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SERPENTINE SOLUTION Part 2: How visionary leaders achieved a radical change and saved downtown

Serpentine pattern turned Main Street into a 'Downtown Shopping Park' in 1976-77. [THE BAKER-BARBER COLLECTION, COMMUNITY FOUNDATION OF HENDERSON COUNTY, HENDERSON COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY and CITY OF HENDERSONVILLE] Serpentine pattern turned Main Street into a 'Downtown Shopping Park' in 1976-77. [THE BAKER-BARBER COLLECTION, COMMUNITY FOUNDATION OF HENDERSON COUNTY, HENDERSON COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY and CITY OF HENDERSONVILLE]

Second of the Lightning’s two-part report on how the transformative streetscape change in 1976 made Hendersonville’s downtown sustainable for decades to come.

 

To the casual observer, Hendersonville’s Main Street may have looked healthy enough in 1974. Two major anchor stores, Belk’s and Penney’s, drew a steady stream of shoppers. The street also had a movie theater, a dime store, a Western Auto, men’s and women’s dress shops, hardware stores, office supply stores, a bakery, cafeteria, restaurants, soda fountain, filling stations and more.
Teen-agers dragged Main in Mustangs, Camaros and GTOs, bottling things up on Friday and Saturday nights.
“We cruised from when we first got our license,” recalls Jerrie McFalls, whose family ran the Eagle variety store in the 400 block of North Main Street. “You could be beside somebody and your passenger was talking to them out the window. Right before it became serpentine, we would usually go down, circle Hardee’s and then come back up Main Street.”
Beneath the apparent stability, though, a handful of visionary leaders detected warning signs: stagnation, the flight of the shoppers to the suburbs and the likelihood that Hendersonville was big enough to support an enclosed mall, which had acres of parking, climate control and the ability to lure brand-name anchors from small-town main streets.
“By 1974 the matter of Hendersonville’s downtown had become urgent,” radio broadcaster Kermit Edney wrote in Kermit Edney Remembers: Where Fitz Left Off. Before 1974, 61 percent of city revenues had come from property taxes and license fees paid by the central business district businesses. The 1974 countywide reassessment showed that downtown property values had dropped by 20 percent while values elsewhere jumped by 40-50 percent.
Edney, Jody and Mary Barber, who owned a photo shop and card store on in the 500 block, furniture store owner D.B. Keith, Duke Power executive Sam McGuirt and others believed the city needed to revitalize downtown before it was too late. When they set out to research Main Street models that had successfully countered the shift in shopping behavior, all roads led to a city in the high desert of southwestern Colorado. Grand Junction, by pioneering a zig-zag traffic pattern in place of a four-lane thoroughfare there, had become a paradigm for remaking Main Street.
BB KermitEdneyKermit Edney [COURTESY OF THE BAKER-BARBER COLLECTION, COMMUNITY FOUNDATION OF HENDERSON COUNTY, HENDERSON COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY]In the summer of 1975 Edney organized a trip to Grand Junction that included city commissioners R.B. Shealy and Joel Wright, City Attorney Francis Coiner, Keith, owner of Brunson’s furniture store, real estate agent Jimmy Edney, civic leader Sally Godehn and others. By the time they got home, they were convinced that the S-shaped traffic-slowing street pattern, wider sidewalks and raised flower beds under a leafy tree canopy was the way Hendersonville should go, too.
Mayor Boyce Whitmire had appointed Police Chief Bill Powers and city engineer Bill Lapsley, then assistant director of the water department, as the link between the city and the downtown committee.
“And all of a sudden a group was going to Colorado,” Lapsley recalls. “I’m 28 years old, I don’t have the money to go.” Although Lapsley and Powers stayed home, they heard all about Grand Junction in the late summer of 1975.
“So they come back and they said, ‘Here’s a copy of the plans, Bill, two Bills, can we do that here?”
The street was wide enough, Lapsley responded, and if all the infrastructure could be done, yes, it could.
“Well, how much is it going to cost?” they asked. “I remember working up the cost estimate,” Lapsley says. “As I recall it was about $250,000 and I remember the group going to City Council, 'We need $250,000.' and City Council says, ‘Well, you’re not getting it from us.’”
“All of this sounds well and good,” Mayor Whitmire said, in Edney’s recollection, “but the city has already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars helping the merchants downtown and we think it’s time the merchants showed their financial support by guaranteeing the repayment of whatever loan is needed.”
Over the next couple of meetings in the fall of 1975, the mayor and city commissioners did agree to appoint a Downtown Committee and put two city employees on it, offer the labor of the public works and water crews, and ask the Department of Transportation to take Main Street off the state highway system and cede it to the city, clearing the way for the new traffic pattern. Instead of making a direct appropriation of city money, they agreed to form a special taxing district downtown to fund the revitalization. The city would collect the downtown property tax and pledge the revenue to pay the note. If there was a shortage, Whitmire warned, the merchants would have to cover the balance.
“Thus began one of the weirdest campaigns ever held in this state,” Edney said.

