Picture of Chatham Manufacturing textile factory

The Future of Elkin North Carolina – Empty Stores Downtown

Like many small towns in the United States of America, my hometown, Elkin, North Carolina, is facing many problems in the post-industrial experience of the twenty-first century.  There don’t seem to be many good options for what this and so many other towns can or should become, now that singular industries employing thousands of people, as did Chatham Manufacturing12 during its heyday, are no longer a viable option for small towns in the United States.

Empty Stores

In recent months, there has been a substantial increase in empty stores on Main Street in Historic Downtown Elkin.  There are enough empty stores now that people have begun to take notice and discuss this issue in continued passing conversation on a regular basis.  Recently, a meeting was convened to discuss the economic future of Downtown Elkin, specifically as a result of this recent increase in empty stores.

I’m a commercial property owner in Downtown Elkin (205 S. Bridge St), along with two partners.  We were not included in this meeting, and I have heard (since becoming aware of this meeting after the fact) that other business and property owners in Downtown Elkin were similarly overlooked regarding this meeting.

Regardless, I continue to be proactive moving forward.

On February 1, 2017, I walked up and down Main Street to gather evidence about the current condition of these spaces.

Below are the empty (or soon to be empty) spaces, as well as those that are clearly listed for sale or rent, even though currently occupied at the time of my walk.

214 East Main St

214 East Main St Elkin
214 East Main St, Elkin – home of the Elkin Tribune newspaper

This has been the home of the Elkin Tribune for as long as I can remember.  I can’t confirm what the future of the local newspaper is, but the fact that the building is for sale seems troubling.

206 East Main St

206 East Main St, Elkin
206 East Main St, Elkin

I’ve spoken with the owners of this building in the past week, and the current occupant, shown going out of business, is indeed leaving the location soon.  My current understanding, based on conversation with the owner, is that there is not another business lined up to take over the space.

200 East Main St

200 East Main St
200 East Main St, Elkin

This building has been sitting empty for quite some time.  The paper in the windows makes it difficult to tell if any progress is being made with renovations or occupancy by a new business or businesses.

122 East Main St

122 East Main St, Elkin
122 East Main St, Elkin

This building is owned by the same people that own 206 East Main St.  The Wanderlust Studio is a recent addition, the first tenant following an extensive and costly renovation conducted by the owners.  The basement, 122 B, is available for rent.  I’ve toured the space with the owners, and it has a certain speakeasy vibe that would be a great space to open a jazz bar or taco shop.

The tile work on the front of the building is a tangible testament to the amount of time, energy, and dollars the owners have invested in the space, with a sense of aesthetic and sophistication that should serve as a model for the rest of Downtown Elkin.  Having lived for six years in Asheville, North Carolina, I can personally attest to the fact that this façade emanates the same sort of progressive Asheville vibe.

118 East Main St

118 East Main St, Elkin
118 East Main St, Elkin

This space is for rent.

I don’t know much about its soon-to-be former occupants, or the owners of the building.  Apparently, they still want to send Hillary Clinton to prison, though.

112 East Main St

112 East Main St, Elkin
112 East Main St, Elkin

The man who ran this rather expansive, yet seldom busy, shoe and boot repair shop recently died.  There is no telling what future plan for this space is.

105 West Main St

105 West Main St, Elkin
105 West Main St, Elkin

This building has been on the market for nearly a year, at least, and it now appears that something is happening, as the signs have been removed, and there is visible evidence of cleaning activity happening inside.  There are apartments on the upper level, currently occupied.

107 & 109 West Main St

107 and 109 West Main St, Elkin
107 and 109 West Main St, Elkin

107 West Main was recently an antiques shop.  We’ve had an overwhelming number of antique shops (or junk stores, depending on the eye of the beholder) downtown in recent years.

109 West Main has been a jewelry store since at least as far back as when I left Elkin for college in 1997.

111 & 113 West Main St

111 and 113 West Main St, Elkin
111 and 113 West Main St, Elkin

As you an see in the photo above, Plums is holding its 21st Annual Closing Sale at 111 West Main St.  Plums is closing, and there is no word yet concerning any future tenant, or what the building owner may do next.

At 113 West Main, El Matador was open for a relatively brief period of time as a clothing store.  It has been closed for several months at this point, perhaps even a year.

