By Page Leggett
Remember when every small town had a thriving Main Street? There were a few essentials: A barbershop. A locally owned meat-and-three restaurant. And a pharmacy. Davidson, a carefully preserved college town that’s home to Ingersoll-Rand’s North American headquarters, still has a Main Street like the one the fictional Barney Fife used to patrol.
But it’s been updated. While the old pharmacy retains its exposed-brick interior and a marble counter, it has become one of the hottest restaurants in the country. The new pharmacy is a national chain, but its building blends in with downtown’s architecture.
And the barbershop? Raeford’s can trace its history back to the 1920s. The current shop opened in 1993.
Davidson, with a population of about 13,000, didn’t retain its charm by accident. Town planners make and play by their own rules. About 15 years ago, CVS proposed a new prototype one-story store with a drive-thru pharmacy. Planners said no; it needed to be two stories, with parking behind the store and no drive-thru service. “All new commercial buildings in Davidson must be two stories,” says Jason Burdette, the town’s planning director. “The intent is that we’d rather grow up than out,” to limit sprawl. CVS “balked and walked,” he says.
But they came back, ready to abide by the guidelines. (It’s hard for a business to turn up its nose at a median income of $105,000, more than double the state average.) The store is thriving, says Kim Fleming, Davidson’s economic-development director, and serves as a frequent meeting spot for, among others, residents of the area’s senior-living centers. Joanne Rawson, who lives at The Pines retirement community, visits CVS a couple of times a week, though she doesn’t necessarily linger over conversations. Instead, most mornings she heads over to nearby Summit Coffee Co., another Main Street institution.
But what really gives the town its character and pedigree is Davidson College — which was the community’s official name for its first 50 years in the 19th century. “The college gives the town its identity,” Fleming says. “It helps insulate the business community from spikes and dips in the economy.”
While many private colleges are scrambling financially, Davidson has an endowment of $700 million, an annual budget of more than $120 million, about 179 full-time faculty and a distinct selectivity for its 1,950 students. About one in five applicants is accepted, with average combined SAT math and reading scores topping 1,500.
Prospective college students and their families often fall hard for the town’s old-fashioned charm. The town has made preservation a priority. Strict design ordinances and a determination to keep and create public green spaces have kept Davidson from becoming a victim of its own popularity. Burdette credits town leaders who created Davidson’s master plan nearly two decades ago: “Holding on to the character of our community has been intentional.”
Nowhere else in the region can a traveler “come off the interstate and immediately be in a pedestrian-friendly zone,” Burdette says. A series of roundabouts helps slow traffic and keeps even busy streets open to pedestrians and bikers. “There’s a definite sense of entry when you arrive.”
Enough people turn off the highway to create occasional parking challenges. One reason is Kindred, one of the nation’s most acclaimed restaurants. In February 2015, Katy and Joe Kindred brought their Chicago and San Francisco culinary experiences back to Joe’s home turf in the former pharmacy building. Famous for milk bread, squid-ink pasta and chocolate birthday cake with sprinkles, the restaurant garnered buzz even before Bon Appetit named it one of the 10 best new restaurants of 2015, and Joe was named a James Beard Award semifinalist for best chef in the Southeast in 2016.
“People are coming to Davidson for the first time because of Kindred,” Fleming says. “The restaurant has made us a culinary destination.”
While Kindred has made Davidson proud, the Kindreds are also Davidson-proud. “We have always identified ourselves as a Davidson restaurant, not a ‘Charlotte-area’ or ‘Charlotte’ restaurant, as some try to make us out to be,” Katy says. “We love our town and are very proud and very protective of it.”
Here, a small business can make a big difference. “The fabric of Davidson is small, independent businesses,” Fleming says. “This is a great place to start and grow a business.”
In that spirit, Davidson College is converting a 1920s-era mill into The Hub@Davidson, a center for entrepreneurship and innovation. The college offers a number of courses each semester in which students work on projects to meet community needs and inspire social change. For example, a math professor recently asked students to study ways to ease congestion at the local farmers’ market.
“We are lucky to live [in] and to have opened a business in a town that is so loyal to its businesses,” Katy Kindred says. “My husband and I jokingly call it ‘the bubble.’ We try our best not to leave the bubble when we shop or eat out. When we are not traveling, we are here … supporting our town.”
In Mayberry days, Andy, Barney and their steady dates, Helen and Thelma Lou, used to have to travel to the fictional Mount Pilot for a nice dinner.
In “the bubble,” everyone just walks to Kindred.