Raleigh Renaissance: The Women Driving its Growth

The City of Oaks’ downtown shut down two years ago, but female entrepreneurs are bringing business back with enthusiasm.
by Hampton Williams Hofer | photography by Bryan Regan

Erica Heilmann, owner of Gathering Gallery

Off Moore Square on Hargett Street, Read With Me boasts a charming window nook and sunny shelves of varied titles, a whimsical bookshop dream. Today, the store bustles with children, but this time two years ago, its windows were covered in plywood, that window seat dark and empty.

When the pandemic shut down downtown Raleigh, Read With Me owner Christine Brenner, a former school librarian, personally drove online orders for books to her customers’ homes. “Parents all of a sudden had to work and teach from home, so I was hoping that by doing a little thing like bringing their books to their houses, I could help take one worry off their minds,” says Brenner, who added lollipops and coloring sheets to orders to lift spirits. Evette Hunt, owner of Evette’s Beauty Salon on South Wilmington Street, remembers those days as sad.

“I was one of the few on my block that could still operate,” she says. “It wasn’t business as usual, but it was still business.” The 30-year veteran of the hair-styling industry had to cut back on clients and hours to accommodate downtown curfews and Covid protocols. Her daughters helped her paint her plywood with messages of support — for down- town and for the spirit of Black Lives Matter. “There is no division; when we struggle, we struggle together,” Hunt says.

Both women are examples of the optimism and fortitude in a recovering city center. “Downtown has made such progress in the last 20 years, but the last two have been very difficult,” says Greg Hatem, founder and managing partner at Empire Properties, which owns several buildings in downtown Raleigh. “Seeing local businesses lining our storefronts is really impressive, not only because we have activity downtown, but because they are showing off some of the best Raleigh has. There’s a renais- sance happening right now.”

Christine Brenner, owner of Read with Me

Hatem has noticed that much of this rebirth is being piloted by women. Within three blocks in the heart of downtown, between Moore and Nash Squares, some dozen female-owned businesses offer culture and intrigue, leading the charge to bring back downtown. Among them are a handcrafted jewelry studio, a dessert bar, a salon, a succulent shop and a Tanzanian clothing boutique. The Downtown Raleigh Alliance lists nearly 100 businesses that are at least 50% female-owned. “It’s an unbelievable number, and likely some- thing that has never happened before in downtown Raleigh’s history,” says Hatem. “Each woman has a story to tell, and all of them are helping not to just bring back downtown Raleigh, but to reshape it as an interesting place to shop and visit.”

“I am so proud of the female entrepreneurs in downtown Raleigh,” says Roxanne Lundy, storefront manager for the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. She says that the DRA has intentionally dedicated resources to recruiting female- and minority-owned businesses in downtown Raleigh. One way is through its grant programs, like the Storefront Upfit Grant, which has awarded support to eight such business-es since last year, including TG Floristry, Designed for Joy and Hartwell.

Statistically, women reinvest most of their income in their families and communities — nearly 90%, according to a Clinton Global Initiative report, versus 35% for men. These female business owners are setting an example for those to come and serving as allies to each other, united in their passion for Raleigh and its people.

Sarah Moody, owner of Curate Raleigh

Business owner Megan George Cain’s story began here: When she was a little girl, her scientist parents often took her to the North Carolina Farmers Market, Pullen Park and the downtown Raleigh museums. They also filled their suburban home with greenery. So when Cain had

the opportunity to open a plant and gift shop on South Wilmington Street, she jumped. “What once made downtown Raleigh so great is still there,” she says. “It’s the variety of communities that support one another, and the under- standing that we have strength in our unique offerings.” She co-founded her shop, The Zen Succulent, with her mother.

The store offers a variety of houseplants and hand-made terrariums, as well as workshops in floral arranging, hanging planters, spoon carving and terrarium building. “It is wonderful to see a lot of this growth led by women business owners,” Cain says. “I am honored to have my small part in it.”

DECO Raleigh on South Salisbury Street offers a colorful collection of local goods and gifts, and boasts Raleigh’s first sidewalk mural as well as its first parklet — a sidewalk extension built over two parking spots that serves as a tiny green space.

These touches are owner Pam Blondin’s love letters to the city. She spent 15 years living and working downtown before she decided to open her shop in 2012. “I usually go straight for the ‘cool shopping district’ in other cities, so that’s where I started with the DECO concept,” says Blondin. “I don’t think of the store as a source of commerce, but more as a flagship for the community.”

Evette Hunt, owner of Evette’s Beauty Salon

The retail store showcases independent makers of everything from high-fiber towels adorned with Raleigh’s signature acorn to North Carolina honey and barbeque sauce to cheeky greeting cards and wooden children’s toys. “We try to reflect the community by supporting local artisans and makers, and we try to bring the people together by being a place where folks run into their neighbors and know the staff like family,” Blondin says.

