Properties in downtown Sanford are changing hands at a rapid pace with both local and out-of-town buyers looking to jump on the area’s growth over the past decade
By Gordon Anderson
In 2013, voters approved a bond measure that invested $6.5 million in streetscape improvements for the downtown areas in Sanford and Jonesboro. When leaders pitched that bond, they argued that Sanford needed to invest in itself in order to attract even more private dollars to an area that had shown signs of being on the upswing and needed just a little boost from local government. Today, it’s hard to argue that it’s worked less than perfectly.
It’s easy to forget the contrast between the downtown that existed before that project and the one that does today. In Sanford, longtime stalwarts Local Joe’s, Java Express and Mrs. Wengers made up the bulk of the area’s eating and/or drinking establishments. Today, they’re joined by places like the Smoke & Barrel, Hugger Mugger Brewing, and the Chocolate Cellar. As entertainment went, Temple Theatre wasn’t a bad only option to have, but some of the same establishments just mentioned have joined it in hosting live music and more.
Added Accents had been open as a boutique shopping option for a few years; today they’re joined by at least five others. Name the retail sector, and it’s indisputable that Sanford’s city center offers more options and attractions to bring people downtown than it did a little less than a decade ago.
But while those years might seem today like the focus of a development boom for downtown, there are some signs that indicate they could be just a prologue for what’s to come.
Downtown properties — many not even currently in use — are changing hands at an extremely rapid pace. Many of the buyers are local, but others are coming from out of town — and have a record of working on successful projects in other parts of the state. There’s not enough space in The Rant Monthly to detail all the downtown buildings bought and sold in recent years (and for every one of those, there’s another which is either “under contract” or has interested buyers), but even looking at a handful offers a tantalizing preview of what may be ahead. Punic Properties, LLC is a Raleigh-based corporation which has according to information on file with the Lee County Register of Deeds office has purchased at least six downtown properties since 2018, including the Bowen Motor Company building at Carthage Street and North Horner Boulevard (2018), the Capital Bank building on North Steele Street (2019), the Belk and Steele Street Mall buildings on South Steele Street (2021), and as recently as February of this year, the Kimbrell’s Furniture Building on Moore Street. A broker for Punic Properties declined to discuss plans for the buildings, but the purchases alone — particularly by an entity from outside Sanford — can be seen as an indication that bigger things are likely coming.
Punic Properties shares an address with at least one other company which has purchased downtown commercial structures in other parts of the state — and connected in other media to Jim Goodnight Jr., son of SAS founder and CEO James Goodnight. Goodnight Jr. in particular has a record of rehabbing and renovating historic properties in places like Wilmington.
A story in Wilmington Biz from 2019 said Goodnight “sees rejuvenation along (a downtown Wilmington) corridor these days, just as he saw potential, and interesting stories, in downtown’s historic structures before he started his projects in Wilmington.”
“I took a few history classes (in college) and actually really enjoyed writing the papers. It’s all about storytelling and research and all that,” Goodnight was quoted as saying in that story. “It’s kind of the same thing with these old buildings.”
Locals who are involved in commercial real estate say they’re frequently told by their counterparts outside Sanford about the value Sanford and even Jonesboro’s older commercial buildings offer.
“I’ve had discussions with brokers from out of town and what they keep saying is what a goldmine we have here” with regard to value in downtown properties, said Brandon Atkins, vice president of the Taboys Corporation which was involved in the sale of the South Steele Street properties to Punic. “It’s not just one conversation, it happens all the time.”
John Ramsperger, the owner of Sanford Real Estate, said it’s been a gradual but consistent trend that he only expects to continue.
“The rents in these buildings have slowly started to come up, and compared to two or three years ago, there is a market for downtown rentals, and that’s justifying the prices these buildings are going for now,” he said. “Five years ago, you could get some of these buildings for $120,000 or $180,000, and today they’re going for $350,000 to $450,000.”
To be clear, purchases by companies like Punic aren’t the only ones taking place. Ramsperger said there’s as much — if not more — investment in downtown Sanford that’s coming from locals, especially younger ones.
“There are people who are under 45 who are investing in downtown right now,” he said. “Prior to that, you had a lot of people who had owned these buildings for a lot of years, so it’s a little bit of a generational shift and that’s really exciting to see.”
Two of those local investors are James and Kelli Laudate (Kelli is also the executive director of Downtown Sanford Incorporated), who recently purchased a building at 145 and 147 North Steele Street and welcomed their first tenants — a children’s boutique called Beech and Boon — in February.
Sisters-in-law Holly and Ashlee Beal, who founded Beech and Boon, weren’t initially sold on the idea of taking their online business and setting up shop in a long-abandoned building downtown Sanford. But what the building lacked in cosmetics, it made up for with potential. Located across from the new home of Wild Dogs Brewery and next to a space currently under renovation to hopefully attract and house a new restaurant, Holly and Ashlee saw a great opportunity to not only join downtown’s growing retail lineup, but enhance it.
