SILER CITY — The vision for the multi-million-dollar project Wren Farrar is spearheading in downtown Siler City is more than just about the renovation of three historic, but crumbling, …
Thanks for reading Chatham County’s leading news source! Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing to the News + Record – you can do so by clicking here.
SILER CITY — The vision for the multi-million-dollar project Wren Farrar is spearheading in downtown Siler City is more than just about the renovation of three historic, but crumbling, buildings.
It’s also about a catalyst for making the downtown he loves — and that his great-grandfather, L.L. Wren, cared so much about — a destination place.
Over the next two years, Farrar — through the Wren Family Estate, a fourth-generation family-owned real estate holding and development company — will turn the properties on North Chatham Avenue and West Raleigh Street into an 18-unit apartment complex, a brewery/tap room and a space perfectly suited for a restaurant tenant.
Construction is just now starting. By the time the work is done around the fall of 2022, the ancillary benefits of the project — known as Wren Corner Properties — will include streetscape improvements around downtown and additional foot traffic for retailers, many of whom have found sustainability a challenge.
Farrar hopes it’ll give downtown Siler City the vibrancy it needs and produce what he describes as “enduring value” for another generation or two of Siler City residents.
Beautification, preservation and thriving business are the goals, of course, but speaking with Farrar, you’ll hear him focus on another aspect: the experience.
“That’s exactly what we’re trying to create here — an experience,” he said. “Not just for people to come here for dinner and a beer. We’re trying to set this atmosphere, this experience for the patron … and to really also tell the narrative and to infuse it with the story of Siler City, and its beginnings and its development, and kind of thread that narrative through our different venues.”
As well as, he said, getting people looking toward western Chatham when they think about living, working and playing.
The downtown area of Pittsboro and its surrounds have been successful in creating a vibe that draws visitors, with lots of coffee shops, bars, an upscale wine shop and even a performance theater. Chatham Park bills itself as a “live, work, play” community. There’s no reason, Farrar said, Siler City can’t do a little of the same.
He’s done the apartment thing before, experiencing success with Chatham Lofts, the six-unit one-bedroom apartment building and commercial storefronts just down the street at 229-233 N. Chatham Ave. in downtown Siler City. For the other two projects, he’s looking for collaboration.
Meanwhile, for inspiration, he had to look no further than his own family. Farrar’s great-grandfather and namesake opened Siler City Mills in 1910. The business succeeded wildly, and after its sale, a real estate holding and investment company was formed, currently known as Wren Family Estate. For more than 50 years, family members have, through the estate, contributed charitably and civically in and around Siler City — all with an eye toward Siler City’s long-term prosperity.
Wren Corner Properties will be an extension of that, Farrar believes. Future visitors and patrons enjoying meals at outdoor sidewalk seating or a seasonally-inspired brew on a rooftop bar might be motivated to do more than just live a few steps away at one of the project’s apartments; Farrar sees the potential of those customers deciding to work from, or move businesses to, Siler City.
Farrar views a brewery/tap room, to be located at 120 W. Raleigh St., as the centerpiece of the entire project. Walkable downtown areas where friends can socialize with food and a drink — possible in Siler City after voters approved on- and off-premises sales of both malt beverages and unfortified wine this past November, albeit by slim margins — are becoming more commonplace in smaller towns. Investment in those types of amenities have paid off handsomely in many places as new businesses spring up around the increased traffic that follows.
Farrar has been pondering the idea of a brewery for some time now, but it’s closer than ever to being a reality. He’s deep into discussions right now with the owner of an existing brewery owner in eastern N.C. in hopes of creating a partnership for what he’s envisioning for the 120 W. Raleigh St. building — a brewery with a production facility that would supply beer for a tap room on the same site.
“What we’re hoping is that the brewery/tap room at 120 W. Raleigh will sort of be the anchor of the whole project,” he said. “That’s what we’re really try to push. We want to have a rooftop bar up there on the second story and lots of outdoor seating.”
The brewery will serve light foods — it won’t have an industrial kitchen — but Farrar is hoping to collaborate with a restaurateur for that piece of the puzzle in a main-floor shell building at 109 N. Chatham, the site below four of the apartments.
He and Wren Family Properties are seeking “just the right partner” for that. He’s tossing around some concepts about the restaurant — a favorite idea now is a deli serving an array of farm-fresh, locally sourced foods, plus barbecue.
Farrar is quick to quote the statistics about restaurants — seven out of 10 fail in the first three years — and downtown Siler City already has a long list of now-closed eateries, including Oasis Fresh Market and Deli, which shut down last week. But in his eyes you read a glass half-full, ready-for-a-refill optimism.
“We’re hopeful that having a good restaurant downtown, and a good bar downtown, will help promote more volume and more foot traffic, and that people will get exactly what we’re trying to create here,” he said.
As for the apartments, Farrar is drawing from experience gained from the Chatham Lofts project.
