Wineka column: Potential remains for Empire Hotel, but price for renovations among question marks
The Empire Hotel remains the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the room.
Can it be the major downtown development always envisioned for Salisbury?
Will the price tag for its restoration prove too much?
Does it need something like a nearby conference center to make it viable?
Is Salisbury big enough to make it work?
For the first time since it closed as a hotel in 1963, legitimate hope has surfaced that the Empire Hotel can be rejuvenated and become one of those anchors downtown developers always talk about.
A lot of things have come together for the old gal.
The Ragsdale family sold the massive South Main Street property to Downtown Salisbury Inc. in 2007, and DSI set sail on finding a private company to take on the project.
A Raleigh developer, which just happened to be named Empire Properties, signed on, proposing to buy the property and make it work as a mix of retail (on the first floor) and hotel (second and third floors).
The city is on board, too, having agreed to secure additional parking, commit facade grants, seek other incentives, provide streetscape improvements, help in gaining Historic Preservation Commission approval and determine whether traffic will be allowed to turn left onto South Main Street at the Square.
A separate task force also has been studying the need, or lack of it, for a conference center.
This past Thursday, Downtown Salisbury Inc. ended its annual meeting by offering tours through parts of the Empire Hotel, which still has the look inside of the Titanic resting on the ocean floor.
It has hardly changed since my last visit with a flashlight in 2001.
You can imagine the one-time elegance, but it’s far beneath the hanging strips of wallpaper, falling ceiling plaster, uneven floor boards, bricked-in mantels, boarded-up windows, a carved-up second-floor ballroom and holes marked off by orange cones.
Some sinks, clawfoot bathtubs, toilets and numbered doors remain from the glory days, but they’re only glimpses of a hotel once described in words such as “sumptuous,” “first-class” and “fashionable.”
Outside, former details such as two cupolas on top and a portico entrance in front are long gone. But one can still see potential in the Beaux Arts-style, red-and tan brick facade.
Greg Hatem, managing partner for Empire Properties, also took Thursday night’s tour and answered questions at the end.
He couldn’t give a good guess yet on what a redevelopment would cost. Through the years, estimates have ranged wildly from $9 million to $18 million.
“I can tell you it will be expensive,” Hatem said.
But when and if the Empire Hotel’s rebirth happens is more about the financial markets than it is whether Salisbury needs another hotel.
Hatem and Brian Miller, one of the downtown leaders in the Empire Hotel project, said the credit markets needed to finance a project of this magnitude just aren’t functioning right now. But everyone seems to have confidence they will some day, and they speak in terms of the project’s “moving forward.”
Hatem envisions a new Empire Hotel as having 80 to 100 rooms with retail, such as restaurants, on the first floor.
A restaurant would be the easiest part, Hatem said. Empire Properties has done it successfully in Raleigh, where it has been developer and managing partner for five eateries.
What Raleigh’s downtown doesn’t have that Salisbury owns in abundance is specialty retail, according to Hatem.
“What you have here is pretty extraordinary,” he added.
Another argument being made for the Empire Hotel is that Salisbury needs the hotel rooms. Statesville, the argument goes, has hundreds more hotel rooms than we do, even though it’s about the same size.
Statesville also has two interstates to our one.
But downtown stakeholders have always seen other advantages in an Empire Hotel restoration. On the surface, the hotel’s redevelopment would mean more property tax, sales tax and occupancy tax revenues.
Beyond those reasons, the hotel is in a great location, across from the Meroney Theater and within about two blocks of a new children’s theater that will be opening on East Fisher Street.
Really, it’s within walking distance of everything else, if you’re up to it: all the downtown shops and emporiums, the mural, West Square Historic District, the Confederate Monument, downtown churches, government centers, Rowan Museum, Rowan Public Library, Waterworks, Salisbury Station, Easy Street, the Lee Street warehouse district, National Cemetery, Old English Cemetery, Freedman’s Memorial and Farmers Market.
For me, if Salisbury promotes itself as a historic Southern town, worthy of visiting ó and it is ó it should give visitors the option of staying in the middle of its history.
My only reservation is the ability of Salisbury’s downtown to keep having events and attractions that create a buzz, making it the place to be for residents and visitors alike. Only that kind of consistent excitement will sustain business for everyone, including a downtown hotel.
Friday Night Outs only go so far. There has to be more.
Thursday night’s tour gave a brief rundown of the Empire Hotel’s history. Construction on the original hotel building, the Boyden House, started in 1855, but there wasn’t a grand opening until May 17, 1859.
It had various names through the years, usually accompanying changes in ownership. It became the Davis House, then The Central, and finally the Empire Hotel.
It saw a major renovation under architect Frank Milburn in 1907 and more changes in 1938.
The hotel served as residence for George MacPoole, also known as the flamboyant Lord Salisbury, and in its heyday, played host to orchestras, fine dining, dancing, commerce and limitless conversation.
I learned something the other night. Robert E. Lee and his daughter had breakfast at the hotel one April morning in 1870.
Maybe another famous person will dine someday at a new Empire Hotel.
I hope so. I think Salisbury can pull it off.