Town Square: Monroe maintains charm

 In October 2019, Town Square

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Monroe’s Treehouse Vineyards, opened by Phil and Dianne Nordan in 2005, is home to three treehouses that are available for hourly and overnight rental. The winery boasts 12 different types of wine made with grapes grown both on and off the property.

By Bryan Mims

To go out on a limb, 30 feet up, standing on a treehouse porch amongst the branches of a mighty white oak tree, is to discover the cozy confines of a bottle of wine and an order of pizza. Phil and Dianne Nordan, both in their 70s, will drink to that, since they have clinked glasses together on this lofty perch while dinner was served by rope and pulley. “I’ll never forget the first time we called the pizza guy,” Phil says. “He wouldn’t bring it up to us.”

That’s why Phil rigged up the rope-and-pulley contraption: to keep height-queasy pizza guys on terra firma. He built these date night digs — a treehouse for grown-ups — more than 20 years ago as a fun, above-it-all escape. “We’d go up there on Friday or Saturday night, have a glass of wine, and a lot of times have supper,” Phil says. Around Monroe, home to about 35,000 people, the Nordans became known as “the people with the treehouse.” A few years later, in 2005, Phil hatched another hopelessly romantic idea: plant vineyards and open a winery.

At first blush, the southern edge of downtown Monroe might have seemed an improbable spot for a winemaking venture, with houses and apartments all within view and a Food Lion within an easy walk. “They think they’re lost,” Phil says about many guests who navigate their way to the tasting room. But the ground is fertile with meaning and memory: Dianne grew up here, and the land has been in her family for more than 200 years. Now, with 15 verdant acres laced with rows of muscadine vines, Treehouse Vineyards is the toast of Monroe, drawing about 1,000 visitors every week.

“We are, without question, the largest attraction in Monroe,” says Phil, 78, while sitting on the winery’s expansive patio where guests can sip wines named “Her Way,” “Rock Quarry” and “Liquid Sunshine.” To appease those who prefer mugs over stems, the winery now offers beer.

Back in the 1930s, this property had a big hole in the ground. What is now a picturesque pond among the grapevines was a quarry owned by Dianne’s grandfather. He leased it to the city of Monroe during the Great Depression, and its rocks were used to pave the city’s streets until the 1950s. Monroe, founded in 1844 and named for President James Monroe, is a city that gave the world Belk stores, former Sen. Jesse Helms (whose father was once the fire and police chief) and the drums played by rock star Ringo Starr.

Dianne remembers the days when “we had to go to Charlotte to do anything, even to get a pizza.” But these days, people in Charlotte — the city’s downtown is about 25 miles northwest — are coming to Monroe for wine tastings, date nights and discovering their dream home in the city’s porch-and-portico historic district.
That’s just what Blake and Cress Barnes did. They recently made the move down U.S. 74 after a friend sent a photo of a 1902 house in Monroe that seized their imagination. “It’s a big, huge, rambling, haunted-looking old white house,” Cress says. “I walked in and I was like, ‘We’re buying this house.’”

Not only did they buy the house, they bought the building on East Franklin Street in downtown that formerly housed the old Bus Stop Soda Shop. Earlier this year, they joined another couple to open the East Frank Superette and Kitchen, which serves as a coffeehouse, craft wine shop, convenience store, bar and deli all balled into one. Its bohemian decor is rife with conversation pieces, from the Jimmy Carter campaign photos to the pinball machines to the mural of a bodybuilder with a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer can tattooed on his bicep. Its kitchen is set to open in October and will have offbeat offerings such as breakfast salads and breakfast hot dogs.

Blake grew up in nearby Wingate and, in 2002, helped open a similar hangout in Charlotte called Common Market. After his success in the city, he never figured he’d move back to Union County. Downtown Monroe, while perking up with small businesses, felt drowsy compared to the high-energy sheen of Charlotte. “I had a lot of people going, ‘You are crazy to be moving to that little town,’” he says. “But I’m like, ‘That’s exactly where I need to be.’”

“We realized that Monroe needed what we know how to do,” Cress says.

East Frank Superette and Grocery enjoys good company in downtown. Just across the street is Franklin Court Grille, serving burgers, pizzas and salads. At the corner of Franklin and Hayne streets stands Stone Table, an eatery occupying an old-fashioned drugstore whose staff concocts creative cuisine out of local ingredients. Its mission statement: “We want to reinvent food for an amazing community.”

