe it, and I’ve put my money behind it.”