The rise and fall of the Railyard parking lot

by Jeff Sykes

Jim Budd sits in a high back chair surrounded by the soft afternoon sunlight pouring through large glass windows on the second floor office space of The Worx on Barnhardt Street in Downtown Greensboro. A local artisan craft fair is wrapping up downstairs. The Masters is on the television and most people in North Carolina are thinking about this night’s Final Four game against Syracuse.

But Jim Budd is talking business. It’s my fault actually. I’ve been after Budd for weeks to talk to me about the closing of The Spice Cantina and the impending sale of the Railyard parking lot. “Check with me at the end of the month,” he’d say, and true to his word, the end of March came and so here I am sitting across from Budd asking him about the city loan and the state of the restaurant business in Downtown Greensboro.

Budd says he’s conflicted. He thought he would be relieved to get the Spice building and the parking lot sold, some debts paid and his ability to focus on one business at a time restored. But he’s not. It’s a bittersweet feeling, he says, one that made him tear up a bit as he signed the final documents transferring the property to a parking lot management group out of Atlanta.

If you’ve walked through the Railyard parking lot, hidden behind the monstrosity that is the current state of the Cascade Saloon building that muddles the entryway to South Elm Street from Hamburger Square, in the last two years then Jim Budd is the man to thank. Budd and his partners formed Greensboro Parking Group LLC and through raised capital, sweat equity and a boost in the form of a $200,000 loan from the City of Greensboro turned an abandoned parcel of land into a clean concrete parking lot suitable for the explosion of redevelopment happening in the South Elm Street neighborhood.

“It was a bittersweet day,” Budd says.

“I thought there might be a little sense of relief just to take a load off my shoulders but it was almost a tearing up kind of day because we were out here literally with our bare hands digging trenches across the entire parking lot for conduit. We built a significant part of these restaurants with our bare hands. That was the vision when we first started, to create this fourprong approach. We truly thought this would be a significant catalyst for this area.”

The proof is in the pudding, he says. “It has been a huge catalyst because I think that since that parking lot has been completed there is somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 properties in South Elm that have been repurposed,” Budd says.

In his view, the Greensboro Parking Group was just too slightly ahead of the curve. Spice Cantina failed to generate the type of foot traffic their business plan anticipated. Revenue from the paid parking lot was robust, Budd said, and helped balance the overall plan out until a fateful night last August when a young man was shot to death while leaving Club Lotus. Lotus patrons generated a significant amount of money for the parking lot each month. When Club Lotus closed they owed their previous landlord tens of thousands of dollars in back rent. When the club closed, it also cost the Greensboro Parking Group tens of thousands of dollars in revenue.

“We lost a significant amount of monthly revenue immediately after that incident and it was pretty hard to recover,” Budd said. “It’s unfortunate and you can never predict that. That was very significant.”

It was a tragic end to what had seemed like a business plan with a bright future. Throughout late summer and into fall, Budd and his partners continued to pour capital into the Spice Cantina hoping for a turnaround. Budd needed that turnaround. He’d invested a lot of his own money, family money and investment capital into the project, first envisioned when a friend of his business partner suggested the two should come from Raleigh to check out redevelopment opportunities in Greensboro.

Some people thought they were crazy at first, Budd said. The gravel lot and abandoned building had zero tax value when they began picking up trash and debris by hand. They ultimately removed 40 industrial trash bags of beer bottles, syringes and other waste from the property. That was eight years ago. The partners sat on the property for a few years while pursuing other projects. Ultimately, they realized a need to take advantage of the assets in hand.

As it was, the gravel parking lot didn’t meet soil runoff requirements and would have to be paved. The city agreed in February 2012 to loan the partners $200,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds. Budd said the loan was crucial, because the costs to pave the parking lot escalated quickly due to issues with soil solidity.

“We probably ended up spending $150,000 over what our budget was,” Budd says. “That loan was significant. Unfortunately as time went on we had a lot of delays in getting Spice open because of the overruns in the parking lot. We had to start bringing a lot more internal monies into it just to get to the finish line.”

The Spice building and the Railyard parking lot sold for $2.6 million on March 31 to Buckhead Investments LLC, based in Atlanta. Greensboro Parking Group paid back the city loan the next day, in addition to paying off property taxes and other debts.

Budd thinks the buyer got a great deal, especially given the commercial growth that continues to take place in that immediate area. Multiple projects by Andy Zimmerman and Eric Robert along Lewis Street continue to make that street the hub of all things cool in Downtown Greensboro. New projects by the owners of Hudson’s Hill and unique showrooms like Area furniture store round out the restaurants and nightlife spots that continue to thrive. The opening of Union Square Campus this August could usher in a new wave of explosive growth.

“The cool thing is we’re starting to get a mix,” Budd said. “You’re seeing a transition because the antique business has started to die out over time. This used to be more of an arts and antique district and now it’s a mixture of retail and restaurants. You throw in Gibbs Hundred and Greensboro Distilling and great things like The Forge and HQ Greensboro and there’s a tremendous amount of stuff going on.”

Budd plans to focus on The Worx, maybe expand back to lunch service and continue to try and build foot traffic to the oasis of commerce hidden behind the dilapidated eyesore of the Cascade Saloon. The new owners of the Spice Cantina building reportedly plan to open a Wet Willie’s franchise, just not in time for summer.

So things are booming back behind the falling down facade of the Cascade Saloon on Elm Street. You just have to walk back there to know it.

“That’s where the pride comes in,” Budd said. “Did we fail in one sense? Maybe, because we were a couple of years ahead of the curve. But we kept pushing and throwing money at it. What’s unfortunate is that in the development world it happens a lot of times. He who puts the money in first is often out ahead of the curve, people come in at a future date and are able to take advantage of a lot of that investment in indirect ways and succeed.

“Did we do what we said we were going to do when we came in here?” Budd asks. “Hell yeah.” !