115 West Main St

115 West Main St, Elkin
115 West Main St, Elkin – The “Rock Façade”

Back in the autumn of 2015, there was quite a stir around this façade and empty lot.  The Elkin Town Commissioners sought to demolish the property, and several community members, in concert with the Main Street Advisory Board, sought to preserve and protect the space for future public development.3  However, not much progress has been made, as evidenced in the photo above, nor has much been published about any obstacles or progress since, as evidenced by the fact that, as of this writing, an affinity page on Facebook has not been updated since 2015.4

122, 120, & 118 West Main St

122, 120, & 118 West Main St, Elkin
122, 120, & 118 West Main St, Elkin

These three stores have been empty for some time.  118 West Main was recently a baseball memorabilia shop, among other various “collectibles” and sundry things.  Based on current signage, it’s not clear if all three units are for rent, or just 120 West Main.

There’s no telling what condition the upper level is in.  The louvered windows seem salvageable, though.

113 & 115 East Main St

113 and 115 East Main St, Elkin
113 and 115 East Main St, Elkin

The Thomas Kinkade Gallery at 113 East Main St has been shuttered for years.  No sign of change anytime soon.

115 East Main is clearly for lease, as shown in the photo above.

207 East Main St

207 East Main St, Elkin
207 East Main St, Elkin

207 B East Main St is currently empty, and there is no sign in the window to indicate status or future plans.

More Data

Here are the tax value data for the properties listed above:

214 E Main St $241,620
206 E Main St $164,740
200 E Main St $38,360
122 E Main St $105,730
118 E Main St $37,300
112 E Main St $63,990
207 E Main St $30,250
115 E Main St $91,450
105 W Main St $196,300
107 W Main St $51,560
109 W Main St $57,790
111 W Main St $54,490
113 W Main St $56,520
115 W Main St $14,540
120 W Main St $34,940
122 W Main St $42,450
Total $1,282,030

These values are readily available on the Surry Tax Map.5

Many thanks to my business partner and friend John Wiles for compiling these data today.

Problem Definition + Solution Mapping

Based on these data, we can clearly define this problem in financial terms, allowing us to collectively and publicly discuss solution options in a clear, pragmatic fashion.

If we allow for a 1.5x factor in purchasing costs, as well as an average of $250,000 per property in renovation costs, the total financial cost of purchasing and renovating these properties is $4,063,675.

For each of these empty spaces, we have two viable options in the near term: 1) secure tenant businesses in lease agreements, or 2) find investors to purchase and renovate the buildings – for their own businesses or to lease to business tenants.

In either case, we currently have 18 spaces that need attention.  Regardless of which tenants/owners come to occupy these spaces, the real question is: What are the types of businesses that Elkin needs to bring downtown?  This question emphasizes the importance of contextualizing the pragmatics of the identified problem in a way that lends itself to a viable, sustainable, resilient future for the Town of Elkin in this post-industrial society.

A few points to ponder, regarding contextualization of this post-industrialism and our increased understanding and awareness of the finite resources within this planet, our home: Localism6, Transition Towns78, and Permaculture Cities9.

Note: If you’re interested, I’ve got copies of The Transition Handbook and Permaculture Cities on hand.  Each of these books can easily be read in a weekend, and both are readily available and affordable via the usual online stores.  You can also special order them from your local bookstore, if you’ve got one in your town.  And, if you’re local to Elkin, I’ll happily lend you my copies to read.  Let me know. 🙂

Establishing A Plan

Based on this contextualization, we need to collectively establish a flexible longitudinal (10-, 20-, 30-, 50-year) growth plan for the future of Elkin – a plan that is designed to be dynamic and adjustable based on frequent analysis and consensus.  Such a plan would follow the tenets of systems wisdom established by Donella Meadows10, such as establishing feedback policies for feedback systems.

Demolition of Chatham Manufacturing textile factory in Elkin, North Carolina
Demolition of Chatham Manufacturing textile factory in Elkin, North Carolina

We’re watching Chatham Manufacturing Company, the past industrial vitality of Elkin — the very reason that Elkin managed to subsist and flourish as a town into and beyond the 1900s — be demolished.  The citizens of this community have mixed feelings about this process.  I see it as an opportunity; a dangerous opportunity to which we must pay constant attention.