The new apartments will be constructed from the three N. Chatham Avenue properties — two on the second floor at 105 N. Chatham Ave. (with commercial property on the bottom floor), four at 109 N. Chatham Ave. (with the proposed restaurant on the first floor) and four at 121 N. Chatham Ave. — along with eight apartments in the building at 114-116 W. Raleigh St. Of those 18 units, 16 of them will be one-bedroom and two of them two-bedroom.
MHAworks, the architectural and interior design firm working with Farrar on the project, said the “industrial chic design” apartments will be spacious (more than 1,000 square feet each), with large bathrooms and storage and high ceilings. Rents will start at between $1,000 and $1,200 monthly.
CT Wilson, a family-owned company known for its proficiency in historic redevelopment, has been engaged as general contractor. CT Wilson was the general contractor for the Saxapahaw River Mill, the Golden Belt Complex in Durham, Revolution Mills in Greensboro and the Rocky Mount Brewmill.
“That’s experience that we aim to capitalize on and expand for our Wren Corner Properties redevelopment project,” Farrar said.
Rich Szary, who owns Twin Birch and Teasel on N. Chatham Avenue in downtown Siler City with his wife Sue, said he expects the combined projects will “provide a new constituency that is likely to support our revitalization efforts and bring additional ideas and energy to them because the improvements needed are — literally — in their back (or front) yard.”
Having people live in downtown will provide an incentive for entrepreneurs to take some chances on new businesses, something which excites him.
“They will want the promise of local dining, gathering places near their homes, and services and retail opportunities,” Szary said. “There is not a natural and sufficient constituency for these opportunities currently. The residents will undoubtedly spend a significant time on the downtown streets and will either expect improvements in a relatively short time frame or decide to move elsewhere where they can find more amenities and necessities more easily. I hope these expectations spur the town and existing and potential downtown businesses to invest time and resources into implementing a new vision for downtown.”
Szary, who’s the chairperson of Siler City’s Downtown Advisory Committee — of which Farrar is a member — said efforts by some downtown business owners to present an attractive and welcoming appearance “are hampered by a number of empty, abandoned-looking, and derelict buildings.”
The Wren Corner project’s improvements, he said, will be an upgrade “for all of downtown” and will encourage and reinforce the efforts of businesses to keep their properties and facades attractive and welcoming — which will, in turn, only strengthen efforts to bring new businesses to town.
Angelynn Fox, who owns Siler City Pharmacy, said she looked forward to finding ways to support Farrar’s vision.
“As a business owner I am thankful that he has chosen to renovate downtown space in Siler City, and I’m excited to see his vision come to life,” she said. “I sincerely hoping his love of our downtown is contagious.”
“We need people to come to know Siler City as a place where they plan to come — a destination — because they know the attractiveness and amenities it provides, not just to happen upon it because they were curious — or lost (discovery),” Szary said. “Downtown needs repeat visitors and customers, not just the occasional wanderer. Having these residential units downtown, with both residents and their guests, can help provide a reliable and engaged presence of visitors returning to visit favorite spots or find out what’s new since they last visited.”
Wren Industries is funding the Wren Corner project, which will then be managed by the Wren Family estate.
Back in 1901, L.L. Wren was a founding member of The Chatham Bank, which operated in Siler City until it merged with First Union National Bank of North Carolina in 1961. In the 1940s and ’50s, during the family’s mill’s heyday, L.L.’s son William Marcel Wren began purchasing properties in downtown Siler City.
In 1963, he established Wren Foundation Inc., which his daughter Margaret de St. Aubin operates today. Wren Farrar is Margaret de St. Aubin’s son, and after receiving his B.A. in Historic Preservation and Community Planning from the College of Charleston, he worked in development and planning in South Carolina. He returned to Siler City in 2011 and began crafting a comprehensive redevelopment plan focused on rehabilitating properties and promoting the revitalization of downtown’s commercial district.
So does Farrar think his grandfather would approve of this latest project?
“Absolutely,” he said. “He would be happy that the family is trying to continue and expand on his legacy, which is really founded in a love and appreciation for the hard-working community that he was a huge part of.”
Farrar said without question, he gets great satisfaction from the thought of people living in and occupying buildings that “were pretty much storage, warehouses that were dilapidated with holes in the floor.”
“We were at a crossroad,” he said. “We had to either sell them, tear them down, or make the decision to invest some money and get things rolling ...”
“We have a cool little main street. It’s very special and I’ve always loved it, and deep down, when I was gone, I always wanted to come back here and stay. And I just love the fact that these buildings are getting a second lease on life, and they’re going to be well taken care of for the next 50 years for the next generation or two.”
Access all content on our website, including our e-edition, at a discounted rate while also being environmentally friendly.
Get your 1-year digital subscriptions for only $39.
That's just 10¢ per day for the great coverage of your local news!