'Mind blowingly amazing:' The budding boom of 'little' Washington

Posted February 15, 2019 5:00 a.m. EST
Updated February 26, 2019 11:31 a.m. EST

This article was written for our sponsor, Washington Tourism Development Authority.

"Little" Washington in eastern North Carolina is historic, idyllic and charming — but don't let its quaintness fool you.

While picturesque indeed, it's far from a sleepy town.

The lure of the waterfront, redevelopment in the area and frequent town events throughout the year keep residents and tourists alike busy and entertained.

While the population of Washington has stayed relatively steady over the past 20 years, downtown is changing. New businesses and restaurants have popped up, old buildings have been re-purposed and the city is shifting.

"In the last couple of years, we have seen amazing things happening in the downtown area and in Washington as a whole," said small business owner and resident Linsey Prewitt. "Small businesses are coming up, larger businesses are coming up. Our properties are being bought and restored, and we're having really new, modern things happening in our area to our historic buildings."

Prewitt recently opened Diversion Escape Rooms in a space at 147 W. Main Street with co-owner Payne Snow. Since its opening less than six months ago, Prewitt said that the reception from residents has been "mind blowingly amazing."

"We decided that we would open up a business where people could just come and do something [fun]," Prewitt explained. "We don't want to spend our money in Greenville; we'd like to spend money right here. We've had amazing support from our community — Washington has been 100 percent behind us. Residents here have been completely supportive. We have not reached our tourist season yet, but we cannot be more excited about that."

Prewitt, who also owns Day Dreamer Events, is no stranger to owning a businesses. Day Dreamer Events coordinates event planning services for corporate and non-profit organizations, plans large scale events like concerts, fundraisers and more, and is "growing all the time."

Prewitt, who was born and raised in Washington, said she has witnessed a recent "economic boom" in the city and is excited to be a part of it.

"We're really enjoying the growth right now that we're going through," she said. "Washington has gone through a couple of waves in my lifetime. I recall being a child and the waterfront was older, and they installed Stewart Parkway and the Promenade … and all that beautiful stuff that we have on the waterfront — I saw that grow."

Washington also happens to be a national historic district with more than 500 contributing buildings. Prewitt noted the revitalization that is happening to some of the buildings as businesses come in and restore them, bringing in modern elements and businesses to the area.

Purchasing an old building and turning it into something new is exactly what Nick Sanders and his wife did with the old Bank of America building on Main Street.

Sanders and his wife, Suzanne, lived abroad in London for more than two decades before deciding to move back to Suzanne's hometown. Both had previous experience in the food industry and realized the potential for a high-end restaurant in the area.

"[Suzanne] got shown the Watts building and she totally fell in love with it," Sanders said of the old bank. "The building had been derelict for a number of years, so we put an offer in on the building and managed to secure the building for something that we felt was a reasonable price. And then we set about working on our plans for renovations."

Of course the Sanders had to raise capital, bring in architects, clear plans with the city, and do lots of heavy lifting, but The Hackney officially opened in January 2019. The fine dining restaurant will be one aspect of the multi-use building, which will also include a gin distillery and boutique hotel.

As one Facebook reviewer described it, The Hackney is "an infusion of UK sophistication and Southern hospitality" with delicious food.

Sanders said the renaissance was already happening when they arrived in Washington in 2017, and businesses were starting to reclaim downtown. Simply put, he saw the potential.

"A lot of the businesses were starting to come back, but there was still a lot of derelict buildings that needed to be bought and refurbished, so the bank was kind of key to that," Sanders explained. "We looked at other places where people had opened restaurants, like the Chef and Farm near Kinston. Washington has as much to offer as any other location."

Little Washington : Spotlight : Budding Bloom

The lure of the Little Washington's waterfront, redevelopment in the area and frequent town events throughout the year keep residents and tourists alike busy and entertained. (Photo Courtesy of Washington Tourism Development Authority)

Also in the local restaurant business is Laura Scoble.

Scoble moved to Washington in 2004 and said over the years she has seen "a lot of people injecting an awful lot of money and growth into this small town." Scoble co-owns Backwater Jack's Tiki Bar & Grill on East Main Street and said she feels lucky they found a "really great spot" where they could place the restaurant back in 2005.

"It's on a river, so the views are great. It's been fun to watch the growth," she said. "I think we saw the value of Washington way earlier."

Scoble pointed out that economic development and growth has been happening in the Triangle for years and it takes a little while for similar trends to filter down to smaller towns.

Originally from Florida, Scoble moved to the area on the recommendation of a friend who was already in Washington. Since her initial transplant, things have evolved for her and her business.

"When we moved to Washington, we opened a drive-through coffee/breakfast/brunch place," she said. "We knew that at some point we could get kicked out of the space because we were just renting. So we looked around until we could find a building that we could own — that we could afford."

The idea for Backwater Jack's was based on Scoble and her business partner, Cathy Bell's, love for all the "funky little bars" they'd come across in their travels to places like Saint Martin and Mexico. She admits that they did a lot of things wrong in the beginning, but is grateful that people gave them a chance and kept coming back.

Over the years, Backwater Jack's has transformed from a two-bedroom cottage into a cottage with additional decks and a subsequent roof over one of the decks. Scoble hopes to add another outside bar in the near future.

It's a place where people can participate in fun events like a fruitcake toss, and don't have to pay a cover to enjoy live music. Scoble is of the opinion that every town needs a "type of quirky, cool place that you can just go to."

The juxtaposition of Prewitt's trendy escape room business, Sanders' five-star dining experience and Scoble's homegrown staple perfectly illustrates what's going on in Washington. Little Washington is mixing the old with the new, while expanding at a rate it can handle.

"We have an amazing established group of businesses, but while we're growing, this is an amazing time to be a part of that growth," Prewitt added. "We have room for you to come in and be a part of what we're doing here."

This article was written for our sponsor, Washington Tourism Development Authority.