Good bones: New life for old buildings revives small town downtowns

As shopping malls sprang up in the sprawling suburbs of small towns and downtown business districts quieted down, the buildings stood empty for decades. The high ceilings and the vast windows, the wide wooden beams, the heavy red brick walls gathered dust.

Sharon Marr, executive director of MainStreet Cleveland since 2005, saw this happen in her hometown.

“When I was growing up in the 60s and early 70s, everything was downtown,” says Marr, a fourth-generation resident of Cleveland, Tennessee. “As shopping centers grew, city centers lost their vibrancy.”

But the tides have turned, Marr says, and change is setting in and growing.

“The biggest change has been in downtown housing,” Marr says. MainStreet Cleveland’s loft tour that began shortly after she joined the downtown booster originally featured nine lofts, “and we were really excited about it.

“Now we have over 100,” says Marr.

More than 30 of them belong to Nicholas Lillios. As a child, Lillios would visit the empty former Ford dealership his great-grandfather owned in downtown Cleveland and listen to the patriarch imagine what might one day be made of the historic building.

“As a child, I would go up there and he would always tell me what beautiful apartments it would be,” Lillios says. “He had lived in New York in the 60s and 70s. He knew that potential and I thought he was crazy.

“I thought, ‘Who wants to live downtown?'”

Lillios got his answer when he started renovating a few buildings downtown, converting their upper floors into a handful of apartments in 2010. They quickly filled with a mix of Lee University students, empty nests and downtown employees.

“I was kind of testing the waters as I went along,” says Lillios.

This success inspired him to convert the former Ford dealership into 14 ground floor lofts and retail, opening the building to tenants in 2012 after extensive renovations.

“I owned it, and I owned it for four generations, so I didn’t have to buy it to find out if it was going to work,” he says. “When I started taking calls and renting it out, a lot of people who worked downtown were interested – restaurant workers and bank tellers, policemen who worked at the train station across the street.”

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Good bones: New life for old buildings revives small town downtowns

In 2020, he opened his most ambitious project – the Agora Building, 44,000 square feet that had been a looming brick-making factory in the heart of the city until it closed in the 1980s. It had stood mostly empty. since then, and Lillios has developed 19 apartments upstairs and shops on the ground floor.

“As more people moved in, we saw more businesses open up,” says Lillios. “Residents really liked the idea of ​​getting out of the apartment and there are people to see and things to do.”

Ken and Teresa Cox, empty nests with three adult sons, are enjoying the ease of loft living in the Agora after years of maintaining homes and yards, they say.

“We love freedom,” says Teresa Cox. “We can just lock it up and leave it.”

Their balcony overlooks the park which hosts concerts and markets during the warmer months, giving them a front row seat to the city’s activities, she adds.

“We get to see everything,” says Teresa Cox.

Rob McGowan and Beth Finnell also live in the Agora, about a block from the businesses they own and operate — his watering hole Mash and Hops and his wine bar, The Press.

“I love how it changes and how it all goes downtown,” McGowan said. He grew up in Cleveland, but moved to Chattanooga for a time and periodically visited his hometown, he says.

“It really hit home in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” he says. “I was from Chattanooga and I was walking around and it was a ghost town.”

These are not easy projects, says Lillios, pointing out the complexity and cost of working with the quirks and limitations of old structures often abandoned in the heart of old city centers. But bringing the city to life is rewarding, and the details of the properties are compelling, he says. The old red brick walls wider than an adult’s hand, the huge windows and the wide plank floors, the high ceilings and the exposed beams.

“They’re special,” Lillios says of these reclaimed locations.

“This cannot be replicated”

Thirty miles south, in Dalton, Georgia, Lowell Kirkman agrees. When he and his son, Nathan Kirkman, decided to buy an old, abandoned textile factory on the outskirts of downtown, “it was about the heart rather than the brain,” he says with a smirk .

“I learned that a developer was looking to tear it down and turn it into storage units and sell the brick and wood,” says Lowell Kirkman, who grew up in Dalton and runs an architectural firm with his son. “I just couldn’t let that happen.”

Crown Mill’s old campus – over three acres with several brick structures – had been empty since the company closed in the 1980s, says Nathan Kirkman. But the construction materials and the design of the place were remarkable, he adds.

