Our Opinion: YMCA project a game-changer for downtown Wilson

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Years of planning and painstaking work are making Wilson’s #DowntownTurnaround a reality. While we’ve joined civic boosters in celebrating each milestone along the way, Thursday’s economic development announcement just might be the tipping point.

The Wilson Family YMCA will relocate to downtown Wilson, and with it will come more than 200 residential units — apartments or condos — and up to 20,000 feet of retail and restaurant space. A $22 million Healthcare Foundation of Wilson grant to provide an after-school enrichment program for Wilson County middle-schoolers is bringing the Y downtown and NSV Development will pair it with homes, restaurants and shops.

It’s a winning combination that will bring people to historic downtown Wilson to work out, dine, shop and sleep, and that blend of activities will keep the city’s core bustling. Developers say that’s the idea.

“A thriving downtown is a place that has that after-hours business and that early morning component in addition to the 8-to-5 traffic,” said Andrew Holton, principal of NSV Development.

As the county seat, Wilson has essential government services that draw people downtown to conduct business at the courthouse, register of deeds office, elections office and city hall. But these agencies operate on bankers’ hours, and so do many of the businesses who cater to that clientele. A downtown that rolls up the streets at 5 p.m. isn’t much of a destination. But Wilson’s working to keep the lights on after dark.

Speaking of bankers’ hours, this mixed-use development wouldn’t be possible without BB&T’s new office. The bank with Wilson roots that announced a merger with Atlanta-based SunTrust in June is building a new $35 million facility on Pine Street.

The city of Wilson arranged a land swap with BB&T for the site of its Nash Street towers, which will be torn down so the YMCA and its residential and commercial neighbors can move in.

Downtown Wilson is becoming a place where people can live, work and play. More than 200 new living spaces — added to Whirligig Station’s 94 apartments and Nash Street Lofts’ 13 units — will provide the critical mass of downtown-dwellers Wilson needs to fill empty storefronts.

“The millennial and younger generations put a lot of consideration into being able to walk to work and maybe not having to deal with a vehicle at all in terms of traffic and pollution, so they want walkable amenities,” City Manager Grant Goings told Times reporter Brie Handgraaf. “For the first time, this project really gives us an opportunity to have a full-service offering for people who choose that lifestyle.”

City officials’ initial plans called for a greenspace at the BB&T towers’ site. Like a park, a YMCA also provides fitness and recreation opportunities. Downtown won’t be cheek-to-jowl concrete and brick — Goings said the city plans to build “pocket parks” where folks can relax during work breaks and between shopping and dining.

While a timeline for the new development wasn’t released this week, the YMCA’s after-school program is set to begin in August 2022. In less than three years, expect downtown Wilson to look a lot different.

The Wilson Family Y and its development cluster may be downtown Wilson’s biggest game-changer, but it’s hardly the first or only success story. The Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, which opened in November 2017, has been a tremendous tourism draw and a magnet for growth. The park brought Whirligig Station, which in turn brought other new businesses. It’s a snowball effect.

While national developers are behind the marquee projects, small businesses are a downtown’s heart and soul, and we have some great ones here and more on the way that will preserve Wilson’s character.

Brewmasters founder Morkos Youssef is bringing Ruckus & Redemption, a craft burger and cocktail joint, to the 200 block of Barnes Street in the shadow of Simpson’s whirligigs. Kellianne Davis, who doubles as the city’s downtown business specialist, is bringing Groove Geek Records and More to the same block with fiancé Richard Draper.

Gourmet burgers, cocktails and a hipster record shop — is this Wilson or Chapel Hill?

A vibrant downtown is a city’s front porch, and the national Main Street America revitalization movement has led communities large and small to invest in downtowns that saw hustle and bustle give way to neglect in favor of megamalls and suburban sprawl in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Many Wilsonians remember the days when a trip “to town” meant shopping at Woolworth’s or Belk-Tyler, watching movies at the Wilson Theater and sipping milkshakes at the soda fountain. Even if those nostalgic scenes were before their time, younger generations want that same kind of busy community streetscape.

By all indications, they’ll have it here in Wilson before long.