Developers share updates on local projects and how the pandemic factors into those Chatham development plans
By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Local developer Greg Stafford tapped the toe of his boot on a cement doorstep where a 1919 Buffalo nickel might be hiding beneath decades of paint layers at the Justice Motor Company building in downtown Pittsboro.
“Imagine that,” Greg says, reflecting on how a coin that was minted during the Spanish flu more than 100 years ago could be uncovered this week during a redevelopment project in the middle of another global pandemic.
Greg owns the 1940s building that originally housed a car dealership and, most recently, the Pittsboro Roadhouse restaurant and performance venue; its owners are relocating to Chatham Mills with a new concept. Major renovations to the historic building are part of a larger development project called SoCo, shorthand for South of the Courthouse, and covers property from 39 West St. to 56 Sanford Rd. By the end of this year, the entire 30,000-square foot complex is expected to include two separate performance stages, three outdoor dining spaces, multiple restaurants, businesses and a rooftop bar.
Despite the upheavals of 2020, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, local developers and municipal leaders have reasons to be more optimistic in 2021:
• Businesses are adapting. Restaurants are moving away from indoor dining to takeout or delivery service. Essential and non-essential employees are switching from face-to-face meetings to virtual platforms like Zoom or Cisco Webex.
• Mass migrations are shifting demographics from urban to suburban. More people are moving to North Carolina than ever before, according to data from moving company United Van Lines and Unacast, a New York-based data mining company.
• Relief programs and vaccines are more widely available. By the time you’re reading this, vaccinations will be offered to people younger than 75 and workers beyond the health care industry. Relief programs, such as PPP, EIDL, CARES and HOPE, are likely to continue offering support to those most in need.
“There’s a great deal of potential here in this county,” says Susan Keller of Rampart Property Management, a Sanford-based company managing Sanctuary at Powell Place, a $32 million development that offers Chatham County’s first market-rate apartments in many years. The first phase of the apartments became available in May 2020, and the next phase was expected to wrap up by the end of January. “It’s fueled in many ways. Companies are coming to the area. More people are finding they can work remotely from home, so they can live anywhere. They don’t have to live in a big city.
“In my view, people are still planning for things to happen,” Susan adds. She says she grew up moving a lot, but this area offers a quality of life hard to find in other places.
“The land is beautiful,” she says. “You’ve got rolling hills. You can drive three hours to the mountains or to the beach. It’s hard to beat.” She adds that the personality of downtown Pittsboro has its charms as well. “It’s wonderfully historic and wonderfully quirky and wonderfully politically aware,” she says. “They are not afraid to engage here.”
The county is undergoing a major transformation driven primarily by the expansive Chatham Park project, a 7,068-acre community to be completed by 2045. According to a 2017 fiscal analysis report, total revenue at completion is projected to be $62 million, including property tax revenues of $15.5 million from the North Village, where construction is underway for Mosaic, a 136-acre, $350 million commercial retail gateway to Chatham Park. The first homes went up for presale back in March 2020, around the same time as the pandemic shutdowns, and the first family moved in to Chatham Park’s Vineyards Cottages in November 2020.
COVID-19 brought a “new normal” with numerous restrictions, mandatory masks and physical distancing. Outbreaks of infections disrupted supply chains and workforce continuity. Companies learned to cope with workarounds along with adjusting their business models to regain productivity in essential businesses within industries like construction, health care, groceries and restaurants. Luckily, Mosaic already integrated outdoor spaces into its designs, making it easier to adhere to guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive orders.
“After any other major traumatic event, I think there will be some future-proofing,” says Kirk Bradley, CEO of Lee-Moore Capital Company, a Sanford-based developer for Mosaic. “This pandemic will be top of mind for many years.
“It’s no question [COVID-19] had an impact, but everybody’s had to make accommodations,” Kirk says, noting the disproportionate impact on small, nonessential businesses. “It’s tricky. The rules have been uneven. Our state has been better than other states, like California. The governor’s trying to strike a balance allowing freedom of movement and not overwhelming the hospitals.”
Ann Fitts, a communications specialist at Chatham Economic Development Corporation, says there is at least one positive side effect from the pandemic. “Chatham has always had a leakage problem,” Ann says about people who live in Chatham but spend their money at shops and restaurants in surrounding counties. Current and future projects will create hyperlocal opportunities. “The pandemic has people staying home, and they’re spending their money here.”
Siler City is preparing for brighter days ahead in terms of economic recovery.
“I’m certain that we’re going to see some growth,” says Roy Lynch, Siler City town manager. “We have a number of individuals looking to develop here.”
Roy says Siler City’s proximity to Chatham Park, plus the Triangle and Triad regions, makes the western part of Chatham County appealing to major developers. Last quarter, Charter Furniture opened a new and expanded 260,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Siler City. By mid-2023, the town’s wastewater treatment facility will complete its capacity upgrades, going from 4 million gallons per day to 6 million gallons per day.
“We see things starting to move in a positive trend in our downtown,” Roy says. Renovations of several historic buildings will revitalize an entire block, bounded by North Chatham Avenue, West Raleigh Street, West Second Street and North Birch Avenue. The project is called Wren Corner Properties, which will have apartments, a brewery/taproom and space for a restaurant.
“We’ve been very thankful that we’ve been able to move on with what we have,” Roy says. “Our staff has remained healthy and remains vigilant. Even when our public works department goes out to job sites, everyone has a mask on when they’re riding in a vehicle together. If you see someone not wearing a mask, you need to let me know.”
Back in Pittsboro, the North Carolina Department of Transportation began its own $2.5 million project on Jan. 11 to mill and resurface the roundabout in the heart of town. Detours will disrupt traffic patterns until October. The project will also improve safety for drivers and pedestrians and will make upgrades to water and sewer services for downtown businesses, including Greg’s SoCo project.
Greg says no one can stop the pandemic, but the pandemic cannot stop the potential for recovery and growth in Chatham County. He might even have a special nickel to prove it.