MOUNT HOLLY Ten years ago this month, folks in Mount Holly launched a campaign to breathe life into a stagnant downtown.
Progress has been slow but steady. Unsightly telephone poles and signs have given way to improved streetscapes. A Catawba River greenway is in the works. And new businesses are springing up in once-vacant buildings.
Saturday, the public is invited to take a look around during a celebration of downtown Mount Holly’s recent listing on the National Register of Historic Places. About 30 properties are listed in the district.
On guided tours, visitors will hear stories about old buildings, including the former City Hall on Main Street. This 1925 structure has served as a store, the world headquarters for a textile company, the hub of local government and now is home to the Mount Holly Historical Society.
Featured speakers in Saturday’s program include Tom Hanchett, historian at Charlotte’s Levine Museum of the New South.
With its small-town charm, closeness to Charlotte and infusion of new energy, Mount Holly is “poised to become a new kind of destination,” said Hanchett. “They’re sitting on a gold mine and getting the gold out to where we can see it.”
Mayor Bryan Hough said 10 small businesses have opened in the downtown area within the last 11/2 years. These include a clothing boutique, gourmet coffee shop and restaurant that serves organic, locally produced food.
“If you haven’t been to Mount Holly in a while, I think you’ll see a definite improvement in appearance and businesses,” Hough said.
Source of pride
The renaissance of downtown Mount Holly – less than a mile from the Charlotte city limits – began in 2003 with a series of community “visioning” meetings to plan for the future.
The catalyst for the effort was construction on the western portion of the Interstate 485 loop and planned interchanges with I-85 and N.C. 27, which runs just north of Mount Holly’s downtown.
The new gateway to the city focused attention on the central business district, which was in need of a makeover.
A spinoff of the forums was a $5 million bond package voters approved for the improvements. Also, the nonprofit Mount Holly Community Development Foundation formed to lead the revitalization campaign along with the city, chamber of commerce and other groups.
The foundation has a façade grant program that pays business owners up to 50 percent of the total cost for improvements.
Other projects supported by the foundation include a farmers market, starting a historical society and a greenway along the Catawba River.
Lee Beatty said that in 2003 when he helped form the foundation and became its first chairman, 30 to 40 percent of the downtown buildings were vacant. Now, the figure is less than 5 percent, he said.
Getting the historic district designation for downtown is significant not only because of the state and federal tax credits it provides for the owners, but “a local source of pride,” Beatty said.
Old buildings embody the city’s story – one of constant change and adaptability.
The current City Hall is in a former textile plant built in 1888. The 76,000 square feet of space also accommodates the police department. And on Jan. 19, CaroMont Health’s new wellness center – Discover You! – opens in the building. The 10,000 square feet of space will have 17 interactive health-promotion exhibits.
Old buildings “keep giving back to Mount Holly,” Beatty said. “We should honor them. They are our connection to the past.”
Investing in hometown
Near the old City Hall is the 1927 vintage Summey Building, recently purchased and remodeled by Mount Holly natives Billy and Anna Rick.
Businesses in the two story, 9,500-square-foot building include Anna Rick’s Salon & Spa on Main. Seven tenants occupy office space on the second floor. More than 40 people work in the building.
Billy Rick, 37, a licensed commercial/residential contractor, said a grant from the Mount Holly Community Development Foundation helped offset renovation costs.
He wanted to invest in his hometown.
“As a kid I rode a skateboard and bike around downtown,” Rick said. “I went to Ida Rankin Elementary and East Gaston High. I’ve spent my whole life here.”
Rick and his wife think the hardwood floors and other old features in their building have a lot of historic charm – something they pitch to potential tenants.
Downtown still has issues. Rick said a few buildings remain vacant and a full-service anchor restaurant is needed.
But the feel of downtown, its energy and the character of its historic buildings make him believe in its future.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Rick said.