In my next post on this topic, I’ll explore one potential manifestation of this opportunity.

As a teaser: Consider a vertically oriented, pedestrian first, Urban Core District within a stone’s throw of Historic Downtown Elkin.  A sustainable, permaculture-founded, locally-oriented mixed-use district entrenched in regional, national, and global transportation and communication networks, espousing an alternative non-corporate local sharing-driven economy.

We can entice young families from across the United States (and, frankly, across the world) to move here and work together to invest time, money, energy in this new blank slate we’re establishing in post-industrial Elkin.

We can serve as a model for all other post-industrial small towns in the United States.

What Am I Doing Today, Moving Forward?

In the meantime, I’m taking action in many ways, including the following three things.

205 South Bridge St

205 South Bridge St, Elkin
205 South Bridge St, Elkin – A work in progress

With aforementioned partners, in early 2015, I purchased the southern entrance to Elkin.  We’re renovating and revitalizing the space into a local-first, progressive, environmentally focused, socially equitable secular hub for the future of progress in our town.

We also want all the entrances to our town to exude aesthetic sophistication and ecological resilience, and we hope to serve as a model.

This Too Shall Pass

Last November I hosted the first “This Too Shall Pass” community gathering at 205 South Bridge St.  It was not well advertised, and thus garnered a relatively small crowd, but it was a powerful small crowd.  We’re continuing the effort this year, with several events to celebrate the intersection of so many communities: river paddlers, trail hikers, home brewers, artisans and makers, local organic farmers, and musicians.

In addition to traditional printed flyers, I’m using Eventbrite and various social media platforms to manage and market the “This Too Shall Pass” gatherings for 2017 and beyond, seeking to embody the principle of ambient findability11 as a digital model for other businesses and organizations in Elkin to entice the Millennial (and younger) populations to seek out and share genuine experiences in our region.


In January 2017, I launched a global digital media platform startup, hoping to prove that companies with massive revenues (potentially in the hundreds of millions within less than five years) can once again be launched in small towns — this time in a nearly-infinitely scalable fashion.

Knedia is an experiential, data-driven, knowledge-focused digital platform for the production, consumption, and discussion of media across modalities.  Here’s an introductory video (produced locally in Elkin):

Stay tuned for more details as the company progresses.

  1. Chatham Manufacturing Company https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chatham_Manufacturing_Company
  2. The Fabric of Elkin: The Chatham Manufacturing Company https://www.ourstate.com/chatham-manufacturing-company/
  3. Elkin Main Street Advisory Board – Rock Facade https://www.elkinmainstreet.com/rock-facade.php
  4. Elkin Rock Facade Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/Elkin-Rock-Facade-538500329621487
  5. Surry County North Carolina Online Tax Maps http://gis.surryinfo.net/maps/
  6. The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) represents thousands of communities and conveners, entrepreneurs, investors and funders who are defying “business as usual.”
    Our mission is to create local economies that work for all. https://bealocalist.org/about/
  7. The Transition Movement is comprised of vibrant, grassroots community initiatives that seek to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis. http://transitionus.org/transition-101/
  8. The Transition Network: A movement of communities coming together to reimagine and rebuild our world http://transitionnetwork.org/
  9. The Permaculture City begins in the garden but takes what we have learned there and applies it to a much broader range of human experience; we’re not just gardening plants but people, neighborhoods, and even cultures. Hemenway lays out how permaculture design can help towndwellers solve the challenges of meeting our needs for food, water, shelter, energy, community, and livelihood in sustainable, resilient ways. Readers will find new information on designing the urban home garden and strategies for gardening in community, rethinking our water and energy systems, learning the difference between a “job” and a “livelihood,” and the importance of placemaking and an empowered community. http://www.chelseagreen.com/the-permaculture-city
  10. Thinking in Systems, is a concise and crucial book offering insight for problem solving on scales ranging from the personal to the global. Edited by the Sustainability Institute’s Diana Wright, this essential primer brings systems thinking out of the realm of computers and equations and into the tangible world, showing readers how to develop the systems-thinking skills that thought leaders across the globe consider critical for 21st-century life. http://www.chelseagreen.com/thinking-in-systems
  11. Ambient Findability http://intertwingled.org/ambient-findability/
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