Patient revitalization pieces coming together in Warrenton

Jul. 27, 2013 @ 03:50 PM

The downtown area of Warrenton’s Main Street boasts some unique businesses, a courthouse square, shade trees and brick sidewalks.

It’s a street of locally owned antique and gift shops, specialty stores, eateries, insurance companies, realtors and empty storefronts.

In addition to those obvious attributes, it has history, which has earned it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

A visitor can get glimpses of Warrenton’s history by a stroll through the business district of Main Street.

A small garden near the southern end of the business district was established by Preservation Warrenton in 2008 in memory of J. Stewart Wortham and Mary L. Green Wortham. A sign reads: “On this site stood the J.S. Wortham Company, Inc. established circa 1900.”

Nearby is a historic marker indicating that the home of John A. Hyman, “first black to represent N.C. in U.S. Congress, 1875-1877,” is one block west.

Like so many small towns in rural North Carolina, Warrenton has lost some of its history along with a measure of economic and social vitality.

But Warrenton is fighting back. The town established a Downtown Revitalization Committee to focus energy and resources on the business district, perhaps doing for the downtown area what Preservation Warrenton has done throughout the town by renovating and maintaining so many historic buildings.

In 2011 Warrenton was selected to participate in the Small Town Main Street program of the N.C. Department of Commerce. The program provided technical assistance rather than grant funds, which fit right into Warrenton’s self-help approach. Projects completed during the past two years include rehabilitation of five buildings, 12 facade improvements, 12 new businesses, more than 30 new jobs and a number of special events.

In addition, the program has stimulated private investment.

One goal of the town is to improve the attractiveness and livability of Main Street. That effort will be helped by a $50,000 Rural Business Enterprise Grant the town received recently from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The grant will be used to take down and replace damaged trees and install park benches, trash receptacles and bicycle racks along the street and in the courthouse square.

In addition to making the downtown area more inviting to visitors, shoppers and tourists, the town is trying to fill the empty buildings facing Main Street.

The town received a $25,000 Urban Business Enterprise Grant from the USDA to establish a revolving loan program for local businesses. It provides money for downtown businesses to make improvements, such as maintaining facades on historic storefronts and renovating buildings to meet modern needs. The fund is designed to be self-sustaining. Borrowers repay their loans with interest so the funds can then be used by other businesses.

Town manager Robert Davie said the fund is still active. Two loans have been made.

“We’re getting our payments on time and there is $15,000 available,” he said.

One loan from the revolving loan program was used by the husband-and-wife team of Gabe Cumming and Carla Norwood to renovate two adjoining buildings at 108 South Main Street. Two apartments and four offices were created on the second floor.

FoodWorks, which includes a coffee shop with a commercial kitchen, occupies one side of the ground floor.

Norwood said the other side was prepared for commercial use. It was quickly occupied by Futrell Pharmacy, which opened this month. It will be managed by local resident and pharmacist Woody King.

The pharmacy occupies the building from Main Street all the way through to Bragg Street.

“It’s an unconventional layout,” King said. “There are front and rear entrances, with parking out back.”

It is strictly a pharmacy, King said.

“Somebody asked me, ‘Where are the chips?’ We’re not going in for that kind of thing,” King said.

In addition to King, the pharmacy will have two full-time employees and two part-time employees.

Futrell Pharmacy does more than add another business to downtown Warrenton.

“It brought me home,” said King, who had been plying his trade in Henderson for the past several years.

Another historic building that has survived the years by changing with the times is now the home of the Hardware Cafe. Built in 1907, the building housed the W.A. Miles Hardware Company until 1991.

“If it’s hardware, we have it,” proclaimed a slogan painted on one of the street front windows.

The building was acquired by Don Arnold and Ernie Fleming at auction in 1996 and housed Oakley Hall Antiques until that business relocated to 119 North Main.

Will and Denise Perry then acquired the building and in 2001 opened the Hardware Cafe, which serves made-to-order meals in an informal setting surrounded by the accoutrements of hardware.

Bobbie Lee Corker lives in another of the Main Street renovated buildings. The structure at 134 South Main was built in 1874, she said. It had served Allen, Son and Company as a base for their mercantile business until it closed in the 1970s.

Corker acquired the building in 2006 and did a complete renovation.

“The back of the building had fallen in,” she said.

The renovation involved rebuilding collapsed sections, installing electricity and modernizing the plumbing. The first floor was designed as retail space. Corker now uses it as an art studio. The upstairs, where she now lives, was renovated as a residence with a kitchen, dining and living spaces and three bedrooms.

Keeping a business is as important as gaining a new one. Lisa Blackwell had operated Southern City Steak and Seafood House in downtown Warrenton for five years. Earlier this month, she announced she was closing her Warrenton restaurant to open one in Middleburg.

But Main Street didn’t lose a restaurant. It reopened under new management and with a new name. Holly Peoples, who had worked for Blackwell, opened it as The Local House on July 10 at the 139 South Main Street location.

At the southern end of the business district, Crown Cleaners reopened this month after being closed for more than three years. Owner Denise Allen said she operated the business for 12 years. She sold it in 2006 but it soon closed. She reacquired it and it will now be operated by her daughter Tiffany.

The Warrenton revolving loan fund helped her update equipment for the business.

In addition to his profession as a pharmacist, King serves as mayor pro tem of the town council and as chairman of the Downtown Revitalization Committee. He is excited about the changes that are taking place.

“We’re making good progress,” he said. “People who live here and work here are noticing the changes.”

Contact the writer at dirvine@hendersondispatch.com.