THE LAST WORD – Making Memories Downtown
By Tony Chavonne
We look out our window on Bow Street and can often catch a blushing new bride-to-be working with her photographer for just the right picture somewhere in our picturesque downtown.
Just down Hay Street, you may see people having their picture taken at the angel wall behind the Arts Council. Along the way, people stop to hear someone singing the lyrics of a Broadway song.
You only have those experiences in our historic downtown. For more than 250 years, it has been the heart and soul of our community – our living room – and a place where memories are made.
While we have been presented with challenges over the past few months, we can be comforted by the resiliency our historic downtown has shown over many years. In 1775, a group signed the Liberty Point Resolves in our downtown, calling for independence a full year before the national Declaration of Independence. Downtown Fayetteville was a vibrant place until one Sunday morning in May 1831 when sparks from a kitchen fire danced across the narrow alleys and turned clusters of pine structures into a tinderbox, burning down 600 homes.
Thirty years later, in the closing months of the Civil War, General Sherman and his forces ransacked houses and burned the newspaper offices on their way up Haymount Hill to destroy the Fayetteville Arsenal. A few years later, the flood of 1908 left the downtown’s streets submerged.
Camp Bragg opened in 1918 and changed downtown Fayetteville for generations to come. The soldiers and their families were embraced by the downtown community with many soldiers living with downtown families.
In the early 1960s, downtown Fayetteville was the economic and cultural center of the region. Thousands of people would flock to downtown to shop at Sears, or Penney’s or Belks; to eat at Guyton’s or have a milkshake at Carolina Soda Shop; or to take in a movie at the Carolina or Miracle theaters.
By the late 1960s, our country was dealing with civil unrest, an increasingly unpopular war, and a disgruntled draft Army, contributing to downtown Fayetteville’s negative reputation with gaudy nightclubs, topless bars and an active drug scene.
Our biggest challenge came with the opening of Cross Creek Mall in 1975. Suddenly, we saw major retailers leave downtown. Empty buildings sprang up and the balance between a healthy retail environment and an active nightlife shifted.
The transit mall opened in 1986, changing Hay Street and beginning a positive change in our attitudes about restoring our downtown.
Previously, an event like the burning of the Lafayette Hotel would set us back, but we came together to construct the modern Robert C. Williams building in its place.
The construction of the Airborne and Special Operations Museum was a major catalyst for downtown redevelopment as it finally transformed the infamous 500 block of Hay Street. Festival Park opened in 2007 and quickly became the “public square” of our growing city. The landscape of our downtown was changing.
Our first major private investment was 300 Hay in 2008 and the return of residential living to the downtown. The NC Veterans Park was added in 2011, followed by a second major private investment with the $18 million Park View complex.
The parking garage and Transit Center all helped add to our new look and feel. Others saw it too as we were recognized nationally as one of America’s great downtowns.
Almost $20 million in private investment was spent on a renovation of the historic Prince Charles Hotel. Last year, the City opened a new $37 million stadium, and soon summer evenings were filled with thousands of visitors to downtown Fayetteville.
Now thousands of people visit our downtown to celebrate Dickens and Zombies and Dogwoods and Woodpeckers.
Even the most cynical critics are beginning to believe.
Today, our downtown is weeping, saddened to see the boarded-up buildings, the upheaval of our everyday life, the loss of jobs and economic promise due to Covid and social unrest. But this too shall pass.
The resiliency that our downtown has demonstrated for more than 250 years – in overcoming devastating fires, flood, war, civil unrest, suburban flight, big box malls, and a seamy reputation – will help us to weather this storm as well.
We are downtown Fayetteville. This is a place where memories are made.