In the 1970s, Asheville citizens began a drive to have the building restored to its original grandeur and purpose. In 1974 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which could yield valuable tax credits to any organization willing to restore the arcade. The arcade’s owner turned a deaf ear; it would be 20 years before Uncle Sam would relinquish his grip on the grand landmark.
Finally, in 1995, the city of Asheville was granted title to the Grove Arcade for the sum of one dollar. Two entities stepped forward as partners to restore and operate the city’s new building: CP&L (now: Duke Progress Energy) and Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation.
After spending approximately $20 million on the restoration, and a well-publicized grand opening, the Grove Arcade was reopened for multi-use business in 2002.
Keeping the Doors Open
Ruth Summers walks across the terrazzo promenade on the ground floor of the arcade. After greeting the security guard, she passes through an elegantly decorated passage in the marble and ceramic wall, to climb the stairs.
Her hand grips the original bronze stair rail as she ascends to the office. Along the way, there is always something to look at, some small decoration or detail that Charles Parker dreamed, a small something to entertain the eye. Keys out, she unlocks the large wooden door with “270” painted into the glass in period font.
Her desk flanks a window, where the Art Moderne style Citizen-Times building plays a supporting visual role to Mount Pisgah in the distance. Autumn has begun on the peaks, and from her downtown perch, it’s dazzling.
“I’m the luckiest person in the world,” says Ruth. “I am fortunate enough to work within this amazing structure. I spent a lot of time in Virginia, surrounded by history and historic buildings; it’s where I came to love architecture.”
Ruth Summers is the president of Grove Arcade Restoration (GAR), which has a 99-year lease to manage the 66,000 sq. ft. retail space within the arcade. GAR is a limited liability corporation operating under the control of the nonprofit, Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation.
“What’s the largest building in downtown Asheville?” asks Ruth. Most people, us included, automatically think ‘up,’ and declare it to be the BB&T skyscraper, but Ruth will instruct you otherwise. “You can fit two BB&T’s into the historic Grove Arcade,” she says. “BB&T is 130,000 sq. ft. and the arcade is 269,000 sq. ft.” Wow, that still leaves 9,000 sq. ft.—enough to install Kanye West’s new Bel Air abode and still be able to get the doors closed.
In 2004, Ruth was looking for another challenge after spending eight years managing the Southern Highland Craft Guild, when she noticed that Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation’s board of trustees was looking for help.
The board was in a tough spot. The arcade had been open for two years, and retail occupancy was still below 70%. Vacant storefronts do not provide the much-needed operating capital, and they scare off shoppers as well as potential retail tenants. Some of the existing tenants were struggling to break even.
Ruth knew what would turn the building around, so during her job interview, she was very direct with the foundation board. The leases were cumbersome, with an arcane rate schedule that varied monthly; they would have to be revised. Lease terms needed to be enforced, and all future retail businesses needed to be screened.
She secured the presidency of GAR nine years ago, and during her tenure, occupancy has never dropped below 87%.
A building needs tending, just like any business. In a way, managing one with a block of retail spaces is doubly difficult. On one side of the scale, Ruth has to attract shoppers who fit a certain market segment. At the other, she has to attract retail business owners whose target market will appeal to the same shopper demographic.
Additionally, the store mix has to be just right to keep visiting patrons from going elsewhere in town. Ruth’s job is to juggle all these balls to yield a satisfactory retail experience for shoppers and shopkeepers alike.