On cool fall evenings, David DiRocco likes to open the windows on his veranda, light a fire in the fireplace, and let it battle the crisp air while he settles in with a drink to watch a game. It’s one of the things he enjoys most about his loft on the top floor of the James Madison Inn in downtown Madison.
From the front windows, he can look out over Town Park across the street. Between the two vistas is a classic example of loft living – high ceilings, exposed ductwork, and sky lights along a long, open floor space. The 1,200-square-foot one-bedroom loft blends rustic industrial with modern elegance. A metal patina from the ceiling contrasts the clean lines of a gourmet kitchen and stark white bathroom. Rough millwork and barn doors live side by side with the deep, rich woods of the custom built-in wet bar, bookshelf, and fireplace surround with their hammered copper surfaces. Brick floors in the entryway meet hardwood throughout.
“I love the contrast of the place and all of the mixed materials,” says DiRocco. In the seven years that he’s owned the loft he has added these elements to create an ideal space for his lifestyle. The location took care of the rest.
Being in the heart of downtown, DiRocco says loft living fosters an easy, accessible, and social way of life – not to mention the lack of maintenance it affords.
“I can walk to the confectioners store or my favorite sandwich and produce shop,” he says. “Across the street is Town Park and I just walk over for any of the city-sponsored events. On Saturdays, I take my little bag and walk around and hit all the stores. It’s nice to go out and greet people.”
This lifestyle is what has people leaving the suburbs in droves and moving back into the city.
Small towns across the nation are seeing an uptick in the return to downtown living in recent years, and the Lake Oconee region is no different. “It’s definitely a trend,” says Kendrick Ward of Greensboro Main Street. “People like to walk and shop and be central to everything and not have to worry about a yard and maintenance. They want a ‘less is more’ lifestyle and I think that’s why it’s coming back around.”
Greensboro will soon see an influx of in-town residents with the opening of the Mary Leila Lofts. The extensive renovation of the historic cotton mill complex is adding 71 units to the landscape. Couple that with the new brewery, Oconee Brewing Co., set to also open soon, and the potential renovation of the adjoining train station, and Greensboro’s downtown is expanding at a rapid pace.
It’s a catalytic effect of a vibrant and thriving city center, maintained through the efforts of Greensboro Main Street and Downtown Development Authority organizations, involved citizens, developers, and business owners.
“Right now, our downtown is pretty full,” says Ward. “We’re at 10 percent vacancy rate as of last year and it will be even smaller this year.” Ward says the trend toward downtown living is only helping to close that gap. “When developers can see that x-amount of people are already living downtown, it encourages them to scoop up remaining spots to put their restaurant or store.”
As downtown centers reclaim the businesses that once migrated to shopping centers outside of the city limits, the desire for mixed use buildings is re-emerging. Historically, it was common practice for shop owners to live above their establishments.
One such modern-day example is business owner is Teri Bragg who lives atop The Yesterday Café that she and her son, Chris, and daughter-in-law, Katie, own and operate. Eleven years ago, the family purchased the dilapidated, historic building directly across from the courthouse in downtown Greensboro. It had been through a tornado that lifted the roof and resulted in massive water damage throughout the building. It was rough going, but she and her ex-husband, three sons, two daughter-in-laws, brother-in-law and her father completely renovated the downstairs retail spaces along with the upstairs lofts. They hired a plumber and electrician and did all the rest of the work themselves. Within two months, their first tenant moved into the storefront and Bragg moved into the loft. Three months after that, the restaurant was up and running.
Bragg says she loved the ease and accessibility of living right above her office. She transformed the 2,200-square-foot open expanse of the space into a comfortable two-bedroom, two-bath layout. She loved the space’s oversized windows and 14-foot ceiling, signature traits of loft living. She was able to salvage the original floors, giving a rustic foundation to the modern airiness of the space and preserving a piece of building’s history. “I was really excited about salvaging the floors,” she says. “They were so rough, like barn siding, and had never had a finish on them. We just used a clear finish and they came alive.”
She moved from rural Rutledge, just outside of Madison, and one of the first things she appreciated about her new home was the accessibility it afforded. “When I first moved here, there was a grocery store across the street and I never had to get in my car. Every single thing I needed was close by,” she says. “Living downtown is great on gas mileage.”
