Salisbury Rising: Young men are remaking our city

There hasn’t exactly been a lot of new construction in Downtown Salisbury in the past three decades. In fact, the last building constructed from scratch was the W. Paul Martin District Court & Multi-Service Center, and that was way back in 1990.

But Downtown development has hardly remained idle in those 28 years. Developers and those with a vision have worked intently to renovate and modernize central Salisbury’s historic infrastructure, often with stunning results.

Among those victories: the G&K Warehouse on Fitzwater Street, the Thomas R. Young Building, the historic synagogue, the old Woolworth’s, Hess Apparel and Benjamin’s buildings, the library and the Fashion Shop.

In recent years, monumental restorations have come at One Plaza East, the old Feldman’s store, the Wicomico County Courthouse and the old Salisbury Fire Department Headquarters.

All of that reconstruction was conducted by men and women who were keenly aware of Salisbury’s history as a retail center, county seat and place where rural folks ventured to conduct business and commerce. Their redevelopment efforts, it could be argued, were conducted with an eye to the past.

Today in Salisbury — and especially in the Downtown — a collection of young developers is engaging in efforts that look purely to the future. Their ambitious plans seek to marry the first new construction in decades with restoration of several landmark structures.

They are the “Young Guns” of Salisbury’s developmental future.

Davis Simpson

Bret Davis is 28, which means he and the Paul Martin Building are the same age.

He has burst onto the development scene through his efforts to completely restore the city’s most-significant business structure, the former Wicomico Hotel which has been called One Plaza East for nearly 50 years.

A condo arrangement filled with offices, Davis and his company, Davis Simpson, have purchased many floor in the ground zero structure and sought to modernize each one. They have completely restored the basement, once home to a succession of restaurants and nightclubs, into a venue for high school musicians and performers.

Davis found himself in Salisbury as a student at Salisbury University, where he earned a degree in International Business Administration. He instantly saw the potential. With his partners, Nick Simpson, 25, and his brother Kirk, the old man of the trio at 31, Davis has mixed his portfolio with both residential and office projects.

“We feel like Salisbury is a vibrant community with all the right pieces for growth,” said Davis. “Two of us are SU grads and we feel like this are has the potential to retain the amazing young talent its helping to develop.”

Something that can’t be taught in business school is how to see potential, how to summon imagination, how to walk a business path others either fear or can’t see.

How do these men see potential where others have not? How to they assuage fears of risk?

“We believe in our town,” Davis said. “I look around and I am surrounded by young men and women in this town who want to do more, who want to grow the dynamic culture of Salisbury. They are starting businesses and they are thriving. They are hard working and our role is to help facilitate that growth. Our tenants are customers and our job is to make sure they have an environment to which they can grow their business without being distracted.”

On risk, “we have everything pre-leased, except the apartment buildings, so the only real risk is if we failed to build something — which we won’t do because whatever it takes we will tie up our laces and get it done,” he said.

When it comes to articulating excitement for Salisbury and its potential, Davis is decidedly unabashed.

“We have been blessed with a good economy, strong public support, and a Downtown that is dying for growth,” he said. “We have so many amazing old buildings and we have a community that all remember the days when Downtown was thriving and vibrant.

“We believe our purpose in this world is to help change cities — not change them into what we want, but restore the parts that made it what it is, and then help grow the rest into what they want to be.

“We are a cog in the wheel but we won’t stop churning the wheel until Downtown is great again,” Davis said. “At some point we will go to another city and become a cog in that wheel but we are not going to let up in Salisbury until it gets the Downtown it deserves.”

132 East Main St.

A huge trash bin overflowing with debris currently sits In the parking lot between the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce building and another tall Downtown structure, 132 East Main St.

Long occupied by lawyers and those with courthouse business, the building is being converted to offices and apartments.  

What will make it especially unique is that its expansion with be vertical, with new stories being added.

