Salisbury Rising 2019: Powell Building a big project

The last truly large “to-be-developed” building in Downtown Salisbury is undergoing a renaissance that serves to symbolize the next stage of the city’s rising progress.

Brad Gillis, and Chris and Joey Gilkerson – the Development Office leaders of Gillis Gilkerson – are injecting new life and imagining new purposes for the Powell Building, located on the western end of the Plaza and near the end of Camden Street.

“We have a voluminous space that’s not programed for anything yet,” said Gillis.

“A space of this size, eligible for such a dramatic renovation, just doesn’t exist,” said Joey Gilkerson.

Since purchasing the 45,000-square-foot 218 West Main St. from the Wright family of Vernon Powell Shoes, Gillis Gilkerson has moved carefully to redevelop the property.

The unique structure is essentially a two-story department-store-style retail space on its Downtown Plaza frontage, but a huge warehouse on the Camden Street side. It is being gutted and opened up to new possibilities.

In creating a retail environment, the previous owners installed HVAC systems that required drop ceilings, extensive drywall and featured a then-modern layout needed to appease mall shoppers.

Now, that will be converted to open space that will become apartments and commercial space. When completed, the Powell Building will house up to 20 residential urban apartments and feature 20,000 square feet of commercial space.

The developers are actively courting commercial users of all types – retail, restaurants and office users –and will have spaces available as small as 2,000 square feet.

Gillis and the Gilkerson brothers are the leaders of development teams vying to regrow the city’s core. With a list of renovations already to their credit, their expectations to implement a development plan for the city’s huge Lot 1 parking area is widely anticipated.

The Powell Building, however, could be seen as a warm-up renovation before that full-scale, all-new construction project.

“We’re finding ourselves as being Downtown Salisbury’s master developer,” said Gillis. “With our connections, with the parking lots, and all of the buildings that we either have redeveloped or are going to redevelop, we are the ones people are watching.”

Speaking directly about the Powell Building, Gillis added: “We do real estate transactions that work, and this works, and we’re going to do it.”

A significant history

On Dec. 4, 1937, Montgomery Ward store employees opened the doors to a brand-new building. For everyone involved on that day, this was a big step, moving into a new home located only a block away from their earlier leased location.

This new home represented “enlarged and luxuriant quarters,” local Ward manager Frank J. Miller said 80 years ago.

This expansion added 50 more employees and stocks were doubled.

In time for Christmas sales, the new place was decorated throughout, with a Toyland in the basement, and flowers everywhere.

The store had a “style center” on the mezzanine floor, a new department featuring infant wear, and a tire service station, as they called it, at the rear of the store facing Camden Street.

Nearly 10 years earlier, Montgomery Ward & Co. opened its first Salisbury store in the building previously occupied by the Farmers and Planters Co., located on the south side of Main Street, next to the Port Exchange building, where Mill Street slices through the area toward the Mill Street bridge.

Montgomery Ward signed a long-term lease and contracted renovations to suit some of their needs, adding four display windows and installing an electric elevator.

But this first building had challenges. According to one account, there were no cash registers. Instead, employees “passed money along to a central office by means of traveling overhead containers.”

There must have been a collective sigh of relief in December 1937, as fire threatened the stock the month before at their old store. A rear wall cracked, and there was some damage to a small amount of third-floor stock. It’s not clear if part of the stock had been moved to the new location, but damages could have been much worse.

The fire destroyed an adjacent warehouse used by the Feldman Brothers furniture store. The Turner Brothers wholesale grocers (in what is now the Port Exchange Building), which adjoined the furniture warehouse, had only negligible damage.

The new building, which opened next to Woolworths, had all the amenities and was described as “one of the finest buildings on Main Street.”

In the early 1970s, Montgomery Ward moved to its third store, on South Salisbury Boulevard, around the time when the nationwide business celebrated its 100th anniversary.

The Vernon Powell shoe business moved into the Main Street building from its store at the corner of Church and Division Streets. It’s been known as the Powell Building ever since.

Built shortly before the 1937 opening, the 45,000-square-foot building replaced an earlier building erected at this location after the 1886 fire.

That first building was the residence and dentistry business of Dr. William T. Smith, Salisbury’s first full-time dentist; his first house at this location suffered from the 1860 fire. The post-1886 Smith home and business had the elegant style of a brick urban rowhouse.

Montgomery Ward brought a new form of style to the new building, described in 1937 as a modified colonial design and “among the largest of its kind in this section of the country.” It was one of the most modern and fully equipped of the famous chain’s stores.

Beds-and-heads strategy

For a long time, people said a grocery store would need to be built in Downtown Salisbury before apartment renters would ever live there. Then there was a refrain that not enough amenities existed, and there weren’t enough restaurants or consumer-driven locales.

Now, the list of typically desired amenities has changed, and Downtown Salisbury checks lots of boxes on quality-of-life lists.

“The future in Downtown is beds and heads,” said Gillis. “The proximity to amenities is crucial. In garden apartments (in north and east Salisbury) the amenities are the clubhouse, the pool, the dog park. Downtown, our amenities are the City Park, the restaurants in and around Downtown, the river, the Riverwalk, the proximity to major employers and institutions – and we have access to dog parks too.

“That’s the new development model for Downtown,” Gillis said. “It’s only been in recent years that the beds-and-heads model has been seen as an economic driver.”

Added Gilkerson: “The goal is to have a true mixed-use experience. There will also be amenities to go with all of it.”

A redevelopment rendering displays a new ground-level entrance on the south side of the building and separate first-floor entrance that leads to the Downtown Plaza.

First-floor public space will be available for offices, a restaurant or retail business.

The redeveloped building will have full elevator access and office space with a view of the river.

Added Gillis: “There are so many great things happening regionally, and Downtown is a spin-off of that, really.”

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