ShopTalk

Small businesses add bustle to Belmont’s ‘Great Main Street’

Jay Pithwa, owner of Tastebuds Popcorn in downtown Belmont, chose to open his gourmet eatery there to take advantage of local traffic and avoid complications he expected to find in other areas. The city’s historic downtown district earned recognition as a “Great Main Street,” much in part because of its vibrant small-business sector.
Jay Pithwa, owner of Tastebuds Popcorn in downtown Belmont, chose to open his gourmet eatery there to take advantage of local traffic and avoid complications he expected to find in other areas. The city’s historic downtown district earned recognition as a “Great Main Street,” much in part because of its vibrant small-business sector. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

When Brian Scott Anderson decided to open a canine boutique and spa in downtown Belmont in 2008, his impression of the city’s Main Street was pretty strong:

“You could see tumbleweeds going down the street,” said Anderson, co-owner of the Happy Dog Cafe and a lifelong Belmont resident. “It was a ghost town.”

So why start a niche business in a part of town that, for years, people seemed to avoid? “The revitalization,” Anderson said.

A $1 million plan gave downtown Belmont in Gaston County, about 15 miles west of uptown Charlotte, a facelift – turning it into a destination spot for both tourists and retailers, said Adrian Miller, Belmont’s assistant city manager.

A four-lane street became a two-lane pedestrian-friendly road. Sidewalks were widened. Trees were planted. Restaurants, beauty parlors and antique shops moved into century-old buildings. And, last year, recycling containers and park benches were added to the mix.

Downtown Belmont is now home to 86 businesses (up from 74 a year ago). It’s the largest number of businesses there ever, Miller said.

Those changes have earned Belmont statewide accolades. The North Carolina chapter of the American Planning Association recently gave the city kudos as one of the state’s “Great Main Streets.” The award recognizes some of the best city planning efforts in the state and celebrates downtown districts that embody the spirit of “Main Street.”

The same group awarded the city in 2011 for changes that made downtown walkable, Miller said.

“When you have a town that has a commitment to that small-town retailer ... to that mom-and-pop shop or the anti-chain store, that’s really something to be proud of,” said Jason Burdette, who chairs the association’s Great Places program. “I don’t think any Main Street would be successful if it didn’t have cooperative partnerships with that business community.”

Adds Miller: “The city can only do so much on its side to ... set the table. These small businesses invite people to dinner.”

The new ‘local mart’

Efforts to re-energize downtown began in the 1990s when the late Kevin Loftin, the former mayor, championed upgrades to downtown’s 1960s-era infrastructure, Miller said. City officials rewrote the zoning code and launched a streetscape project that altered the face of Main Street.

But downtown still was “pretty empty from a retail perspective,” he said. That changed with the passing of a 1999 referendum that permitted alcohol sales. New restaurants and shops arrived and the area became a destination.

Today, untapped real estate is scarce and demand for space so high that new construction is inevitable, Miller said. Main Street has two vacant storefronts – a building under renovation that will house a restaurant and a closed beauty salon the marketing firm next door plans to rent out, he said.

“We get a lot ... of customers because people come from all over to take a day trip,” said Christina Moose, who owns Meese Jewelry Co. on Main Street and leads the Belmont Downtown Merchants Association. “There’s a good diverse mix of stores. Most of us are family-owned and operated.”

Provisions, a family-owned market with a location in downtown Waxhaw that sells local produce, dairy and other items, opened its second location in downtown Belmont last year. A third spot, in downtown Rock Hill, opened about two months ago.

Operations manager Chris Routh said being in a revitalized downtown fits with the store’s main focus. “(We’re) bringing back to the small downtown what used to be there,” he said.

“People used to go downtown to the local mart to get their eggs,” he said. “It was the mecca.”

‘Norman Rockwell sort of downtown’

In 2011, Jay Pithwa opened Tastebuds Popcorn, an eatery with more than 200 popcorn flavors, including “drunken money” and “dill pickle,” at the entrance to downtown.

In its first year, the eatery sold 120,000 bags of sweet and savory treats, Pithwa said. Tastebuds Popcorn has expanded to Lake Norman and Virginia Beach, and is slated to open at the Metropolitan in uptown Charlotte this month.

“I wanted to try it locally first,” Pithwa said. “People support local as long as the quality’s there.”

He could have first set up shop in Mecklenburg County, but said he wasn’t interested in the difficult inspections and regulations he needed to open an industrial kitchen to make his specialty popcorn. In Gaston County, he met with planning, zoning, construction and permitting officials all under one roof so he could upgrade from a 600-square-foot kitchen to a 5,000-square-foot one just outside Belmont’s city limits.

Plus, downtown reminds him of the “quaint” hamlets in England where he’s from – where people support local businesses and watch out for one another, he said.

That neighborly feel keeps Cherubs Cafe bustling. The restaurant doubles as a nonprofit employing people with developmental disabilities.

“It’s such a very close-knit, Norman Rockwell sort of downtown,” said job coach and waitress Judith Stroupe. “It’s exactly how you want your community to be. People helping each other.”

Who’s doing business in Belmont?

▪ A variety of businesses contribute to Belmont’s Main Street scene. They include: String Bean: a meat market, wine shop and restaurant; Surprise Me, a one-stop gift shop for any occasion; and Walk and Run Belmont, a walking and running shoe store and events management company.

▪ Events help downtown’s small businesses draw customers. Businesses promote themselves during Food Truck Thursdays and an annual Christmas Village. There’s also Friday Night Live, a summertime concert series that draws 5,000 or more people to Main Street at one time, said Tim Landwehr, who owns Friends Sports Bar & Grill with his wife, Cindy.

“You can double your business easy on that night,” he said.

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