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11 locals will make up Empire Redevelopment Task Force

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — A group of 11 community members will serve on the Empire Redevelopment Task Force, and Downtown Salisbury, Inc., has set an aggressive deadline to pull the project “across the finish line.”

Locals selected include Whitney Wallace Williams, who will chair the task force; DSI Chair Gianni Moscardini; commercial banker Mark Lewis; Salisbury Community Planning Director Hannah Jacobson; Mayor Karen Alexander; City Councilman Brian Miller; Ed Norvell; Samantha Haspel; Davis Cooke and Luke Fisher, of Fisher Realty.

Of those 11 individuals, seven currently serve on the DSI Board of Directors.

Additionally, consulting community partners will include Rowan Economic Development Commission CEO and President Rod Crider along with Tourism Development Authority Director James Meacham.

Williams said last week at least four developers had expressed interest in the project since the city ended its exclusive negotiations earlier this month with Black Point Investments, which had been in negotiation with the city on the project since 2016.

“The DSI Board remains excited that ample developer interest continues for the Empire project,” Williams said. “Due to growing developer interest, we kept development requirements broad to allow our task force to consider a creative variety of developer proposals. We are cautiously optimistic that we will find a new developer with the vision, capital and drive to complete what our organization set out to do over a decade ago: rehabilitate and revitalize nearly an entire block of our downtown.”

Williams said the DSI Board made every effort to appoint individuals with diverse areas of expertise who hold some form of institutional knowledge. The task force currently includes city representatives and downtown stakeholders as well as with individuals who have expertise in business, development, historic, finance, legal, economic, hospitality and fundraising matters.

She added that the task force excluded anyone who might face a conflict of interest such as anyone who could be a potential developer or work with developers.

Williams said, despite efforts to include people of color on the task force, no one has expressed interest. One person asked about joining the group declined.

“I very much sought, and am still seeking, diversity on the panel,” Williams said.

Task force members will be responsible for preparing proposal review criteria, considering developer proposals and making recommendations to the DSI Board for developer selection.

When the DSI Board met Tuesday, she said, a final Request for proposals was approved. Interested developers will have until 5 p.m. on Nov. 2 to submit their proposals. Williams, who’s the former DSI Board chair, said that deadline was aggressive as the timeline to have the project completed is important to DSI.

“This time we want a little more skin in the game from the beginning,” she said. “We want serious developers, not the kinds who will sit on this for years, but those who will get this done.”

The RFP states that developers with aggressive timelines for construction and completion will be given priority. Whoever is awarded the project must be prepared to execute the contract and provide a hard money deposit of at least $50,000 within three months. Additionally, the developer must submit a construction timeline within six months of being notified they will develop the project.

The type of plan is also important, Williams said.

Asked Thursday, Miller praised the talented group of people selected and noted the Empire Hotel redevelopment has been a passion project of his for a long time.

“We think we’ve got the right spot with the right community characteristics,” he said, adding that he’s ready to “pull it across the finish line.”

Lewis said he’s able to provide knowledge as a commercial banker and “institutional memory” as someone who served on City Council from 2003-09. DSI purchased the Empire Hotel during that time, in 2007.

Lewis, currently the vice chairman of the DSI Board, added that at the time the hotel was purchased, he helped put together a loan pool to cover the purchase price and interest fees. But it was done with the anticipation that it would be sold to a developer two years later.

That was amidst the Great Recession. The economy is different now, he said.

“The real estate industry is hot, hot, hot right now,” Lewis said. “There’s a lot of money out there looking to get invested in real estate.”

Additionally, the hotel’s location in an Opportunity Zone, which is tax-favorable for developers, he said. And while new hotels have cropped up in the county over the last few years, the demand for a hotel located downtown remains.

Norvell, who serves on the Historic Salisbury Foundation and is a former DSI Board member, added that he’s excited in the interest for the project.

“This is the last big piece of what’s going to make downtown special,” he said.

To download the Empire Hotel RFP, visit downtownsalisburync.com. All proposals should be submitted electronically via email to Williams at wwallace@wallacegraham.com.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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