“Nick was looking for a new project and we really wanted to start converting office space Downtown into apartments,” Davis said. “We need foot traffic Downtown in order to create retail. We want to build as much housing Downtown as possible, and then retail, and then the economics of Downtown will completely support the growing culture Downtown.”

Davis said his alma mater will play a key role in what happens in the city.

“We need to bring SU Downtown. They now have a building Downtown (the Plaza Gallery Building), but we want to bring the student population Downtown and make them realize just how awesome this town is,” Davis said. “If we can help drive the culture Downtown and get SU students to love Downtown then we can hopefully retain a lot more of them.”  

One Plaza East

Davis & crew’s experience with One Plaza East will no doubt guide their efforts at 132 East Main, just a block down the street.

“We bought two floors of the Old Wicomico Hotel and then over the past two years acquired 89 percent of the building,” said Davis.

“I am in the process of acquiring the first floor to add a new restaurant, a grand lobby that runs back through the building, and retail. We have filled the building with over 15 new businesses, many of whom located into Salisbury from outside the area.”

Is there any extra pressure on a developer who undertakes work on the city’s most iconic office building?   

“We are absolutely obsessed with doing the projects that everyone is most scared of,” said Davis. “None of us have ever had much money growing up so risking the money we had was never much of a concern. We are very calculated in our choices but we are firm believers that bigger is better.

“I love the idea that I can create a use for something out of my mind, then Kirk and Nick get us from concept to execution. With a lot of these old buildings though it can’t be understated how amazing of a canvas we have to work with,” he said.

“Some people paint with oil pastel, some do sculptures. Our art is history, and our canvas is historic buildings,” Davis said. “We have an obligation to respect the history of this town and bring back details that allow people to smile and think back on the great times of the past as well.”

He added: “That being said, we all love modern style so we try to restore the features of a historic building that give it character, but not try and force back style choices that we just can’t replicate as well these days. We believe in restoring old brick walls, but we like putting our own modern touch on it to give it a unique style.”

Team effort, competition

An effective team always has divergent personalities contributing to the formula.

“We are all drastically different and it contrasts well,” said  Davis, who himself plays the role of dealmaker “and master schemer.”

“Kirk is the logistical and implementation genius,” Davis said. “Nick is a work horse with a great business sense. Each one of us fills a totally different role and basically function independently working for the same goals.”

The other gang of Young Guns — the prodigies of Gillis Gilkerson Inc. — have been around longer than Davis and his partners and offer business inspiration.

“We are very appreciative of having other developers like Gillis Gilkerson, because they have paved the way for us and our projects work symbiotically. They are competitors but it’s a friendly competition.

“We would never join forces because its too much fun to compete,” Davis said. “I like seeing the projects they are doing and figuring out how we can use their good ideas but then sharing our ideas because we want all of Downtown to succeed.”

Gillis Gilkerson

Brad Gillis, 36, is part of a trio that includes partners Chris Gilkerson, 32, and Joey Gilkerson, 30.

They are the sons of Gillis Gilkerson founders Palmer Gillis and Tony Gilkerson and while the business is united by family ties, the sons have a competing mission and are definitely forging their own way.

Gillis sees Salisbury from a historical and holistic perspective; his mission is one of community mindedness and the continued weaving of the social and business fabric.

“As the capital of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Salisbury continues to be the center for commerce, health care and education in our region,” Gillis said. “We have the unique opportunity to be a part of this very exciting time in our community.”

According to Joey Gilkerson, changes in the business and government climate have also made redevelopment easier.

“Its easier now than ever before,” he said, “The pro-business nature of the city, the streamlined development process, along with the tools and resources the city of Salisbury and the state of Maryland publish online, put Salisbury at quite an advantage when compared to other municipalities across the region.”

In just the past five years the team has renovated 118 North Division St., creating space for a popular Downtown destination drinking establishment, The Brick Room.

The team also built like-new offices for the State’s Attorney and renovated the old Hess Apparel building.

The Division Street redevelopment also provided space for Olde Town Deli and a suite of upstairs offices themed toward creative-inclined businesses.

