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City Ordinance Threatens To Demolish Historic General Store

The cash register in the Davis General Store.

Last year an online campaign and community groups rallied to stop the owner of an historic fire station from tearing down the building. Now a similar campaign is underway to save a hundred-year-old store in north Charlotte that's on both local and national historic registries. Only this time the threat comes from the city itself. The Davis brothers - Silas and Charles - built their general store next to the train tracks on Old Statesville Road in 1908. It's been open ever since, making it one of the oldest continuously operating businesses in Mecklenburg County. Today the store is run by the 67-year-old grandson of Silas Davis - also named Silas. "It hasn't changed a bit," says the younger Silas Davis. "It looks the exact same when I used to ride my bicycle in here in the summer time and tell whoever was behind the counter what my grandmother needed . . . a quart of mayonnaise or a loaf of bread." Davis has proudly - and almost stubbornly - preserved everything about the store. No new paint on the walls. Light-bulbs dangle from the ceiling on the original wires installed when the store first got electricity in the '30s. The merchandise is nearly the same - seeds, hardware, work clothes. Even the cash register is a relic. "It is electric!" insists Davis as he blows a little dust off the power cord to the giant contraption. It hasn't been plugged in for ages. Davis would rather just turn the polished brass hand crank to open the cash drawer. "That's what brings people in here," says Davis. "We have maintained the uniqueness and kept the historical status for that reason." Now the historical status of Davis General Store is bumping up against a new ordinance in Charlotte. The ordinance took effect last April giving the city authority to inspect privately-owned business buildings and demand improvements for safety and appearance. But Dan Morrill says the city overlooked a crucial perspective when it wrote the ordinance. Morrill is director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. "We're dealing with - in my judgment - a classic example of unintended consequences," says Morrill. "There was a concern about abandoned big box buildings on the East side of Charlotte and part of what's being caught in the net are these historic structures." In November, Silas Davis was informed that his store would soon get a visit from a code enforcement officer. A month later he learned he would have to make minor upgrades to the electrical system in the main store. But the city warned that the two warehouse buildings on either side of the store are dangerous and must either be repaired or demolished. Davis thinks the city's concerns are unfounded. "The fire dept comes and checks," he says. "We don't have no problems. There's nothing unsafe. My insurance agent checks everything. That's what I have insurance for." Davis says people rarely go in the two old warehouses. That's where he stores his seeds and other inventory. The rusted metal and crooked walls of the two warehouse buildings do look shockingly dilapidated. But Dan Morrill says they, too, are historic. "They're artifacts of a way of life when mules and cotton predominated throughout Mecklenburg County," says Morrill. "They document that era. That's why they're important. It's not because they look nice, or don't look nice. You have to treat historic buildings differently than you treat an abandoned Taco Bell." But historic buildings do need to be safe, says Morrill. So the Historic Landmarks Commission is working with the city to make sure the new ordinance doesn't force historic properties to be torn down. Code enforcement director Walter Abernethy says the city is looking for a balance: "These are old buildings, but they need to be safe." Abernethy says city has conducted over 500 building inspections since the new ordinance took effect in April. About half of them have been resolved. Most of the buildings are not historic like the Davis General Store. The city has given Silas Davis until February 3rd to make major structural improvements to his old warehouses. Abernethy admits that's probably not enough time. "If a property owner shows good will, he works on things and shows progress, it's not our desire to demolish anything," says Abernethy. "We will work with property owners to get them safe." But the cost to make the changes may prove more than Davis can - or will - spend . . . leaving the door open to demolition. That fate now awaits the old train depot on Moores Chapel Road. Its owner - transportation company CSX - has decided to tear it down rather than make the changes the city is demanding.