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Empire Hotel, city-county troubles await new downtown executive director

By Emily Ford

eford@salisburypost.com
SALISBURY — The new leader for Downtown Salisbury Inc. must be an economic developer.
A promoter. A real estate expert. A collaborator. A negotiator.
In fact, the wish list for the future executive director is so long and varied, “the skill set should include those of a magician,” joked Rick Anderson, owner of Sidewalk Deli.
Downtown Salisbury Inc. is searching for someone to replace Randy Hemann, who left in May after 16 years to become city manager in Oxford.
The right person for the job will be someone who can think differently, Anderson said.
“That’s what we all loved so much about Randy,” he said. “We need fresh ideas and progressive thinking.”
Sixty-eight people have applied for the job, which pays between $60,000 and $90,000. The deadline to apply is Sept. 20.
So far, 20 applicants have the work experience required for the job, said Mark Lewis, president of the DSI Board of Directors.
The search committee, led by Teross Young, will review resumes and likely choose the top 10 candidates. From there, phone interviews will narrow the field to three to five finalists, who will come for interviews.
Lewis said he expects the full board to decide which candidate receives an offer.
Several merchants said the new executive director must work well not only with city leaders but with Rowan County officials. They cited the increasing acrimony between Salisbury and Rowan County as a challenge for DSI.
“It will take a person with a lot of negotiating skills to get along with all of the mess that’s going on in our county right now,” Just The Thing owner Glenda Dyson said. “We want someone to reach out and work with others.”
The city’s plan to build a three-story office building downtown and lease is to the school system for a central office has stalled.
“If it doesn’t happen, we’ll be fine, but we’re missing a great opportunity,” Thread Shed owner Dave Loflin said.
If the central office does not go downtown, the new executive director will have a tougher time finding a developer for the vacant Empire Hotel, several merchants said.
The ornate, empty hotel on South Main Street stands as the biggest challenge facing the future leader, they agreed.
In 2007, DSI bought the Empire Hotel for $1 million with the help of financing provided by eight local banks. Developers were interested, but the project stalled during the recession, and the property remains vacant and a debt burden.
While the central office’s 160 employees would make the Empire project more appealing, Lewis said he’s confident DSI can land a developer regardless. Four have spoken to DSI recently, and Lewis described one as “really excited right now.”
All proposals for the property include a retail component on the ground floor and offices or hotel space, or both, upstairs, Lewis said.
Lewis said the DSI board has stepped up to complete due diligence on the proposals.
“We’re not missing a beat, not having an executive director here,” he said.
The new employee’s primary focus will be economic development and redevelopment of downtown properties, Lewis said, as well as building relationships and communicating with downtown merchants and property owners.
Collaborating with other economic development agencies — Rowan County Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Commission and Tourism Development Authority — is a must, Lewis said.
Merchants want someone who will make a long-term commitment to Salisbury, live in the city and shop and dine downtown.
“I would like to see somebody who can recruit retailers and try to fill our empty buildings,” Stitchin’ Post owner Pam Coffield said.
Even without the central office, Integro Technologies’ new $3.2 million headquarters going up in the 300 block of South Main Street will help lure a developer for the Empire, Coffield said.
“I can hardly believe that’s happening in our town,” she said. “It’s huge and major, and it speaks volumes for the interest and potential that downtown Salisbury has.”

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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