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Editorial: The Empire strikes back

Billy Hughes

William "Billy" Hughes, founding principal of Historic Preservation Partners, said the group has tentative plans to turn the Empire Hotel into retail space and market-value apartments,

William “Billy” Hughes, founding principal of Historic Preservation Partners, said the group has tentative plans to turn the Empire Hotel into retail space and market-value apartments,

The Empire Hotel’s decades of sitting idle may soon come to an end, and Salisbury could not be happier about it. Rebirth for a major structure like the Empire could spur revitalization for downtown and ripple out to benefit the entire community.

“Soon” in the context of the Empire could mean a few years. For a structure built before the Civil War and left largely vacant for decades, a deal expected to close in a year is reasonable speed. The track record of the developer, Historic Preservation Partners Holdings, gives Salisbury officials ample fuel for optimism.

The Historic Preservation Partners firm has successfully transformed old mills and commercial buildings in several cities:  Loray Mill in Gastonia; Johnson Mill Lofts in Columbus, Ga.; Sterchi Lofts in Knoxville, Tenn.; Piedmont and Triad Lofts in Atlanta, Ga.; and Liberty Lofts and Townhomes in Roswell, Ga. That’s all right in step with investing $20 million to turn the Empire Hotel into up to 70 apartments and 30,000 square feet of shops, restaurants and other commercial space.

Developer Billy Hughes of Charlotte has seen his share of architectural faded beauties, but he says it was love at first sight with the Empire Hotel. He sees a building with strong bones and great potential.

As Hughes and company conduct due diligence and study the  market, they should know that the forces at work in Salisbury-Rowan cannot all be quantified yet. While metro areas have been gobbling up most of the state’s growth, young people are taking a second look at the livability of places like Salisbury, and Rowan County is determined to bring in jobs they will want. We went through an unproductive decade or more of squabbling among ourselves, city vs. county, before coming together in recent elections to take a more positive, visionary approach. Maintaining the status quo is no longer enough

Salisbury-Rowan has its challenges, as every community does. But this historic city is wired for the future — enter, Fibrant — and the county is laying a new foundation for economic development. That includes extending water and sewer lines into the county to prime the pump for development.   

Another as-yet-unmeasurable factor is the park which the Robertson Family Foundation envisions just around the corner from the Empire Hotel. The foundation bought nearly an entire city block and is raising funds to create Salisbury’s own Central Park. Synergy is in the air.

Downtown Salisbury Inc. deserves kudos for buying the Empire in 2007 and holding it for such an opportunity as this. The city, banks, Historic Salisbury Foundation and others have also worked hard to find a future for the property. The Empire has had its days of being down and out; thanks to them, the proud building is ready for a comeback. Thanks to Historic Preservation Partners, the Empire’s future looks bright.

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