Building contractor Gillis Gilkerson marks 35 years

Thirty-five years ago on the Salisbury building and development landscape, developers Oscar Carey and Milford Twilley and builders J. Roland Dashiell, W.B. Venables, Charles Brohawn and M.L. Blades pretty much developed and built everything.

Then in 1983, an architectural draftsman who had cut his teeth working for M.L. Blades entered the Salisbury scene. Though he respected the solid (but perhaps boring) work of the others, he was willing to take risks and form a company where he could fulfill his own development ideas while also building things for others.

And then, when that 30-year-old builder focused his attention on Downtown Salisbury, a section of the city tilting toward irrelevance suddenly found itself pointed back in the right direction.

“It seems like it has all been in the blink of an eye,” said Palmer Gillis, who became that entrepreneur/developer who took big steps to save Downtown. “We’re not the biggest (contractors), not the smallest, but we’ve had steady growth and gotten to do (the projects) that we wanted to do.”

As the company now known as Gillis Gilkerson celebrates 35 years in business, it has a portfolio of risky, adventurous and transformative projects for all to review.

While many of these projects are on the fringe of Salisbury, the company’s three most-contributory projects were high risk/low reward and all right Downtown.

The first attention-grabbing move was the developers’ renovation of the old Synagogue Building on the corner of West Market and West Main streets. Then came the Thomas R. Young Building just across the street.

Even more attention came Gillis’ way with the massive transformation and combination of the Fashion Shoppe and Gunby’s buildings at the east end of the Plaza.

O. Palmer Gillis

The Plaza Gateway Building was conceived as small-town replica of the Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria, Va.. A giant retail space was converted to artist studios, offices and shops — it was the first of its kind Downtown and the model would be followed by others.

The simple act of building a covered walkway over Camden Street created focal point that linked the building to the huge Downtown Parking Lot and lured Downtown visitors to pass through the building on their way to the Plaza or Courthouse or Government Office Building.

Next on the Downtown makeover list was the conversion of one of the city’s most important and socially important structures, the Woolworth’s Building.

It followed the same shops and offices model, but this time Gillis and company showed deference to the building’s historic beauty. The building retained the feel of the old department store – even today when walking through it, one can sense what it felt like to be in the Downtown Salisbury of the 1940s.

Dwight Miller

Among Gillis’ favorite projects were The Greater Salisbury Building remodeling, Plaza Gateway and the Gallery Building — “the Gallery building was particularly fun for me personally,” Gillis said.

Quoting legendary Salisbury businessman Richard Henson, “Any project when you take a ‘sow’s ear and turn it into a silk purse’ is a win for me,” Gillis said.

The Plaza Gallery Building’s future will be part of a critical next step for the community, as Salisbury University has taken it over and will build a top-flight business and education center there.

Riverwalk Commons

The company’s most recent endeavor may well be its most significant, and it will be the subject of a Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce ribbon-cutting and company celebration this Wednesday afternoon.

The renovation of the Feldman’s Furniture building and warehouse has been a monumental achievement for Downtown. Its high visibility on Mill Street, just across the street from the equally significant Port Exchange Building, has made it a symbol for making the old new again. Even skeptics can imagine a similar course for the other at-risk structures that comprise Downtown.  

J.B. Barnes

River View Commons may be their most-visible high wire act in years. The three-year renovation and its completion have provided fodder for community conversation. With Mill Street ranked as the third-busiest thoroughfare in the city, the project had a lot of eyeballs on it each day. Some people have declared it the current symbol of Salisbury’s rebirth.

The 20,000-square-foot building is now 100 percent leased. Tenants on the bottom floor with street access include Acorn Market and Angello’s Unique Gifts. (Acorn Market has already become one of Salisbury’s most significant businesses, exceeding all expectations.)

Stockbrokers Morgan Stanley took an entire floor of the building; Gillis Gilkerson moved in as well.

At the longtime site of the former Feldman’s Furniture, Gillis Gilkerson tore away about 60,000 square feet of unusable structure and concentrated on rebuilding the main historical building. An elevator and access wing with stair towers was added to the north side. The roof was replaced and the 125-year-old walls were reinforced.

When it was built in 1888, the building was originally a two-story warehouse. It was the location of wholesale grocer B.L. Gillis, the now-developer’s uncle from five generations back.