CHAPTER 2: The campaign


The “weird campaign” began when the Merchants Association’s leaders fanned out across the city extracting pledges of $1,000 from business owners in the event the special tax failed to cover the debt service. Pete Green, of P.T. Green Builders, and grading contractors Dan Waddell and Bob Brummett volunteered to provide heavy equipment.
MaryLouiseBarber4Mary Louise Barber talks about her parents' campaign for downtown revitalization in the mid-'70s. [HENDERSONVILLE LIGHTNING PHOTO]“There was a lot of opposition,” recalls Mary Louise Barber, then a young mom who watched from the sidelines as her parents guided the effort. “They had to sell the idea that we needed to revitalize the downtown. Daddy and Mother together went all over this county doing slideshows. Every Kiwanis Club, about every church, he did My Town Your Town, giving people the history of Hendersonville.”
If the Downtown Committee faced a steep climb, they also had a not-so-secret weapon — two in fact.
Jody Barber was no ordinary shopkeeper on Main Street and Kermit Edney was not an anonymous radio host.
The Barber family photo shop had been a specialty shop anchor on Main Street since 1884. Starting with Jody’s grandfather, the Barber studio had documented the community’s births, engagements, weddings and anniversaries in portraits for almost a century.
Thousands of local residents, too, loved and respected Kermit Edney. Every morning while they shaved, bathed or ate, they listened to stories from “the seventh child of the seventh child, lucky enough to have been born here, the good sense never to leave and with a job he’s loved all his life.” Host of WHKP’s Good Morning Man Show, Edney was a familiar voice that everyone trusted.
If Barber and Edney couldn’t sell the Main Street makeover, no one could.

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Everyone hoped the downtown property tax, which originated at 30 cents per $100 valuation, would cover a $250,000 loan that Edney had secured from Northwestern Bank, where he served as a director. Because of Mayor Whitmire’s stipulatio, the committee had to get private citizens to commit as co-signers.
“I remember it like it was yesterday, in the old Clifton’s Cafeteria,” Lapsley says. “They called a meeting of all property owners on Main Street and interested parties and I remember going into that meeting and there must have been 300 people there. It was packed. I walk in and Kermit told them, ‘We’ve got a plan.’ He showed pictures of Grand Junction, told them it would cost $250,000 and we need people to sign as personal guarantors on this note and I thought, ‘Gee this is pretty bold.’ And I bet 90% of the people in that room got up and signed that note. I was so moved by it I went up and signed the note. I said, ‘These people are not going to let this thing fail. This is going to happen. They’re going to save this damn town.’”
CharlieWaters1Charlie Waters, a young attorney, served on the Downtown Committee.As it turned out, according to attorney Charlie Waters, only two names were on the official documents that were kept in City Hall. A native of Virginia who had come to Hendersonville as a teenager to attend Camp Arrowhead, Waters had returned to the town to practice law. He got drafted to join the Downtown Committee as a legal adviser. Waters recalls thinking the financing seemed a little bit sketchy.
“The sad part was somebody had to sign the note,” he said. “I was concerned about that and a lot of us were concerned about it but the bank wasn’t. … Jody Barber and I were the only ones to sign the note. I know, because every year I had to go down to City Hall and sign to acknowledge receipt of the tax revenue so we could pay Northwestern Bank for that year. And I was very happy when the last payment was made.”

 

CHAPTER 3: ‘Oh, you’ve destroyed Main Street’


The committee met weekly around a large dining room table at the Barbers’ home at the end of a long dirt driveway in Laurel Park. Mary Barber served lunch and poured iced tea.
“From the time the committee would begin sipping soup or biting into sandwiches, talk would begin about the most current progress made and discussion of any problems encountered,” Edney recalled in his book.
“They hashed it out, they got along together,” Mary Louise Barber says. “Daddy would say, ‘Kermit has a mouth, he can talk about anything.’ Daddy was quieter but they collaborated. … Mother didn’t know why she was picked. She doesn’t even like planting flowers but she likes flowers everywhere.”
If Mary professed not to know why the mayor put her on the committee, it was clear to everyone else. She had served for years on the Hendersonville Garden Club and the city Beautification Committee. Moreover, besides sandwich making, she had a gift for organizing committees and she brooked no nonsense. “She could really run a tight meeting,” Mary Louise says.
She was known as an enforcer of decorum.
If there was any fussing, “Mary would step in and say don’t come back to my house if you don’t behave better,” Waters says.

