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Uptown dead after hours? Just try to buy a Snickers

Editor’s Note: This column by retired columnist Doug Smith first ran on October 17, 1993.

Urban planner Michael Gallis, working late one afternoon in his uptown office, was stricken by an attack of the munchies.

So he pulled on his suit jacket, walked out his office door at 437 S. Tryon and ambled across the street to the Papers & Paberbacks newsstand in the Wachovia Center at 400 S. Tryon, where he expected to buy a Snickers bar. “I figured it would take about two minutes,” he said.

The newsstand and the restaurant in the Wachovia Center were closed.

The two-minute trip escalated into a 30-minute, 10-block trek as Gallis, becoming more determined with each step, desperately sought a candy bar after 5:30 p.m. in uptown Charlotte.

I had a hard time believing that he had to walk all the way from one end of the central business district to the other to find his snack, so I asked him to recreate the Snickers Bar Expedition with me Wednesday afternoon. We set out from his office at 5:45 p.m.

The early evening journey north on Tryon was eye-opening, to say the least. Uptown is a beehive of activity between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. But once an estimated 50,000 office workers clear out, Trade and Tryon streets become cold and imposing - especially to out-of-towners unfamiliar with the overhead walkway system.

This is contrary, of course, to the image Charlotte wants to project as it hosts the NCAA Final Four men’s basketball tournament early next year and opens its new $141 million convention center at Stonewall and College streets in late 1994.

When you attract visitors, you want them to enjoy your city enough to come back. Little things like the friendliness of the hotel staff, the ease in getting around, the ability to fulfill your needs - an early evening candy craving, for example - make a difference.

The walk up Tryon, if nothing else, underscores the “big office park” label critics like to pin on the central business district.

“In most successful downtowns, you have something to look at in the windows, even if the retail shops are closed,” Gallis said. “You have stores and shops at street level that invite people in.”

Privately, Final Four organizers are worried about how basketball fans - the April 2-4 tournament could draw up to 50,000 - will react to what they find uptown, especially after attending this year's finals in New Orleans.

Various committees are working to plan daily basketball-related events, attract restaurant and entertainment establishments to South Tryon, improve uptown lighting and signage and launch a shuttle service for visitors.

Still, if you walk up South Tryon Street today, you'll see practically a solid wall of closed bank towers and office buildings.

The First Union Plaza in the 300 block of South Tryon, filled with people at midday, was deserted Wednesday. Its atrium is a gateway to the Overstreet Mall, but if you're not from Charlotte you wouldn't know how to access it.

Gallis noted that Minneapolis, which has one of the nation’s most successful overhead walkway systems, does a better job of integrating entrances with street level retail, making it simple for visitors to find their way inside.

“I thought about going in there when I was walking up Tryon,” Gallis said. “But I wasn’t sure if anything would be open, and I didn’t want to take that much time. I still thought I would find a Snickers bar in a few minutes.”

But not at Eckerd Drugs, 316 S. Tryon. The store closed at 5:30 p.m.

It was after 6 p.m. when we arrived at The Square. The street vendors were gone, and the office towers on all corners had emptied.

“Here, I’m thinking about the newsstands at the Radisson Plaza, Independence Center and Founders Hall, but I don’t want to take that chance,” Gallis recalled. “I need to get back to work. At this point, I don’t want to get off Tryon.”

His decision was a wise one. All three newsstands were closed when we checked shortly after 6 p.m., as was Candy Candy in Founders Hall.

Had Gallis craved a drink or something more substantial than a candy bar, he could have found a scotch and soda and a full dinner menu at several restaurants, but no Snickers.

“Uptown is geared to when people work,” said Charlotte Uptown Development Corp. Executive Director Mike Schneiderman when I told him of Gallis’ quest. “What his experience implies is that everything is closed. That's not true. If he was looking for a meal or a drink past 5:30 p.m., I bet there would be a dozen places to choose from.”

In any expedition, there’s always the road not taken.

If Gallis had turned west on Trade instead of continuing north on Tryon, I learned later, he would have found the Downtown Express, 127 W. Trade St., still open. It closes at 7:30 p.m. The Family Dollar in the same block closes at 6 p.m.

Gallis was convinced at the time, however, that Tryon Street - the business spine of uptown - offered the best chance of finding a Snickers. So, following in his footsteps, we crossed Trade at The Square still headed north.

As we passed the the North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in the 100 block of North Tryon, Gallis observed that “this was meant to activate downtown, but it has a bridge from the parking deck. People can attend an event at the center and never hit the city streets.”

The North Tryon arts district was as desolate as South Tryon, except for people occupying the bus benches near the vacant Cityfair shopping center. There was no discernible activity at Spirit Square, Discovery Place or the library.

Finally, in the 400 block of North Tryon, we arrived at the Majik Market, the convenience store where Gallis found his Snickers on the first trip.

Not this time. The shelves were stocked with Hershey bars, Milky Ways and Three Musketeers. But no Snickers.

It was about 6:20 p.m., and a disappointed Gallis began walking, empty-handed, back toward his office on South Tryon.

“I can’t believe it,” he said. “They were sold out of Snickers bars.”