I stand by the railroad tracks that cross Sunset Avenue in downtown Asheboro and try to recall what this main street — the one I’ve tread for more than 30 years as a Randolph County resident — looked like little more than a decade ago.
That would have been years after Belk-Yates, the department store that anchored the central business district for decades, packed up and moved to the new mall on U.S. Highway 64, followed by the flight or failure of one downtown retail operation after another.
Vacant storefronts. Unkempt facades. Empty sidewalks.
You’ve heard of the proverbial places where the streets are rolled up at night? Downtown Asheboro, 10 years ago. Bingo.
As I consider that past by these tracks, light reflecting off a steel cylinder catches my eye. I love this sculpture. It stands taller than my head. The artist wrought magic, making metal look almost like lace. Nothing like this could be found outdoors in Asheboro 10 years ago. Now, art is scattered throughout the city center, as part of a public-private partnership that brings a new group of works downtown each year.
This evening, when I turn my car onto Sunset Avenue on the way to an artist’s reception at Circa Gallery, both sides of the street are lined with vehicles, every parking place taken, it seems. But I am lucky. There is a single free space, just steps from the gallery.
The front door of the gallery stands open. It’s Friday night, and work-weary folks stop by to nibble snacks, nurse drinks, talk, and take a gander at the newly installed creations of Greensboro artist Lawrence Feir — female torsos rendered in pewter or leather, and in forks and spoons bent together to make human shapes.
Sitting on a bench along the wall is Rich Powell, an artist who moved to Asheboro about five years ago with his wife, Frankie. She’s an artist, too. Frankie rents studio space in the gallery; Rich has paintings and prints on the walls, too (toy spaceships in bold colors and collages inspired by Bob Dylan songs). Rich, Frankie, and their elementary-age daughter moved from California to be near family.
He recalls an early impression: “Here I am in Yokelville.”
These days, however, Powell views his adopted hometown differently. The perception shifted, he says, after his daughter joined the Randolph Youth Theater Company and he jumped in to help. Soon, he was meeting interesting, deep, intelligent, “worldly” folks all over “Yokelville.”
“It’s real easy to become part of the community in Asheboro,” Powell says. “All you’ve got to do is volunteer.”
Also here tonight is Richard Keith, strumming an acoustic guitar. Keith’s daughter, Amy Keith Barney, owns the gallery, along with Mandy Sloan. About two years ago, Sloan opened her first gallery downtown, Amazing Grace Art Studio, primarily so she would have a quiet place to paint, away from kids, dogs, and the ringing telephone at home. She also displayed the works of a handful of other artists in the tiny space on a side street. Less than a year later, she and Amy teamed to create Circa Gallery in much larger digs in a renovated mill beside the Downtown Farmers Market — an open-air facility managed by the city, and by Timothy’s, a downtown restaurant.
Last summer, exactly a year after they opened it, the duo moved the gallery to the heart of downtown, where they enjoy even more space, greater visibility, and a symbiotic relationship under one roof with a pair of like-minded enterprises, a paint-your-own pottery studio named Dish’n, and a frame shop called State of the Art.
“It’s what I call an art hub, an art destination,” says Beverly Wilson, who owns the frame shop.
“I think that’s what the downtown is becoming — a destination place,” adds Sloan.
When pigs fly
Across the railroad tracks is The Flying Pig, a small eatery that became a destination for local folks the day it opened last June. Late at night, the sound of music spills out through the doorway each time a customer comes or goes.
Inside, the walls are decorated with jerseys, banners, and other paraphernalia for high school, college, and professional teams. Bring in something touting your team, says Barry Yow, one of the proprietors, and they’ll find a place for it.
Every seat is filled. Customers crowd shoulder-to-shoulder around the bar.
Asheboro native Steve Sheets, who’s in town for the weekend, stopped by Circa Gallery before finding his way here. Sheets moved away after graduating from Asheboro High School in 1971 and has lived in what he calls the thriving communities of Pinehurst, Wilmington, and Linville, his current home.
“The vitality of those three places is in Asheboro now,” he says. “It’s amazing, the transformation of Asheboro. To come back and see all the people in downtown Asheboro energized and having a good time — with new storefronts, new venues, new restaurants, right on Sunset — is really, really good. It seems like a place you want to be. It was a new experience for me.”
Yow and his wife, Mary Ann, and their friends, Dennis and Barbara Gallimore, own and operate the restaurant and bar. Often during a friendship that spans two decades, Barry and Dennis talked about partnering in a venture, although they differed on the vision. Yow wanted to open a little bar; Gallimore, a pizzeria serving hand-tossed pies made using his secret recipe for dough.
When voters approved the sale of beverage alcohol in the summer of 2008 — ending 50 years of local prohibition — the men and their wives melded these dreams into an establishment named to commemorate a long-held notion: Alcohol would be legalized in Asheboro when pigs fly.
With about 25,000 residents, Asheboro is the 35th largest city in the state. It was founded in the 18th century after enough residents complained that the courthouse in Johnstonville, in the northwestern section of the county, was too far away to make day trips to and from court feasible for many who had business there.
According to a 1980 book entitled Randolph County, 1779-1979, Jesse Henley deeded two of 200 acres he owned in the center of the county for “use of the Publick.” The first session at Randolph Court House was held June 12, 1793. The settlement that sprang up around the courthouse was incorporated on Dec. 25, 1796, and named Asheborough in honor of Samuel Ashe, governor at the time.
