Growing up in Statesville, Brittany Marlow remembers a dead downtown, with both businesses and residents choosing Signal Hill Mall by I-77 over Main Street.
“We didn’t come downtown for anything,” says the 2004 graduate of North Iredell High School. “There just wasn’t anything here.”
Fast forward almost 20 years, and Statesville’s center city has turned from dull to destination. Several restaurants have opened, with live music heard Wednesday through Saturday nights.
“It’s always been a charming town, now we just have a nightlife,” says Gloria Hager, whose gift store, GG’s, has been a downtown fixture for more than 40 years.
Things didn’t change overnight, says Marlow, leader of Statesville’s downtown business group since June. Things started moving a decade ago as city leaders replaced aging water and sewer lines. The city used the utility project as a catalyst to make its central business district more walkable and apt for beautification.
Sidewalks became wider as four lanes of traffic were narrowed to three, enabling 14 downtown blocks to expand their pedestrian paths. Extra room gives space for both dog walkers and coffee drinkers. Add overflow from the Charlotte-area’s population growth to a heated real estate market, and downtown has become the “heart of our community,” says Marlow.
Statesville businesses showed off downtown in mid-March to 750 visitors attending the annual N.C. Main Street Conference. The N.C. Department of Commerce launched the Main Street program in 1980. It now includes about 70 towns.
The Iredell County seat has about 28,000 residents, while the county is home to about 192,000, a 20% increase in the past decade. That’s nearly double the overall state’s growth. Most of the gains occurred in southern Iredell near Lake Norman and Mooresville. Home to several NASCAR teams and near giant retailer Lowe’s headquarters campus, Mooresville’s population has more than doubled to 51,000-plus in the past 15 years.
Growing at a measured pace has enabled Statesville to retain its small-town feel, downtown leaders say. That hometown pride is apparent at Andrea’s Ice Cream and Sweet Shop, a storefront Andrea Coelho opened nine years ago, shortly after she graduated from West Iredell High School in 2013.
“There’s so many nice people downtown. It’s very much a community here,” says Coelho. “I’ve seen families grow up, parents bringing in their 2- and 3-year-olds, and now they’re in middle school. It’s just great.”
Three teenaged part-timers help Coelho at the shop, along with a host of family members. Her 84-year-old grandmother, Dolores Chimato, comes in on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to wash dishes, after finishing league bowling.
The store’s best-seller may be her “New York’’ bagels, but only on Fridays and Saturdays, because they take three hours to prepare. She makes 10 dozen or so doughnuts most days, double that amount on weekends, as well as a host of brownies and other sweet baked goods.
“My customers really care about me, who we are and how we’re doing,” Coelho says. “When I got married, some of my customers bought me gifts.”
Almost all of downtown Statesville’s storefronts are filled, and those that are not have evident signs of remodeling work. Downtown has more than 100 housing units, mostly apartments, with plans for 10 more. Some will be offered as Airbnb rentals. Just a few steps from the late 1800s-era City Hall sits the American Renaissance K-8 charter school.
Most people may be familiar with Statesville as they pass through on Interstate 77 or Interstate 40, which criss-cross on the town’s northern edge. A travel website likened Statesville’s downtown to a scene from a Hallmark Christmas movie. Those wanting a more comfortable pace ought to visit, says Liz Petree, who plans events for Downtown Statesville Development.
“You’re definitely going to find something good to eat,” says Petree. “You’re definitely going to find someone to talk to and see a friendly face.”
Some visitors find even more. “You’re also probably going to find the next place you’re going to move to,” says Marlow. ■