Editorial: Local ties could help in Empire Hotel redevelopment

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Thursday will mark one year since the city of Salisbury and Downtown Salisbury Inc. broke off exclusive talks with Black Point Investments for the Empire Hotel.

The passage of times makes it easy to feel less than confident the massive structure will be redeveloped.

It still remains the case successful redevelopment will fundamentally transform downtown. In addition to the most essential questions about feasibility, however, the task force weighing ideas should pay close attention to local involvement.

In September 2020, the city’s deal with Black Point Investments appeared to fall through primarily because of a disagreement about a purchase price. Now, developers — one from Charlotte and another group with local ties — are waiting for the Empire Hotel Redevelopment Task Force and Downtown Salisbury Inc. to make a decision. Their decisions hinge on a feasibility study by the Development Finance Initiative at the UNC School of Government.

Just like Black Point’s proposal, the two currently being considered are variations of the same concept: apartments and retail space. Within the two new proposals, unique ideas include setting aside some units for a boutique hotel, retail space for artists, row homes and a grocery store.

The grocery store, in particular, is an interesting idea because of the distance downtown-area residents need to travel for produce when the farmers market isn’t open. There are grocery stores relatively close by off of Innes Street, but it’s best to use a car to get to them.

With a caveat that the UNC group’s study will contain the most important findings, the Empire Hotel task force should give weight to the fact that one of the two groups — Josh Barnhardt, Bill Greene and Justin Meuller have local ties. The local developers also want to split up responsibilities so the project is complete more quickly.

If their plans are judged to be feasible, developers who already live, work or commute through Salisbury could be more likely to finally transform the Empire Hotel. They’ll be asked about it at family dinners and when talking to friends or relatives. When they come to unrelated downtown events, they’ll pass by the hotel. While the hotel will be a jewel in the portfolio of any developer, there will be a greater sense of pride for folks who call Salisbury or Rowan County home. The same will be true for local contractors and engineers who work on the project.

Does that translate into a convincing argument for the local developers’ plan? Only if the basic details are sound.

Whether it’s the Charlotte or Salisbury group, the Empire Hotel task force and DSI shouldn’t make a final choice without asking about how frequently the project will be on developers’ to-do lists and where it will fall among their personal and professional priorities.