New owners buy downtown art center


Jim Wordsworth works on a painting Wednesday at the Bel Air Artisan Center in dowtown Rocky Mount.


Staff Writer

Thursday, September 14, 2017

A young couple is investing in downtown Rocky Mount.

Mike and Jessica Hicks finalized a deal in late August to take over as owners of the Bel Air Artisans Center at 115 S. Church St. in downtown Rocky Mount. Mike Hicks, 34, a Rocky Mount native, works as a local veterinarian, while Jessica Hicks, 27, who hails from Tennessee, is a part-time dental hygienist.

The Hicks said the building will be renamed the Bel Arts Center. They are planning an early November opening for their new business.

“We’ve been in contact with our architect, and we’re supposed to start construction in late September or early October,” Mike Hicks said. “We feel like that opening date is feasible because the building is in pretty good condition.”

The Bel Air Artisans Center, which had been up for a sale for almost two years by owner Hilarie Vetere, offers working studios and sales opportunities for local artists and artisans.

Vetere and her husband Ron Vetere started Bel Air Artisans Center in 2009 in the historic downtown building that was built in the 1920s on South Main Street that housed several past businesses, including Bel Air Chevrolet. Ron Vetere passed away a few years ago and Hilarie Vetere later put Bell Air Artisans Center on the market.

Over the past several months, Vetere dropped the sale price for the Bel Air Artisans Center. The price on the Bell Air Artisans Center’s Facebook page in June had it up for sale at almost $250,000. The Hicks declined to discuss how much they paid for the Bel Air Artisans Center but said they feel they signed a good deal and love being a part of the rebirth of downtown Rocky Mount.

Jessica Hicks said the revitalization of downtown Rocky Mount is similar to what took place in her hometown of Bristol, Tenn.

“When I was growing up, there wasn’t much going on downtown, but things have changed there and downtown Bristol is really booming,” Hicks said. “My parents missed out on an opportunity to invest in downtown there. I think what is happening back home is going to happen here. It just a matter of time because there is so much potential.”

The plan for the little more than 18,000-square-foot, two-story Bel Air Center is to have the first floor be similar to the renowned Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Va., which was founded in 1974 and is the home to the nation’s largest collection of working artists’ studios under one roof. 

“We’re trying to mimic on a smaller scale somewhat what they do there,” Jessica Hicks said. “We’ve been up there to talk to their working studio artists about getting a good idea of what we want to do. We know we’ve got some really good and talented local artists around here that do all different kinds of art. We also want to have some poetry reading nights. Our vision is to hit on every aspect of the arts.”

In addition to having the working studios and displaying art work of professional artists on the first floor, the Hicks’ plans for renovations to the second floor will include a massage area, a section where people can paint pottery, art space for children, a dance studio, a music studio suite for people to teach music and a possible area where someone can record an album, Mike Hicks said.

The biggest piece for the second floor space will be a yoga studio or an area where people can take yoga classes, which was the primary reason why the Hicks said they wanted to acquire the building until they had a change of heart to do an art center.

Marilynn Barner Anselmi has operated a showroom called Red Oak Wood Shop at the Bel Air Artisans Center since 2013. Red Oak Wood Shop focuses on creating distinctly unique pieces of furniture using locally reclaimed materials and wood.

Anselmi said Red Oak Wood Shop has been used to create several pieces at the Rocky Mount Mills. Anselmi said she is looking forward to what the Hicks will do with the place. In the past, despite the struggles of downtown Rocky Mount, Anselmi said, the Bel Air Artisans Center had a steady flow of people coming from U.S. 64 and Interstate 95.

“They’re young and enthusiastic,” she said. “They’ve got a lot of ideas, which will hopefully lead to putting a lot of artists on the map.”