Young entrepreneurs spur downtown revival

Last winter, Adam Lewis covered the storefront windows of the former Paramount Theatre on Union Street in Concord with plain brown paper and a sign that read, "Coming soon...."

Before that, the old building - a reminder of a bygone era when singing cowboys and buxom starlets graced its single screen - teetered for decades between bouts of vacancy and the occasional scattering of businesses that would briefly house themselves inside. Its last reincarnation was as a scuba shop.

When Lewis finally tore off the paper a few months later, passersby found a new restaurant that delivered an updated return to the glory days of the Paramount. Live blues music pulsed below the pressed-tin ceiling and handcrafted entrées named after such legends as Clark Gable and Cary Grant mingled with items named after their peers on the new, sleek menus of The Speakeasy Ale House.

Like many new business owners along Union Street and its offshoots, Lewis, 33, and his wife, Keri, 29, represent a younger generation of entrepreneurs making the old downtown seem new again.

From July 2010 to June 2011, 40 percent of the 13 new businesses that opened downtown belonged to merchants 35 or younger.

A bridal shop, a craft-beer watering hole and a venue for homemade goods pepper the blocks of old buildings on Union Street with a new vibrancy.

It's a trend that's breathing new life into a downtown devastated for decades by the emergence of that once-novel idea of the 1970s called a shopping mall.

"Thirty, 40 years ago, downtown had died," said Diane Young, executive director of the Concord Downtown Development Corp. "There was the huge outgrowth away from downtown, because all of our large department stores were pulled as the anchors for the malls."

It's exciting to see merchants coming back after the flight, Young said.

Lewis chose downtown to open his restaurant for the very reasons that chased many of the other stores away in the 1970s.

"It's kind of old and quaint," he said.

A classically trained chef, Lewis has opened eateries before - such as the Rocky River Grille at the Embassy Suites Concord-Charlotte Golf Resort & Spa, off Bruton Smith Boulevard - but never with his own money. Small restaurants like his, he said, typically do better away from malls, where corporate chains that can afford high rents and large advertising budgets can easily snuff out the small ones.

His advertising strategies rely on social media to spread the word.

"We're on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Urbanspoon, Yelp, CityGrid and LivingSocial," he said. "It's easy for me tell everybody I've got the best burgers in town, but when other people say it, that word of mouth is a beast. It's the best."

Young said younger entrepreneurs' use of social media has rubbed off on the longtime business owners.

"What we're finding is that we also have some merchants that have been here for 20, 30, 40 years to some degree embracing the same marketing strategies that these younger merchants are utilizing," she said.

Ellis Jewelers, which opened on Union Street in 1953, is one of those businesses. Dan Levinson, a third-generation jeweler, said Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets are necessary today to reach customers.

"Things happen so fast now, with technology and the way marketing and different advertising mediums are, you have to look forward constantly," he said. "In my father's generation, you could basically run your business the same way for 10, 15 or 20 years and be fine. But it's changed drastically."

The mix of old and new has worked just fine for Lewis, who said he has enjoyed success beyond his expectations.

"The mayor comes in a couple of times a week. The judges come in from down the road," he said of the bustling lunch crowds. "We've done a half a million in receipts since opening."