Her new neighbors were fellow business owners and restaurant customers who quickly became friends.
“This town is so friendly and welcoming. It’s different than living anywhere else,” she says. “When you live in a neighborhood, you’re just a part of a neighborhood. But when you live in town, you just feel like you’re part of everything,” she says.
Over the past decade, The Yesterday Café has played a significant role in the revitalization of downtown Greensboro. In fact, it’s becoming hard to find a parking place during lunch and dinner. But Bragg credits one person with convincing her to move her business there; fellow downtown business owner, Mark Blanton.
“We call him Mr. Greensboro,” she says. “I would not have moved here if it weren’t for him. He has really brought a lot of life to the city. He sees the vision and is really instrumental in making it happen.”
Blanton opened Greensboro Jewelers 24 years ago in a downtown storefront. “Greensboro provided me with a business opportunity when I was in need of one,” says Blanton. He says it quickly became apparent to him that Greensboro was a unique town built on a foundation of life-long residents and growing from a diverse population moving to the Lake Oconee area from all over the world. “This mix of people also had a vision for a thriving business community and for the arts and recreation,” he says. “There are no better people anywhere.”
It was easy for Blanton to become involved with the community. Since moving, he became a part of the Chamber of Commerce, Better Hometown, and Greensboro Business Association, among others and has served as chairman of the Downtown Development Authority for fifteen years. Through his efforts with these groups to revitalize the city, he has led by example.
Back in 1994, he purchased his store’s current location on North Main Street, the first of several downtown acquisitions. Then came the buildings that house Butterfly Treasures and Franklin Financial. When the Town House Restaurant building finally went on the market after being empty for several years, Blanton was there. “I got tired of driving by it every day and seeing the premier building in town fall further and further into disrepair,” he says. It is now home to Genuine Georgia, owned by Cynthia Smith, who Blanton says originally inspired him to care so deeply about Greensboro. “Cynthia has always wanted Greensboro to thrive,” he says. “It’s where she grew up, went to school, raised a family, and ultimately started a business.”
Most recently, Blanton has renovated and restored another prime cornerstone in downtown, just across the street from Genuine Georgia. The former Hunter’s Drug Store became available in 2014 and Blanton began his most extensive renovation project to date. The building had been owned by the Hunter family for more than 100 years.
He enlisted the help of Shane Hill of Oconee Hills Construction, who had spearheaded all of Blanton’s projects in the past. “Shane specializes in restoring old buildings and we developed a business relationship and friendship from there,” says Blanton. Together, they brought back the architectural elegance of the space and unveiled the heart of the historic building. Dropped ceilings were removed and original brick was exposed. Hardwood floors were added and window casings were restored. The massive cellar downstairs became a useable space once more.
Blanton converted the upstairs into a stunning loft apartment, making it the city’s third residential unit. Bringing in a modern kitchen and updating the living spaces required major renovation work, but the resulting floor plan is both practical and sophisticated. Its floor-to-ceiling windows look out over a picturesque Main Street, giving the unit a storied charm.
Downstairs, the main retail space is occupied by Maggie Lane, an upscale clothing boutique. Much as it was with Teri Bragg and The Yesterday Café, Blanton was one of the driving forces behind bringing this new business to town. While he is incredibly proud of his renovation work, especially on the loft, the main reason was to keep it from being a vacant storefront.
“I essentially bought the building because Sarah and Buddy Nolan, the Maggie Lane owners, expressed an interest in opening a store in Greensboro,” he says. “I’m interested in the success of the town as a whole, not just my own jewelry store,”
Having people, like Blanton, who take risks on redevelopments demonstrates that there is a market for new housing and growing businesses in downtown areas. He is joined by the likes of John and Nathan McGarity, developers behind the Oconee Brewing Co. and Chris Bragg, who his mother, Teri, refers to as “Mr. Greensboro, Jr.”
“It’s nice to have people who see the vision, get the vision, and understand what it takes to revitalize downtowns and keep them vibrant,” says Ward. “I call them my white knights.”
Blanton says his vision is simply people working together and pulling other people in to create a better hometown. “And since my wife, Susan, and I don’t have kids, it’s a way to leave a legacy – to make a mark on our town and its people. I want Greensboro to be better off when I’m done.”
Written by Andrea Gable
Photographed by Blake Smith