Burlington’s downtown has been in a steady state of transformation for the past couple of years. And that’s a good thing. Fact is, it’s a sight to see how far the area has come just since 2007, when I moved back here after 15 years on the North Carolina coast.
Yes, in those days I could almost envision tumbleweeds bouncing down deserted downtown Burlington streets after 6 p.m. when all the techs and suits at LabCorp called it a day and vacated the area like a communicable disease drill was in progress.
That’s not much of an exaggeration. I remember taking a walk one spring Friday evening at around 7 p.m. and counting about four cars in the entire area of Front Street to Morehead Street. That didn’t include the customers at Zack’s Hotdogs or Boston Sandwich Shop, of course. those places have packed a crowd on Fridays for years and still do.
But outside of those landmarks — where people visit like shrines then quickly leave — downtown was a ghost town as darkness approached.
Not any more. There are new businesses, interesting features and above all else, patrons.
Visit on a Friday night and dozens of cars are parked along surprisingly busy downtown streets. The Company Shops Co-op and its live music is one of many lures. The Depot is one of the rotating sites for the county Musical Chairs series and every so often, there are competing bands on a Friday night. The amphitheater at the Depot just finished playing host to a couple of weekends of Shakespearean comedy. Coming in September: The second-annual Beer-B-Que, hosted by several Davis Street businesses, including the Rusted Bucket Tavern. In December, the second consecutive Dickens Christmas street festival is being planned. It was perhaps the city’s coolest public event last year. And the Paramount Theater is so busy it wasn’t easy to find dates for our annual candidate forums in October this year.
Why, downtown even has its own street musician. “Steve” plays the guitar here and there on the sidewalk near businesses that don’t mind his company. Pitch some change into his guitar case if you see him.
Yes, folks can go downtown to buy or sell furniture, antiques, flowers, clothing, art or gold. Those with a mind to can get a body piercing, tattoo or have their photograph taken. People can learn everything from dance to karate. To borrow a worn cliché mainly because it applies, there’s pretty much something for everyone.
So by any measure, the downtown reformation is a success.
But with that success comes something that occurs in nearly every other city of any size I’ve ever seen — panhandling. It’s a part of most, if not all, downtown landscapes I know of, at least in thriving ones. Panhandlers, it seems — like reporters, cops and grifters — follow the money. In this case, that means going where people congregate.
And believe me, they’re here.
Usually, it’s not a huge problem. In fact, they’re a necessary part of the landscape in an odd way. In the daytime, the nearby homeless shelter expels them. Before the day center opened in Burlington, they sometimes camped at May Memorial Library. But they often vanished at night, just like the folks who work for LabCorp, or the city.
Again, not anymore.
The other night, one of our interns was accosted in the Times-News parking lot as he was leaving to go home for the night. This persistent vagrant didn’t seem interested in taking no for an answer. He even became a little belligerent about it. Our intern finally got shed of him but left our building a little shaken. Our nighttime staff called the police, who arrived quickly, but not in time to catch the guy. Based on the description I got, it sounds like a panhandler who tapped on the hood of my car and yelled as I was driving down Worth Street on my way home one night about a month ago.
Other members of our nighttime staff have reported similar parking lot problems over the past few weeks. As a result, we have instituted a buddy system for people leaving after dark.
Panhandlers aren’t just showing up in our parking lot. And most, like I said, are no problem at all. Some ask for a cigarette and it almost makes me sad that I don’t smoke anymore when I say no.
But one seems to be a regular problem throughout downtown. I spoke to someone on Thursday who said the same person has approached people on Front Street when nighttime events are in progress. He wondered if Burlington police should have an officer walking a beat on nights when traffic downtown is highest.
Might not be a bad idea. After all, there’s something there to protect these days.