Project is breathing new life into downtown warehouse row

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
Salisbury Post
Jimmy Plyler, owner of Innovative Products and Solutions at 423 N. Lee St., sees considerable potential in the old warehouse area that has come to be known as “Railwalk.”
Plyler likes his 13,000 square feet of office, manufacturing and warehouse space in the Railwalk district so much that he committed in January to a long-term lease ó seven years.
“It fits us perfectly,” Plyler says. “This whole venture was designed for the space to fit us.”
IPS and Integro Technologies are high-tech bookends to a two-block area that could be the next big thing in downtown Salisbury, and it’s all tied together by an abandoned, curving rail spur that runs generally from East Liberty to East Cemetery streets.
As a vision, Railwalk started out as a place where artists would take advantage of the wide-open interiors of older warehouses and set up their studios, offices, galleries, classrooms and retail spaces.
Exactly those kinds of things have been happening through Rail Walk Studios and Gallery, Cascade Sculpture, the relocation of the Rowan Arts Council to this area and the soon-to-come Looking Glass Artist Collective (see accompanying story).
But Railwalk also has attracted businesses such as IPS and Integro, whose owners wanted flexible space, room to grow and somewhere that was convenient to the central business district.
Shawn Campion, a partner in Integro Technologies at 305 N. Lee St., said he didn’t want to work “in a tin-shack building in the middle of nowhere.”
This two-block “Railwalk” area also includes the Salisbury Emporium, Rouzer Auto Parts, Bud and Betty Mickle’s antiques store, To the Pointe Dance Company, Habitat for Humanity of Rowan County, Beggar’s Bazaar, White Tire Service and the Linens and More Warehouse Outlet.
The potential exists in other buildings and vacant lots for a restaurant, more businesses and even residential development.
When everything is tied together in the future by a pedestrian avenue that follows the old rail spur, property owners and their tenants think it will become a new destination spot in Salisbury.
“It will be one of the next best areas in town,” said Chris Bradshaw, who owns the buildings occupied by the dance company and Habitat for Humanity. “There are a lot of possibilities down there.”
The chief player in the Railwalk’s development is Rowan Investment Co. Inc., guided by Glenn Ketner and his son, John. In 2002, the Ketners and other property owners in this warehouse area bought into an intense, day-and-a-half planning exercise ó the Lee Street Charrette.
Rowan Investment Co. has used the charrette’s final report as a blueprint of sorts for how to develop the many properties it has assembled in this two-block area.
Gray Stout served as lead architect for the Downtown Salisbury Inc.-inspired charrette, which had architects, planners, a historic preservation expert and Meg Dees of the N.C. Main Street office swarming the area.
It was the first time the term “Railwalk” emerged, and the exercise built upon an arts district theme proposed by the 2001 Downtown Master Plan. Ed Norvell first shared Downtown Salisbury Inc.’s vision with Glenn Ketner prior to the charrette.
The charrette’s final report said: “There is not another place like it in Salisbury or Rowan County. The uniqueness of this area will make it memorable. Its scale will make it a special place.”
At the time, many of the buildings were vacant or under-utilized.
“We pull it out very often,” John Ketner says of the plan. “It gives prospective tenants some idea of where we’re going.”
The Ketners say the Railwalk concept has moved beyond an exclusive district for the arts and become more of a “creative” district that offers a mix of uses, including the arts, high-tech business and retail.
Randy Hemann, executive director of Downtown Salisbury Inc., says he’s thrilled with how development has been able to respond and adapt to the market. “This is incubator space,” he says, “and it’s growing some really neat companies.”
Part of the challenge for the Ketners, Glenn says, is to try and keep the spaces they have to offer flexible. “You’ve got to be creative,” he adds.
As tenants such as IPS, Integro and the various artists have committed to the area, Rowan Investment Co. has renovated the spaces to fit their needs.
“The Ketners were great to work with,” Plyler says. “They did a first-class renovation.”
Sarah Hall, president of the Looking Glass Artist Collective, says her group is “excited and pleased, not only that space is being renovated especially for us by Rowan Investment Co., but that we get to be a part of Glenn and John Ketner’s dream for downtown Salisbury.
“We can help them turn a once-declining area into a place of beauty and help make the Railwalk area into an arts destination.”
Campion, of Integro, said few places in Salisbury have the flex space he found in the 9,000 square feet along North Lee Street. He also preferred being downtown, while still having space to grow.
Home Concrete used to store building materials here. It also was home for a cut-and-sew operation for children’s underwear.
Glenn Ketner says many of the buildings in this area date back to the 1920s. It once had six wholesale grocery operations, benefiting from their location along the rail corridor.
The rail spur served in bringing produce and other goods directly to their docks for unloading.
In the 300 block between North Lee and Depot streets, the development of the pedestrian Railwalk between buildings will depend on a collaboration among property owners on both sides.
In the 400 block between North Lee Street and the railroad, much of Railwalk’s pedestrian-scaled improvements will have to be done by Rowan Investment Co.
The Ketners plan to provide Railwalk access to all of their properties and use that side for required access ramps for the handicapped.
In preparation, they’ve done a lot to improve the drainage, fix some of the infrastructure such as gas lines, remove old docks, shore up building foundations, replace windows and expose windows and doors that were bricked up.
The Ketners (and the 2002 design team) envision a Railwalk surface of brick pavers or stamped concrete, benches, planters, gooseneck or industrial-type lighting, awnings, well-designed signs, exposed sections of track and decks or porches.
The grand plan also envisions plazas on both ends of Railwalk, possibly accented by fountains and an eventual tie-in to Easy Street.
Glenn Ketner says he hopes the city of Salisbury will be a partner, too, and help with sidewalks, lighting and moving utility poles that smack up against his North Lee Street buildings.
The proposed city budget for 2008-2009 allocates $35,000 toward a “Railwalk improvement project.”
Last week, Salisbury City Council also rezoned a 16.3-acre area ó essentially the Railwalk district ó from a light-industrial to a downtown mixed-use district. The new zoning promotes rehabilitation and adaptive reuse, offices, retail and restaurants, flex space, studios and loft housing.
“Good things are happening in that area,” Mayor Pro Tem Paul Woodson says.
John Ketner credits Downtown Salisbury Inc. with playing a big role in Railwalk’s gaining steam, and he says the end-users ó the tenants coming into the district with a vision for its potential ó are the most important component.
“It just wouldn’t happen without them,” he says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or