Luke Walling moved to Newton as a teenager. For years, he did not have much hope for the town.
Growth in recent years and people with a vision for Newton’s future changed Walling’s perspective.
“I saw a lot of people seeking change and growth, mostly this guy,” Walling said, pointing to Jeff Allen, owner of Novel Taproom.
Allen also grew up in Newton. Allen left after high school. In 2019, inspired by the city’s work to improve the downtown area, Allen moved back. He bought a deteriorating, 1880s-era building and transformed it into Novel Taproom.
Allen embedded himself in the town. He created a successful business. He advocated for a social district in the downtown area, where people can drink alcohol in public areas. Allen was also involved with creating The ANEW Group, a cluster of Newton business leaders focused on bringing business and people to Newton.
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“He’s brought people together from government to commercial buyers to community members who want to make things better,” Walling said.
Allen’s efforts led to more investment, including Walling’s.
Walling bought several buildings in downtown Newton in recent years with intentions to improve the buildings and bring new business. He credits Allen with inspiring him.
Allen also worked with developer Patrick Sterchi.
Sterchi bought and renovated a building on Newton’s downtown square in 2021, adding apartments and updated retail space. Sterchi has two other renovations brewing, one in partnership with Walling.
Allen, Walling and Sterchi can regularly be found at Novel Taproom discussing Newton’s future over a pint of beer.
The trio hesitates to take credit for growing Newton’s downtown. Allen calls Walling a “mad scientist who is redeveloping downtown.” Walling says Allen is a significant contributor but refuses recognition. Sterchi credits their collective vision.
“We all think Newton has enormous potential. That’s why I’m here,” he said. “The potential is just off the charts in my opinion.”
Other stakeholders in Newton’s downtown and receptive leaders in city government are also crucial to the city’s growth, Allen said.
Businesses with a future
Walling bought four adjacent buildings in downtown Newton in January. He had already purchased a building there in 2020. Three are along the East side of the courthouse square, on North College Avenue. One is behind those on East First Street. The fifth is on the north side of the courthouse square, on the corner of East First Street and North College Avenue.
Walling eventually wants to put high-quality apartments in the buildings. He considered lengthy renovations for the three on North College Avenue.
“My challenge was, do I go big and keep the assets off the market for 18 months while we go big on renovations?” Walling said.
He chose instead to clean the buildings and quickly get new businesses in place.
An existing boutique stayed in one building. A new bakery, the Chocolate Possum, opened in one building in June. A second location of The Hickory Hub co-working space is planned to open this year in the third building.
Walling said he selected tenants for the buildings carefully. He looked for people who have passion for Newton and growth.
“Newton has a future now and we want to be very intentional about it,” Walling said. “We were looking for certain kinds of people to grow Newton; these businesses are kinds of businesses that will work.”
Buying five buildings was a leap, but Walling is one to take action, Allen said.
“In the past, Newton did a good job of talking about what we want to do, but he’s (Walling) taken it upon himself to make things happen,” Allen said. “Rather than wish things would happen, he has invested and is doing it himself.”
Walling’s building on the corner of North College Avenue and East First Street will take the most work. Walling is working with Sterchi to bring a new restaurant space and more living options to downtown. It is one of two apartment projects Sterchi is working on in Newton.
More downtown living
Demolition on the building at the corner of North College Avenue and East First Street will begin soon, Walling said.
He is working with Sterchi, who owns Lynn Contracting and Construction out of Charlotte, to put two new apartments on the second floor and a restaurant space on the ground level.
Walling and Sterchi specifically chose to put in a space for a restaurant because that’s what they believe downtown Newton needs, Walling said.
The construction will take time, Sterchi said. In the meantime, he’s finishing up a project of his own, just one block north on North College Avenue.
Sterchi is in the process of turning the former Haupt office building into apartments and retail space.
The building does not look like much, but its beige exterior and office walls hide solid structure, Sterchi said. When he told Allen and Walling his plans to renovate the building, they were skeptical. Sterchi moved forward anyway.
By January 2023, the building will have six apartments on the second floor, some of which are already reserved. The ground floor will have an open retail space ready to be leased. The basement has space for another business, Sterchi said.
“The building is built remarkably well; it’s got the right structure,” he said.
The building is the second Sterchi has renovated in Newton. Walling’s building will be the third. Sterchi plans to continue to invest in the town, he said.
“The downtown square in this town is one of the most attractive in North Carolina,” Sterchi said.
“When I first came here, I was like, ‘What is wrong with this town? Why is no one buying this real estate?’”
With his and others’ investment, the downtown is gaining traction. The goal is controlled growth, Allen said. He envisions Newton emulating growth other North Carolina cities have seen.
“The downtown is starting to blossom,” Allen said. “This is the next Belmont. That is what we’re going after.”
‘The potential is just off the charts in my opinion.’
Developer Patrick Sterchi on Newton’s future