James Dunn and his brother B.J. found themselves at something of a crossroads.
Longtime practitioners of the art of body piercing, they had dreamt of ending their days as employees at other people's parlors, and opening up a piercing establishment of their own.
But the more they searched for a location, the harder it seemed to find a willing landlord.
Never mind that an ever-growing number of those getting pierced these days are soccer moms, nurses, and others who wouldn't necessarily come to mind when one thinks of the piercing studio; the punkish stigma of the industry had thwarted attempts to score a strip mall spot.
The more discouraged they got, the less likely it seemed that real estate agents would return the brothers' calls.
"It got pretty bad," Dunn recalled, the exasperation still fresh in his voice.
That is until they found a home for their business, Piercing Perfection — in a brand new, stand-alone building at 1557 Meeting Street, no less. They are now amongst the vanguard that's driving the revitalization of upper Meeting Street.
For generations the gateway to Charleston's industrial neck, the area north of Mount Pleasant Road is fast becoming a Mecca for entrepreneurs and business pioneers.
Parcels were once dominated by the Standard Oil Company, heavy maritime and metallurgic industry, and nearly two dozen manufacturers who churned out a fifth of the nation's phosphorus-based fertilizer. The neighborhood bisected by a CSX rail line is being recast by both dreamers like the Dunns and longer-established business people who simply began to feel hemmed in by the constraints of downtown and the Upper King Street redevelopment.
"We were among those who led the way when it came to embracing what Upper King Street had to offer, and it really is a great location," says Rob Leahy, owner of Fine Rugs of Charleston.
"However, that said, all good things come with issues and Upper King Street's issue was parking," he says. "The more successful Upper King Street became, the more congested it got, and that's a challenge for a business in which customers like to come back two or three times before they actually commit to a purchase."
Motivated by the parking issue, but also wanting a bigger space to showcase the growing collection of rugs and carpeting in his inventory, Leahy says he invested over $1 million in a large lot on Upper Meeting Street and in the 1960s-era building he's since renovated to look like an old railroad station — with free parking.
"I think this area is going to be really hot, and I think it's going to extend the scope of what we all consider downtown," he says.
Among those who have long hoped for this day is John Tecklenburg, the former economic development director for the City of Charleston who is now an associate with CC&T Real Estate Services, a company marketing many of the buildings in the neighborhood.
Tecklenburg says the seeds for the revitalization of Upper Meeting Street were sown in the late 1990s, when the city commissioned an economic development plan for the entire neck region.
About the same time, Congressman Jim Clyburn had the area designated a federal renewal community, which comes with a number of incentives geared to fostering development.
Tecklenburg says the most important of these incentives is accelerated depreciation — basically, the ability of building owners to write off the depreciation of a structure in 10 years rather than 39 years.
"You do the math, and from an investment perspective, it really is a huge advantage," he says.
The neighborhood has also benefited from the planning efforts associated with the Magnolia development, which will be rising adjacent to it over the next decade, Tecklenburg says.
It was only natural that upper Meeting Street started to come together, Tecklenburg says.
"Part of it comes down to the nature of Meeting Street," he says. "It's a major artery, and a good address. If you have a Meeting Street address, anybody can find you.
"The other thing is, aside from being on a major thoroughfare, this neighborhood has unbelievable access, both to Interstate-26 and US-17 via the Arthur Ravenel Bridge."
Access inspired Fred Fabian, founder and president of eLifespaces, a high-tech home and office firm, to move his business to 1799 Meeting Street more than a year ago.
"I wish I could say I made the decision based on a brilliant insight about this area's future, but my decision really came down to a matter of location, location, location," Fabian says.
"We serve clients throughout the area, and I saw upper Meeting Street as being in the middle of our market," he says.
A shared trait of the businesses cropping up on upper Meeting Streest is their role as destinations. They're commercial enterprises that people travel to with a purpose, rather than the kinds of establishments that rely on having an anchor tenant nearby to generate foot traffic and potential sales.
"It's probably a little more automobile-centric and also a little less retail-oriented than other areas that have seen a revival on the peninsula," Tecklenburg says. "The other thing about upper Meeting Street is that a lot of the key sites have room to spare."
As evidenced by their abundant signage, CC&T is marketing a number of properties on upper Meeting Street, including the three-story, circa-1927 Standard Oil building.
"Kinder Morgan owns the property behind it today, but back in the 1920s that land was an operating oil refinery," he says. "It's a fixer-upper to be sure, needing considerable renovation, but I can see it evolving into an office complex."
The building on site across the street from the Standard Oil building is about to be razed and will be replaced by a thoroughly modern 18,000 square foot flexible-use building.
Right next door to that site, Tecklenburg's brother Paul, an attorney, is building a two-story building that will eventually house his law office.
James Dunn says he and his brother have invested about $385,000 in upper Meeting Street, and he feels fortunate to have gotten into a prime location at a time when "prices are still pretty reasonable around here."
"Given how quickly this area is evolving, we might not have been able to afford to get in here in another two to three years," he says.
Like Dunn, Fabian says there's no doubt the value of land on upper Meeting Street will increase considerably as the redevelopment continues. He also believes the face of the neighborhood will change as additional development gets underway.
"There's still plenty of room for a grocery on upper Meeting Street, and a coffee shop and a cleaner, things that won't come until there's a certain density of residential growing up alongside us," Fabian added.
In fact, he likened it to the growth and development of Long Point Road in Mt. Pleasant.
"I can remember when that was a two-lane road, but what happened was it fed off the growth of the residential community around it," Fabian says.
"Now I'm not saying upper Meeting Street is going to be exactly like another Long Point Road. It's a different place. But I do see some similarities in how I expect upper Meeting Street to grow," he continued. "I'm bullish on upper Meeting Street. I really am."