The Wilson Times returning to downtown roots

Newspaper plans early 2017 move to Nash Street

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Three decades after leaving its downtown Wilson office for a sprawling production plant, The Wilson (N.C.) Times is returning to its roots in the city's historic core.

The newspaper will relocate to 126 Nash St. W – currently the 126 on Nash Event Center – in early 2017, Times President and Publisher Morgan Dickerman III announced.

"This was the only building I would have moved for," Dickerman said, noting the site sits two blocks from the Gold-Harrell House where Pleasant Daniel Gold, his great-great-grandfather, founded the publishing company that launched The Wilson Times in 1896. "Downtown has always held a special place in my heart."

First Citizens Bank – which formerly owned and operated the 12,107-square-foot Nash Street building as a downtown branch – financed the $475,000 purchase. The deal closed last Tuesday.

The facility was built in 1963 and is currently being renovated for occupancy in January. It will serve as headquarters for the Wilson Times Co., which publishes the Times and more than a dozen specialty publications, and will also house the Wilson County Phone Directory and Mobile Billboards offices.

Tom Corbett, broker and manager of First Venture Properties, is assisting the Times with its relocation and is listing the newspaper's 2001 Downing St. plant for sale.

"I think this is key to bringing a large portion of redevelopment downtown," Corbett said. "If you look at the downtowns that have been successful, they're bringing back the key players like the paper and other businesses."

The Wilson County Chamber of Commerce, Edna Boykin Cultural Center and Upper Coastal Plain Business Development Center will be among the Times' Nash Street neighbors.

"We are not just going to be an occupant of a building," Dickerman said. "We are going to be a partner and supporter of redevelopment in downtown Wilson."

Family history

The Times returns to downtown Wilson during its 120th year of continuous publication. P.D. Gold's son, John D. Gold, founded The Wilson Times as a weekly newspaper in 1896 – the first edition is dated Feb. 14. The newspaper grew to a semi-weekly and then a six-day daily, becoming The Wilson Daily Times in 1902.

Following The Fayetteville Observer's sale to GateHouse Media in July, the Times is one of three family-owned daily newspapers remaining in North Carolina. The others are The Goldsboro News-Argus and The Daily Record of Dunn.

Downtown Wilson is central to the newspaper's history and the history of its family ownership. Dickerman grew up with the Times when his grandmother, Elizabeth Gold Swindell, served as the paper's editor and publisher.

"As a little boy, I lived on Vance Street," Dickerman said. "It was nothing for me to get on my bicycle and ride over and sit down in the editor's office. I just hung around. It was part of my life."

The Times publisher recalls boyhood outings to Woolworth's, Roses and the Cherry Hotel.

"I have a lot of good memories about downtown," he said, "so it's great to be moving back."

His father, Morgan Paul Dickerman II, served as associate publisher from 1957 until his death in 1974. Dickerman III became vice president in 1979 and was named president and publisher upon Swindell's death in 1983.

Downing to downtown

The Wilson Times was based at 117 Goldsboro St. N when its contractors broke ground on a $2.6 million, 30,000-square-foot building on Downing Street in late 1981. Opened in early 1983, the structure served as a state-of-the-art hub for the Times' publishing business.

The facility housed the newspaper's printing press and inserting stations in addition to offices for its news, advertising, circulation and customer service operations. The Times sold its press this year after outsourcing printing to Cooke Communications' Greenville facility in 2015.

"We needed the space, we needed the parking," Dickerman said of the initial move to Downing Street. "It was a strategic move to print in Greenville. That enabled us to be able to move downtown."

Economies of scale made it less expensive for the Times to contract with a commercial printing hub than to operate its own press. The advent of desktop publishing in the late 1990s made the paper's composing equipment obsolete, and technological advances shrank the amount of real estate needed to operate a community newspaper.

A Dec. 15, 1981, story on the Times' Downing Street plant notes that it would be outfitted with a satellite dish to receive Associated Press stories and photos. The dish would "wean the newspaper of its dependence on telephone lines for receipt of wire service news," Hal Tarleton wrote at the time.

Associated Press content is now transmitted via the internet. Newspapers no longer need large satellite dishes or the other bulky infrastructure that anchored the business in the 1980s.

The Nash Street building was purchased from Kuda LLC, a corporation owned by 126 on Nash Event Center operators Klaus and Sherrie Kunz.

Dickerman said First Citizens Bank was eager to finance the new Times office and is committed to seeing the location of its former branch thrive.

"They're looking at this as helping downtown revitalize itself," he said. "They are helping to revitalize downtown Wilson." 

Future growth

Dickerman sees parallels between downtown Wilson's redevelopment and the metamorphosis of his family newspaper, which is undergoing a series of strategic changes following a comprehensive market study conducted by Massachusetts-based GreatBlue Research from Oct. 6 to Jan. 21.

The research firm interviewed 500 subscribers, occasional readers and non-readers and developed a set of recommendations that translated into new features in The Wilson Times.

#WideAwakeWilson, a weekly event and entertainment guide published each Thursday, a daily weather digest, the return of full-color comics, historical images of Wilson County life and landmarks published each day and upgrades to the paper's sports and lifestyles coverage have all been implemented as a result of the survey.

Likewise, downtown Wilson is working to position itself as a hub for shopping, living and tourism with the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park project begun in 2013, the conversion of the Hi-Dollar Warehouse into a mixed-use development including apartments and retail space and an initiative to redevelop the former Cherry Hotel.

"We've got a lot of really good, solid specialty shops and unique things that are getting ready to be coming downtown," Corbett said.

A commercial developer with deep roots in Wilson, Corbett said the Times' move downtown could help spur an office and retail revival.

"I hope that this is a key to other local businesses and local investors getting involved with buildings and redevelopment in the downtown area," he said. "Wilson is not just the crossroads of a tobacco market. We have become much more. We are a central hub to eastern North Carolina."

RELATED STORY: Mobile billboards garner attention in Wilson, N.C.

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