Ask Us: What happened at Steppin’ Out Dance Company in Spencer?

Published 4:42 am Monday, June 1, 2020

Editor’s note: Ask Us is a weekly feature published online Mondays and in print on Tuesdays. We’ll seek to answer your questions about items or trends in Rowan County. Have a question? Email it to

SPENCER — A water line break near your property can be annoying all on its own. Add in foundation problems, a previously unknown decaying stormwater system, a sinkhole, insurance problems, a pandemic and flooding in the basement and there’s a series of unfortunate events.

Jennifer Perrell is the owner of Steppin’ Out Dance Company in Spencer at 1401 Salisbury Avenue. In December, she remembers going to the studio about 10 days before Christmas and finding a water main break along U.S. 29 at the edge of the property.

A day later, she came back to find that the building, which she owns, had visibly moved. There were cracks in the brick and mortar. There was also a strange hump in the parking lot.

Perrell had been going to check on the building often, but she didn’t go in on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. When she returned, the hump in the parking lot had collapsed into a sinkhole, she said. The officials who had looked at the building were afraid that it might collapse.

By the end of January, the town of Spencer had condemned the building. Tape still warns people of danger. Now, the building sits, condemned, with the sinkhole in front of it. What happened? What does the future hold?

Originally, Perrell thought the water main break was related to the shifting of the building, she said.

The water main break was reported to Salisbury-Rowan utilities after it happened, said Jonathan Williams, mayor of Spencer. It was part of their system; they repaired it. But that break most likely didn’t cause the shift in the foundation, Williams said.

There’s a stormwater system running 20 or 30 feet underneath the building itself, Perrell says.

“We had no idea that was there,” she said.

That pipe probably caused a lot of the problems on the property, said Michael Hedrick, Rowan County maintenance engineer. Although a detailed structural analysis hasn’t been done, Hedrick said he thinks the water line break and the sinkhole were two separate incidents, even if the timing lined up.

“The building itself is centered on top of a drainage pipe that is carrying a live stream,” he explained. “It runs right under the building.”

That pipe connects to a stormwater system that runs under U.S. 29. The pipe under the road is in the public right-of-way and maintained by the North Carolina Department of Transportation. There is a spring on the backside of Perrell’s property, she said. The pipe takes that water and connects to NCDOT’s pipe running under the highway. It’s then deposited on the other side.

Hedrick has found aerial photographs of the property back in the mid-1950s, he said. He thinks that the pipe has been there since then.

There is a gully on the other side of the highway. So, whoever developed the property must have filled it in, just like the state would’ve had to fill in where the highway is now, Hedrick said. When they filled it in, they must’ve also put the pipe on the property, extending it to the property line, Hedrick said.

Guidelines for this sort of thing have changed over the years, Hedrick said. Now, property owners that want to tie into NCDOT pipes have to get a permit and acknowledge that they understand that each entity’s responsibility covers only its own pipes. That is, NCDOT’s responsibility for maintenance and damage ends at the end of their pipes,

NCDOT worked with Salisbury-Rowan Utilities to run a camera through the pipe running under Steppin’ Out. They couldn’t get all the way through because of debris blocking the pipe, but they found evidence of settling — when one part of the pipe lowers more than the other.

The offset allows water to come in. That water pulls soil in, too, which creates a void and eventually a sinkhole, Hedrick said. It can also cause the settling seen with the building itself, Williams said.

NCDOT found Steppin’ Out’s break is outside of the public right-of-way. That matters, it’s the property owner’s responsibility, not the state’s.

“Unfortunately, with it being outside the right of way, there’s not a lot the NCDOT can do about it,” Hedrick said.

Perrell contacted her insurance. They sent a team out to look at the property and eventually denied the claim.

“So, there’s no one to help us cover the cost,” Perrell said.

Fundraisers were lined up for the spring months, but the pandemic canceled them along with most other social gatherings, she said.

After all the issues with the building began, the dancers were able to finish out the season using Lee Street theater, Perrell said. They also used space at Rufty-Holmes Center and then Oakdale Baptist. That’s where the equipment needed for practice is now, Perrell says.

But there are a lot of questions before any sort of dancing can happen. Steppin’ Out wasn’t included in Phase 2 of reopening, and it isn’t clear when Phase 3 will take place. Beyond that, there is the question of all the damage and the costs associated with it.

The dance company has hired a lawyer to look into any possibilities, Perrell said, but she’s not sure what they might find. They’re starting with looking more into the insurance.

Mayor Williams said he hopes Steppin’ Out is able to recover and stay in Spencer, he said.

“Her business is a great asset to the town and community,” he said. “We really do want to work with her.”

On top of everything else, the basement actually had some problems with flooding last week after all the rain. Perrell and her husband have been at the property trying to contain the damage, she said.

Perrell started Steppin’ Out 23 years ago with co-owner Sylvia Swisher, who retired last year. The two grew up dancing together. After their childhood dance teacher passed away in a plane crash in 1992, they were inspired to start their own dance company, Perrell said. They’ve owned the property at 1401 Salisbury Avenue for 13 years.

She’s not sure what will happen next.