“The architecture and the bones of the establishment are phenomenal,” says the younger Kirkman. “You can’t build them anymore – it can’t be replicated. Our principle was, ‘Let’s show the good stuff and create a really cool vibe and see what happens.’ “”

The men formed an investment group and in 2003 began constructing 66 apartments in one of the campus buildings, completing them in 2005. Rents were a bit higher than the market average, but the bet paid off, Nathan Kirkman said.

“It was definitely kind of a risk, but we thought there was a niche and it turned out to be okay,” he says. “We filled up fairly quickly and had a management company manage it for us. They have 100% occupancy with waiting lists.”

Next, the men turned their attention to the nearby 40,000 square foot structure that is now The Mill at Crown Garden, a mixed-use marketplace housing an array of retailers, restaurants and event spaces – a design that Nathan Kirkman inspired by the urban town of Ponce. and Krog Street Markets in Atlanta, where he lives.

“I live less than a quarter mile from Krog Street,” says Nathan Kirkman. “We take those same principles and map them out on a smaller scale.”

The pandemic meant The Mill got off to a slow start, but the men used federal aid to cover some expenses and relieve their tenants of some financial stress, says Nathan Kirkman.

“We kind of wanted to arrange the right mix of tenants, we went out and wanted to promote local businesses, and almost every business there has a first-time business owner,” he says.

The next phase of the project will be another set of apartments, this one intended for short term stays for employees of the booming local flooring industry who need accommodation on repeat visits. or long.

The return to these old places is a pendulum from its growing years in Dalton in the 70s and 80s, when the downtown core had been hollowed out, says Nathan Kirkman.

“I think it’s a way of life that people are more drawn to now,” he says. “Being in your car, driving from one center to another, I think that’s not really appealing. People want pedestrian communities, pedestrian-friendly environments, social interaction.”

In urban planning, it’s called “new urbanism,” but it’s really a return to an old way of life, says Nathan Kirkman.

“People always have to break stuff and then be like, ‘That was stupid, let’s try what worked before,'” he says.

The return

When Lewie and Becky Card returned to her hometown of Dunlap, Tennessee, they set off in search of real estate projects. They didn’t have to look far. Working with the Chamber of Commerce to find empty buildings in the old city center, they identified 17.

“We ended up with seven of them,” said Lewie Card.

The crown jewel of their restoration efforts is the Dunlap Mercantile, which had stood empty for 45 years after a flood downtown.

The Cards had retired to Naples, Florida, but decided to return and invest in the town where Becky grew up and where she worked for 20 years as a dentist. They bought the old business in 2019 and brought it back to life as a place to buy almost anything, and to sit and have a soda to catch up with the neighbors.

“It was mercantile back then,” says Lewie Card. “It was the WalMart of its time.”

The Cards are just getting started and their newest acquisition, Mansfield House, is a stately white house on a corner lot in the heart of Dunlap town centre. They plan to convert it into a short-term rental for people wanting to spend time in the mountains, and they’ve also converted another building nearby into rental space and a music studio.

As people move from across the country to settle in small towns, the hearts of those small towns need to be healthy, says Lewie Card.

“We’re growing up and people are coming from California, Chicago, Colorado,” he says. “People move here because Tennessee is the best. You have four seasons, mountains, valleys, rivers.”

Janis Kyser, executive director of the Sequatchie/Dunlap Chamber of Commerce, grew up in the area, left for school and work, then returned decades later to promote the growth of her hometown. As young people get older, many of them want a simpler pace of life, Kyser says.

“Especially millennials and Gen Xers,” she says. “They’ve had enough of the commotion and 500 people in line for a COVID test.”

Thomas Austin was born in Dunlap, grew up on a farm owned by his great-grandfather and raised his family in the area. He went to Middle Tennessee State University and then to Nashville Law School, but by then he was ready to go home.

“I got married in law school, and we didn’t want to live and raise kids in a big city,” says Austin, whose kids are 4 and 6.

Walking through the streets of Dunlap town centre, Lewie Card points out the growing number of properties that have been reclaimed in the center of the small town. Investing in these places pays off in terms of growth and creating a place where people want to be – and where young people want to stay, he says.


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