LEXINGTON — Even though it’s raining, people are walking throughout downtown Lexington, going to various stores and restaurants, enjoying their day in this small, sleepy Southern town of fewer than 19,000 people.
On one side of the old courthouse square is Conrad and Hinkle Food Store, a relic of an older time. On the opposite side, is a coffee shop. Dominating it all is the original Davidson County Courthouse, now a museum. It is around lunchtime and people are more concerned with their plates of barbecue — Lexington is the center of North Carolina’s barbecue universe — than seemingly anything else in the world.
None of the scenes Saturday morning are indicative of the fear more than 10,000 people are displaying online. Their fear, according to members of the Facebook page “Make Davidson County a Second Amendment Protection County,” is that Democratic lawmakers will one day try to take their guns away.
This fear has spurred some elected Republican officials in Davidson County to draft a resolution affirming the Second Amendment rights of the county’s residents and declaring that the county will never allocate resources or assist in the enforcement of a gun-control law.
Written by County Commissioner Zak Crotts, the resolution is expected to be introduced and put to a vote at Tuesday’s meeting of the Davidson County Board of Commissioners, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at the governmental center, 913 Greensboro St.
Crotts told the Winston-Salem Journal he is taking action because of what is happening in Virginia and the possibility of the federal government passing gun-control legislation.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is advocating eight gun-related bills, including legislation banning the sale of assault-style weapons; requiring background checks on all gun sales and transfers; capping handgun purchases at one per person a month; and creating a “red flag” law to temporarily remove guns from people deemed a threat to themselves or others, The Washington Post recently reported. Democrats control both Virginia’s House and Senate for the first time in 25 years, and many of them ran on gun-control platforms.
“I want to make sure we don’t turn like Virginia did,” Crotts said. “I want to make sure that’s very loud and clear.”
Elected in 2016, Crotts, 37, is the youngest person to ever serve on the Davidson County Board of Commissioners. He is also the treasurer for the N.C. Republican Party.
A lifelong Republican and a veteran of the National Guard, Crotts is a fervent Second Amendment supporter. Weapons are protection to him, he said.
“One of the reasons why I’m so adamant about our protections is, years ago, my children and I were at a restaurant while it got robbed,” he said. “I realized what was going on at the cash register and I had to get my daughter on my side of the table and kind of turn sideways nonchalantly to protect my children.”
A couple of weeks later, he said, he was in a class getting his concealed-carry permit.
Crotts is facing a challenge in the March 2 primary election, as seven Republicans are running for three spots on the board of commissioners.
He said that the timing of his resolution is not political whatsoever and that he originally wanted to introduce a resolution in March 2019 but was told by the county manager that he wouldn’t have the necessary votes on the board to get it passed.
Should the Davidson County commissioners approve the resolution — the entire board is Republican — they will join officials in at least six other North Carolina counties in doing so.
Most recently, officials in Rowan, Wilkes and Surry counties approved resolutions declaring their counties Second Amendment havens.
Davidson County Sheriff Richie Simmons has voiced his full-throated support for his county’s resolution, saying he needs to calm people’s fears.
“We were talking amongst some of my commissioners here and we felt it was best if we gave a word to our citizens here that we will protect you and your rights,” said Simmons, also a Republican. “They need to know that I protect the people of Davidson County and that’s what I swore to do in every aspect. Part of my job in protecting is to rest assure that I will look after them.”
Sitting in his office, Simmons said he doesn’t really think people are at risk of losing their guns, but if someone does come for them, he has got a plan.
“I know what the sheriff will do is protect our people if someone comes to take their rights away,” he said. “I don’t want people to be afraid. I deal in solutions.”
He is vague on the details of his plan but mentioned that it involves deputizing a lot of “good” people. In the past week alone, Simmons’ office approved 69 concealed-carry handgun permits — a slow week, he said. For every concealed-carry permit he approves, he calls the recipient individually, letting them know.
“I thank them for being part of my team,” he said.
In a statement posted on the sheriff’s office’s Facebook page Thursday, Simmons said he believes that he has been appointed by God to be the sheriff in order to protect citizens’ rights. Some people commenting on his Facebook post inferred his statement to mean he would let felons to possess guns, not just law-abiding citizens. Simmons said that’s not the case.