They converted the Salisbury Fire Headquarters into a music venue, before ultimately converting it to office space for DelmarvaNow.com.

They purchased the empty and mammoth Labinal manufacturing facility on Glen Avenue and are in the middle of a redevelopment plan for its 160,000-square-feet of space.

Renovations are under way on the iconic Vernon Powell Building Downtown; plans are being detailed for new construction on Salisbury’s most-significant space: Parking Lot 1 in the heart of Downtown.

In handling more than $30 million in real estate in just the past few years, it would seem to outsiders that the risk factors have been significant for this group.

“At this point it is second nature,” said Joey Gilkerson. “Risk is relative; from the eyes of a tenured professor, what we do appears quite risky. When compared to an entrepreneur or restaurateur the risk can be boiled down to the same principle: show up, work hard, and pay attention, or there is a good chance you will lose it all.”

Gillis agreed: “We have been in commercial construction and development (as a company) for over 35 years. We continually evaluate risk and its effect on projects; however more importantly we look at the return on investment for our clients and the community, it’s their visions we are implementing.”

“We are grateful for the leaders who came before us, we have learned a great deal from their fortunes and mistakes,” he said.

Working to see potential, according to the team, requires some innate skill and thought.

“Seeing potential and seeing opportunity is surely a skill,” Joey Gilkerson said. “I don’t know if Chris, Brad and myself learned it or were born with it, but either way we have it.

“We often meet and evaluate opportunities; it’s not uncommon for a portion of the partnership to take a ‘devils advocate’ role to help keep the partnership even keeled.”

Parking Lot 1

Contained by South Division Street, Circle Avenue and Camden Street, Lot 1 was the city’s response to the opening of the Salisbury Mall. Once shoppers could pull their cars up close to their shopping destination, the city was forced to clear space adjacent to the newly created Downtown Plaza to compete in the shopping convenience game.

The Gillis Gilkerson team plans to take the Downtown hourly parking lot and make it the site of Salisbury Town Center. An intricately complex project, it will include underground parking, retail space, office locations and an array of housing.

It is even rumored as an option for City Hall might go, should the city and Wicomico County end their office-mates status at the Government Office Building on North Division Street.

As Gillis points out, for decades, there has been plan after plan imagined in the parking lot, as there are hundreds of ways to develop the parcel.

“Steady, consistent progress is being made,” Gillis reported. “We most recently went before Planning and Zoning with some concept plans to gather input.

“While many buildings have been re-developed within our Downtown; there hasn’t been any new privately built buildings within the central business in over 50- plus years.

“It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to work with community stakeholders and leaders as we continue design,” Gillis said.

Labinal

Things are also happening at Labinal. While the plant could still be used for manufacturing, in a concept similar to Crown Cork & Seal’s conversion a decade ago, recreation is a current option.

“Pure Family Fitness will be Salisbury’s newest gym,” Gillis said. “They are occupying 60,000 square feet, so we will have 100,000 square feet remaining.”

“The re-development will be a great addition to the amenities already located in the area: the Civic Center, City Park and Zoo. Repurposing Building like 600 Glen Avenue is exciting as we infuse new energy into an existing building.”

“Envisioning what a building or development can be is one of the most enjoyable parts of our job,” Gillis said. “Seeing the potential takes an open mind with endless discussion and brainstorming. Our team is comprised of the most talented professionals around — we are really lucky.”

Meredith Mears, Worcester County’s former Economic Development Director, recently joined the Young Guns as a director with the group. She has a newly learned but insider’s view on the group.

“Our personalities fit together like puzzle pieces,” she said. “As Brad mentioned, our team members are very strong as individuals in vision, implementation and follow-through. I would also add experience. We recognize and respect our individual strengths and we trust each other to take the necessary actions to move the needle forward in our collective work.

“We all have similar underlying qualities and this is what binds us together — we are risk takers and visionaries and we have the intention, commitment and drive to make our community a better place,” she said.

“We continually push each other to get uncomfortable so that we as a company and as individuals continue to grow each day.”

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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