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Newsmaker of the year: Highs offset lows for Historic Salisbury Foundation's managing director

By Katie Scarvey

Salisbury Post

Most people with jobs have highs and lows in their work life. In 2006, Jack Thomson’s highs and lows were much more public — and dramatic — than most people’s.

“It was a busy year,” he said.

Thomson’s busy year involved overseeing a dramatic home restoration that was the focus of an hour-long show on the History Channel — a segment he co-hosted — as well as being a key advocate for the preservation of a group of buildings slated for demolition by a downtown church. For these reasons, Post editors selected Thomson as as the newspaper’s 2006 Newsmaker of the Year.

Having a meeting with George Clooney didn’t hurt either.

Thomson is the managing director of Historic Salisbury Foundation. Hired in November 2004 to oversee the real estate activities of the foundation, Thomson was tapped in the summer of 2005 to become the nonprofit organization’s leader after Diane Dillon Hooper left for a job with Rowan Regional Medical Center.

Ed Clement, the founder of Historic Salisbury Foundation and a man Thomson considers a mentor, says Thomson has brought energy and vitality to preservation efforts.

“He’s very committed to protecting Salisbury’s quality of life and the cultural aspects that make it a great place to live,” Clement said.

This year, in perhaps his biggest challenge since joining the foundation, Thomson led efforts to preserve three West Fisher Street buildings that had been purchased by First United Methodist Church, which planned to raze them in preparation for an expansion.

Thomson helped rally a coalition of 11 organizations, including Historic Salisbury, in an effort to convince the church to renovate the buildings instead of tearing them down.

After much heated public debate, the church voted to follow through with its demolition plan. Regrouping, the foundation responded with a plan to move the buildings to another location.

Worried about its financial viability, Historic Salisbury ultimately decided against sinking what would have been a huge amount of money into the enterprise.

For preservation advocates, the buildings’ demolition in June was a huge blow, although a team from Historic Salisbury did salvage some material from the buildings before they were taken down.

“It was a severe loss to downtown Salisbury,” Thomson said.

“That loss affected the economics, the architecture, the history, and the culture of Salisbury,” said Clement.

Thomson’s screensaver still features architect Gray Stout’s rendering of what the church could have done without tearing down the Fisher Street buildings.

Is it a bit masochistic of him to keep that screensaver in light of the final outcome?

“No, it’s inspiring,” says Thomson, who found an upside to the failed effort.

Having such a major challenge to the town’s preservation ethic gave Historic Salisbury a chance to educate the public about the importance of its mission, he said. The foundation also gained new members as the controversy swirled, he added.

The issue was a polarizing one, with bitter feelings on both sides and numerous letters to the editor, some measured, some acrimonious.

As the spokesman for Historic Salisbury Foundation, Thomson was the lightning rod for policy decisions, said Randy Hemann, director of Downtown Salisbury Inc., adding that he thought Thomson was “diplomatic and fair” during the whole discussion.

While some people were upset by the contentious nature of the controversy, Thomson is convinced that the number of people who got a better understanding of the foundation’s mission “vastly outweigh the number of folks who were turned off.”

Many people were surprised, Thomson said, that in 2006, Salisbury was still fighting preservation battles.

“People would ask me, ‘Didn’t we get past this years ago?’ ”

For Thomson, the mission is ongoing, and he vows the foundation will remain vigilant.

“Those types of challenges, the threat of demolition of historic properties, could increase if we’re not careful,” he said.

Clement believes the controversy reminded people that historic preservation has been a trend in Salisbury — and that the Fisher Street demolition “was an aberration from that trend.”

Even if the city has a battle every 25 years, Clement said, “the work and the accomplishment and the successes go quietly forward.”

Public success story

If losing the Fisher Street buildings was disheartening, the very public restoration of the 1891 McCubbins-McCanless house — a venerable home that had been abandoned and neglected — was a major public success that made waves far beyond Rowan County.

The Park Avenue home’s restoration began last December and was funded by Lowe’s and the History Channel, which featured the dramatic restoration on its “Save Our History” program. The hour-long segment, “A Victorian Reborn,” aired Sept. 23 to widespread community interest.

Hemann was impressed by Thomson’s on-air performance.

“I haven’t said this in his presence because I didn’t want it to go to his head, but I thought he ‘out-Steved’ Steve. I thought he was as good if not a better host as Steve Thomas (of ‘This Old House’ fame) was.”

According to Bud Mickle, president of Historic Salisbury Foundation, Thomson was the reason the partnership with the History Channel became a reality. Thomson’s knowledge of preservation impressed the show’s producers, who believed that between Thomson and host Steve Thomas, the show would “come off gangbusters,” Mickle said.

“He worked real hard for several months just to land that thing,” said Mickle, adding that Thomson is “a bundle of energy.”