“In my opinion, if you’re a felon you’re not a citizen,” he said. “Felons don’t have the right to vote or to carry a gun.”
Under North Carolina law, people with only one nonviolent conviction on their record can petition to have their civil rights restored, including the right to vote and the right to carry a gun.
While Simmons might have a ready-made militia to fight off would-be gun seizures, he is not the only one. Randolph County Sheriff Greg Seabolt, whose county borders Davidson to the north, has also called for a Second Amendment-protection resolution.
Like Simmons, Seabolt, also a Republican, is less concerned than the general populace about losing Second Amendment rights, but it doesn’t mean he isn’t taking the possibility seriously.
“We will do everything we possibly can to prevent that from happening. We have state laws and federal laws,” he said. “These are laws that have been kind of pushed to the side and you have other laws being created that are almost to the point of defying or doing away with the Constitution this day and time.”
Seabolt said the Second Amendment “dictates” the other constitutional amendments, and any misinterpretation or modification of the amendment will only lead to “bad things.”
“We just don’t want any of our rights to be infringed upon,” he said. “When that happens you can’t govern as our founding forefathers intended.”
Seabolt said he would introduce his proposed resolution to the Randolph County Board of Commissioners on Feb. 3.
In the 2016 election, 73.4% of voters, or 52,870 people, cast a ballot in Davidson County for Donald Trump in the general election. The county is firmly Republican, and has a history of controversial law enforcement, as the years of Gerald Hege as sheriff demonstrate.
With thousands of comments posted on the pro-resolution, pro-gun Facebook page in favor of the right to self-defense, there appears to be online consensus on how commissioners should vote.
But not everyone agrees. Robert Curlee, a veteran of the Vietnam War and a former member the Lexington City Schools Board of Education, is one of the Davidson County residents who oppose such a resolution. He knows what bullets can do.
“Those who know the horror of war and the damage that those bullets can do to human tissue, that I as a combat medic have seen and experienced,” Curlee said. “I put my guns down, and I have not touched a gun since 1969. There’s been a few times in my life I’ve been out somewhere and wished I had a gun, and a few moments later in retrospect I would say, ‘Oh, God I’m glad I didn’t.’”
Curlee is vehemently anti-gun, saying it’s only natural for people who have guns to want to use them.
“Pretty soon you’re going to want to shoot something,” he said. “Having shot people in Vietnam, which is what we refer to as sanctioned killing, I just know.”
Furthermore, Curlee said he believes that a group of seven Republicans, such as the commissioners, should not be able to pass a resolution that might affect the entire county in ways unforeseen. Curlee said he would like to see a countywide referendum on the matter instead.
While the resolutions have captured the support of Second Amendment enthusiasts throughout North Carolina, they hold no official power, according to Wilson Parker, a constitutional- law professor at Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston-Salem.
“These are completely symbolic,” Parker said. “Counties are creatures of state law, and the federal Constitution has a supremacy clause. So any federal legislation trumps state legislation, and state legislation trumps county legislation.”
While they can’t pass their own laws protecting certain rights for gun owners, the Second Amendment-protection counties can choose not to enforce whatever gun laws are passed, similar to how some district attorneys no longer prosecute low-level marijuana cases, Parker said.
The Davidson County resolution deals with this exact scenario, and if passed, it would prohibit the county from allocating resources to the enforcement of any gun-control laws.
However, a failure to enforce any law could result in a negligence case being brought against the sheriff and county, Parker said.
“If someone is a known violator of the law and the sheriff refuses to enforce the law and someone is killed, whether or not the sheriff would have civil liability for refusing to arrest a known criminal is interesting,” Parker said.
He also said there is no local legislative mechanism to legally prevent, for example, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive from coming in and seizing illegal weapons. Both Seabolt and Simmons seemed to disagree.
“I’m not going to let the government, I don’t care what government you’re talking about — the federal government — I’m not going to let them come in and take our guns and take our rights away from us,” Seabolt said. “I think (this resolution) puts a nail in the coffin in reference to any inclination that we may allow that to happen.”
Hanes Mall is bracing for its appeal as a regional shopping center to take another hit with the pending closing of Macy’s.
The retailer begins a clearance sale Monday expected to last eight to 12 weeks. It has not given a reason for choosing the Hanes Mall store as one of the 29 being closed in this restructuring round.
