Community marks CATO's return, new BB&T building

Clothing store, bank locate in tornado-damaged plaza
Jun. 27, 2013 @ 06:14 PM

With the recent openings of CATO Fashions and a new BB&T branch, Sanford's Southside Plaza is now home to even more open storefronts than it had before being devastated by a tornado in April 2011.

CATO, a store selling clothing and accessories for women and girls, was the last business to reopen in the strip mall, which is home to Food Lion, Tractor Supply and other businesses. Store Manager Karen Whitaker was an assistant manager when the tornado hit more than two years ago.

When she drove to work that day, she said she had no idea what was in store.

"I didn't even know it was a tornado," she said. "I thought it was just a really bad storm — until I came around the corner and saw all the destruction."

She said she loves working for CATO, so instead of finding a new job in town, she got a transfer to Garner and worked there as a store manager. When the Sanford location reopened, she said the company's corporate office moved her back. She's now the only pre-tornado employee, but even if some fellow staff members don't know the history, many customers do; two patrons even brought in flower bouquets because they were so happy to have the store back, Whitaker said.

"I thought that was great," she said. "It was such a shock."

The store had a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday, although it opened on Tuesday. Also Tuesday, at the other end of the parking lot, a new BB&T branch held its own ribbon-cutting ceremony after several weeks of being open for business. Bank officials said they are excited to be the plaza's newest tenant.

"Sixteen years ago, we started talking about a new bank but never thought it would happen," Branch Manager Cindy Holder said. "So we're very proud."

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, several Chamber of Commerce members wished the new bank the best of luck, and Lee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Charlie Parks said he was glad that images of the destroyed plaza didn't dissuade BB&T from expanding to the area.

"With all the building that went on after the tornado, it just adds to the area around here, and we're glad to have you back," he said.