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SALISBURY — When Catherine Garner was growing up in Kernersville, she begged her parents to take her to Old Salem, the living history museum in Winston-Salem.
She wanted to visit not just once or twice, but every weekend. Her parents finally became museum members.
As a child, Garner attended summer camp at Old Salem for years, dressing up in old-fashioned clothes and going behind the scenes to learn log splitting and pottery making and other skills in the restored Moravian community.
“I felt like I was back in time,” she said.
A decade later at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Garner studied geography and urban planning, she wrote her senior thesis on the potential for redeveloping a hockey arena in Pittsburgh that the Penguins had left for a newer facility. Garner loved the abandoned 50-year-old Civic Arena, the first major sports venue in the world with a retractable roof, and wanted someone to save it and turn it into something useful again.
She cried when the building was demolished six months after she finished her thesis.
“Actual tears were shed,” she said, smiling as she recalled her passion for the project.
Later, sitting in the Kernersville town planner’s office, Garner bounced around career ideas.
“If I could do anything in the world, I think I would want to save old buildings,” she remembers telling the planners.
“You can do that,” they told her. “That is an actual job.”
So Garner started an internship with preservation planners in Winston-Salem, who became her mentors, and earned a graduate degree from the University of Georgia in preservation planning.
Now 25, Garner has landed a job as Salisbury’s newest city planner and the liaison to the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. The position perfectly melds her love for old buildings with her passion for planning, places and sustainable development.
“This is like my dream job,” she said.
She spends about half of her time working on historic preservation and the remainder working on new development. On the job since Jan. 6, Garner’s two biggest projects so far have offered an interesting juxtaposition and given her a sense of the broad scope of her duties.
First, Garner was the planner assigned to the restoration of the Blackmer House, built in 1820 on South Fulton Street and one of the oldest houses in Salisbury. Soon after, she tackled a high-tech project, a $10 million solar farm proposed for Sherrill’s Ford Road.
While the projects appear vastly different, Garner sees similarities. Both involve green development and sustainability. Like renewable energy, restoring old houses makes good use of resources and has low impact on the environment, she said, quoting a favorite line of preservationists, “the greenest building is the one already built.”
“One of the things I like about the job is that every day, it’s something different,” she said. “But in a way they are related.”
Garner said she’s interested in how people shape their space and how communities shape their environment. Salisbury puts a premium on planning, and Garner said she appreciates the city’s proactive stance.
“At the heart of planning, we want to make communities livable and make a place where people want to be and want to live,” she said.
Salisbury has a pivotal location between the Triad and Charlotte, so planning is crucial, Garner said.
“Having an idea of who we are and where we want to be in the future is good so that we don’t end up swallowed up by someone else,” she said. “We want to make sure that Salisbury remains a place that people want to be and want to raise their families and have a business.”
She praised the city’s new One Stop Shop for Development as innovative and customer-friendly. Developers and business owners can come to One Stop at 132 N. Main St. and pull all the city permits they will need for a project, as well as a business license, under one roof.
Garner spends most of her time at the public counter, where she sits down with developers and architects to go over maps, blueprints, zoning regulations and more. While the desk shared by staff and customers is a convenient set-up, the concept has deeper meaning, she said.
“It works because it invites the customer to become part of the planning process in a more collaborative way,” Garner said. “I think it sends the message that the public is welcome in the planning ‘realm,’ if you will, and invites the public to join us in working together to make Salisbury a great place to live and work.”
Garner said she believes other cities soon will emulate Salisbury’s One Stop Shop, which has been well received by developers who said they used to have to stop at four or five offices to accomplish what they now can do in one location.
“We’re on to something that maybe bigger communities maybe haven’t caught on to yet,” she said.
Garner graduated in May and took a job in Tampa, Fla., working for a private firm as an architectural historian. But three months later, she missed North Carolina so much, she started looking for jobs in her home state and applied to the city of Salisbury.
She had been to Salisbury once before to take the SAT at Salisbury High School. She remembered shopping at Queen’s and eating at Sidewalk Deli, but not much more. When she returned as an adult and professional planner, Garner said she saw Salisbury through new eyes.
“Salisbury has done a great job of preserving its architectural history, and the buildings are being used and loved,” she said. “I think that’s important.”
Garner interviewed with Janet Gapen, the city’s planning director, and Preston Mitchell, who runs the One Stop Shop.
“They were so fired up,” she said. “You can tell they really like their jobs, and they really like being in Salisbury. It’s kind of contagious.”
It wasn’t clear who was happier when Garner landed the job, her or her mother, who burst into tears upon hearing that her daughter was returning to North Carolina. Garner’s parents and sister Sally traveled to Tampa for Christmas, then packed Garner up and moved her to Salisbury.
A runner logging between three and four miles a day, Garner hopes to one day run a marathon. She and her family will participate in a 10K run and 5K walk in April to benefit hospice in Winston-Salem, which provided care for Garner’s grandmother when she was dying of ALS last year.
Garner’s longest race so far was the Disney half marathon, where she donned green shorts, a purple top and red headband to pay homage to her favorite Disney princess, Ariel.
When she’s not planning, preserving history or running, Garner likes to read, bake and try her hand at do-it-yourself projects she finds on Pinterest. She and her father turned her childhood bookcase into a cabinet.
“It looks pretty good for spending about $20,” she said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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