When Macy’s shuts the doors on its three-level, 151,415-square-foot store that it owns, the mall will be down two of its five anchor tenants when counting the departure of Sears in January 2019.
Macy’s took over the mall’s southern anchor location in 2006 as part of acquiring Hecht’s in a merger.
Hanes Mall officials say the occupancy rate is close to 95% when counting Novant Health Inc.’s ownership of the former 175,000-square-foot Sears space. Novant has not made public its plans for the space. Commercial real-estate officials consider the Novant space as vacant.
Still, if Macy’s closes before Novant begins operations, the active occupancy rate drops below 80% since the combined Macy’s and Novant square footage represents 20.9% of the mall’s 1.56 million square feet.
Hanes Mall officials have declined to comment about Macy’s closing and its ripple effect, deferring comment to its owner and operator CBL Properties of Chattanooga, Tenn.
“We are evaluating alternatives and will share more information when plans are finalized,” Stacey Keating, CBL’s senior director of public relations and corporate communications, said Tuesday.
Keating declined to comment when asked how CBL would work with Macy’s to find retailers or others willing to buy the vacated space and parking lot.
Tony Plath, a retired finance professor at UNC Charlotte, said that while “the malls of the 1970s won’t completely disappear, nothing spells impending doom for a mall quite like losing an anchor tenant, like Macy’s, Belk or J.C. Penney’s.”
“Between the rise in shootings by teenage kids who haunt mall properties these days and the loss of anchor tenants, shoppers are just abandoning malls in droves for the internet.”
In February 2018, an incident on Saturday night involving teenagers led to Hanes Mall being shut down early. The incident, which police termed “a large fight,” apparently began when a group of 80 to 100 teens in violation of the mall’s 6 p.m. curfew were asked to leave.
It escalated when teens tried to interfere with an arrest of a teen who refused to leave.
Hanes Mall instituted a policy in 2010 requiring that teens be accompanied by a parent after 6 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays or any other time mall officials deem it necessary.
Analysts say it’s likely Macy’s will look sooner than later to sell the Hanes Mall property, which features 9.6 acres when including its parking lot. The overall property is valued at $9.2 million, according to Forsyth County Tax Department.
The mall and CBL were fortunate to have a positive outcome from the Sears nationwide downsizing.
Novant Health Inc.’s real estate arm spent $14.5 million in October 2018 to buy the mall space, outparcel automotive building and the parking lots — 16.72 acres total. The system has become land-locked on its campus off Silas Creek Parkway and Hawthorne Road.
Given J.C. Penney Co.’s shaky financial status — it said Thursday same-store sales were down 7.5% during the critical holiday-shopping season — analysts say it’s possible Hanes Mall could be down to just two anchors by the end of 2020.
In a January 2017 profile in the Winston-Salem Journal, Hanes Mall manager Charles Gwinn said the fact that a national department store had not chosen to close its store at that time was a testament to the mall’s relevancy.
It also was a sign of its position as the mall of choice for not only Forsyth County, but also much of the Triad and Northwest North Carolina.
Gwinn recognized the downsizing of major department stores as consumer shopping patterns increasingly shift to online, particularly as free shipping and returns help shoppers overcome concerns about not being able to touch or try out items such as apparel and furniture.
Gwinn said the mall has chosen to embrace — as best it can — the disruptive nature of advancing technology so shoppers and tenants can meet wherever they prefer to interact.
“We have no inherent fear of online shopping,” he said. “Our merchants are viewing it more and more as a powerful shopping tool.”
For example, Gwinn said technology is helping to make regional malls more relevant to millennial shoppers — those ages 18 to 34 — because they can check out an item online, see if it is available at a mall store and make the purchase that day rather than wait a day or two on shipping.
Ultimately, Gwinn said, a mall, at its core, remains a reflection of its community more than a reflection of its tenant base.
“The shopping market dictates the retailers they want, whether lifestyle, apparel or core household items,” he said.
“Shopping evolves as our society evolves. The one thing we should expect is change.
“It’s always a question of ‘What’s next?’ “
Macy’s recent store closures have ranged from New York to California.
“They are demonstrating that Macy’s challenges are due to the changing nature of how shoppers are buying,” said Roger Beahm, executive director of the Center for Retail Innovation at the Wake Forest University School of Business.