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Eagle variety store, in addition to general merchandise, sold candy, roasted nuts and popcorn, making it a gathering place for shopkeepers who wanted an afternoon snack. McFalls’ father, Bill Gass, ran the dime store. Her mother, Inez, worked across the street at JC Penney’s.
Jerrie McFalls worked in her father's dime store when Main Street was changed from four to two lanes.Jerrie McFalls worked in her father's dime store when Main Street was changed from four to two lanes.“We always worked for my dad at the store and a lot of the managers or owners of the other stores would come in and they would talk a lot about what was going on,” McFalls says. “The biggest thing I remember (about the new street pattern) is the concern about parking. When they had the drawings and they showed that they weren’t going to have the parallel parking — they were going to have the pull-in parking, that parts of the street were going to have the serpentine with the flower beds — the merchants were really worried about, ‘Will our customers be able to get to us? They’re eliminating parking.’
“And of course that’s still a concern today. This many years later, it’s a struggle to find parking. I don’t think that has entirely resolved itself this many years later.”
In November 1975 Edney promised city commissioners that “all merchants, with the exception of one or two” favored the downtown revitalization plan, and two weeks later assured them again that “with the exception of those who are just opposed to any type of change, the people seem to be willing and pleased to try this change,” according to city minutes.
Opening a public hearing on the night of Dec. 30, Barber and Merchants Association President Cal Kuykendall explained that the project would get under way in early 1976 with the goal of finishing by Christmas.
14PollOpposes 5 18 76The Times-News reported in May 1976 that poll respondents opposed the new street pattern by a 3-to-1 margin.According to the minutes, three merchants stood to oppose the project: Weldon Lunsford of Lunsford’s Exxon station, Grover Peace of Spinning Wheel Rugs and Kalman Sherman, owner of Sherman’s Army Store and Sherman’s Sporting Goods. “I think we are trying to cure something that we don’t have an ailment for,” Sherman said. “The customers don’t like it and they are the ones we are trying to please.”
Nine spoke in favor: F.V. Hunter, Dan Barber Jr., who owned the Western Auto store and two other Main Street buildings; Unk Barber, owner of Town Office Supply; Winfield Miller, of Miller’s Laundry & Cleaners; Bud Hunter, president of the Chamber of Commerce; Brunson’s manager Bill Prim; Arthur Rubin of McFarland’s Bakery; Cal Kuykendall of the Merchants Association; and downtown property owner (and resident) Bert Browning III.
“One of the main goals of the chamber is to see that our community does not stand still,” Hunter said. “This is a move forward.”
Street Scenes.6The Belk Simpson store downtown, along with J.C. Penney, would eventually move to the Blue Ridge Mall. [City of Hendersonville photo]Kuykendall said Belk Simpson manager Robert McCormick was “very much in favor of the project. Also, Mr. Simpson, the major stockholder of Belk’s, is very much in favor of it.”
Yet, five months later, when the serpentine project was under construction, Browning had changed his mind. He and Sherman gathered signatures from 74 downtown merchants and property owners who opposed the plans.
A painting contractor, Bill Pace, told commissioners: “I know between 100 and 200 people who did not shop downtown during Christmas. I know I can get more than 100 to sign a petition saying this is so.”
That same month, May 1976, the Times-News reported that respondents to its “Town Meeting” poll opposed the serpentine pattern by a 3-to-1 margin, 389 to 138. “Comparing this to Colorado is like comparing apples to oranges,” one respondent said. “Colorado has wider streets and doesn’t have retirees.”
Sherman, who ran two of the oldest shops downtown, adamantly opposed the new street pattern because of the parking issue.
“When they serpentined the street, Kalman went down and counted them all to see how many they lost,” said his daughter, Becky Banadyga. “Seems like we lost like six parking spaces per block.”
Mary Louise Barber was working in her father’s photo store one day when the phone rang.
“Good morning, Barber’s,” she said. “Can I help you?”
“Yes,” came the angry-sounding response. “Tell Barber the downtown sucks!”

StreetLadder1The Downtown Committee members did not let the naysayers blur their single-minded focus. In the evenings Jody Barber pored over drawings spread out on a table in his living room. “Let’s talk some more about what we’re going to do tomorrow,” he’d tell Mary. One morning, he woke up in an exuberant mood. “I had the best dream. I just wanted to dream all night long,” he told the family at breakfast. “I dreamed I was mayor of Hendersonville and I owned the whole thing.”
LadderBillLapsleyBill Lapsley, then a city engineer, boards fire truck to climb ladder, at right, to make photos of the new Main Street. [Photos courtesy of Bill Lapsley (above) and the city of Hendersonville]Meanwhile, the work went on. Crews tore up the old four-lane pattern and replaced it with the S-shaped solution. They widened the sidewalks, added mid-block crosswalks and planters and flower beds. The City Commission hired a city gardener, Diane Parnell, who recommended the removal of 21 ailing maples and ordered 25 linden trees, known for their leafy canopies and vivid fall colors. Public works crews dug trenches so workers could bury power lines, replace water and sewer lines and upgrade stormwater drainage. It was all very disruptive.
“I remember some people raising Cain,” Lapsley recalls. “‘Oh, you’ve destroyed Main Street. What a waste, this is ridiculous.’ And one year later all the buildings were full. Five years later you’d think it was the greatest thing since ice cream.”