Goldsmith Lauren Ramirez runs Quercus Studio next door, where she has been using recycled precious metals and stones to make one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry since 2014. At Quercus, which is Latin for “oak tree,” Ramirez specializes in custom wedding and engagement rings, but offers a selection of other fine jewelry and gifts in her boutique workshop where her sidekick, a loyal pup named Alfred, hangs out at her feet.

“We’re excited to be welcoming people back in the shop,” says Ramirez. “Though I was astonished at how many new people I was able to connect with over the pandemic, even as business was slower.”

Brenner, Blondin and Ramirez remem- ber the first surge of downtown vibran- cy a decade ago. “I’ve been in Raleigh for 30 years and am really proud to have helped make small changes that help the bigger community thrive,” says Blondin. Similarly, when East Hargett Street salon Alter EGO Salon and Blow Dry Bar opened in 2008, co-owners Dana Rosa, Shawn Turnbull and April Hunter (two sisters and their mother) felt called to invest in the area. “Downtown was a ghost town when we moved here,” says Turnbull. “We thought of ourselves as pioneers, contributing to a walkable, connected and eclectic community.”

Lilian K. Daniel, owner of NASHOANA

That spirit permeates the businesses, and their relationships with each other. “I’ve met many incredible female business owners since opening my shop,” says Ramirez, who credits Blondin as an early cheerleader of Quercus. “DTR is a tight network.”

This collective of like-minded female business owners is part of what attracts new women to downtown. Last year, Erica Heilmann opened Gathering Gallery, a retail shop employing adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. On a mission to support local artisans, Gathering Gallery sells eco-friendly items like candles, jewelry, chocolates, art prints and curiosities from fair-trade brands. “The atmosphere is encouraging and welcoming to new businesses,” Heilmann says.

She’d wanted to live downtown ever since moving to the Triangle in 2008, and finally made it happen last year. “I am excited to own a business downtown and become part of the landscape and culture of the city,” she says. “I am honored to join so many other successful women entrepreneurs ensuring Raleigh is a community-driven, welcoming place to be.”

Every detail of her store is intended to support the community around her: She hands out tokens for meals at A Place at the Table, partners with local brands and makes sure her aisles can accommodate strollers, mobility aids and dogs. “I’m proud our business is both mission driven and service-oriented,” says Heilmann.

She’s not the only one running a business with a higher purpose in mind. Lilian K. Danieli, a Tanzanian native who lives in Raleigh, sells her women’s clothing line NASHONA through a West Hargett Street storefront she opened last November. “I was attracted to this location because of the diversity of people, art, museums, HBCUs, street festivals and eclectic mix of restaurants,” she says.

Driven to serve both her local and global communities, Danieli dedicates a portion of all sales to the Shalom Orphanage Centre in Karatu, Tanzania. “I feel a responsibility to spiritually, physically, mentally and financially support my family, our clients and the children of orphanage,” Danieli says.

Pam Blondin, owner of DECO Raleigh

Curate Raleigh, formerly known as Triangle Pop-Up, opened on West Hargett Street in November 2020. “We had no experience with retail, but we jumped when the Downtown Raleigh Alliance and Empire Properties present- ed the opportunity,” says founder Sarah Moody. Curate gives more than 60 local vendors a platform to share their brands and connect to the community.

Moody initially experimented with a two-month lease and had such success that she signed on for three more years. “It feels like we are right in the center of all the bustle and get great foot traffic,” she says. “There are also a few new retail shops around us, which helps consumers think of this area as a shopping district, rather than just a place for food and beverage.”

Moody looks around at the growing capital city and delights in seeing more homegrown brands filling the formerly boarded-up, empty storefronts: “When people choose to shop local, they are helping our community thrive.”

Female business owners old and new are motivated to stay downtown. “We feel a responsibility toward downtown, our staff and our clients. We want to make a positive and lasting impact,” Turnbull says. Danieli says that the female entrepreneurs supported her from the beginning: “Several women business owners visited to welcome me, pray with me for continued success, shop and dance — yes, dance! We do a lot of that here!” Just recently, says Ramirez, a guest came into Quercus who was referred by Read With Me, followed by another guest referred by The Zen Succulent.

Brenner says that her store would not have survived the past two years without deep community support. She wants to pay it forward: “I want everyone to feel welcome and excited to be back.”

The momentum is there, agrees Hunt: “I can feel it. When we have First Fridays, when we have bluegrass playing on the street, it gives me hope. We are moving forward.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of WALTER Magazine.