For a time during the 20th century, the city in the center of Randolph County billed itself as the center of the state. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers killed that public relations campaign in 1989, announcing that satellite readings had pinpointed the Montgomery County town of Star as the state’s geographic center.
Geographically speaking, Asheboro may be slightly off center, but major highways pass through it from the cardinal points of the compass: U.S. Highway 64, N.C. Highway 49, and U.S. Highway 220 (the future route of Interstates 73/74). Charlotte, the state’s largest city, is an hour’s drive to the southwest; Raleigh, the state capital, is an hour to the east. Local officials are banking on location as one catalyst for future growth. So is the N.C. Zoo, which counts visitors by the hundreds of thousands — 729,615 in the fiscal year that ended in June 2009. City council member Linda Carter envisions giant elephant footprints stenciled on main roads into town, trumpeting the fact that Asheboro is home to the largest walkthrough natural habitat zoo in the world.
The city is blessed with other unique tourist destinations.
The American Classic Motorcycle Company, on U.S. Highway 64 West, houses a shop, a diner, and one of the world’s largest privately owned collections of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Hungry folks can order flywheels (waffles), saddlebags (side orders), and low riders (salads). The North Carolina Aviation Museum at Asheboro Regional Airport, on Pilots View Road off N.C. Highway 49, houses about a dozen aircraft (historic, experimental, and unmanned), including a Piper Cub flown by Orville Wright, and a collection of military memorabilia that spans World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War.
The city’s evolving downtown revitalization began with a public-private partnership to demolish an old bus station to make way for Bicentennial Park. The Asheboro and Randolph Rotary clubs contributed money to add a roof to the park’s concrete-and-brick stage. A few Sunday evenings every summer, music lovers meet on the green expanse for free concerts hosted by the city and funded by private sponsors.
Next, city officials gave Sunset Avenue a facelift, burying utility lines, planting trees, dressing up sidewalks, and installing period streetlights and new curbing. The city bought The Sunset Theatre, a 1930s-era movie house, and two buildings next to it, with plans to create a performing arts center. With a few cosmetic upgrades and (thanks to a grant from The Timken Company Foundation) the addition of a digital marquee, the downtown landmark draws thousands for concerts, movies, and plays each year. A campaign is under way to raise $1.2 million for further renovations.
The city partnered with a nonprofit group originally called Trees Asheboro (now known as Trees NC) to establish a Mayors’ Grove in North Asheboro Park, where a tree was planted along a walking trail in honor of each mayor. In another “green” initiative, city council members promised to plant 1,000 trees over 10 years.
Return of the native
Margaret Megerian was one of many who noticed the changes. When she left for college after graduating from Asheboro High in 2001, she planned never to return, except to visit. While pursuing a degree in English at Davidson College, she was smitten by behind-the-scenes theater work and threw herself into the technical aspects of productions for a couple of venues. She later decided that if she was going to do something so stressful, she should do something that paid better. She went to law school.
As her graduation date approached last May, a couple of potential jobs with the state evaporated in the budget crunch. She pondered the unthinkable — returning to her hometown to practice law with her father, Jonathan Megerian.
“I came back to visit a couple of times and it seemed a lot different than I remembered it,” she says. “The downtown had been refurbished. I thought it was absolutely beautiful.”
So she returned home and was somewhat surprised to find a vibrant local theater group. RSVP Community Theatre and its predecessor, Randolph Summer Vacation Playhouse, have staged more than 50 shows since 1986. She signed on, serving as stage manager for last fall’s production of Man of La Mancha.
“I was pleasantly surprised with how much the city was willing to chip in,” she says. “Most anybody locally you asked to help would pitch in.”
Such cooperation and support does not surprise Claudia Ainsworth, who manages Morings, a gift shop operated by the Randolph Arts Guild at its headquarters on Sunset Avenue. Ainsworth and her husband moved to Asheboro from Portland, Oregon, 23 years ago.
“There is an energy here that isn’t felt in many bigger areas,” she says, “because I don’t think you can get close enough to people to feel the energy, and here, you can. … When you say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ out west, you really don’t want an answer, but here, you do.”
I mention to Jack Gorham, who manages the Collector’s Antique Mall, my appreciation for the sculpture by the railroad track. (The store, which opened with 13 dealers in 1993, today houses about 90.) Gorham speculates on what visitors might think after seeing the snazzy work of art: “They wouldn’t put a sculpture like this in a place that’s not special.”
Indeed, he says, something special is happening in downtown Asheboro: “You hear some people describe it as a vibe. You hear some people describe it as a certain ambience.”
He offers his own description, particularly of the town’s new “Out & About” event — in which merchants hold extended hours on the third Friday of every month, enticing people to come mingle and have fun. “It’s been a bona fide happening,” he says. “Stuff is going on.”
Randolph Arts Guild
123 Sunset Avenue
Asheboro, N.C. 27203
150 Sunset Avenue
Asheboro, N.C. 27203
The Flying Pig
208 Sunset Avenue
Asheboro, N.C. 27203
Chip Womick writes for the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro and is the author of Remembering Randolph County: Tales from the Center of the Tar Heel State.