By: Diana Matthews, The News Reporter
COVID-19 has made entrepreneurs “learn a new set of rules,” said Sean Martin, Whiteville’s economic development director, but downtown business activity is “almost up to the level it was before.”
J.E. Thompson points out features of his apartments that are under construction on Madison Street in downtown Whiteville.
One business relocated from downtown to another spot, said Martin, and one owner with two businesses closed one to concentrate on the other. But there are more openings in progress than closings, he said.
Martin was excited about the Unique Highly Favored Beauty Supply Store, which had its grand opening over the weekend. Located on West Main Street where Off Price Outlet used to be, the shop is owned by Artesa McLean.
The new business is “the first Black-owned beauty supply store here in Whiteville,” McLean said Saturday. After selling online, she said, “I got an opportunity to get a brick-and mortar store.” She sells natural and synthetic hair and hair-care products and styling tools to professionals and the general public, as well as some apparel and accessories. McLean reported having a bigger crowd than expected for her opening Saturday. She said she has more items on the way, including men’s hair care products.
About a block away, April Malpass of Lee Lee’s Boutique was setting up displays last week in the former J.S. Mann’s store, where new awnings announce Madison & Main.
Malpass is bringing her boutique downtown because the previous building on Oliver Street will be torn down due to the J.K. Powell expansion. She plans to carry clothing, gifts and accessories for men and women in the new store.
Next door to Malpass, some investors with a Columbus County connection are preparing to open a soul food restaurant in the former Kramer’s men’s shop, Martin said. The restaurant owners “have a great vision for what they want to do,” based on a New York restaurant they fell in love with. “They want to recreate the same kind of thing here,” the economic development director said. “I think it will do really well.”
Martin said that N.C. Vocational Rehabilitation Services will be moving into a location owned by J.L. Powell and Company that used to be the Body Shapers 24-hour gym. The roof collapsed during Florence.
About 12 employees work in the office, John Fisher said. He is having “extensive renovations” done and hopes to have the office open in November.
Fisher also has plans for restoring the Cinema to the appearance it had in the 1920s when his great-uncle opened it as the Columbus Theater, with a stage for live performances. He said he planned to install first-class lighting and sound equipment.
“The rough idea,” Fisher said, “is to use it as an event center and rent it out through Air BnB by the night or the week.” He pictures the historic venue bringing people into the downtown district for meetings, dance recitals and live band concerts. He said he is also planning a major parking lot repaving project behind buildings that front Madison Street and the chamber of commerce and tourism.
Jordy Brooks, William Mitchell and Dallas Chavis remove old woodwork in apartments that are under construction in downtown Whiteville.
Martin said he would present a “new business starter packet” to the Whiteville City Council at a future meeting. The packet, created with help from UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, brings together permit information in an “all-inclusive” way that should be easy for non-contractors to understand, Martin said.
“It should greatly increase Whiteville’s already good reputation of being business friendly.” He described the set-up tool as an important “piece of the puzzle” for downtown.
Martin said that progress continues on the entrepreneurial and business development center that received $500,000 in Golden LEAF funding four months ago. Columbus County’s Economic Development Commission collaborated with Columbus Jobs Foundation on writing the grant request.
The center will offer classes, consultant support and low-cost shared workspace in order to “encourage business development and retention,” Martin said. “We’re building a very strong network of speakers and business-related entities,” including the Small Business Center at Southeastern Community College, he said.
Martin predicted that more news should come in the fall or winter. Although the center’s organizers haven’t yet chosen a location, “Things are looking really good,” he said.
Artesa McLean helps Shalella Love with a purchase while Makayla and Megan Washington shop for jewelry Saturday afternoon at Unique Highly Favored Beauty Supply Store on West Main Street.