PITTSBORO — You drive for more than two hours into a small town you’re not totally familiar with in order to get your drum repaired.
You look for a respite while waiting, and when you see a building with a “Welcome Center” sign posted on it, you check it out.
That’s what happened on Saturday at the new Chatham County Welcome Center, located on the circle of the Historic Chatham County Courthouse in Pittsboro.
Although it hasn’t officially opened, Maria Parker-Lewis, the president of the Main Street Pittsboro board, was taking some visitors on a tour through it when John Czerwinski of Charlotte walked through the front door.
Turns out Czerwinski was in town to drop off a djembe drum, a West African instrument, for repair by local percussionist Will Ridenour. Czerwinski said he saw the building and walked in hoping to find a public restroom, which the Welcome Center has. After learning the building was not quite open — but being told he was welcome nonetheless — he jokingly asked about the music scene in Chatham County.
Main Street board member Lesley Landis, noting that while COVID-19 had certainly changed things, described to the visitor the robust creative culture available in Chatham: among them, music events at the Oasis Open Air Market in Siler City, the various music festivals at Shakori Hills in Silk Hope, the Bynum Front Porch Concerts and the bluegrass jam on Pittsboro-Goldston Road in Bear Creek that occurs once a month.
She then listed other venues across the county and exchanged information to share more.
The entire exchange lasted at least 15 minutes.
“Well, I sure feel welcome,” Czerwinkski said with a laugh, noting the serendipity of the moment.
He got the Chatham Concierge experience, something the Welcome Center hopes to duplicate time and time again.
Main Street Pittsboro and the welcome center are part of a federal program, implemented through state governments called Main Street America. Main Street America has been helping revitalize older and historic commercial districts for more than 35 years. Today it is a network of more than 1,600 neighborhoods and communities, rural and urban, which share both a commitment to place and to building stronger communities through preservation-based economic development. Main Street America is a program of the nonprofit National Main Street Center, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In North Carolina, the Main Street program is administered by the N.C. Dept. of Commerce. “The idea of ‘Main Streeting’ municipalities in Chatham County was something the Chatham County Economic Development Corporation first became interested in when Diane Reid was its president,” said former Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller, a Main Street board member. Pittsboro began its program in 2011 and was initially administered by the Town of Pittsboro through the Parks and Recreation department headed by former parks planner Paul Horne. At that time, the organization was mostly focused on administering facade grants for downtown properties. This is still a strong component of the agency’s mission: it has granted about 15 facade grants since its inception.
Main Street Pittsboro has also helped make downtown more attractive by installing benches, garbage, and recycling containers and increasing accessibility by installing handrails that featuring the birds of Pittsboro that help people navigate the stairs on both sides of Hillsboro Street. The agency has produced street banners and collaborated with the Pittsboro Business Association, the Chatham Historical Association, and Abundance NC and to host downtown events.
Main Street Pittsboro picked up new steam when a number of new board members joined, including Doug Emmons (a board member of the Chatham Economic Development Corporation), Michael Fiocco (a Pittsboro town board commissioner), Landis (a Chatham Arts Council board member), business owners Greg Lewis and Maria Parker-Lewis, artist Kitty Meacham, Pittsboro Mayor Jim Nass, and former Mayor Voller. County Commissioner Mike Dasher and a number of community members serve on advisory boards. Mayor Nass and Kitty Meacham have since rotated off the board. The board is currently evaluating new board members to fill those seats.
In March 2017 Main Street Pittsboro was officially incorporated. It achieved non-profit status in February 2018, which is something Voller said many of these organizations across the state do “in order to work with state, county and municipal governments, as an interlocutor, to administer grants and take in funding to improve the community.”
The group also approached Chatham County to partner with Pittsboro for support.
Voller recalls former county manager Renee Paschal meeting with leaders of the organization and informing them that they would need a “shovel ready” project that impacts the greater good of Chatham before making a request of the county board for funding.
That’s when Voller broached the idea of a “Welcome Center” at 37 Hillsboro to the Main Street Pittsboro board, which aligned with the general concept that other board members had been discussing for quite some time.
The Concierge Experience
To be fair, the title “Chatham Concierge” was conceived during an interview for this story. But the sentiment seems to fit, at least based on Czerwinski’s experience.
When you enter the building, you will be greeted by Chatham County locals on the Welcome Center’s staff who have knowledge of and experience in the town and county.
“We want people who are extremely knowledgeable, with the inside scoop on Chatham County,” Fiocco said. “They can confirm information for people and may be able to provide new insights.”