When narrowing down to the Hanes Mall store closing decision, Beahm said “it would appear to be a combination of being both a late-comer to the area, as well as the fact that a younger generation of shoppers is more comfortable shopping online”
Beahm said Macy’s struggles come in part because it “hasn’t cracked the code in getting its current in-store customers to remain loyal to the Macy’s banner as more of them move their shopping online.”
“It hasn’t been able to capture a sizable enough share of new-generation shoppers who prefer shopping online. The ability to do both will be key to Macy’s long-term survival.”
CBL has been active in trying to attract retailers, including some outside-the-box options, to fill large mall spaces within its portfolio.
For example, Dave & Buster’s debuted at Hanes Mall in May as a non-traditional anchor with 30,200 square feet on the lower level of the mall with its own entrance.
Furniture King, a discount home furnishings retailer, is located near J.C. Penney, while H&M has taken a two-story mini-anchor spot in the southern section near the food court.
CBL said Thursday that Dave & Buster’s will take space in the former Sears store at Cross Creek Mall in Fayetteville, along with “plans for restaurants, specialty stores and other uses.”
However, when looking at CBL’s own iffy financial status, it is unlikely CBL would be willing or able to buy the Macy’s property.
On Dec. 2, CBL said it was suspending all future dividends on its common stock through at least the end of 2020. The 52-week range of its share price is 77 cents to $2.61.
“Preserving free cash flow is a paramount objective for CBL at this time,” said Stephen Lebovitz, CBL’s chief executive.
“We anticipate a decline in net operating income in 2020 as a result of heightened retailer bankruptcies, restructurings and store closings in 2019.
“Offsetting these declines by retaining available cash is necessary to maintain the market dominant position of our properties and to reduce debt.”
The challenge of successfully filling the pending Macy vacancy may come down to consumer habits and traffic flow patterns.
For years, mall shoppers have concentrated their driving and parking habits around the middle three mall anchors — Belk’s, Dillards and JC Penney — and the food court.
When coming off Stratford Road and turning right to drive by Olive Garden, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Rooster’s Country Store, there’s only Macy’s as a draw on the southern loop of Hanes Mall Circle until the Carolina Ale House as an outparcel on the outer side of the road.
Several mall customers interviewed last week said their pattern, particularly during the holidays, has been to park at Macy’s for the easy entrance and walk through to conduct their shopping.
The key for redeveloping the Macy’s property may come down to whether it is looking for one buyer or developer, or if it is willing to sell to multiple buyers interested in just one floor in the mall or an outparcel.
“When it comes to casual or fine dining, the type of cuisine offered, combined with the equity/power of the brand and the restaurant’s overall general location, should be more motivating to patrons than the convenience of the turn direction one makes to access the establishment,” Beahm said.
“That said, it’s certainly known that the convenience of the turn direction itself can have a significant influence on retail store trial.”
As isolated as the Macy’s property appears to be, CBL has stressed recently it has had success in redeveloping those types of areas.
CBL said that for 2019, it completed a dozen redevelopment projects within its portfolio totaling 650,000 square feet. It said an additional five projects totaling 490,000 square feet was under construction.
Those include turning parking lots into hotels, restaurants, self-storage units, and fitness and entertainment venues. It assisted retailers to move into larger spaces, as well as attracted non-retail tenants and property owners from the medical and office sectors.
“We continue to experience strong demand at our centers, attracting tenants such as WhirlyBall, Dave & Buster’s, Round1 Bowling & Amusement and Main Event, new dining options such as The Cheesecake Factory, Uncle Julio’s and Malone’s,” Lebovitz said.
“Replacing former anchor stores is an opportunity to bring newer, more dynamic uses to our properties that will help stabilize income, drive additional traffic and position our properties for future growth.”
The pending closing of Macy’s at Hanes Mall is symptomatic of department stores that proved not to be a good match demographically for some markets, Plath said.
“Stores, such as Macy’s and Nordstrom’s, are just too expensive for middle-class families trying to save to put a few kids through college,” Plath said.
“When these high-end retailers started expanding into middle-class mall locations outside of really large cities, I suspect their costs went up faster than their revenue.
“Then along came Amazon, which is pretty much taking its toll off everybody in the category,” Plath said.