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A key member of the Downtown Committee, D.B. Keith also led the spinoff effort to address what everyone regarded as the most critical need: parking. D.B., who liked to tell people that his initials stood for “Doing Business,” was a furniture seller who had a greater stake than most in parking near his store entrance. It’s hard to carry a recliner from Main Street to the Dogwood lot.
The business leaders formed the Hendersonville Downtown Parking Corp. in November 1975, with Keith as president, Frank Ewbank as first vice president, Joseph W. Lyday Jr. as second vice president, Roseanne Hatheway as secretary and Max Provda as assistant secretary/treasurer. Other members included James W. Marshall Jr., J. Edward Jones, Ray Cantrell, William E. Penny and Dan Barber III. The corporation aimed to raise $100,000 by selling shares at $1 each. Bert Browning primed the pump by buying 10,000 shares. Although two weeks later members announced that they had raised $50,000, the corporation soon ran short on cash. In July 1976, the group appeared before the City Commission with a list of six parcels it wanted to buy for parking. The price was $226,540 and corporation had just $30,000 in cash. The effort went on, subsidized by the city and federal Community Development grants. By October 1977, the city had added 342 parking spaces in the Dogwood, Holly, Azalea and Bowen lots, behind City Hall and at the old professional building on Fourth Avenue West.

 

CHAPTER 4: 'They had a vision'


Give credit to Judge Mitchell King, Lew Holloway says, when asked about the serpentine success. King donated 50 acres for the new county seat in 1841 on the condition that the city allow a 100-foot Main Street right of way “so a carriage and four horses could turn around without backing,” Holloway, the city's director of downtown development, says. “That early desire to turn around a carriage and four horses gave us the space that we now know of as Main Street.”
Street Scenes.14Over objections from some, city leaders pushed through the Main Street revitalization that created a 'Downtown Shopping Park.' [PHOTO COURTESY OF CITY OF HENDERSONVILLE]The makeup of retail has changed dramatically since the “downtown shopping park” replaced the four-lane Main Street. Now, specialty shops, offices and restaurants are the most common occupants of the storefronts and Main Street attracts local folks and tourists all day long.
Why does it work?
“The sort of wonky answer to that from my perspective is it has a lot to do with scale,” says Holloway, a landscape architect. “We feel comfortable in certain kinds of space. When we’re in a particular kind of space, we feel safe, we feel comfortable, we’re protected, we enjoy that. We can relax and calm down.”
We don’t think of downtown as a park but “Downtown Shopping Park” was exactly the name the serpentine founders used, in Grand Junction and here.
“I think it works because at the end of the day people feel comfortable and enjoy the space,” Holloway says. “It’s nice to be in that space, you don’t feel like you’re fighting cars. You feel like it was designed for you to walk around. And really it was, right? That was the point.”
The leaders of the serpentine solution could have made concessions or surrendered altogether in the face of the vitriol, a reaction far more common in today’s climate of social media campaigns, yard sign proliferation and government mistrust.
“They were visionary enough to say, ‘Let’s do something different. Take road lanes away and change up our parking,’” Holloway says. “That’s not easy to do today. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to do then. There’s no guarantees, it’s risky. But to have a sense that that’s the right thing to do in that time frame, it sets us up for where we are now.”
Part of why it worked was that the leaders of the project were improving their own future, says Lapsley, who is now a Henderson County commissioner.
“The people that were motivated to do this were the property owners directly impacted by it,” he says. “The people supporting it weren’t the people from Etowah or Dana. They were willing to tax themselves, so they were paying for it with their own money.”
Jerrie Gass McFalls, who cruised the old Main Street as a teenager then watched its transformation from behind a counter in her dad’s five & dime, marvels that Jody Barber, Kermit Edney, D.B. Keith and other leaders pushed the idea eight years before the mall came.
“During that time, some people had a vision that Hendersonville was really going to need that,” she says. Many people questioned the need for the dramatic makeover “because Penney’s and Belk’s were still on Main Street. The fact that they saw that we’re going to need something to preserve our downtown, that was a lot of insight.”