SPIRIT OF STANLY: Albemarle’s downtown is looking up

(Editor’s Note: This is one of several stories featured in the March 27, 2022, issue of The Stanly News & Press, which included a special section called Spirit of Stanly.)

For many municipalities, the downtown area is its lifeblood and heartbeat; it’s often where the best restaurants and shops are located as well as important government centers. There’s usually a dynamic and exciting energy that’s unmatched anywhere else in the city.

While Norwood and Oakboro have steadily been improving their downtowns and the Locust Town Center continues to see new development, the area that has been improving the most over the past few years has been downtown Albemarle.

There has been a renewed optimism surrounding the downtown following the construction of Pfeiffer University’s Center for Health Sciences two years ago. Since then, several students enrolled in either the Master of Physician Assistant Studies or the Master of Occupational Therapy programs have moved to the area.

To accommodate the influx of young medical professionals, several housing projects are underway. 1st on Main Luxury Apartments, at the corner of North First Street and Main Street, is starting to lease space while pre-leasing for The Residences at the Albemarle Hotel should begin later this year.

“Probably the biggest game changer to our downtown is the residential projects that are getting close to coming to fruition,” Main Street Manager/Albemarle Downtown Development Corporation Director Joy Almond said. “I think getting residents living in the heart of our downtown is going to be huge.”

Over the past year, several new businesses catering to a younger clientele have also opened, including the tap house Badin Brews and The Tomahawk Throwing Range & Blade Shop. A new craft beer startup company, Uwharrie Brewing, is set to open in the former fire station behind City Hall in late spring.

Garrett Starnes, who lives in the area and opened Tomahawk last September, is proud of his decision to invest in the community, saying residents have been yearning for unique activities and things to do at night.

“It’s been great, it’s really exceeded expectations,” he said. “For the most part, each month seems to do better than the last.”

Other key businesses which continue to make the downtown a popular destination include Five Points Public House, Off The Square, Goody Shop Cafe and Tiffany’s at the Boardroom, to name a few.

“You want a complete downtown where there’s a little bit of something for everybody,” City Manager Michael Ferris said. “You want that vibrancy within your downtown because that’s your sense of identity within your community….It just subconsciously gives you that feel that this is the place to be, there’s something happening here.”

The city recently installed new directional signs throughout the downtown as part of its wayfinding project, making the area more accessible to the public, especially visitors.

Albemarle has also partnered with Downtown Strategies, a division of the Alabama-based marketing firm Retail Strategies, to help strengthen and revitalize the area. Officials with Downtown Strategies conducted a strategic visioning workshop in December, where they collected information regarding the needs and wants of various business owners, building owners and relevant stakeholders, to figure out how best to market the area.

“What we’re hoping Retail Strategies can do is to help make the connections with potential entrepreneurs and small business owners and provide them with the data and the information to help them understand what the needs are within the downtown,” Ferris said.

One of the long-standing crown jewels in the area has been Starnes Jewelers, which has resided in its current location on Main Street for more than a century and has served patrons from across the country. Owned and operate by three generations of Starnes men, the venerable business is set to close its doors in the coming months.

Gene Starnes examines a pearl necklace. (Photo by Charles Curcio)

“It’s the hardest decision I have ever made in my life because it’s not what I want to do,” owner Gene Starnes said. “But health-wise and age-wise and everything, I think it’s what I need to do. It’s time.”

While not closing, the Albemarle Sweet Shop, another legacy property that has been around for more than 100 years, is also undergoing a huge transition: It will be moving from its King Street location to a larger facility at 310 S. Second Street later this year. Construction should begin within the next few months, with the goal of moving into the new space by September.

After about 62 years at the same location, the Albemarle Sweet Shop is set to change locations later this year. Photo courtesy of Shawn Oke.

“We’ve just got to the point where we just physically can’t keep up with the demand with the facility we’ve got,” owner Shawn Oke said, adding that with the growth the city is experiencing around the downtown area, “I just think it’s an opportune time to look at what we’re doing.”

While these types of changes are simply part of the naturally occurring life cycle every business eventually has to deal with, Ferris is confident and excited about the future.

“There could be something that’s just starting up today, next week or a few months from now that’s going to be the next legacy business for downtown Albemarle and our community,” he said. “I’m just really proud and happy with what’s taken place and look forward to more successes and supporting people and businesses of Albemarle to be the best they can be.”