Beahm expects Macy’s “to be aggressive in finding a buyer and turning the asset into cash. As such, they will be taking the initiative to find someone willing to invest in its space.”
The Motley Fool financial website said in a May 29 article that between fiscal years 2016 and 2018, Macy’s generated more than $1.5 billion of proceeds from selling real estate assets.
Beahm said the Macy’s store could prove attractive to multi-family residential developers, co-working space developers, and non-profit organizations.
“Other malls are demonstrating successful conversion of the space created by vacating anchor tenants to alternate use, and Macy’s could certainly sell to someone such as this,” Beahm said.
“Hanes Mall must continue to implement creative strategies to fill the space left by traditional anchors that leave, not just for growth, but for their own survival as well.
“The bottom line is that retail is going to continue to evolve more and more to online shopping. That’s reality,” Beahm said.
“Any retailer unable to successfully make this transition in its business, at a speed equal to or faster than the evolution itself, will fall victim to the ‘retail apocalypse’ that every retailer is now experiencing.”
Raymond Collins, with Collins Commercial Properties Inc., said the key to mall redevelopment is patience — something that typically is in short supply with retailers closing stores and entering bankruptcy protection.
He said it could take less than a year for Macy’s to find a buyer and/or attract a potential user or tenant, or more than two years given the size of the building and property.
“Every piece of real estate has an audience of potential highest and best users, but not every user can make do with a special-use property, one lacking visibility, and/or a three story building,” Collins said.
The goal for Macy’s and CBL, Collins said, should be to concentrate on retailers and entertainment venues that “are their own destination draw, such as Bass Pro Shop or something similar to Dave & Buster’s.
“The property is easily marketable to a new replacement tenant that might take half or all of the property. For ancillary, impulse shopping and dining, visibility is king.”
Collins said part of Macy’s store-closing dilemma comes from “over building, particularly in middle-income or lower-income areas, and the demise of the two-tiered pricing retail model.”
That model depends on full pricing most of the year and sales price of 20% to 35% during spring, back to school, Christmas and post-Christmas seasons.
Collins said the saving grace for brick-and-mortar retailers is when millennials begin having children.
“Millennials particularly are experiential in nature,” Collins said.
“This in time may steer the younger internet shopper back to the bricks-and-mortar store, particularly when buying for their children when size matters. It may be just quicker to go to the brick-and-mortar store today, be done with it and cross the new play outfit off the list.
“Sometimes, convenience, too, is in the eye of the beholder.”
Collins disputes the notion of a retail apocalypse.
“The retail industry is very adaptive, constantly changing, though being overbuilt in many markets, and constantly re-inventing itself,” Collins said.
“The strong and adaptive will survive, the weak will go away.”
A consulting firm is working on a classification and compensation salary study focused on classified employees for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system.
The local board of education recently approved a contract for MMG Solutions LLC, a consulting company, to do the study.
The goal is for MMG Solutions to work with the school system in the design and implementation of a classification and compensation system aimed at meeting the current and future needs of WS/FCS.
Classified employees are primarily nonlicensed workers. They include bus drivers, teachers’ aides, administrative assistants as well as child nutrition, housekeeping and maintenance workers.
Angela Hairston, superintendent for WS/FCS, said that during her listening sessions across the school district, it was clear that WS/FCS employees and parents were concerned about the pay of all district employees.
“If passed, the proposed quarter-cent sales tax which will appear on the March ballot will help increase the supplements for our teachers,” Hairston said. “When it comes to our classified employees, the roughly 50 or more non-teaching district positions, this study will give us a comprehensive and in-depth look into each of them, how they are classified and how they are paid. The salary will help us see how the salary for each of these positions compares to other school districts, government entities and private business.”
Then the district will develop its own competitive pay structure for each of those positions, she said.
“We want the best employees, but in order to attract and retain the best, we have to be competitive in what and how we compensate everyone working in the district,” Hairston said.
These are the objectives of the proposed classification and compensation structure:
The school system will pay MMG Solutions $70,000 in multiple installments for its work with the balance due March 31.
Services are being provided in phases. The goal is for the consulting company to provide the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education with final recommendations on a plan and/or reclassification of positions.
Based on a timeline presented to the school board, the company should have findings ready to report late this month.