Empire Hotel awaits new Downtown Salisbury leader

  • Posted: Thursday, May 2, 2013 12:26 p.m.
    UPDATED: Friday, May 3, 2013 12:54 a.m.
Developing the vacant Empire Hotel on South Main Street will be a priority for the new executive director of Downtown Salisbury Inc. Photo by Emily Ford
Developing the vacant Empire Hotel on South Main Street will be a priority for the new executive director of Downtown Salisbury Inc. Photo by Emily Ford

SALISBURY — The biggest challenge facing Downtown Salisbury Inc.’s future executive director will be an ornate, vacant three-story hotel on South Main Street.

In 2007, Downtown Salisbury Inc. bought the Empire Hotel for $1 million with the help of financing provided by eight local banks. Developers were interested, but the project stalled during the recession, and the property remains vacant and a debt burden.

Outgoing Executive Director Randy Hemann, who left this week for a new job in Oxford, defended the decision to buy the hotel and said interest in the project has picked up.

“Based on the recent activity, I believe the Empire will be a great redevelopment project in the near future, and I still think we made the right decision to take it on,” Hemann said.

A developer has shown enough interest to warrant a study due to the Downtown Salisbury board in six weeks, President Mark Lewis said.

The board recently completed a market feasibility study. Not site-specific to the Empire, the study showed potential for a new downtown hotel, Lewis said.

Further research will help determine whether Downtown Salisbury should go after a large, full-service hotel or a smaller, boutique hotel and use the remaining Empire property for something else, he said.

Meanwhile, Downtown Salisbury continues to explore two other potential uses for the property.

Lewis and Janet Gapen, the city’s interim planning director, recently met with Catawba College President Dr. Brien Lewis to discuss using the Empire as a satellite campus, including dorm rooms. Downtown Salisbury also continues to consider carving up the building for a variety of uses from retail to office.

A hotel would be “the highest and best use” for the Empire, Mark Lewis said.

“But is it an appropriate investment?” he asked. “The market tells us there is room for a downtown hotel.”

Downtown directors will know more about next steps in coming weeks. But Lewis, a volunteer, warned that everything will slow down until the organization hires a full-time executive director.

Downtown Salisbury has been working with the city to redevelop South Main Street. Hemann was a leading advocate to build the Rowan-Salisbury School System central office in the 300 block, just down from the Empire.

The city recently completed an extensive contamination clean-up at the site of an old gas station and is considering borrowing $8 million on behalf of the school system to construct the central office.

Integro Technologies plans to build a $4 million headquarters in the 300 block, as well.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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