Clement agrees that the project wouldn’t have happened without Thomson. “He initiated it, put in our application and guided it through the competitive process,” Clement said.

Thomson was thrilled with having a national spotlight thrown on Salisbury’s preservation efforts.

“It says a lot that the media on a national level can recognize the valuable resource we have here, as far as historic buildings are concerned,” he said.

Mickle agrees. “It’s one of the biggest things that’s happened for the foundation,” he said. “Salisbury is known far and wide now. And we’re getting calls from all over the country, people looking to move to a town with a historic presence.”

The restored Queen Anne home remains unsold but there have been some serious inquiries, Thomson says, and the house will be listed in several national magazines in January and February.

OctoberTour draws crowds

Another high point for Thomson in 2006 was the “super-huge” success of the 31st annual OctoberTour, which attracted almost 2,000 visitors over two days.

Planning this year was aggressive, said Thomson, who believes the large crowds showed that people are supportive of Historic Salisbury’s mission. The great weather didn’t hurt either, he added.

April 12 will mark the 35th anniversary of Historic Salisbury Foundation, which is planning a celebration to honor the 530 original founders and their families.

One foundation goal for 2007 is for the 100th property to go through the revolving fund. Through donation or purchase, the foundation acquires historic properties that are then stabilized and re-sold, with protective covenants, for rehabilitation.

Since 1975, some 94 or 95 properties have gone through the revolving fund and been saved and restored by sympathetic owners, Thomson said. They include the former Zimmerman’s buildings on North Main, the Crawford House, the Shaver-Barker Holmes House on South Fulton, three Shaver houses in the 300 block of West Council Street and 17 properties in the Brooklyn-South Square Historic District.

Thomson encourages members of the community to bring concerns about specific homes that are in distress or whose owners are not being good stewards. Sometimes, the foundation will attempt to acquire such homes. If they can’t, it’s difficult to levy pressure on private homeowners, he says.

“We are a private, nonprofit organization,” he explains, “not an arm of the city.”

For the past several years, another major foundation project has been the restoration of a building that served as a kitchen and slave quarters for the Josephus Hall House, which is owned by Historic Salisbury. The restoration is nearly complete, Thomson said.

One of the upcoming challenges in the project, Thomson said, is determining how to “honorably tell the story” of the contributions of the enslaved people who lived there.

Connections to Salisbury history

The 33-year-old Thomson is married to the former Maria Perkins, who grew up in Salisbury and whose parents still live in Fulton Heights.

A native of Avery County, Thomson remembers traveling as a child to places like Old Salem and The Hermitage in Tennessee — historic sites that had a focus on structures.

He also remembers visiting Charleston and Savannah on his way to and from Disney World as a kid. More than most youngsters, he was interested in the buildings — perhaps understandable since his father and grandfather were homebuilders.

Still, he wasn’t necessarily planning on a career that had anything to do with buildings, old or otherwise.

At the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Thomson was a communications major with plans of going into radio or television. That didn’t pan out, so he went to work for his father as a homebuilder in the Asheville area. One of his college friends, an archaeology major who was working as a carpenter, convinced Thomson to join him on some projects, including the restoration of an antebellum house in Creedmore. That experience gave him the conservation bug, he says.

He met Maria at a wedding and eventually moved to Charlotte, where she was living.

Before accepting a position with Historic Salisbury Foundation, Thomson worked with Lee Morgan Inc. in Charlotte, spending three or four years working as a general contractor specializing in historic projects.

Among his most enjoyable projects were a reconstruction of a log barn at the Charlotte Museum of History and the restoration of the McCoy Farm, a working cattle farm outside of Huntersville.

Thomson lives in Matthews — in a distinctly nonhistoric suburban home.

“When you’re 26 and buying your first home, you don’t necessarily need a project,” he says. “And in Charlotte, the pickings are slim when it comes to older homes.”

The couple are currently restoring a house at the corner of Monroe and Caldwell streets — the childhood home of Wiley Lash, Salisbury’s first black mayor. They hope to move in this spring.

Thomson said he gets many inquiries from the Charlotte Film Commission looking to help filmmakers find appropriate sites for films, whether they’re looking for a ’30s roadside motel or a ’50s diner.

Thomson garnered a lot of attention — and envy — this year when he met with George Clooney, who came to town in October to check out possible locations for a film project, “Leatherheads.”

Add that experience to his television co-hosting duties with Steve Thomas, along with the West Fisher Street controversy, and it’s pretty clear that 2006 was a drama-filled year for Thomson.

But Thomson said he doesn’t need drama to motivate him. He’s content to see the foundation move quietly but inexorably forward in its mission.

“It takes a long view,” he said.

Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270 or kscarvey@salisburypost.com.

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