This includes members from the Siler City Merchants Association who are teaming up for the effort. Parker-Lewis said the goal is to create a “comfortable place to relax and plan your trip.”
One wall will host a giant screen and will “highlight” Chatham’s businesses and attractions, including some five-minute snippets that “share the Chatham experience” with guests. There will also be a “big illustrated map” on a magnetic whiteboard that is being created by local artist and arts educator Stacye Leanza. Leanza lives just north of Pittsboro and is known for her drawing classes and illustrations of PepperFest.
The map will include the main roads and physical features but will include attractions to help visitors get oriented to the region. Main Street Pittsboro will also use magnets to highlight current happenings across the county. For example, if it’s the weekend of the Chicken Fest in Siler City, the map will have a magnet showing that special event, with all the information.
“You may even find things you didn’t even know you’d be interested in,” Parker-Lewis said.
Originally constructed in 1930 as a filling station and auto repair garage, the building at 37 Hillsboro St. was at one point in the 1990s called Sweet Sixteen which was a diner and ice cream shop owned and run by the long-time Chathamite Frank Foushee.
The property had been vacant for about a year after the Capital Bank moved to Siler City and was sold in March of 2020 by Emily Foushee, Frank Foushee’s widow, to ML&M Ventures LLC, a company owned by Orange County residents Mindy and Travis Kososki.
That’s when Voller suggested the idea of securing a Welcome Center at 37 Hillsboro.
The board agreed and began work in earnest to make the project a reality. Last year, both the county and Pittsboro provided funds for the project with the backing of numerous organizations and private donors including the building’s owner.
The original goal was to strip the outer facade in the hope that brick was underneath to coordinate with other nearby buildings. But when the facade came off and revealed several large areas of cinder block, a new course of action had to be undertaken. Kerry Finley, the lead architect for the Mosaic project on Russett Run, agreed to help Main Street Pittsboro design a new exterior, resulting in the use of both original brick and a painted brick red exterior.
The Welcome Center will also be the office of Main Street Pittsboro, something Parker-Lewis said will allow residents to “get to know us” and for the organization to “hear from the residents.”
The space has two other offices that the group hopes one day soon will be the Pittsboro home to the Chatham Chamber of Commerce, the Pittsboro-Siler City Convention & Visitors Bureau, and/or similarly aligned entities to help promote the county.
Until that time, the unoccupied offices may be used to highlight the works of local artists from throughout the county as well as businesses.
The group is also considering installing a kind of audio recording station, where Chatham County residents can share their Chatham story. This would be similar to NPR’s “StoryCorps” And it would be available for use for volunteers during special events such as Local on Main, PepperFest, the Street Fair, and holiday events.
“That’s why we call it a welcome center and not a visitor center,” Parker-Lewis said. “It’s for residents of the community, to build the community.”
And Then There’s the Mural
A new mural actually spans two different buildings, one north facing and the other east. Fiocco noted that the east-facing portion is owned by Eddie Thomas who agreed to let Main Street Pittsboro include his wall in the project, for which all members voiced gratitude.
The Main Street Pittsboro Design sub-committee sent out requests for concepts from muralists this spring. The committee unanimously chose Michael Brown, an acclaimed regional muralist. Fiocco noted that from the beginning Brown’s initial concept captured what the committee was thinking, saying, “it was obvious.”
The design sub-committee wanted content that reflects Chatham’s unique flora and fauna and the county’s agricultural present and past. With the help of Chatham Agricultural Extension Debbie Roos, the sub-committee pulled together very specific elements to be included in the mural.
There is a Chatham rabbit, a delightful cow, a sweet horse, an angry chicken with an inquisitive rooster, with a plump pig looking over them all. But there’s also a tiger, a heron, a butterfly and more. Both Jordan Lake and the Haw River are featured, with a sailboat and kayaks to boot.
The organization is also in the midst of designing an outdoor patio in the shade of the mural. Landis said she hopes people use the mural as a backdrop for pictures, sharing their own Chatham stories and posting to social media to help promote downtown and Chatham County as a destination for day trippers and people passing through which in turn will help local businesses.
Parker-Lewis hopes the Welcome Center will be ready for its grand opening this fall, but with COVID, the organization is trying to be flexible. With or without a “grand opening” celebration, the Welcome Center may soon be providing a respite for travelers and residents alike.
Casey Mann can be reached at CaseyMann@Chathamnr.com