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Michael Sargent admits that two years ago he had serious doubts about his wife’s insistence to buy a two-story vacant building in historic downtown Wilson.
“I’ve got to tell you, the first time I walked into 117 Goldsboro, it was disgusting, and I thought, ‘What in the hell did we just buy?’” he recalled with a laugh. “But Mary and her mother had a vision and it sold itself, and I think 130 Goldsboro will do the same.”
Michael and Mary Elizabeth Sargent partnered with the latter’s parents, Anne and Conrad “Whitey” Odden, to renovate the property at 117 Goldsboro St. As Michael said, Mary and Anne took the lead on outfitting the space with uniquely modern yet nostalgic touches and a rich wood facade that captivated onlookers. In fact, their vision was so compelling that when Michael’s parents, Dick and Mary Sargent, wanted to get a taste of restoring downtown Wilson with a property at 219 Barnes St., the property had tenants before they swung the first hammer.
“I think the reason both of those were willing to sign contracts was that they saw 117 Goldsboro St., and they saw how beautiful that was coming together, so they trusted us to create something similar on Barnes Street,” Mary Elizabeth Sargent said.
Sargent Properties is just one company founded by locals interested in revitalizing downtown.
“All successful cities have a common area and historically that has been downtown,” said Ken Hill, who currently owns one building but has owned other properties and likely will buy more. “It has been the cultural center and the center of commerce for a community. In Wilson’s case, I think that is the same situation and it is awfully important to have that resurface.”
LAYING THE FOUNDATION
“Five years ago, there were a few locals who helped fuel the message that it was not scary for locals to get on board with investing in downtown,” said Kellianne Davis, downtown business specialist. “Locals saw the exodus from downtown, but they realized if they were not going to invest, who would?”
Jimmy Sink with Creekside Creative Design, artist Andrea Horton-Morton, Johnny Hackney as well as Amy and Clark Norville were among the early adopters to the vision for a thriving downtown.
“I think the local investment has probably been the most satisfying thing for all of us in downtown development,” said Susan Kellum, downtown marketing and communications coordinator. “It is always easier for outsiders to see the potential, but it is a harder sell to convince citizens who have seen it languid for about 40 years. It is really amazing to see locals invest and that is what we’re really seeing happen lately.”
Davis said there are approximately a dozen investors actively redeveloping properties in Wilson’s downtown business district.
“Not only have the number of investors increased, but the biggest change is that developers are coming to us rather than us always having to find them,” Kellum said. “The number of active projects has been up and down through the years, but it has at least doubled in the last five years and probably quadrupled in the last decade.”
Pegi Sharp actually operated a business in downtown more than two decades ago, but life happens, and the business was relocated. A few years back, Rhine Sharp said the desire arose to open a gallery in downtown, and in October of 2017, the couple purchased several storefronts at the corner of Barnes and Tarboro streets. It took a few months, but Pegi’s dream came true with the opening of the Art Ventures and the Barnes Corner Gallery.
Rhine Sharp said the bug to double down crept up, and he enlisted Davis to find the right opportunity.
“Several of the properties I was interested in just kept falling through the cracks,” he said. “I called Kellianne and she kept riding me by the corner of Barnes and Douglas streets. I said it was not appealing to me and she’d show it to me again. When she rode me by it one day, I finally said, ‘Let’s look at it.’ That is kind of how it all got started.”
He negotiated with a Raleigh woman who had inherited the property and bought a former corner gas station along with two storefronts on Barnes Street. While the gas station was soon resold to restaurateurs, Rhine has lined up tenants for the two storefronts as well as an eatery that will look out onto the Whirligig Park.
“We’ve already gutted the place, and I’m hoping we’ll be able to start cutting the floors and getting plumbing put in with the rough-in electrical in the next couple of weeks,” he said, noting his brother-in-law, Charles Barnes, has joined in the project under Pander Real Estate LLC. “Once we get rolling, I’m hoping we’re going to be able to pull this thing together relatively quickly.”
Hill said he’s also eager to get to work 132 Goldsboro St.
“Back in the day, there was a small retail shop facing Barnes Street and a larger one facing Goldsboro Street, so we’re going back to that concept,” he said. “For the upstairs, we’re doing two high-end apartments.”
The 57-year-old Wilson native said he’s working on the designs and plans to focus on the retail spaces first.
“We’ve already roughed out the upstairs apartments, and soon as I get Jay Hood’s ideas for rehabbing the first floor retail, we’ll get going,” Hill said. “The retail part may be a little less cumbersome, so our goal is to have tenants in by 2020.”
Next door, the Sargents plan to update the former Chat N Chew and do a custom upfit. While professional office space is what first comes to mind, they said they are open to other uses.
GETTING TO WORK
The city is building a coworking incubator space dubbed the Gig East Exchange at 127 Goldsboro St. that will open next year, but there is a demand for office space in downtown, and other developers are working to fill the need. In fact, the Sargents’ property on Barnes Street currently houses Wilson Economic Development, and this fall, veterinary management company DVM Services will relocate to downtown and take over the second floor.
In May, early investor Hackney debuted the renovated second floor offices of the Woodard Building on the 100 block of Goldsboro Street. Currently there are seven offices available, and about 1,400 square feet that can be customized.
The Upper Coastal Plain Business Development Center has office spaces starting at $200 that include broadband internet, utilities and more. There are about 30 lockable cubicles that can be rented, a few individual offices and the bulk of the second floor.
“I think the Business Development Center offices provides a good, affordable space for new businesses to operate in downtown Wilson,” said Robert Hiett, executive director for the Upper Coastal Plain Council of Government. “Its proximity to other organizations and technology resources and access to community-level events make downtown Wilson a great place to do business.”
Visit www.historicdowntownwilson.com to learn more about properties that are available to lease or purchase. Downtown buildings are selling between $18 and $30 per square foot in downtown making it an affordable investment.
“Development in downtown is not slowing down anytime soon, which is wonderful,” Davis said. “I think projects like BB&T and the YMCA announcing they are coming downtown only further underscore people’s confidence and interest in the downtown turnaround.”
This is the first in a series about the revitalization of historic downtown Wilson. The Wilson Times will run a story every Monday in July about retail, restaurants and residential opportunities in the city center. Follow reporter @BrieHandgraaf and #DowntownTurnaround on Twitter for snapshots of various people, places and events in downtown.