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Robertson Foundation takes out option on important city block

By Mark Wineka
mark.wineka@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — In a move its chairman called “out-of-the-box” thinking, the Blanche & Julian Robertson Family Foundation has taken an option on an important city block that has been controlled some 160 years by the Maxwell Chambers Trust.

Bounded by Innes, Church, Fisher and Jackson streets, the block includes the historic Bell Tower and park, the former Wrenn House, the former First Bank and a large parking lot leased now by the Salisbury Post.

The foundation’s option does not include the Presbyterian session house on the corner of West Innes and South Jackson streets.

Margaret Kluttz, chairwoman of the Robertson Foundation, emphasized Tuesday the foundation board sees itself only as facilitators for some kind of redevelopment of this downtown area, which includes one of the city’s more identifiable structures with the Bell Tower.

“The Robertson Foundation is not in the development business,” she said.

Rather, Kluttz said, the foundation board will try to bring together the partners who will invest, develop and collaborate on creating a future for the block.

Kluttz and board member Clay Lindsay said there are “lots of moving parts” to the agreement with the Maxwell Chambers Trust, but the option gives the foundation at least 12 months to work on laying out the possibilities for the properties and finding parties to follow through on them.

“This is a great opportunity,”  Kluttz said. “What it is, we don’t know.”

Rip Collins, chairman of the Maxwell Chambers Trust, said he could not comment on the agreement.

Lindsay said the city has been fortunate the Maxwell Chambers Trust, managed by the elders of First Presbyterian Church, has controlled the entire property for the past 160 years.

Lindsay said he hoped the foundation could facilitate an approach that will serve the property for another 160 years.

The closing of the restaurant and the bank limited the income the trust property was producing for First Presbyterian Church, leading the trustees to seek a court ruling modifying conditions of the trust, created with the death of Maxwell Chambers in 1855.

Superior Court Judge Mark E. Klass granted the trustees’ motion, giving the trust the ability to sell most of the property or borrow against it to make renovations necessary to attract new tenants.

Until that ruling, the conditions spelled out by Chambers prohibited the trustees from selling the real estate. The elders of First Presbyterian have always been required by the trust to manage the property to produce income for support of the church.

Under Chambers’ conditions, Davidson College had the right to receive Maxwell Chambers Trust property if the church ever dissolved. Prior to the court’s ruling in 2014, the N.C. Attorney General and Davidson College had consented to the modification if it were approved by the court.

Maxwell Chambers and members of his family are buried under the session house, and First Presbyterian Church, as long as it exists, is under obligation to maintain that property.

Kluttz said the Robertson Foundation board first discussed the possibility of buying an option on the Maxwell Chambers Trust property this spring.

It represents the first time the foundation has gone beyond its normal exercise of reviewing requests and awarding local grants. In the past 18 years, the foundation has given more than $30 million in grants to 156 organizations and agencies.

Projects receiving grants have addressed adult and family issues, education, community health concerns, performance and the visual arts, tutoring and childcare, history and preservation, capital improvement and youth activities.

In memory of his parents who made Salisbury their home, Julian H. Robertson Jr. created the foundation in 1997.

“To honor them and their hometown, he directed the foundation’s efforts toward programs and causes that serve the city and encourage its communities to employ innovation, thoroughness and commitment when giving back,” the foundation website says, “Improving life in Salisbury has been at the core of the foundation’s mission since the beginning.”

Taking on the Maxwell Chambers Trust property “is something bigger than the Robertson Foundation,” Lindsay said.

He stressed it will take a community effort.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.

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