By Chris Burritt
After three decades of MerleFest, the town of Wilkesboro is finally capitalizing on music to revive its downtown. It’s Motown, the Beatles and rock ’n’ roll — not just the usual bluegrass and folk tunes that are expected to attract more than 80,000 people to Wilkes Community College for four days of performances later this month. Headliners at the 31st annual festival, started by legendary guitarist Doc Watson to honor his deceased son, Merle, include Kris Kristofferson and Brevard’s Steep Canyon Rangers with comedian Steve Martin.
Two miles away, almost every block of the downtown in this foothills city 55 miles west of Winston-Salem is under some degree of construction, redevelopment or demolition. A community commons and concert stage on West Main Street is at the center of the $2.5 million first phase of work funded by private and public sources. Wilkes Communications provided $300,000 for the 70-by-35-foot stage with bronze roofing, the downtown’s first permanent outdoor music venue. Carolina West Wireless contributed $550,000 for the open-air commons, which will host artisans and farmers markets and concerts. Both telecommunications companies are based in the town.
“It’s what we’re going to hang our hat on, the musical heritage of Wilkes County,” says Andrew Carlton, Wilkesboro’s planning and community development director. “The community commons is the heart and soul of what we’re trying to do over the next 10 to 15 years, building and improving public space and quality of life to attract residents and businesses.”
It’s an innovative strategy for a slice of North Carolina with a history of entrepreneurship that rivals its musical heritage. Wilkesboro, with a population of about 3,700, is across the Yadkin River from North Wilkesboro, population about 4,500. The two towns have been rivals for more than a century, ever since the predecessor to Norfolk Southern Corp. built a railroad station in North Wilkesboro instead of crossing the river to Wilkesboro.
Although Wilkesboro has bragging rights as the Wilkes County seat, North Wilkesboro has been a bigger economic player. The arrival of rail service in the 1890s provided an economic boost, while the growth of Lowe’s Cos. and Lowes Foods from single stores to major retailers propelled North Wilkesboro into prominence. Northwestern Bank, formed in 1937, was the region’s biggest lender until its sale to First Union National Bank in 1985. Unfortunately, the shift of corporate headquarters and emphasis from small towns to bigger markets has stripped the area of many white-collar jobs over the last 20 years.
The Lowes supermarket chain, owned by the George family of Hickory, is now based in Winston-Salem. Lowe’s, the second-largest U.S. home improvement chain, relocated its corporate headquarters to Mooresville starting in 2003. The company has retained more than 1,500 employees in customer support, sales and service based in a former Wilkesboro shopping mall.
Wilkesboro’s largest employer is Tyson Foods Inc., the largest U.S. poultry, beef and pork producer, with more than 3,300 workers in a chicken-processing plant less than a mile from downtown. It’s an outgrowth of Holly Farms Corp., which opened in Wilkesboro in 1958 and was acquired by Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson in 1989.
Like many other cities, Wilkesboro leaders concluded that a peppier downtown is essential to attract newcomers and 21st-century jobs. Over the next two or three years, plans call for removing overhead utility lines to improve the appearance of the district. The demolition of the building that once housed the Wilkes County Jail is making way for possible downtown housing.
“It’s going to be a fabulous, family-friendly environment,” says Seth Cohn, 36, who owns Mother Earth Foods & Smoothies and Dooley’s Grill & Tavern with his wife, Ashley. A Wilkes County native, Cohn now heads the Historic Downtown Wilkesboro Merchants Association and is running for county commissioner. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says, as the couple raise their 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter at their North Wilkesboro home.
The improvement efforts have led to delays and one noisy flap. Last year, town officials replaced two of the three Main Street stoplights with four-way stop signs. The goal, says Town Manager Kenneth Noland, was to slow traffic through those two intersections, increasing safety for pedestrians. The effort worked, as many motorists are now choosing faster bypasses. But others have squawked.
“Some are very mad about it. Some are happy about it,” Noland says. “Some argue that it’s counterproductive to lower the number of motorists on Main Street when you’re trying to increase the use of downtown. But if you’re driving through just to go somewhere else, there are a lot of other ways you can go.”
Some drivers still don’t know the rules of traveling through four-way stop signs — or they ignore them, says Jerry Hudler, owner of Hud’s Barber Shop in downtown. As a result, he says some of his elderly customers, fearing possible traffic accidents, now go elsewhere for haircuts.
Wilkesboro will offer free Wi-Fi across the central district, sparing local businesses an expense. Installation of Wi-Fi over five blocks cost $50,000, with $15,000 from the town and a grant of $35,000 from the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state partnership that promotes economic development.
With less than a 10-minute drive between the area’s two downtowns, Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro have increasingly found common ground on projects such as public greenways and supplying volunteers for MerleFest.
“The competitiveness between the two towns is going away quickly,’’ says Carlton, who wears a brown-and-beige “Town of Wilkesboro” ball cap as the city’s planning chief but lives in a historic neighborhood in North Wilkesboro. He commutes to work on some of the 50 miles of biking trails through Wilkes County. Wilkesboro’s Cub Creek Park consists of 150 acres of public space with athletic fields, a dog park and trout fishing. A community garden produces more than 5,000 pounds of vegetables a year, with about 20% donated to a local food bank.
Wilkes County’s population has increased by less than 20% since MerleFest started attracting international attention three decades ago. Neighboring Watauga County, home to Appalachian State University, has grown three times as fast. But don’t be surprised if the pace picks up in Wilkes, given the efforts of the locals.
“First and foremost, these enhancements are intended for the benefit of our local citizenry. But they also give us the opportunity to showcase what we’ve done to a broader audience,” Noland says. “We want you to come back to visit or relocate here.”