Town square: Burlington’s Bounce

 In May 2016, Town square

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By Ogi Overman

Burlington is, if nothing else, resilient. Formed  as Company Shops in 1857, it was  the North Carolina Railroad’s hub,building, repairing and maintaining its trains and tracks. When the railroad transferred operations to Spencer, a name change was in order, and the city was incorporated as Burlington in 1893.

By then, the area had become a textile-industry pacesetter. E.M. Holt built a cotton mill on Alamance Creek in 1837, kick-starting an industry that would dominate the region for the next 150 years. Holt’s mill grew to become global textile giant Burlington Industries, now based in Greensboro, and the city gained the moniker “The Hosiery Capital of the South.” During its heyday, the town boasted 30-some hosiery mills and half that many yarn-manufacturing plants, employing a combined 15,000 people.

By the mid-1970s, most of the sites had shut down after acquisitions or migration overseas. The once-bustling burg was so desolate that, during the CB radio craze marking the era, the truckers’ handle for Burlington was “Nothingtown.”

Most in the city of 50,000 prefer a later moniker, “The Gateway to the Future,” reflecting its location along the Interstate-40/I-85 corridor between the Triad and the Triangle. Sheetz, Wal-Mart and others have opened distribution centers outside the city limits to take advantage of the interstates, while large shopping centers in Elon and Mebane have replaced the once-dominant Burlington Manufacturers Outlet Center.

One company that didn’t leave Burlington was Biomedical Reference Laboratories, started by brothers Thomas, James and John Powell in 1969. Hoffmann-La Roche Inc. bought the business in 1982 and a year later formed Roche Biomedical Laboratories. The conglomerate moved its headquarters to Burlington, and after a series of mergers and acquisitions, it is now called LabCorp, one of the world’s largest medical testing companies and Alamance County’s largest employer with more than 3,000 workers.

“It is safe to say that Roche Biomedical saved Burlington,” says local author William K. Lasley. “They either built or acquired numerous buildings downtown and brought in not just jobs but high-paying jobs.”

In 2014, LabCorp moved almost 1,000 of those jobs to a large facility in McLeansville, near the Guilford-Alamance county line. “The problem was that they didn’t have one central, large building they could use for their clerical staff,” says Madison Taylor, executive editor of The [Burlington] Times-News. “They still occupy seven or eight buildings downtown, while three or four others are no longer used by the company.”

Aided by its principal employer’s commitment to downtown, Burlington has had some success maintaining the district’s momentum as a cultural and social center. City leaders turned the Paramount Theater into a multifunctional crown jewel, and a grant program has stimulated more than $7 million in private investment since 2010, says Anne Morris, who has led downtown’s booster group since 2009. Forty-four new businesses, including clothing stores, restaurants, an antique shop, comic-book store, coffee shop and an architecture firm, now occupy spaces that were mostly empty for many years.

“The support of our elected officials is what makes this possible,” Morris says, citing former Mayor Ronnie Wall and his successor, Ian Baltutis. The new mayor, elected in November, is a 30-year-old Elon University graduate who co-founded The Vibration Solution LLC, which makes pads that reduce the irritating sounds of washing machines.

A walking tour reveals a thriving, creative downtown. Within six blocks are Company Shops Market, owned cooperatively by about 3,000 residents and supporting 140 local farmers and produce vendors; Steam Junction, which lets artists and others use industrial-quality lathes and 3-D printers to make products; and Lowe Vintage Instrument Co., which sells and repairs vintage guitars, banjos and other acoustic instruments. Diners and entertainment seekers have a choice of several live-music venues, including Jazz ‘N’ More; more than a half dozen restaurants, including Zack’s and Boston Sandwich Shop, the town’s iconic hot dog and hamburger joints; a couple of bars that specialize in craft beer; and the Paramount Theater, which annually hosts about 250 community events, including original plays by its own troupe.

Burlington Beer Works, a $1.7 million project, is slated to open in January, making it one of only three cooperatively owned brewpubs in the nation. Several weekend and after-work festivals lure people downtown, including 4th Friday, Downtown Farmers Market and Mini Maker Faire. Planning for a large, signature festival is in the early stages.

In February, the town and downtown group launched a branding campaign, taking the “in” from the middle of “Burlington” for a new logo and tagline, “Get In The Mix.” The slogan “reflects our diversity, our eclectic nature and all the fun and interesting things going on,” says Morris.

She is also focused on tying downtown to City Park,
2 miles away. The 75-acre site features a fully restored Dentzel Menagerie Carousel built in 1910, a miniature train, ballfields,
rec center, YMCA and swimming pool.

Like all downtown boosters, Morris wants more people living in the center city. “I’d love to see 50 apartments come out of the ground,” she says. “We have several loft apartments that have opened up and two gorgeous condo buildings, with more on the way. And we’re talking with some of the owners of the old hosiery-mill buildings adjacent to downtown about repurposing them into condos and mixed-use residential.”

An ill-fated pedestrian mall, built to enliven downtown in 1973, was ripped up in 2008, says Dave Wright, managing director of the Paramount. “But this time it’s different,” he says. “This effort has got the mayor and city council and the money people behind it. There is a genuine sense of anticipation, if not excitement, of what could happen. I think it’s going to work.”

Ogi Overman is a Greensboro writer. We want to tell your town’s story. Send your ideas to dmildenberg@businessnc.com.

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