In March of 2013, which now seems like eons ago but in fact is only a fraction of time when the universe is considered, a consultant was hired to take a look at Burlington’s downtown, make a few notes and then come back with a report about how to, you know, make it decent. In those days the downtown, largely dormant until LabCorp put some offices and its corporate headquarters there, was slowly . . . well, let’s face it, the place was still pretty much a tomb. It had the Paramount Theater, the Depot, a handful of stores, a couple of restaurants, two bars and a co-op supermarket.
But mostly it still had rough-looking patches, empty buildings, vacant storefronts, a few panhandlers, and a core group of people who believed that something could sprout there with a little care, vision and investment.
The consultant, a group called Destination Development International, took a look around and compiled a report that it offered in August of 2013. It’s usually a surprise in one way or another when folks from outside an area come in and look at your hometown. That cuts either for the good or the bad. In this case, there was what I called in a column written at the time, a “healthy chunk of not so good.” The first thing the consultant noted was a lack of signs even telling people how to get downtown from his hotel room off Huffman Mill Road.
As a matter of fact, “there are more signs telling me how to leave town than how to find downtown,” the consultant said. Once he found downtown, the consultant discovered a few pretty cool shops. That was placed on the credit side of the ledger. On the debit side, it was also apparent that not too many people knew those places existed because he also found what everybody in Alamance County knew to be true: Few folks stirring around after 5 p.m. except for the occasional panhandler. He could stand in the middle of Main Street without much fear of being struck by a random motorist who might’ve presumably taken a wrong turn looking for North Main Street and wound up there by accident.
When the consultant got to Front Street he found both good and awful. On one side of the street was the good — the old train depot and amphitheater, the popular restaurant Mosca’s, which was beside the Paramount, which is just down the street from Bella’s, right near the Glass Angel, a stone’s throw from Company Shops Market. The other side of Front Street was, well. it made the consultant shake his head. Only one place was open, a small pub, but it was surrounded by buildings long vacant and in a state of serious disrepair. Outside the cave-like bar patrons sat around smoking cigarettes staring at the sidewalk.
“(Front Street) Public House was open, but we were scared to go in there,” the consultant said. “As a matter of fact, we thought it was a homeless shelter.”
Downtown skeptics laughed out loud when the consultant made that fairly accurate observation. And there are no shortage of downtown skeptics in Burlington then or today, so the laughter was relatively loud. The skeptics were first created way back in the 1970s when the city decided to block off Main Street and create what consultants of that time called “pedestrian malls” in downtowns all over America. This, of course, led many in the nation to question whether consultants of that era were seriously impacted by LSD experimentation in the 1960s. I think nearly every downtown pedestrian mall failed miserably. And Burlington — as do others — still has some of those scars.
So that side of the block of Front Street was a mess in 2013 — and it remained a mess for a while. Today, though, about six years later, it stands as the best and most realized block of what downtown Burlington could ultimately be. That once rundown side of the block of Front Street is the hottest area in town and combined with other elements of Front Street still in place, makes it a destination. If anything, it shows what can happen when vision, persistence and patience blend with investment of time, energy and capital.
Today that once unsightly side of Front Street has an art gallery, a coffee shop with brick courtyard that connects to the Steam Junction Maker Space. That is beside a Smitty’s ice cream parlor, which is next door to the newest spot in Burlington — Burlington Beer Works, the long-awaited brewpub. It’s an inviting block with nice mixture of locally owned businesses that are generating quality products. Owl and Rabbit Gallery is part of Beechwood Metal Works, which offers unique pieces for sale. The Blend and Co. is a popular gathering space for coffee or just friendly discussion. The downtown Smitty”s is a go-to after shows at the Paramount, which is expanding to create an event space across the street. Both Smitty’s and the Beer Works still feature much of the architectural history of their sites inside the walls. Once Burlington Beer Works opens its rooftop dining and bar area it will be even more popular than it is already.
I have followed the emergence of those locations for the past few years but had the chance to pay a visit and get a guided tour with a group of downtown revitalization experts from cities of similar size to Burlington and the state. I took part in an economic vitality workshop, which consumed a big part of the day. It was held at the Impact Alamance building on Davis Street. The former Cammack Building was given to Impact Alamance, a non-profit arm of Cone Health. It was renovated as a site for other non-profits such as Alamance Achieves. Ultimately, the Burlington Downtown Corporation will occupy a spot on the third floor. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the Downtown Corporation board of directors so take my enthusiasm with a required grain of salt — but that doesn’t mean it can be dismissed completely.
The members of my tour group were incredibly impressed with the latest additions to Burlington’s downtown. They were fascinated by Impact Alamance (the third floor space is seen above). Many ate lunch at the Beer Works earlier in the day and had positive reviews. During the tour, the folks at Smitty’s talked about preserving the brick work and other historic features, obtaining grants and becoming a part of downtown’s lifestyle. At the Beer Works our group saw the brewery in action guided by brewer Jeremy Hunt and brewpub manager Tracy Schmidt. As we walked out I pointed across the street to the Paramount and told them that it was once an old movie theater converted into a venue for theatrical productions, concerts and even political debates. I also noted that it was creating more space by taking over the former florist shop.
One site on the tour we missed was the new apartments created by the May Hosiery Mill renovation on Main and Maple Avenue. The construction made walking inside too dangerous. But that site will open within the next few months with units available for rent. That should also make a major difference.
In the eyes of this group of downtown professionals looking us over with outside eyes, Burlington appears to be moving in a positive direction. Some envy was expressed. A few more new businesses are preparing to open downtown, including a cupcake shop. I also understand that a couple of sites are under study as possible restaurants. At the moment, Burlington Beer Works is overwhelmed with customers. The momentum for new restaurants and other businesses downtown will never be greater than it is now.
That’s one reason the latest downtown vision and action plan released by the Downtown Corporation arrives just in time. The proposal is a bold and visionary step to reshape downtown, including a reconnection of South and North Main Street, which was closed off decades ago by the soon-to-fail-spectacularly pedestrian mall. Anyone who has lived in Burlington for even a few months will encounter someone who believes blocking the connector to East and West Burlington was a major error. This is one of seven goals of the action plan. To the credit of Burlington’s City Council, the idea hasn’t been summarily dismissed. City leaders also know it will take time, money and cooperation from the state DOT to make it happen.
So even though reuniting Main Street is one of the BDC’s seven goals in seven years in its 20-year plan, things likely won’t move that fast. The other six goals also remain on the table, which is a positive sign. They are:
- Restore the heart of Burlington
- Stimulate the new construction
- Create an arts and entertainment district
- Build an events center and plaza
- Grow the downtown neighbors
- Position downtown as an innovation village
At the moment, I enjoy the view of what has been accomplished on Front Street not just over the past six years — but over the past 10 to 15 years. There are thriving businesses along both sides in the heart of downtown.
But it’s also a reminder that things do move slowly. I look forward to watching events unfold as Burlington continues its downtown evolution.
By the way, here’s a link to a cool podcast produced by the Times-News featuring its online content editor Michael Abernethy and Peter Bishop, director of Economic Development for Burlington.