Burlaw leaders scramble to revive downtown, as Wilmington expands
Inside the kitchen at Bandanas Restaurant and Grill, Tony Fontana fried shrimp for customers who were salivating for the dish and other sides of the menu.
He’s been cooking seafood, steaks and more for several years at the Pender Landing Mall, which is also home to Food Lion, Auto Zone, Subway and MeMa’s Chick’n’ & Ribs, among others.
However, the complex located near the busy intersection of US 117 and NC 53 has not always hosted the restaurant.
“It doesn’t matter where you are, it’s more downtown, old town or new section, if you serve a good product or good food at a reasonable price, they will come to you,” he said. declared. noted.
Fontana and his wife, Cindy Fontana, love the Pender County seat. After starting the business in 2009, they ran out of space at their old location near Fremont, which is about a mile away.
“We absolutely loved it right downtown,” Fontana said. “When the parades came, we had all these events and after the Blueberry Festival, people came. We had this big patio outside. It was wonderful.”
Bandanas has been in the Pender Landing Mall since 2017, providing more parking for customers. They weren’t bothered by the change near the freeway, especially when it’s picking up business from people traveling from destinations like Myrtle Beach or Topsail Island.
“We love it,” she said. “We were already established and people followed us and we gained more people. I had no idea there was so much traffic here in this area from I-40. the beach, they don’t necessarily want to eat there, so they wait and hang out a bit. We get a lot of people like that.
For companies like Bandanas, areas close to the highway can become an alternative for the future, instead of downtown. The Fontanas are retiring in April with plans to spend more time with family members and enjoy life in Burlaw, which will leave empty space in the mall for another tenant.
It is now’
While such developments are approved and welcomed by city officials, local leaders are working to ensure that life continues in the heart of Burgaw through revitalization efforts. Many residents and business owners were upset when Harrell’s department store on Wright Street across from the courthouse closed due to COVID-19 and other economic setbacks.
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Richard Johnson plays a major role through the ‘Burgaw Now’ initiative, which began in 2019. The aim now is to promote, restore and develop the historic downtown district, which has been impacted like other small cities across the United States.
“What flourished in the days of horses and buggies has been slowly declining ever since,” Johnson said.
Situations of population and business decline in small towns can vary, but Johnson said one impact on Burlaw is the interchange of the 53/117 freeway which is far from downtown.
“If you’re a McDonald’s and you see 5,000 people going down 53 every day and 5,000 people going down 117 every day, are you going to locate in downtown Burlaw or are you going to locate where all the traffic?” says Johnson.
Besides McDonald’s, there are several fast food restaurants such as Bojangles, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, and Hardee’s. Not to mention Walmart.
Emily Baker, executive director of the Burgaw Area Chamber of Commerce, said downtown Burgaw offers a unique shopping and service experience they can’t get near the freeways or at Walmart.
“These are exclusive little shops and it’s fun to come to Burgaw,” Baker said. “Just walking around the courthouse square is beautiful. I think people still love the quaintness of small towns and small businesses. We have a beautiful little town and we are proud of our town.
Johnson came to Burlaw after buying a farm about two miles from town. Every time he went to town, he noticed the beauty of Burgaw, but was not happy to see empty buildings.
To help out, he bought several buildings to help and put in place a strategy to grow more businesses and bring people back to the area. The first business through the Burlaw Now initiative was Fat Daddy’s Pizza, which was opened by Jay Kranchalk.
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“We built it for him and gave him a turnkey restaurant with a lease and he’s running the business,” Kranchalk said. “He’s crushed it since he opened.”
The next venture is the Burlaw Brewing Company, which will be operated by local brewer Kevin Kozak. A building is also leased through the Pender County Arts Council. It is rented to the organization for $1 to bring programs, artists and children’s activities to downtown Burlaw.
Two production groups also rent premises to produce television programs.
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No bursting of the bubble
One of the benefits of growth in Burlaw comes from the 117 corridor, which also connects to Wilmington and its growth.
“This bubble that’s growing around Wilmington is getting closer and closer to Burlaw,” Johnson said. “A rising tide floats many boats.”
He added that there are a lot of old businesses along the highway that don’t take anything away from downtown. But taking lunchtime as an example, he wishes residents had more choices downtown.
It’s progress Mayor Olivia Dawson would like to see as well, with storefronts filled with more small businesses. With the arrival of the brewery, she hopes it will help bring Wright Street and the surrounding area back to life.
“It’s a new trend and an exciting new atmosphere for many cities now,” Dawson said of the brewery. “It caters to a variety of people and families. I think it’s just a good addition coming in.”
She also thinks residents and people moving to the area are looking to see change.
At the Pender Landing Sopping Center, Tershona Branch took her brother to karate lessons at a dojo next to Bandanas. She is one of more than 4,000 residents benefiting from commercial development near the highway and in the heart of Burlaw. Branch attended the Blueberry Drop to celebrate a new year.
“I think it’s good,” Branch said. “It’s really historic and it has a Hallmark feel to it. I think it’s a good balance between the historic aspect and the progress.”
Johnson is looking forward to increasing the energy. He said it was inspiring to see how “proud of the city” everyone was.
“It’s so clear there’s more energy downtown than 5 years ago,” he said. “The thing about Burgaw is that the people of Burgaw are so proud of their town. It just has this strong identity. It kind of helped me come up with the name Burgaw Now. They didn’t have never abandoned Burgaw.
Although Bandanas had to leave the city center after growing up, Cindy Fontana looks to the future, downtown or near the highways.
“I love this community and there’s nothing like Burlaw,” Cindy said. “It’s kind of like a Mayberry. Everyone knows everyone else and this community gives back and this community is there for each other.”
Journalist Chase Jordan can be reached at [email protected]