Let’s avoid ‘exodus’ with new vision for old mall

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 4, 2014

I am the owner of a small downtown restaurant which employs four to six people other than myself, depending on the time of year and business. Like the majority of the daytime businesses downtown, I am extremely concerned about the possible “downtown exodus” that is being planned by our current county commissioners.
Our livelihoods are directly tied to the number of people who live and work downtown. We have been recently gifted with the promise of the new central school office in the 500 block of North Main Street, for which I, for one, am truly grateful, not just as a downtown business owner, but also as a mother. I not only have children in the school system, but also have both an AIG and EC child (academically gifted and exceptional child) and have witnessed firsthand the excessive breakdown of communications between the departments.

However, with that said, we need more people to live and work downtown, not a trade-off of people. Our town is beautiful and wants to grow and prosper. However, moving county offices to the West End Plaza is not the answer to a dying mall.
First of all, the county offices are in buildings designed specifically for county offices, and their departure will leave big gaping holes in our downtown esthetic as well as our economic outlook. I just can’t see any other entity occupying these buildings. Also, I ran a restaurant in Albemarle, the seat of Stanly County, a town not unlike our own. Stanly decided to move its county employees to their own dying mall, which incidentally was much closer to their downtown than ours. Unfortunately, as a result I watched that downtown slowly fade away. It was a sad and painful sight to see and, despite the efforts of many, has yet to recover from the loss of those governmental offices moving away.
Now Albemarle, once a beautiful and bustling small historic town, is nearly a ghost town with one or two businesses still hanging on. We can’t let this happen to Salisbury. This town and our county deserve better. Our children and our grandchildren deserve better.

As far as the West End Plaza goes, there is a chance that if the county leaders and the city leaders can find it in themselves to work together, it could be turned into not only a viable use of space but perhaps even a destination place that can draw from our county, surrounding counties and even the entire state, creating a lasting economic windfall for the entire county. I propose an idea that could possibly bring new life to the West End district and still preserve Salisbury’s historic downtown.
What if we turn the building into an ecological park and recreation arena, complete with alternative energy sourcing, river and animal habitats, sustainable and local farming, environmental education, maybe rock climbing walls and zip lining for fun? I see something like a Discovery Place meets Horizons Unlimited — in our own back yard.
I realize there is no money in our county right now to fund anything and our schools need to take top priority. If we could incorporate our local nonprofit organization that could use this land and structure for educational purposes, we could work out some serious grant funding. This is something I think the River Keeper, the LandTrust, Bread Riot, the SEED Foundation as well as Horizons Unlimited and our local schools and colleges could really get inspired by, not to mention, maybe, the Department of Agriculture. There are numerous grants available for alternative energy as well as local green energy businesses that would surely profit from a project like this.
I am sure there are many of you out there that could bring more and different perspectives to this concept. I know the citizens of Rowan County can bring plenty of insight into a redevelopment concept such as this, maybe even some private investors. I think this is worth a shot even if it takes some time.
Heather Teeter owns Sweet Meadow Cafe in downtown Salisbury.