“For us, it’s really about joining a community,” Holly said. “Shopping with small businesses is so personal. When we go to stores downtown, most of the people we know by name now, and they know us by name. There’s a personal feel when you’re ‘shopping small.’ It’s just so much nicer. We’ve watched the growth of downtown Sanford, and we’re excited about becoming a part of this community now.”
Holly says before the building was ever part of the equation, it was Kelli who sold them on the idea of coming downtown and opening up shop.
“It’s not the nicest spot yet, but I see the growth potential, and I feel like it takes stores like us coming in to continue that growth,” she explained.
Holly said recent investments in downtown — from the ambitious streetscape project to the murals that have brought life and color to older buildings — convinced them they’ll have the city’s support to continue to improve and enhance their surroundings.
“I think that knowing that a city is investing their time and money into creating a safer and nicer environment really makes me feel much more confident about opening up a business here,” she said.
“I know that where we’re at, there’s still a lot of work to be done, and I know they’re looking at doing streetscape work on this side of Steele Street. So knowing that they have our back, it just makes me feel more confident. We wouldn’t have done this 10 years ago — but we’ve watched businesses like Cute Closet grow, and there’s been a ripple effect. Smoke & Barrel came in, and we started getting nicer places to eat and more fun shops. Just watching it evolve, it pushed us to say, ‘OK, now’s the right time to get involved.’”
Another example of local investment is Chad Spivey, who along with partners Josh Payne and Ryan Murphy purchased a building at 112 S. Steele St. in March 2020.
It’s now home to Sweet Southern Home and Design and Sara Coffin Photography. Spivey, an insurance agent with Harris & Company in downtown Sanford by day, said his decision to invest came in large part due to interest from outside the city.
“When you see that kind of money coming into your town, you know it’s not going to get any cheaper,” he said. “I’d like to buy another one, but there’s just not really anything else available.”
Other buildings which have recently changed hands include a two story structure at Moore and Wicker streets, which purchaser Mark Lyczkowski is currently renovating that for commercial use, and properties along the 200 block of Hawkins Avenue that were purchased and renovated (or are being renovated) by downtown Sanford’s Progressive Development Company — a company whose experience in downtown Sanford over the past two decades is something of a blueprint for the boom that appears to be coming.
Joni Martin, Progressive’s development director since 1999, was present for the company’s purchase and renovation of several buildings along Chatham Street and the surrounding areas in the mid 2000s and early 2010s.
“My boss would get monthly real estate listings and saw the old town hall building (on Charlotte Avenue),” she said. “Progressive’s corporate headquarters was in Maryland at the time, but he saw how centrally located Sanford was and how easily we could get to jobs across the state.”
At the time, there was very little commercial activity in the area — almost none, in fact. So Progressive’s efforts at the time led to a lot of raised eyebrows from skeptical locals.
“We got a lot of ‘you really want to go on the other side of the tracks?’” Martin said.
Progressive went on to purchase and renovate the neighboring Coca Cola building, as well as virtually the entire 200 block of Chatham Street — all of which have gone on to house active businesses and even change hands again in the years since.
“As soon as we did the exteriors for those buildings on Chatham Street and showed how storefronts would look, it really started to pop,” Martin continued. “And when we have more vested owners downtown, it’s a win-win. More people care, and more people want to do the right thing.”
For Martin, the current trend is gratifying — and like Ramsperger, one she doesn’t see waning any time soon. She also said interest from parties outside Sanford can be beneficial to growth.
“Sometimes it takes an outsider to have that vision. It can be hard to see value in an old building you’re looking at day in and day out,” she said. “So I think we’re in a unique position. We have plenty of inventory, our city has been involved with events and things like the streetscape, and now we have an increased number of investors. It’s what a lot of communities want.”
Another thing observers seem to see coming along with the purchase and redevelopment of long vacant or underutilized downtown properties is an increase in living space. There’s already the Lutterloh building on Chatham Street, which opened as apartments in 2019, as well as the Wilrik Hotel, owned by the city of Sanford and used as low income housing. Smoke & Barrel owner Jeff Towson is finishing the process of turning his upstairs space into apartments, and Local Joe’s owner Joe DelVecchio also has apartments above his restaurants. Ramsperger and others like Kelli Laudate, the DSI director, said that given the makeup of so many downtown buildings people should expect more living options to open up in the near future.
“I don’t think this is a 12- to 24-month snapshot that’s going to plateau. This is more like a three or five or seven year trend that’s only going to continue,” Rampserger said. “When you start seeing more loft apartments, that’s going to bring more younger people downtown with higher incomes. These are just going to be more people spending more time in those restaurants and bars and boutiques.”
Additional reporting by Billy Liggett