By Alicia Banks
Downtown Fayetteville’s new arts and entertainment district is taking shape under the guidance of a man who knows a thing or two about both.
Mark Regensburger, Cool Spring Downtown District’s first president and CEO, is a skilled clarinet player and performed with the instrument as a member of U.S. Army bands throughout his 23 years of military service.
He also managed music education outreach for Army Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., and headed a symphony orchestra in Michigan in the early ‘90s. A resident of Fayetteville for 15 years, he taught business administration at Fayetteville Technical Community College until he took the Cool Spring job last August, a month after the formation of the nonprofit district.
“I felt in some sense I was called to start this,” Regensburger said recently. “I had the right skills and experience to make sure this organization had a solid foundation to move forward.”
The Cool Spring Downtown District isn’t the first organization to be charged with promoting the downtown area. Until its formation, such efforts had been one of the missions of the Downtown Alliance.
But the alliance’s primary purpose was to be a trade association for downtown merchants. As ambitious city-backed plans for the revitalization of downtown developed and encompassed a broader area than just the business district, leaders decided a new organization could focus solely on promoting downtown as a destination for arts, entertainment and cultural activities.
Since its formation, the Cool Spring district has taken over management of a number of existing downtown activities, including 4th Friday events, which occurred in January and February this year for the first time; historic tours; horse carriage rides; and the installation of decorations during the holidays.
As with the 4th Friday events, the district will be looking to add or bolster activities wherever it makes sense. For example, the African World Peace Festival, set for July, will be two days rather than one this year and will extend beyond Person Street.
Much more will follow as the organization takes firm shape. “I know we’re all supposed to have five-year plans, but at this point, I have a one-year plan,” Regensburger said. “It’s not about what I want it to be, but that this will be a strong organization, a facilitator that lets people do wonderful things, bring groups of people together who are concerned about things and generate solutions.”
Another goal for the district is to serve as a “generator of economic prosperity” for Fayetteville and Cumberland County residents, according to the district’s vision statement.
Planners see the downtown area as an ever-increasing hub for arts, entertainment and cultural activities and hope it will grow to include a performing arts center as well as the minor league baseball stadium underway on Hay Street. The stadium, set to be home to a Houston Astros minor league team, is supposed to be ready by the start of the baseball season next year.
The district’s formation represented a “tipping point” in Fayetteville’s growth, Regensburger said. As early as the 1980s, downtown Fayetteville fell into disarray. Storefronts emptied. Buildings decayed. Downtown was hollow.
“Unsavory things moved in,” Regensburger said. “But I think that was also Fayetteville’s saving grace. Going seedy preserved the wonderful, old bones that are down here. That created an opportunity to make downtown what it is right now. It allowed a downtown renaissance that has all this unique character.”
Preserved older buildings along Hay Street bring back fond memories for Sam DuBose, the district’s general manager. The Third Base restaurant is in the former building of Kress, a five-and-dime shop he visited with his grandmother. They’d have lunch in the store and sometimes popped red balloons with a dart where a piece of paper would tell them the cost of a banana split for the day – 19 cents some days. The word “Kress” remains etched on the building’s top floor along Maxwell Street.
“I have great memories of Fayetteville,” said DuBose, who previously worked in an administrative position with Downtown Alliance. “I thought this would be a place where I could make a little bit of a difference.”
Jean Moore, a member of the district’s board, said downtown has changed dramatically for the better in recent years, with increasing numbers of new businesses and more fun activities.
“I’ll never forget sitting with a friend and my husband in downtown and I said, ‘Did you ever think we would be sitting on Person Street eating dinner?’” she remembered. “My friend said, ‘I would have never believed you.’”
And she wants to help downtown make even greater strides.
“It’s such a beautiful thing to watch,” Moore said. “I want to live in a place where people take pride in the heart of the city. We’re all responsible for doing something to make where we live a better place.”
Regensburger likened the Cool Spring district to a bridge, providing a place of connection for such groups as the Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County, the Greater Fayetteville Chamber, city departments, as well as other entities. Moore, for example, is vice president of the Arts Council executive committee and represents that organization on the district board. David Blackman, pastor at Hay Street United Methodist Church, is also on the district’s board. He oversees the board’s Community Solutions Work Team, which is tasked with tackling issues tied to homelessness in the area.
“What our work team is trying to do is address those tensions that will have a good outcome for all of those involved where the homeless community doesn’t feel oppressed, merchants aren’t losing business and residents feel safe and encourage friends to come downtown to hang out,” Blackman said.
His team has achieved one goal so far – find a central location for the homeless to receive meals. Unity Tabernacle Christian Church on Gillespie Street hosted the first lunch
One goal the work team achieved was finding a central location for the homeless to receive meals. Unity Tabernacle Christian Church on Gillespie Street hosted the first lunch April 15. Blackman wants the initiative to grow into a weekly event that involves anyone or even other organizations who want to do more than just feed the homeless, but to “serve” them.
As the district continues, one hope is for more people to get involved. The district began its “First Friend” campaign earlier this year seeking monetary support through May 1. Donors’ names will be placed on a plaque inside its office at 222 Hay Street. In January, more than 175 people attended a forum to learn more about the district. The number of attendees and unfamiliar faces surprised Moore. More than 100 people currently serve as volunteers for the district, Regensburger said.
“That was awesome,” Moore said about the turnout. “A downtown will tell you how people feel about their community. It matters to people when they are willing to help. ‘Willing’ is the wrong word. They are eager to help, volunteering to help.”
DuBose said that in the future, 4th Friday will allow local vendors to sell handmade arts and crafts. He’d also like downtown to have more uniform signage and even wayfinding signs to direct visitors on where they can find areas concentrated on dining, antique shops and more. Downtown is expecting more apartments and a hotel in the area, thanks to a $65 million agreement with investors of Prince Charles Holdings LLC, based in Durham.
Blackman credited downtown’s resurgence to business owners bringing their niches to the area, from the boutique Pressed - A Creative Space to Winterbloom Tea, with its premium specialty teas.
“What’s happening in downtown is a revival,” Blackman said.
He remembers recently hearing someone referring to Fayetteville by the derisive sobriquet “Fayettenam.”
“What’s happening in Fayetteville is ‘FayetteNOW,’” he told the person. “It’s the place to be, the place to come and the place to bring your out-of-town guests. There are great people here ready to welcome you.”