By Kurt Dusterberg
Photo by Davies Photography
Greg Hatem introduces himself on the phone and immediately asks, “How’s our connection?” He is calling from Beijing, China, where he is visiting four generations of extended family, including a 99-year-old aunt. The Raleigh developer behind more than 40 downtown properties says this trip is just to renew family ties, but he admits he is “looking at a couple of business opportunities.” For more than two decades, Hatem has led the redevelopment of downtown Raleigh with an eye toward historic preservation with office, retail and restaurant space. He never imagined such a life when he was younger, but he now has plenty of conviction about the places and spaces that define his city.
Midtown Magazine: You have spoken about how you gained your sense of family and community while growing up in Roanoke Rapids. What was your childhood like?
Greg Hatem: It was wonderful growing up in a small town. It’s something that is lost now. Even in small towns, there is so much information coming at you. It was a place where you could spread your wings a little bit and make some mistakes and have a village around you. Our family is Lebanese, so having that culture layered on top of the basic Southern culture was a wonderful experience. It’s something we wish for our children, and we’re trying to figure how to do that in Raleigh, albeit 40 years later.
MM: You liked photography when you were in college at NC State. Did you imagine yourself becoming a professional photographer?
GH: I thought I might be a photojournalist. That was the goal. My father passed away before my senior year in college. I finished my degree, then I worked to try and settle some family issues because we had a family store. I worked to settle that and shut down the store. I tried to keep everyone moving forward. That was kind of a detour, but it taught me a lot about business. Trying to figure out how to settle debt was hard. While I didn’t understand it at the time, it prepared me well for the real estate industry.
MM: When you started Empire Properties, what were your hopes? Did you ever imagine having so many properties one day?
GH: It was a hobby. We had an old building in Roanoke Rapids that our store was in; it was the old Imperial Theater. That’s where we got the name Empire Properties from. We figured we would buy a building or two, or restore a historic building. It seemed like a lot of fun. Back in 1995, I assumed if you bought a building and did okay with it, you would buy a second building. Then if you did okay, everyone would notice and jump in, and you would be forced out of the market, so to speak. It just didn’t happen. People weren’t interested in being in downtown Raleigh. People would bring us buildings because they knew nobody else wanted to buy them.
MM: What do these old buildings represent to you?
GH: They are the character of Raleigh. You can’t create that; that’s the authenticity. Every building we have has a story. It has a history behind it, how it changed from the Central Hotel to a Fresh Market to a furniture store to Sitti Restaurant. These things have a life of their own. It’s fascinating to work with these old buildings and respect their past. I almost feel like a building whisperer, trying to see what it is they want to be in the future. Buildings don’t know what they were built for; you have to figure out what they can be within the confines of the building.
MM: What do you look for in a property that has potential for renovation? Are there some essential bones or structure or feelings?
GH: It’s kind of just the opposite. In the Raleigh Times building, we looked at the archives and researched it. At that point, we knew we had to buy it because of the history of that building. That was the first edition of history for the city of Raleigh from 1906 to 1925 (as home to The Evening Times and The Raleigh Times newspapers). It had that story, but the bones were a mess. When we bought it, we had to peel all that back, layers of sheet rock, layers of dropped ceiling, layers of roof. Fortunately it wasn’t that big of a building or it would have bankrupted us, because it was so expensive per foot. We put the Raleigh Times Bar in there, which fortunately became what people think is an iconic restaurant/bar in downtown Raleigh. That helped carry it to the next level. Just as a real estate project, it never would have worked.
MM: Why the love for restaurants?
GH: Well, I’m 300 pounds, so that’s part of it. I do love to eat. We are developers, but really we act like preservationists and urban planners. We can renovate buildings all day long and put offices in there, and you’re not going to revitalize the community. You do that by creating active uses of the first floors. We were dedicating them to some kind of active use – restaurants, retail – but we couldn’t find anyone else to do it, so we started doing it ourselves. Our goal wasn’t to be in the restaurant business, it was to revitalize downtown Raleigh.
MM: What do you love about the restaurant industry, now that you are immersed in it?
GH: I love the impact that it has. There is no other thing in the community that attacks all the senses. You look at it, you smell it, you taste it. You feel it. It’s that creation of a vibe in the community that has made Raleigh what it has become. We have five distinct restaurants: Italian, Lebanese, a coffee shop, a bar with pub food, and there’s authentic Eastern North Carolina barbecue, the way they used to make it in Halifax County. They all draw people in. You have a great time at the restaurant, then you attach that great time to downtown. But we need other restaurateurs and developers to come in, because there is so much more to be done.
MM: In the past, you have taken issue with other establishments in downtown, questioning the noise and the clientele, as well as their place in Raleigh’s culture. Is this still an issue for you?
GH: I always have concerns. I think things are certainly better. The intention of why you do something is just as important as what you do. For us, preservation and authenticity of the community are the goals. Some people do things that give back to the community, and some people do things that pull from the community. We saw people trying to pull from the success of the community rather than enhance the success, but I feel like we’ve turned the corner. That type of behavior typically happens at the beginning of the cycle, and we allowed it come in at the end of the revitalization. You’re so desperate for people to come downtown that you fill it full of bars. We had evolved into million-dollar condos and wonderful restaurants and great offices, then we started introducing bars. The problem is they are only open from 8pm until 2am, and they’re really only open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. They’re not really giving back to the community; they’re not really adding to the vitality of the community. The city did a great job of coming in and tweaking the regulations. Downtown Raleigh has gotten so much better for that.
MM: You’re married and have two young kids, George and Salma Kate. How is family life?
GH: I’m almost 57 years old. Being an older dad is different. I’m not 25 trying to figure out where the next meal is coming from. At this age, I believe you enjoy it so much more. I’m a lot more exhausted, but it’s so much more fun being around these young kids (George, eight, and Salma Kate, six). You see life in a whole different way. I’m seeing China through their eyes, when I’ve been here probably 30 different times. It does keep me young. You see life a whole different way.
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