Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
Salisbury Post
At times, downtown Salisbury has been a victim of its own success.
As an impressive downtown revitalization continued through the years, outsiders came in and purchased various properties, profiting from increased property values brought about by the work of others.
The trouble was, as these investors held the properties, they refused to make improvements.
“It was holding downtown back,” said Steve Fisher, senior executive vice president of F&M Bank and a past president of Downtown Salisbury Inc.
Class A retail and office space was deteriorating into Class C space, Fisher said. Buildings that should have been purchased and redeveloped ó the key to downtown’s remaining viable over the past quarter century ó were falling into disrepair.
And Downtown Salisbury Inc. didn’t have the resources to compete when other downtown properties went up for sale.
F&M Bank Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Paul Fisher stepped in with a plan in 2005. He proposed that F&M Bank partner with Downtown Salisbury Inc. to purchase and revolve downtown buildings.
Paul Fisher offered Downtown Salisbury Inc. interest-only loans to buy properties, along with a guaranteed donation to Downtown Salisbury on the interest paid to the bank.
The Downtown Salisbury Inc.-F&M arrangement has been based pretty much on a handshake.
Downtown Salisbury Inc. Executive Director Randy Hemann identifies pivotal properties, and if they can be purchased within a market range, F&M provides the purchase money through an interest-only loan.
The F&M Bank Revolving Fund with Downtown Salisbury Inc. recently received a 2007 N.C. Main Street Award for the Best Public-Private Partnership. The award was presented at the annual awards dinner in Rocky Mount.
The bank’s revolving fund has been used to buy and redevelop the McNeely-Young Building at 102 S. Main St., the former Trexler Building at 219-221 S. Main St. (now Queen’s), the former Queen’s building at 125 S. Main St. (now Critters) and rental houses at 209 and 213 S. Lee St.
Often, it has tackled properties that wouldn’t be redeveloped otherwise.
The revolving fund’s success also paved the way for the participation of F&M Bank and six other local banks in Downtown Salisbury Inc.’s acquisition of the Empire Hotel for $1 million last year.
Each bank will be making a $5,000 annual contribution to Downtown Salisbury Inc. for two years to offset carrying costs while a search is conducted for a development partner.
Hemann and Steve Fisher said the seven-bank partnership actually became an easy sell based on the groundwork laid by the F&M revolving fund.
“It took one (bank) to show the way, and it took the rest to step to the plate,” Steve Fisher said.
What does F&M Bank get out of the unique revolving fund arrangement?
Steve Fisher said it means a stronger downtown, where the bank already has a strong presence and financial commitment.
A viable central business district, he added, is good for Salisbury and Rowan County, where F&M Bank does much of its business.
But he also believes the revolving fund has helped to raise the bar, taking that Class C space he spoke of previously and making it Class A space in the hands of the private sector.
“To get quality tenants, you have to have quality space,” Steve Fisher said.
The revolving fund projects have led directly to a dramatically expanded Queen’s and the new Critters gift shop, and the energy from these retailers has brought new traffic.
“What we’re getting new is at a totally different level,” Steve Fisher said. “… A rising tide raises all ships.”
F&M Bank knew firsthand about being a downtown catalyst. When you create quality space, Steve Fisher reiterated, quality people and businesses tend to gather around it.
F&M’s commitment to the 200 block of North Main Street led to the F&M Financial Center, the five-story F&M office building, Easy Street and the Trolley Barn.
Others taking chances in this same East Square area were Karen Alexander, Neal Sansovich and Downtown Salisbury Inc. (the Cheerwine building) on East Council Street; Doran, Shelby and Pethel attorneys at the old Flowers Bakery; the Chamber and its Gateway building; Glenn Ketner and warehouse properties near the depot; a Step in Time and others.
The East Square saw more than $15 million in investment.
The revolving fund has been another kind of F&M catalyst.
Hemann said the day Paul Fisher and F&M Bank came to him with the proposal for a revolving fund was exciting for him professionally and is the kind of partnership that makes him look forward to coming to work each day.
Now Hemann and others believe the South Main Street area is poised to see the same kind of investment East Square witnessed. The Kress Plaza, Queen’s, the city’s East Fisher Street project, Piedmont Players and the Empire Hotel look to be paving the way ó along with F&M.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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