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

Posted November 12, 2021 5:00 a.m. EST
Updated November 12, 2021 11:29 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 repurposed 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, who owns Day Dreamer Events as well as Southern Grace Boutique, is no stranger to owning a business. 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." Southern Grace Boutique offers trendy and fashionable women's clothing for all shapes and styles.

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."

One of the many new additions to Washington are two breweries —a much-anticipated addition since the town previously had none. Two Rivers Alehouse and the Mulberry House Brewery bring an exciting injection of culture to the historic downtown.

After noticing more traffic on nights and weekends, Two Rivers owner Bubba Summerlin and his business partner knew an alehouse would be the perfect addition.

"We knew Washington was growing a lot, and people have been overwhelmingly glad to see us come into the space. We're a place where you can come enjoy a craft beer and relax, which is something Washington didn't really have," said Summerlin. "We have been so well-received by the business community — other downtown businesses have sent us flowers and gift baskets to celebrate the opening. It really is a neat atmosphere."

In addition to their own brews, Two Rivers also offers local beers from around the state, from Wilmington to Asheville and everywhere in between, as well as an assortment of bar foods like chips and dip.

Summerlin and his business partner also have plans to open an outdoor beer garden on their property, so customers can enjoy the weather and scenic downtown Washington.

In addition to its location along the waterfront, Washington also happens to be a national historic district with more than 500 contributing buildings, adding further to the beauty of the area.

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 business partner Suzanne did with the old Bank of America building on Main Street.

Sanders and his partner 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 includes a gin distillery and will soon include a 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 were 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 the Farmer 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."

For some, that quirky cool place is Pamlico Books. Founded by Tom and Deb Ryan, the local bookstore offers books, gifts and educational programs.

"We fell in love with Washington. We looked at the waterfront, the warmth of the community, the cute shops and wonderful restaurants — the one thing that was missing on our list was a bookstore. I was already in the midst of a career change, so we took the plunge and did it ourselves," said Tom. "This town had been missing a bookstore for about 15 years, and people were just itching for it. When we announced we were coming, there was this outpouring of welcome and support that was just so wonderful — both from the community and from other local business owners."

The store is filled with some of Tom and Deb's favorite books, as well as local authors and popular reads. In addition to the inventory, the store is also the site of college planning workshops, reading groups and other community gatherings. The college planning workshops are especially helpful, allowing high students to learn about writing essays, applying to schools, navigating financial aid and more.

"We wanted this to be more than just a place to buy books — we wanted to be knitted into the fabric of the community," said Tom. "There's nothing more fulfilling to me than being able to talk to people about books every day. We want to get better at anticipating what our customers are looking for and to be seen as a bookshop for everyone, no matter their age, interest, ethnicity or orientation. Whoever you are, whatever you look like and whatever you believe, we want you to walk in and feel like this is your book shop."

The juxtaposition of Prewitt's event planning, Sanders' five-star dining experience, Scoble's homegrown staple, Summerlin's laidback alehouse and the Ryans' welcoming bookstore 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.