By Emory Rakestraw
Every town should be so lucky to have a billionaire backer. Salisbury has the requisite hotels, shopping centers, fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that dot this stretch of Interstate 85 between Greensboro and Charlotte. But the rest don’t have Julian Robertson Jr. The son of a textile-industry executive, Robertson was raised in this town with a transportation, textile and tobacco past. Now 84, the hedge-fund pioneer is nearly as famous for giving away his money as he once was for making it. A breast-cancer surgery center at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York bears his late wife’s name. In Salisbury, the foundation named for his late parents has given millions to the city. In July, the Blanche & Julian Robertson Family Foundation paid $1.75 million for a downtown city block with plans to turn it into a park.
Downtown Salisbury already has some momentum. Once a major railroad hub, it’s perhaps best known as the home of Carolina Beverage Corp.’s Cheerwine cherry soda and Food Lion, started in 1957 by Wilson Smith and brothers Ralph and Brown Ketner. The grocery chain went from startup to more than $13 billion in annual sales, turning early investors, or “regular people,” as Mayor Karen Alexander calls them, into millionaires. Belgium’s Ahold Delhaize now owns the company.
Alexander wants to turn downtown into a place “where you can go from having a cup of coffee to having a five-star meal.” And a beer. Salisbury in September checked another box as a sign of a city on the rise: Morgan Ridge RailWalk Brewery opened in downtown’s Rail Walk district, serving craft beer, small plates and burgers made with beef sourced from local cows. Founder Amie Baudoin, who is optimistic about the city’s potential, also owns Morgan Ridge Vineyards in southeast Rowan County with her husband, Tommy.
One thing Salisbury can’t change is its proximity to the state’s fast-growing, large urban areas. The population of neighboring Cabarrus County, which borders Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, increased by about 65,000 over the last 15 years, six times faster than Rowan. Some developers view the city as isolated from the bigger areas, says Robert Van Geons, executive director of RowanWORKS, the county’s economic-development group.
But Salisbury has a big-city amenity Charlotte doesn’t — the city-owned Fibrant network rolled out 10-gigabit internet service last year, making it the first U.S. city to offer service that is about 1,000 times faster than the average connection speed, according to Wired magazine. Google is slowly rolling out 1-gigabit service in north Charlotte, while rivals are also offering similar service. Unlike private broadband services such as Google Fiber and AT&T U-verse, Salisbury makes the fast internet service available in all neighborhoods, regardless of income levels, City Manager Lane Bailey says. But tech innovation comes at a cost: Salisbury is spending about $2.4 million a year to support Fibrant as it works to achieve profitability, he says. It now has about 3,000 residential and 400 commercial subscribers.
High-speed internet has helped lure about $400 million of new investment since 2013, filling about 3 million square feet of space. Rowan has very little commercial-property vacancy, and plans are in the works to add 12 “shovel-ready” projects with more than 2,000 acres of industrial space, Van Geons says. All of which bodes well for the city often bypassed by the interstate highway crowd.
The city hopes the new park will be an additional draw. Retired lawyer Ed Norvell is leading the project by rounding up support from individuals, other foundations and, probably, state government. They have looked to Charlotte’s Romare Bearden Park and Greensboro’s new LeBauer Park as inspirations. Norvell is considering architects to design a park that includes art, water features, a concert stage and space to just relax. The site now is mostly surface parking, along with a small bank building. The park will bring “festivals, people, and liveliness,” Norvell says, as well as encourage downtown living by providing a green space for future residents.
The Robertson foundation gift makes it possible. Salisbury’s most famous native son created one of New York’s most successful investment companies, Tiger Management Corp., and spawned several firms launched by former colleagues called “Tiger Cubs.” Tiger Management halted new investments in 2000, though Robertson retains stakes in various hedge funds and other companies. Forbes estimates the New Yorker’s net worth to be $3.6 billion. Now, he’s best known as a philanthropist. Asked once if his obituary will read “Julian Robertson made a lot of money and gave it all away,” he said, “That would thrill me.”