When Money named Apex last month the best place to live in the country among smaller cities, the magazine focused on the vibrant downtown.
That came as no surprise to many in the area, as its resilience stretches back more than a century to when Apex was a railroad town of a few hundred people.
Old-timers witnessed Salem Street, which runs through the heart of downtown, survive the Great Depression and thrive in other decades.
Newer residents, part of the town’s massive boom in the 1990s and early 2000s, have likewise seen it weather the Great Recession as well as threats from the very boom that brought them to the town – big-box stores and new roads that let people bypass downtown altogether.
Apex is hardly the norm, though.
There are more than 100 businesses in its downtown, most of them small professional outfits like law firms, insurance agencies, publishing companies and accountants.
But there are also a dozen places to find food, drinks or sweets, plus more than 30 retail spots including interior design firms and antique, clothing and specialty stores.
Kelly Shatat, owner of gift and jewelry store Moon and Lola, which has its headquarters and a store in Apex along with two Raleigh locations and another in Charleston, S.C., says downtown Apex has a quaint feel that’s easy for visitors to fall in love with.
She also said the massive amount of parking is a big benefit. She has customers who drive from Raleigh to her Apex store, she said, because doing that is easier than trying to find parking near her shop in downtown Raleigh.
“I think downtown Apex has a winning formula because it has every type of food you could want, all sorts of boutique stores, and beyond that it has parking,” Shatat said.
Part of downtown’s success comes from the town’s growth spurt. Apex’s population increased from 5,000 in 1990 to 20,000 in 2000. Now it’s nearly 45,000, and Apex officials believe the town’s population will double again in the next 15 years.
For some residents the growth has been a pain, leading to crowded roads, crowded schools and forests replaced with new neighborhoods.
But for downtown, it has been a benefit.
Bethany Bryant, who owns The Apex Gallery, a downtown art and frame store, said her business relies on newcomers just as much as the customers who have been coming back ever since the gallery opened in 2001.
“We get a lot of people coming in to a new house and need frames, or they had some glass that broke in the move,” she said.
J.C. Knowles, president of Apex’s Downtown Business Association and the town’s official ambassador, said the foundation for downtown Apex’s success was laid about a decade ago, when the population boom was in full swing and the owners of several downtown properties began renovating their buildings.
“People started to realize that something was about to happen downtown, and they got interested in it,” he said. “And the merchants started sprucing it up.”
Downtown Apex is now full of freshly painted buildings, attractive signs, and eye-catching public spaces like a memorial that features a piece of steel from the World Trade Center, and a small garden with a Little Free Library stand.
A communal effort
Downtown Apex’s mix of businesses is a draw for customers.
“Whenever any of the restaurants has something going on, we always get big crowds,” said Colette Koppel, who works at The Doodling Bug, a boutique several doors down from the popular Peak City Bar and Grill.
There’s a farmers market every Saturday from April to October. And between festivals thrown by the town’s Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Business Association and various civic clubs, Salem Street is closed to traffic just about once a month for one large event or another.
The Peak City Pig Fest, for example, regularly introduces tens of thousands of barbecue lovers to Salem Street for a nationally recognized cooking competition. The Jazz and Music fest also attracts thousands.
Shatat said business at Moon and Lola isn’t hurt due to these street closures – even during the busiest shopping time of the year.
“We love it when they close off the streets,” she said. “The Christmas parade, that’s probably one of my favorite things about downtown Apex.”
Past and future
The key to downtown Apex’s future lies in the past – particularly its ability to conjur up nostalgia for small-town America from the ‘50s or ‘60s.
Bryant, of The Apex Gallery, said newcomers love taking visiting family members to downtown Apex just to show them around “their new little Mayberry.”
One of the oldest businesses downtown, Antiques on Salem Street, sells items from the past. The Rusty Bucket, which is reminiscent of an old-time general store, is also the main filming locale for the namesake TV show, “History’s Heroes: The Rusty Bucket Kids.”
Knowles said the nostalgia factor has helped with downtown’s popularity.
“As soon as one store gets empty, someone is ready to get in it,” he said. “I don’t think there’s been a store downtown that’s been vacant longer than 90 days, except maybe one.”
That one is the spot next to the Salem Street Pub. And Knowles said it won’t be empty for much longer – a wine store is moving in within a month.
Bryant and her husband Nick bought the Apex Gallery a year ago.
Bryant has worked for the frame store in different locations and under different owners for the past 15 years.
That experience gave her confidence in the future.
“We signed a five-year lease, but we’d love to be here forever,” she said.
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran
Apex is having a party Sunday, Oct. 11, from 1 to 5 p.m. to celebrate the Money magazine ranking. There will be live music, inflatables, food trucks, games and more at the Apex town campus, 73 Hunter St. Go to apexnc.org for details.