Photo provided by Downtown Statesville/Southern Distilling Co.
By Bryan Mims
Statesville has logged a lot of P.R. mileage from its spot at the intersection of two interstates, a dizzying display of bulldozing, demolition and red-clay canyons. A massive overhaul of the I-40 and I-77 interchange, along with several adjoining exits, has been digging away since 2012.
More than a century ago, Statesville was the transportation nexus for more than 450 distilleries shipping spirits across the Carolinas and beyond, earning it the moniker of “liquor capital of the world.” In the 1880s, makers of whiskey took their booze to Statesville, the westernmost point for train service.
As a tribute to the area’s liquor heritage, Southern Distilling Co. opened to the public last spring in a modern, glassy building just off I-77. Surrounded by a 20-acre farm, the distillery produces bourbon and rye whiskey and fruit brandies. “Bourbon is our core product,” says Pete Barger, who owns the distillery with his wife, Vienna. The couple had long wanted to run a family business, and after “a ton of research,” they decided against a winery and went for liquor, seeing greater potential for growth. They’ve poured $5 million into the venture and expect to sell 60,000 bottles by the end of their first year in operation. The target for year five is 250,000 bottles of aged product, which would make Southern Distilling one of the largest distilleries in the Southeast.
North Carolina had 61 permitted distilleries as of Dec. 1, a number that could grow thanks to federal tax reform proposing a tax break for craft distillers and brewers. In fiscal 2017, more than 77 million bottles of liquor were sold in the Tar Heel state, but less than 0.5% were N.C. products. The state’s craft distilleries received a boost this summer when state lawmakers passed the so-called “brunch bill,” increasing the number of bottles from one to five that may be sold to customers on-site.
Southern Distilling plans to siphon off interstate traffic for daily tours and, hopefully, sales. “What started six years ago has really come to fruition in the past year,” says Barger, an Iredell County native and former engineer who met his wife at college in northern California. “The real growth is international, so there are a lot of opportunities for us as we look to export markets.” The Bargers work with local farmers to provide the wheat and corn that inspire every utterance of “cheers!” in the tasting room.
At another high-profile crossroads in Statesville, this one at Broad and Center streets downtown, the earth-movers left about five years ago, and the finished product from all that hard-hat labor carries an undeniable sheen. Brickwork decorates the sidewalks and crosswalks. Flowers and shrubbery dash color on the street corners. Benches and tables invite passers-by to sit, chat or people-watch. A $5 million streetscape project transformed a ho-hum downtown into a happening locale hosting such events as art crawls, the Wine Walk and the summertime concert series known as Friday After Five.
At the Sweet Thing Bakery and Café, where you can chase down a triple chocolate cupcake with a cup of mocha, owner Preston Canter, 42, remembers the mud-caked sidewalks and parking hassles. “Beforehand, it was just a basic little town,” he says. “It was kind of boring.” But now? “Our cake business has exploded within the past two and a half years. The streetscape has actually been a great thing for us. We’re entertaining new clients all the time.”
And here’s the icing on the cake: He’s done so well that he’s expanding. Sweet Thing will soon move into the old Henderson Furniture Building on nearby West Broad Street. Another bakery in downtown is on the rise, too. Andrea’s Ice Cream and Sweet Shop is owned by Andrea Chimato, 22. On this particular afternoon, she’s wearing earrings shaped as pink doughnuts and a shirt that reads “Donut Know, Donut Care.” Her family helped her get the business rolling, and now she’s looking to open a second shop. That’s not all: Her equally young fiancé hopes to start his own restaurant. “I love it,” Chimato says of downtown. “I mean, the town itself, the business owners, the people that walk around, everyone is really loyal.”
Statesville has a population of nearly 27,000 people, and its city limits look like a jigsaw puzzle with a few far-afield pieces to encompass business parks and the regional airport. But a city without a healthy heart is a city without a soul. Statesville gets that, which is why its downtown is largely free of empty storefronts. Walk around and you’re struck by the miscellany of it all: A Colombian bakery with cheese bread that a Facebook review calls “out of bounds.” An Italian restaurant. A Chinese restaurant. A pair of tattoo parlors. A yoga studio. A cigar shop called Flor De America, with cigars hand-rolled on the premises.
There is Wine Maestro, a wine and craft-beer outlet, and Unwined, a snazzy wine lounge and eatery. Risto’s is a farm-to-table restaurant owned by Pittsburgh native Sheryl Toukola. “I squeeze my lemons, I roast my bones, I make my own corned beef, I make my dressing,” she’ll tell you. And there’s The Rustic Peel, a just-opened pizza place and brewpub.
On the west end of Broad Street, as if lording over downtown, stands Mitchell Community College, its main building an imposing presence with its six Greek-style columns. The school was founded in 1852 as a Presbyterian women’s college but is now a two-year community college with about 4,200 students. It offers courses in agribusiness technology, business administration, food and culinary arts, music and other fields.
Historians have different theories about the origin of the town’s name. One is that Statesville was named for the state road that passed through from Salisbury to the mountains. Another theory is that at the time of its founding in 1789, the town was roughly in the middle of the state. Back in those days, North Carolina still included much of what would become eastern Tennessee.
Statesville experienced a growth spurt in the second half of the 1800s, leading the state in the production of tobacco, tobacco products and, above all, whiskey. These days, Statesville is toasting the Larkin Regional Commerce Park, which is being developed on a 1,020-acre site along I-77 just southeast of town. Originally envisioned in the mid-2000s, the project was delayed by the recession. But last summer, city leaders and developers, including Charlotte-based Keith Corp. and Scott Development Group, revived plans, saying it could create 3,400 jobs during the next 10 to 15 years. It will include more than 5 million square feet of industrial development and 750,000 square feet of commercial and retail space.
The area already has a robust industrial base: The Statesville Chamber of Commerce lists more than 50 manufacturers on its roster. Among the biggest employers are Goodyear Tire and Rubber; Kewaunee Scientific, maker of lab, health care and technical furniture products; paper company Pratt Industries; and auto-parts maker ASMO of N.C.
As a crossroads city, Statesville could have contented itself with being just another interstate wayside, another name in white letters on green signs, with a phalanx of franchises at the exits and nothing much to brag about downtown. But instead of staying the course, it made a hard turn, digging up its streets and sidewalks, making a mess in order to create a marvel. Crossroads to destination is worthy of a salute — with some Statesville bourbon, of course.