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Editorial: The Plaza’s success story

When Ralph and Anne Ketner bought what was then the Wallace Building in 1989, the possibility that people might want to live in the old downtown office building seemed remote. Once a bustling hub of offices and stores, the Wallace Building had been on a long, downhill slide for decades. Standing seven-and-a-half stories tall on the Square, the building and its deterioration were impossible to miss.

Enter Food Lion co-founder Ralph Ketner and wife Anne. Ralph said Anne commented several times on the sad condition of the once-grand structure as they drove past it together, saying someone should do something about the Wallace Building. Ketner eventually realized that he was the someone his wife had in mind, as he told the story. Renaming the building as the Plaza, the Ketners partnered with the city in a renovation project that exceeded its original $3.8 million estimate but successfully transformed the structure into retail, office and apartment space. In 1991, the Ketners donated the building to the city, along with $2.6 million to complete the renovation. “We want it to be a gift to the city we love,” Anne Ketner had said in 1989. And indeed it was.

You can credit the Ketners’ fine work on the Plaza — with the help of Columbia architect Bruce Lambert — with reviving the concept of living in downtown Salisbury. Coming a few years after Belk moved to the mall, the project breathed new life into the central business district. The Plaza became Salisbury’s gem.

Fast forward to 2017. Now there’s talk of turning the Plaza into hotel space instead of apartments, another unimaginable change. The discussion is very preliminary, City Manager Lane Bailey told Plaza tenants Monday night. He was correct in saying it would be irresponsible for him to brush off inquiries from developers without investigating the possibility.

It’s a credit to the Ketners’ vision and high-quality renovation that the people who live in the Plaza have no interest in leaving. They have made it their home. The city is now investigating whether the Ketners created a protective covenant restricting the building’s use.

Another historic note: When the Ketners shared their plans with Salisbury City Council in 1989, a member of the audience asked if the new name — the Plaza — would include the name Ketner.

No, said Anne Ketner. “We’re dealing with Ralph Ketner,” she said, “not Donald Trump.”

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