The property is owned by River View Commons LLC, whose principals include Gillis Gilkerson President Dwight Miller, Palmer Gillis and J.B. Barnes.

Becker Morgan, whose offices are directly across the street, provided the architectural services during the design phase of the renovation; Gillis’ son, Brad Gillis of Sperry Van Ness and Devreco, oversaw the leasing efforts.

“It was mercantile – the Sysco Foods of its time,” said Palmer Gillis. “Vessels would come up the river and unload from a creek there.”

The building was expanded to three stories and in the 1920s the red brick façade was changed to a Tudor Revival style. Allison A. Gillis bought the property in May 1890 and owned it until he died in 1913. His two daughters inherited it and retained the title to the property until 1923.

It was in 1923 that the property was transferred to Samuel and William Feldman and was developed into Feldman’s Brothers furniture business, becoming one of the largest furniture stores in the region.

Palmer Gillis had looked at the Feldman’s site nearly every day for 30 years.

“My first office was the Synagogue Building back in ’83,” he said, referring to the historic structure on the corner of West Market Street. “So I had been looking at the Feldman’s building for a long time.”

Two years since its completion and nearly five years since its beginning, the Mill Street corridor is transformed.

“When I sit at the light on Mill Street (and Main Street) and see what’s changed in just five years,” said Gillis, “I’m pretty amazed.”

Beginnings in 1983

When Palmer Gillis founded Gillis Builders in 1983, he said he wanted to offer an affordable, local resource for construction services. Now, more than 1,500 construction projects later, the company has grown from a small commercial construction firm to one of the largest in the region.

Even at the beginning, there was abundant work available. Growth drove a need to add staff, and in 1985 Tony Gilkerson came aboard to handle the sales, estimating and project management segments of the business.

Dwight Miller, from Matthews-Dean Construction Co., joined in 1986, and J.B. Barnes in 1987.

Gillis Gilkerson Vice President Dwight Miller, left, and company founder Palmer Gillis have worked together for 32 of the development company’s 35 years.

By 1989, Gilkerson had become a full partner. The company name was changed to Gillis Gilkerson Inc., with Palmer Gillis as CEO, Tony Gilkerson as President and Dwight Miller as Vice President. Dick Widgeon also had a role in the company for many years.

“I started in 1983. Tony Gilkerson, my competitor and former Bennett High School classmate, worked for Mayhew Whayland while I worked for Carl J. Williams & Son,” Gillis recalled.

“If I didn’t get the job he usually did.

“In our small company, inside our office, at one time we had seven office personnel that went to Prince Street Elementary School. Now that is small town, local.”

During the next two decades, the team completed a long list of commercial construction projects from Ocean City to Kent Island and Dover to Cape Charles.

In 2004, Gilkerson stepped down as president and Miller moved into that role. Barnes became a principal in 2005. Today, Gillis, Miller and Barnes comprise the executive management team.

Miller said the company’s evolution hasn’t always been so easy.

“It’s been an interesting and challenging roller coaster ride,” he said. “We have seen many construction companies come and go while we have stayed the course and are still afloat. We have seen and managed several changes in building codes, energy codes, environmental regulations and worldwide economic challenges.”

The business can be difficult on many levels.

“There are far more moving pieces in the construction industry than most people realize,” Miller said. “Once we have been able to openly share our daily challenges, most gain a new and great appreciation for what we do and our methods of management that produce our quality projects.”

Each of the top partners is confident about the future, even though no one in the construction industry can accurately predict it.

“My crystal ball hasn’t ever worked very well, although my rearview mirror is very clear. We look forward to more consistent and sustainable growth along with the overall economic growth of Delmarva,” Miller said.

“We are aware that we are a part of an ever-changing demographic atmosphere/landscape and hope to be a major part in the fulfillment/realization of those changes.

“We really appreciate our customers and the people who trust us to do our best work for them. We will always be completely devoted to them,” Miller said.

In recent years, Gillis Gilkerson created Devreco, a sub-company that works with prospective tenants to deliver real estate option.

The Devreco team looks to streamline processes of delivering custom real estate solutions, and works to fast-track the designing, financing and building. With ultimate flexibility, they offer the ability to lease, lease-purchase or outright purchase of buildings.

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