Ric Culross has managed Raleigh's Schoolkids Records for two decades, weathering tides of big-box retailers and Internet downloads from the store's resilient Raleigh outpost. For the last five months, though, Culross has had to answer a persistent, perturbing question: Are you still in business?
In August, N.C. State University, whose iconic Belltower stands just across the corner of Hillsborough Street where Raleigh's sole independent record store sits, announced plans to redevelop the divided, 0.77-acre lot that not only holds Schoolkids but also a storied local restaurant, venue, bar and hangout, Sadlack's Heroes. According to the university, Bell View Partners and the Bernstein Companies planned to erect an eight-story hotel on the university-owned land. There were no dates set for demolition, no threats of a sudden demise, but that bit of the news was lost on many who came by the store.
"When the news broke that they were going to tear this place down, we had people coming in to buy shirts and take pictures of our neon sign because they heard we were closing," Culross recalls. "Throughout the Christmas season, we felt the impact that [people] presumed from the press that we were forced to close."
But Schoolkids isn't closed. Neither are any of the other businesses that share the spot—Sadlack's, a barber shop, a convenience store, an art collective, a wings restaurant and the infamous college-lifestyle store Buddha's Belly. The leases for the property run through October, but the businesses likely will have more time to find new spaces: According to the developers, construction on the hotel should begin in 15 months.
Ralph Reechie is the university's real estate director, and he has helped oversee its initiative to redevelop Hillsborough Street. About three years ago, the university began acquiring land along the street, hoping to turn it around to potential developers. The parcel adjacent to the Belltower drew the interest of Bell View Partners, which plans to erect a hotel and a two-story parking deck on the land. The hotel plans to incorporate first-floor spaces for dining and retail.
"It became apparent pretty quickly that the site that was suffering the most as far as lack of maintenance and investment was the block across the street from the Belltower," Reechie says. "Sadlack's was in a little nicer shape because they had made some investment lately. But it was on the same parcel as other buildings that were not so nice and not with very nice tenants and so forth."
A treasured local eatery and storied music venue whose back porch has hosted such local greats as Whiskeytown and Chatham County Line, Sadlack's now has tentative plans to move into a larger space down the street. Bell View is assisting in the design process for the venue's potential new home.
"So far, the developers and the university have been wonderful to work with," says Rose Schwetz, who has owned Sadlack's since 1984. Five years ago, she made extensive renovations. "Some days I'm mad at them because they want my corner. And some days I look at it, and I'm like, 'Oh well, hell, I'll survive somehow.'"
Schoolkids owner Mike Phillips says he plans to stay in his current space as long as possible and then move to another location close to the university. He's not sure if it will be on Hillsborough or another adjacent street, but Culross agrees that the local institution's proximity to the school is a priority.
"The students, the youth are now becoming the vinyl record buyers," Culross says. "It's the only configuration that's raising in sales—not just here, but nationally. So we want to have our toes touching."