Investor, Jesse Gerstl – I’ve Seen the Super Man Cape He Wears

May Gorham Building on the corner of Tarboro and Washington St. A Jesse Gerstl project

I often leave comments on the Concerned Citizens Facebook Page. Like all of us, the page has its good days and bad. Some comments have more clarity than others. I have no trouble making room for diverse opinions as long as they are well stated, no swearing or name-calling. I will admit that my reaction can vary if that line is crossed in this public forum. You could find me talking to myself, saying, “Give me a break!” or “What???” or in plain speak — “Man, you gotta get a life.”

I have an on-going struggle with what it means to be complicit. I’ll read something, weigh its merits, consider my past experience with the writer, and then decide if saying nothing makes me complicit in the matter.  Sometimes it is easy, Stepheny, let it go.  When I determine, this cannot stand, I write.

“What about the May Graham buildings or the Carlton House, or any other structures Jesse Gerstl and gang owns. It was great at first thinking he was going to fix something which turned into 2 years of the buildings getting “worser” as you call it. Jesse  Gerstl was allowed to buy many of these properties knowing he had no money or intention to fix any of it up. The only thing we got out of the hoarding of money in our downtown was a coffee house; had it not been for the owner of the coffee house we wouldn’t have that.”

In this instance, I know, admire and applaud, Jesse Gerstl.  This post is written in appreciation of him and is also my reply to the Concerned Citizen who was good enough to weigh in with the above comment. This blog post is neither written in anger nor denying others their opinions. I, however, have personal knowledge that Jesse wears a Superman’s cloak hidden under a tee shirt, part of his regular attire.

May Gorham Building is an up-coming        Jesse Gerstl project.

Larema Coffee Shop is located on the opposite corner in the Five Points area. A success story of what the revitalization of our historic downtown district will look like. A building Jesse bought and renovated with his heart for preservation and his ability to see things not as they are but could be. I can’t think of a greater place for the community to enjoy. A repurposed First National Bank Building that now welcomes everyone in a setting that only Main Street can provide. People love it, and why not with as fine a young man as you could hope for, Kevin McLaughlin presiding over his dream.

The entrance into the Larema world. Here we have an example of honoring the past while building a future.
This photograph is a magic moment of seeing the future through old windows.
This gathering came to listen to a Preservation Rocky Mount program. Peter Varney shared his knowledge of the Five Points Area.

MACHAVEN, restored, and saved. In acquiring this property, Jesse stopped everything to save this grand architectural gem. Click Here to read an earlier post that includes photographs.  The crown jewel, as they say, in the Villa Place Historic District, Machaven is surrounded by an outstanding inventory of residential homes, a walkable distance to downtown. This is a gift to the community that holds many memories of this historic home. I have lost count of how many shotguns and other small homes he has undertaken.

The rendering of the new interior courtyard.

Saved for last, The Carlton House. I have never heard Jesse moan or groan over the obstacles placed before him by our City Government as it pertains to the Carlton House or any project. That’s because he is a good man. I fail the test in this category. I am appalled at the loss of this opportunity and deliberate dragging of feet to thwart him in these efforts. “Oh, ghee that $14,000 grant money must have gotten lost on my desk.”   I am fortunate to have seen the plans for this significant asset while touring the property with Jesse.

What we have here is a haphazard, arbitrary, unprioritized approach to planning. The latest scheme rather than recognizing a pivotal piece in the Main Street puzzle. We now know why the Carleton House was sabotaged.  Presented as a  fait ac·com·pli., we have a single-source bid again as the results of a trip to Florida by the City Manager. The rationale, we’ve never had a hotel in Edgecombe County. Oh, and a zillion-dollar parking garage while we are at it. There are no substantial statistics to prove need, probable success, necessary occupancy to even hope to make a go of it.  And, of course, how are the usual suspects going to make any money out of The Carlton House.  You wonder how many investors have been run off because there is no attempt to work towards a win-win outcome for the city and the investor. Jesse and others like him, deserve our gratitude and support for the restoration and repurposing of Main Street. We have councilmen serving beyond their usefulness who have done little to protect Main Street except where it suits them and their cronies. It is shameful.

Larema Coffee – Another Preservation Success – “Sending a Thrill Up Our Leg!”

“The current passion for reuse might be explained by sustainability or fashion but, most importantly, it affords a sense of history and texture, taking advantage of buildings already embedded in cities. They are buildings with atmosphere, history, and stories inscribed in their fabric. And sometimes sustainability isn’t just about the energy and materials saved but about the stories, craft and intelligence embodied in its walls.”   Paul Miles –The Financial Times

If only the above quotation fit on bumper stickers, I’d hand them out along Main Street and in the adjacent areas. I love the ‘history and texture’ phrase which speaks to the amazing commercial architecture in the downtown core of Rocky Mount. Wonderful things have been going on to save Main Street. Buildings have been bought, architectural drawings have been designed to provide living space above the store, and the City’s facade grants have been awarded.  The early doubters, reluctant to get on board who said, “It can’t be done,” are turning around. They are enjoying places like The Mill area and sometimes have to wait for a table at places like The Smokehouse. To prove that things can be done, Kevin McLaughlin is having his grand opening of Larema Coffee September 27th at 6:00 PM.  Kevin has not only embraced Rocky Mount’s past, but he is helping to build its future. On his Facebook Page on Aug. 7, 2019, he wrote:

How do we create a space which is truly inclusive of the whole community?
Thankful to have hosted the first of an ongoing conversation about the needs of the Rocky Mount community and how Larema Coffee House can best serve the people of this place. Incredibly honored by the turnout of such thoughtful people with wonderfully diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Many more to come.
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ALSO! The physical space is looking beautiful, and feeling warmer & welcoming every day. So look forward to opening soon…stay tuned! ☕️💜

The first time I stood in this space pictured above this is how the ceiling looked. Click Here for a previous blog post about this project. When I see the restoration results of that same area on Kevin’s Facebook post (above) I did my usual thing—I got a little teary, but then I laughed. I thought of Chris Mathew saying Obama gave him a “thrill up my leg.”  At the time, I responded with something profound like, “Oh Brother!”  Now, if he’d been talking about the beautiful restoration of this bank building reimagined and repurposed — that’s a thrill up our leg!  Here is another preservation victory for Main Street. Continuing to believe remains imperative. Let’s add a hug around the neck to all the Kevin McLaughlins working on projects downtown.

Denise Scott said,  “Architects can’t force people to connect, they can only plan the crossing points, remove barriers and make the meeting places useful and attractive.”

Kevin McLaughlin and everyone involved has done just that. The old National Bank Building is ready for people to start connecting. Now, *’My Friend’ it’s up to us to enjoy this special space. I’ll see you there! even though I never learned to drink coffee.  *Translation of Larema

106 S. Washington Street,                Rocky Mount, North Carolina 27801