Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 2, 2013

SALISBURY — Salisbury’s sidewalks, public art, downtown apartments and the huge mural on West Fisher Street made an impression this week on many of the nearly 500 attendees at the N.C. Main Street Conference.
“I couldn’t believe the size of the downtown, and it’s so vibrant,” said Laurie Partlo of Clayton.
The number and variety of businesses in the downtown area — more than a dozen restaurants and 75 shops — had some conference-goers green with envy.
“We are jealous,” said Jennifer Jordan of Mount Holly. “We want to model ourselves after downtown Salisbury.”
Take-away messages from the conference included streetscaping, branding and marketing. Downtown development and adaptive reuse of old buildings were hot topics, including creation of apartments and lofts above first-floor businesses to beckon young professionals in their 20s and 30s who want to live where they work and play.
“Salisbury has really come far with revitalization and infill development,” said Mary Rose of Clinton, who was last in town in 2006 for another N.C. Main Street Conference.
Rose said she would go home inspired with two ideas — murals and downtown residential spaces. Downtown Salisbury has 130 living units ranging from open 4,000-square-foot lofts to 600-square-foot units with a view.
“In order to have life in your downtown, you need people living in your downtown,” Rose said.
While conference participants could take one of three tours on Wednesday — arts and culture, downtown living or the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer — Brian Borne of Monroe was taking his own personal culinary tour of Salisbury.
By Thursday night, Borne had eaten at Bangkok Garden, Ethos and Chef Santos and hoped to head next to La Cava.
Salisbury sets the standard for historic preservation and quality rehabilitation of old buildings, he said. With a population of about 35,000, Monroe is close to the same size as Salisbury.
“We compare ourselves to Salisbury, but we have a little more work to do,” Borne said.
Sue Camacho of Mount Holly praised the collaboration between the city and downtown merchants and said other communities can learn from the methodical, sometimes slow way Salisbury approaches projects.
“It’s very apparent that Salisbury takes time to plan things out properly,” Camacho said.
Mayor Paul Woodson welcomed conference-goers at an awards ceremony Thursday night. For those who didn’t know, he revealed that the Norvell Theater where they had gathered for a reception used to be a pool hall.
During his 26 years in Salisbury, Woodson said the city has progressed. Downtown buildings and streets once vacant after 5 p.m. now host wedding receptions, oyster roasts, live entertainment and more. But there is more to do, he added.
While the north end of downtown boasts extension renovation and development, largely due to the efforts of Paul Fisher, the south end needs attention, Woodson said. He put in a plug for building the Rowan-Salisbury School System central office in the 300 block of South Main Street and noted that Craig Pierce, a county commissioner with a crucial vote on the project, was in the audience.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.