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Breathing new life into the former Hi Dollar warehouse has not been an easy or quick task, but the finish line is approaching as officials plan for 40 apartments at Whirligig Station to be move-in ready this month.
“It is really challenging when you do these giant historic projects. You don’t always know some of the challenges that will arise, and even though you do your best to predict how it will go, things always pop up that you just can’t anticipate,” said Waukeshaw Development Chief Operating Officer Emily Sanfratella. “Obviously we wish this building would have been opened months ago, but we’ve been working through the challenges, and that is just the nature of projects like this. There is light at the end of the tunnel, though, because we’re really close, and we’re looking forward to having our patient residents enjoy their new home soon.”
Crews are putting the finishing touches on the first phase, while other workers build the 53 apartments in the second phase. Sanfratella said the hope is to have all of the units available by summer’s end. Waukeshaw has secured housing at area hotels for five residents who were set to move in June and has another 10 eagerly waiting to call Whirligig Station home.
“We’ve been working really hard to retain everybody who has signed leases. We’ve worked closely with the property manager, Chesson Agency, and have a couple in hotels, and we’re working to accommodate people who might need more time in their current lease until they can move in,” Sanfratella said. “We are frustratingly close, and it has been frustrating for everyone to know how close we are despite some of the last-minute stuff we’ve had happen.”
While the $12 million renovation is the largest, Whirligig Station is just one component of adding housing in downtown Wilson.
CALLING DOWNTOWN HOME
When Waukeshaw announced the Whirligig Station project at the end of 2016, City Manager Grant Goings touted it as “the single largest redevelopment project in the history of our downtown.” He likened the affect on redevelopment of the area that the American Tobacco Campus had on downtown Durham.
And Amy and Clark Norville have been able to watch the whole transformation from their home on the 100 block of Barnes Street.
“We saw the potential for the development in downtown pre-Whirligig Park, and we’ve watched the whole thing develop,” Clark Norville said. “It has been great to watch everything come to fruition from our back porch because we can see the whirligigs from here. We’re glad we’ve been able to be a part of the vision for downtown Wilson.”
Even though the two Wilson natives visited downtown as kids, their upbringings in rural Wilson County were a far cry from the walkability of their current home. What actually sparked their investment in downtown was when Amy Norville passed a vacant building and eyed it for her business, The Flower Pot. Soon, they investigated the potential to move nearby and landed on 115 and 117 Barnes St.
“The home part of it was actually move-in ready,” Clark Norville said. “The guy that owned it had redone it, but his plans changed, so he offered us the property.”
The two-bedroom, one-bath place was a good fit, and with a remodel of the downstairs storefront, The Flower Pot relocated. While the business eventually was shuttered as Amy Norville took a job at the hospital, the couple continued to enjoy downtown life.
“It is really quiet and peaceful, but we also love the old buildings and the history here,” the 50-year-old construction worker said. “Plus you’ve got the ability to walk to the brewery, to the restaurants, to the shops and there are always more businesses coming.”
The couple is ready for a change, though, and have the building on the market in hopes of moving beyond the county borders for the first time in their lives to explore other areas. Clark Norville said they don’t have any set plan, but are looking forward to the adventure.
HOUSING FOR ALL
The units at Whirligig Station are market-rate apartments, but Councilman Michael Bell said he believes downtown living should be an option for anyone interested. As the director of the St. John Community Development Corp., Bell is leading the effort to redevelop the historic Terminal Drug Store building across from the train station.
“If you look at the housing crisis in our community, there is a lack of affordable housing options, and that was a driver for me in 2011 to purchase this building,” Bell said. “I wanted us to find a way to create affordable housing.”
It’s been an arduous job to line up the $2.5 million renovation budget through loans, grants and donations, but construction is underway on 16 studio apartments.
“There already is market-rate housing options, but we wanted the chance for low-to-moderate income families to be a part of the development in downtown,” Bell said. “We don’t have to leave anyone behind in the renaissance that is taking place in downtown.”
Construction of the apartments is expected to take roughly 10 months upstairs, and work on the first floor should begin in the next year. Bell said the pharmacy plans to expand into a second store front, and a grocery store is planned next to SaYum Jamaican Food.
“When we were writing our grants, we wanted our second-floor residents to be able to pick up their medicine, milk and eggs and get their transportation all within walking distance,” Bell said. “It will be small, but the supermarket will be more than just a convenience store, so residents can get packaged meat, vegetables and so on.”
Bell said he’s optimistic about downtown development and encourages others to get on board.
“We have a bunch of folks who are commuting into our city for work, but I hope they take a second look at all we have to offer,” he said. “We’re working to provide amenities of larger cities and retain the uniqueness that makes Wilson second to none. In the next five or 10 years, we’re going to totally revolutionize downtown.”
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
“I think all of the downtown development will contribute to our success in leasing the property,” Sanfratella said. “It is great to see more housing, more businesses coming to the area. Downtown Wilson is a really cool place to be, and people are discovering that, whether it is to live or just to eat, drink and shop. We’re really excited about all that is happening in the area.”
Despite living downtown for several years, Clark Norville said he often fields questions from folks doubting the appeal.
“Some folks ask me, ‘Who is going to rent these apartments? Who wants to live downtown?’” he said. “People are moving to Wilson all the time for Bridgestone, Merck and these other companies that pull employees from bigger cities. A lot of these people are used to living downtown, and that is what they are seeking out. It is not for everyone, but it is for some people.”
In Rocky Mount, a similar mixed-use redevelopment of a historic cotton mill has been exceedingly popular, and property managers frequently have a waiting list for residents. Sanfratella said Whirligig Station targets a similar tenant, but downtown Wilson excels in many areas.
“The park across the street provides a really beautiful view with plenty of events to enjoy,” she said. “You also have the ability to walk to a variety of surrounding businesses plus the apartments themselves are really cool with a blend of historic elements and modern amenities.”
Downtown business specialist Kellianne Davis said there are other residential developments in the works, including private investors developing single units.
“When a community has people living downtown, those residents spend time patronizing downtown shops and they’re telling their friends, too,” Sanfratella said. “We’ve seen in other communities how housing brings other projects down the road. Hopefully Whirligig Station can be a little bit of a catalyst for people supporting the businesses and investing in downtown Wilson.”
Visit www.whirligigstation.com/ to learn more about the 93-apartment development and apply to become a resident. Visit www.historicdowntownwilson.com/ to learn about downtown businesses, upcoming events and investment opportunities.
This is the second installment in a series about the revitalization of historic downtown Wilson. The Wilson Times will publish 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.