Downtown has a Thai restaurant that locals brag about called Thai Tamarind and a longtime lunch spot, the Oasis Sandwich Shop, where the workday crowd lines up for pimento cheese sandwiches, BLTs and hot dogs. A block away is Southern Range, Monroe’s first craft brewery whose taps began turning in 2016. Dustin and Elise Gatliff, a 30-something couple originally from Ohio and Indiana, respectively, live in nearby Wesley Chapel and brew IPAs, stouts and other specialty ales in
a warehouse off-site.

“I liked the old vibe of downtown Monroe,” says Dustin Gatliff, whose taproom fills a former tractor dealership on South Stewart Street. “I’ve always been an entrepreneur, and right before opening the brewery, I was refinishing furniture and selling it at a shop in Indian Trail.” As a craft-beer enthusiast, he saved up money to tap into this robust industry.

Beyond the food-and-drink scene, downtown will have its theater up in lights again at the start of 2020. After sitting dormant since 1991, the Dowd Center Theatre on Main Street will raise the curtains again for movies, dancing, concerts and special events. Built in the 1930s, the theater seats about 550 people and was bought by the city in 2013. “It’s extremely significant,” says Pete Hovanec, tourism and communications officer for Monroe. “So many of our residents grew up going to that theater. It also gives our residents an opportunity to have something here instead of having to go to Charlotte or elsewhere to experience that.”

Also in early 2020, Monroe will open the Children’s Science Center. It will fill a 20,000-square-foot building near the library and give kids hands-on lessons in science, technology, engineering and other disciplines that add thrust to the local economy. Monroe, Hovanec points out, has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of aerospace industries and has an aerospace cluster that employs about 3,500 people.

Among the biggest corporate names is Pennsylvania-based ATI Specialty Materials, which landed in Monroe in 1957 and produces superalloys that are found in planes around the world. Last year, the company announced a $20 million investment in its Monroe operations to expand its nickel-based superalloys. Aerospace companies in Union County provide products to Boeing Co., Airbus, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd., General Electric Co. and other plane- and engine-builders.

Another high-flying business that mostly stays under the radar is Ludwig Industries. The brand is revered among musicians, furnishing custom-made drums for former Beatles member Ringo Starr since he shared the stage with John, George and Paul. The likes of Van Halen and the drummer for Taylor Swift have all been Ludwig devotees. For 35 years, the company has banged out its rock-star drums inside a generic building with beige aluminum siding. It employs about 50 people and “is one of the nation’s best-kept secrets, because you’ll drive by it five times and not even realize it’s there,” Hovanec says.

One name writ large in Monroe — it’s painted in big, black letters atop a brick building downtown — is a name synonymous with wardrobe enhancement: Belk. The department store that made a name for itself across the Southeast got its start in Monroe in 1888. Founder William Henry Belk opened his first store here and called it the New York Racket. His physician brother, John Belk, joined him as a partner, and they moved the headquarters of the company — then called Belk Brothers — to Charlotte in 1909. Belk now has about 300 stores across 16 states, making it one of the largest department store chains in the nation. The Belk mansion, with its columns and wraparound porches, stands in all its whitewashed splendor along South Hayne Street.

The house dwarfs the treetop hideaway several blocks south at Treehouse Vineyards. Called the “Date Nite” treehouse, it’s available for hourly rentals to enjoy picnics or watch the sunset with a glass of bubbly. Phil Nordan built two more treehouses that are big enough for overnight stays. The “Papa’s Dream” house has air conditioning, a queen-size bed in a loft, and a deck with a grill. The “Horsefeathers Hideaway” house can fit as many as eight people and comes with a master bedroom.

This isn’t the only winery in town. Hilton Vineyard, which grows its grapes outside the city limits, runs a wine bar on Main Street. It plans to open the vineyard on Crow Road to the public in October. Tending bar most weekends is Kimberly Mullis, a native daughter of Monroe, who looks out and drinks in the view of downtown. “It’s grown, and it’s nice to see all these buildings having stuff put in them and bringing downtown Monroe back.”

From street level or treetop, the view of Monroe is vintage North Carolina: old textile town-turned-tech savvy and crafty. Monroe’s motto is “Where the Heartland Meets High-Tech.” But it’s not going out on a limb to say that locals and out-of-towners alike revel in such low-tech pleasures as watching the sun go down from way up in an oak.

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