Downtown Lenoir coming back to life

Mar. 10, 2013 @ 08:35 AM

You might start a story about downtown Lenoir like this: “Once upon a time, it was the Athens of the South.”

In a time before U.S. 321, a time before urban sprawl, a time – if you can imagine it – before furniture, that’s exactly what it was.

Sometime between the mid-1800s and the first stirrings of the Great Depression in 1930, people started calling downtown Lenoir “Little Athens” or “Athens of the South.”

Just a few decades later, downtown was dead and dormant.

Today, it’s starting to spring back to life. This is the story of how that happened.

Life and culture in “Little Athens”

Downtown Lenoir’s Grecian moniker derived mostly from its cultural offerings.

“It was cultural and educational,” said John Hawkins, director of the Caldwell Heritage Museum. “At that time, the town of Lenoir was seen as a cultural center.”

Even before that, downtown had served as the only commercial center in the county. In the late 19th century, there were country stores scattered in other parts of Caldwell County. But Lenoir’s was the only centralized downtown structure, said Mike Gibbons, who serves on the Caldwell Heritage Museum’s board.

And it was thriving.

“The main hub of all activity was centered in and around Lenoir,” Gibbons said. “And it was all in downtown.”

The cultural offerings came from Davenport College, which opened its doors in 1855 as an all-girls institution.

The college offered a more textured education than girls in other areas were receiving at the time, Hawkins said. Students learned astronomy, music and Latin.

So musical performances, plays and art were mixed in with the commercial offerings in downtown Lenoir.

Years later, that would change.

For years, a suffering downtown

By 1985 Keith Dubois, then executive vice president of the Downtown Merchants’ Association, had to protest to the News-Topic that downtown wasn’t dead.

“It’s not dead,” he said in an interview that year. “We have to think of this area as being an investment.”

It may not have been dead, but it wasn’t thriving.

It all started in the early 1930s, when U.S. 321 first sliced its way through Hickory, Lenoir and Boone. Businesses started trickling out of town as big-box stores popped up along the highway.

Then, in 1932, Davenport closed its doors. The Methodist church, which owned the college, chose to merge it with Greensboro College.

The buildings were razed in 1946, except one – the dining hall, which now houses the Heritage Museum.

But the college's departure took much of the culture with it. At the same time, business began its slow trickle out of the downtown limits.

By the end of the century, there wasn’t much left but government and law offices.

“During the '80s and '90s, the town pretty well dried up and was on its way to oblivion,” Gibbons said.

The start of a revitalization movement

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a desire to bring life back to downtown Lenoir took root.

“People wanted to see downtown develop,” Gibbons said. “Not just the 321 corridor.”

For much of the 2000s, the Lenoir Economic Development Board did the heavy lifting of bringing business and opportunity back to downtown.

The board rezoned residential areas, worked to redirect traffic patterns and, in 2004, sought historic-district designation for a wide swath of downtown.

They were working, board member Allen Stewart told the News-Topic in 2004, “to pick up the uptown by its bootstraps.”

Then it was time to bring the businesses back.

Downtown shows signs of life

Three years ago, Nick Dula took over the reins of economic development in downtown Lenoir.

In his tenure as director of downtown economic development, he has focused intensely on developing business again – doing everything from securing new grants to compiling a complete directory of empty storefronts for potential property owners.

In the last decade, those empty storefronts have started to fill up.

Cynthia Hicks, a Lenoir native, snapped up one of them and opened Abigail’s Gifts. Now, she said, the area is starting a real rebound.

“It’s gone from a very thick, dense, populated, busy business district to abandoned – and now on the cusp of no longer being abandoned,” she said.

Many downtown business owners know they could’ve set up shop closer to the highway – but downtown is more their style.

“I like downtown, more than I like some big strip,” said Hazel Hayes, who owns yarn store Chix with Stix on Main Street. “I would get more visibility on 321, yes. But your overhead is higher and you don’t get that cozy feeling.”

For 1841 Café owner and Lenoir native Tim Haas, downtown is full of memories. It meant going to the hardware store with his dad, or tagging along with his mom for a hair appointment.

That’s why he set up shop on Main Street.

“I’d like to be a little part of what brings people back,” Haas said.

Athens again

Dula, the downtown economic development director, doesn’t slow down much. His City Hall office is stacked with papers almost as high as his desk.

Ask him about his plans for the future of downtown, and you’ll start to see why.

He wants more grants, more events, more streetscaping. He wants to fill the empty storefronts that remain. He’s working on an ambitious plan to develop a guaranteed loan fund for downtown businesses, to help them complete their pricier development projects.

Look outside Dula’s window, and you’ll still see empty facades and some buildings in disrepair. But you’ll see fresh paint and new signs and streets starting to fill with people again, too.

For everyone involved – from City Hall to individual business owners – it’s important that it keeps happening.

“Downtowns reflect the character, the personality of the community,” Dula said. “If you’ve got a bad downtown, you’ve got a bad community. If you’ve got a vibrant downtown, there’s hope.”