Hemann helped revitalize downtown Salisbury during his tenure
SALISBURY — Justin Dionne said Randy Hemann, the outgoing Downtown Salisbury Inc. leader, has lived up to his name during his 16-year tenure.
Hemann shares a moniker with He-Man, the protagonist in the Masters of the Universe franchise popular in the 1980s.
“If anyone has any doubts about what the He-Man has done for Salisbury, just tell them to look around,” Dionne told the crowd last week at the F&M Trolley Barn. “…When downtown Salisbury needed a superhero, you were there.”
People gathered to pay tribute to Hemann, who will leave DSI on April 30 to become the city manager in Oxford.
Dionne’s new venture — he’s artistic director for Lee Street Theatre, which will open a $1.5 million performing arts center this fall in an old warehouse — is a good example of Hemann’s economic development track record as downtown’s top executive.
Under Hemann’s leadership, downtown Salisbury has experienced $51 million in investment since 2001, including 40 new residential units, streetscape enhancements, 240 new parking spaces, an entertainment district, an arts and technology district and two new performing arts venues with 350 total seats.
“Randy’s impact is profound,” said Mark Lewis, president of the DSI board of directors.
The key to Hemann’s success has been a master plan created in 2001 and updated in 2010, Lewis said. These “living, breathing documents” served as the guide for everything Hemann has done, Lewis said, and made the 19-member Downtown Salisbury Inc. board “one of the most effective I’ve ever served on.”
The master planning process included more than 150 volunteers, and the documents have worked because they reflect the community’s priorities, Lewis said. Hemann continually turned back to the master plan for guidance and kept the documents literally in front of board members as they made decisions.
The results have made downtown Salisbury one of the finest small cities in North Carolina, supporters say.
In 10 years, the downtown tax base has increased by 169 percent from $56.4 million to $84.7 million in roughly a 20-square-block area. Downtown Salisbury Inc.’s revolving fund has revolved 10 buildings, creating $2.7 million in investment, 53 new jobs and eight residential units.
Hemann’s focus on boosting the number of people who live downtown has spurred additional development, Lewis said.
“That is one of the key things that drives the success of a downtown,” he said. “They demand services like restaurants and nightlife.”
Hemann wasn’t shy about asking for money. He helped raise $215,000 in grants and private donations to establish a trolley service in partnership with the Tourism Development Authority and took advantage of state grants to help developers buy and rehabilitate former eyesores, like two cottages on South Lee Street that now house The Perfect Smoke cigar shop and soon, Emma’s restaurant.
There have been some stumbles along the way. In 2007, Downtown Salisbury Inc. bought the Empire Hotel, a vacant hotel at 212-228 S. Main St., for $1 million with the help of financing provided by eight local banks.
The project stalled during the recession, and the property remains vacant and a debt burden for DSI. But Hemann has continued to market the property, and a developer has shown enough interest to warrant a study due to the DSI board in six weeks.
For years, Hemann has advocated for left turns at the Square to no avail.
“How’s the left turn coming, Randy?” F&M Bank President Steve Fisher joked at Thursday’s roast.
There was also Hemann’s failed attempt to convince City Council to support narrowing Main Street from four to three lanes.
But Hemann’s successes far outnumber his failures. City leaders and downtown business owners credit him for having the vision, and perhaps more importantly the patience, to see projects through, including Easy Street, the Fisher Street entertainment district, the Railwalk Arts district and more.
“Randy truly understood the art of revitalizing a downtown,” Fisher said. “Randy knew that vision without passion is just an idea, and that planning without patience is an idea soon forgotten.”
While downtown Salisbury is blessed with a rich history and many dedicated and talented entrepreneurs and “community angels,” it takes someone to coordinate those assets, Fisher said. Hemann managed to conduct that symphony with great results, he said.
Hemann has the ability to look at a dilapidated building and see the potential of new jobs and new sources of revenue, said Paul Fisher, chairman and CEO of F&M Bank.
Hemann worked each day with one goal in mind.
“How do we keep downtown alive, economically viable and pedestrian-friendly?” Paul Fisher said.
Before the tourism authority took over marketing and promotions for Downtown Salisbury Inc., Hemann and his staff planned and executed 14 annual events that attracted 20,000 people annually. Now focused solely on economic development and downtown revitalization, Downtown Salisbury Inc. employs only Hemann and a part-time assistant.
A “walking library” of knowledge about downtown development, Hemann worked to find new uses for old buildings, Paul Fisher said.
“Randy was a godsend for Salisbury,” Fisher said. “He mustered the great people he found here, shared his vision and expertise, got their buy-in, and together they created one of the finest small cities in the state of North Carolina.”
Hemann was part of a leadership group that recognized Salisbury’s future economy should be centered on the “creative economy,” focused on arts and culture, tourism, high-tech industry and diversity, said Lewis, a former City Council member.
“Randy’s involvement in the direction of our economy is more than just a building on Main Street,” Lewis said.
While the growth of the tax base is one measure of Hemann’s accomplishments, he is also responsible for helping to nurture the city’s entrepreneurial spirit, evident in new restaurants, theaters and a hotel, despite the recession, Lewis said.
Hemann’s contributions to Salisbury will stand the test of time, Steve Fisher said.
Speaking at the Trolley Barn tribute to Preston, Hemann’s son, Fisher encouraged the teenager to come back to Salisbury with his own family some day and drive through downtown.
“Tell your family how much your dad did here,” Fisher said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.