Up on Downtown

See the full Kingsport Time-News article here

Article by: Jim McGuinness
November 28, 2004

Bold-thinking entrepreneurs see long-term success on horizon for old commercial district

In September 2003, Mary Shull opened Mary's Kitchen Shop, a specialty boutique on the corner of Center and Commerce streets in downtown Kingsport. 

In December 2002, Tom Keller began operating a pushcart hot dog stand on the corner of Broad and Center streets. The business has since moved to an indoor location at 160 Broad. 

Two years ago, Seth McLaughlin relocated his Essential Therapies wellness spa from Clay Street to Main Street. The operation how now been expanded to include a coffee shop. 

Skull, Keller and McLaughlin are examples of the new breed of small business owners in Kingsport: Bold-thinking entrepreneurs who not only see a need for their particular business, but who view downtown as a place where they can achieve long-term success. 

Others will soon be joining them. Scott and Linda Hsu recently signed a lease to open a new restaurant in the old Kingsport Grocery Company building on Main Street. They anticipate opening Pacific Grill sometime after the first of the year. 

John Vachon, a real estate investor, has purchased the old Borough First National Bank building on Broad Street along with two other buildings in the five-points area of Sullivan Street. He plans to refurbish all three buildings for future business and residential use. 

"Downtown Kingsport has huge potential on so many levels," Vachon said. "There are so many buildings, and if you look at the second floors, a lot of them are vacant. Within five years, that can be totally different. All over the United States, people are moving back into the downtown areas."

Tim Siglin also has noticed the trend. Siglin is executive director of the Kingsport Office of Small Business and Entrepreneurship, a partnership between the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce and the city of Kingsport. The organization was set up to help small businesses grow. 

"You're already seeing developers move in who see opportunities in some of these buildings," Siglin said. "In some cases, they are buildings that have been opened over a long period of time by the same group. Some of those who have retired and closed their businesses are now actively recruiting young developers to come in. 

Such perspectives give new optimism to the latest effort to revitalize the city's downtown district. 

The board will officially vote on the matter once a formal document to create a district is completed. 

"A lot of projects were hinging on something like this happening," said Jim Nisbet, executive director of the Downtown Kingsport Association. "One thing industries look at is the strength of your downtown. You want to attract those industry people."

Like many U.S. cities, Kingsport saw a decline in its downtown district in the '50s and '60s as the popularity of the automobile changed individual and commercial behaviors, shifting the focus of commercial activity from the cities to the suburbs. The trend away from downtown continued in subsequent decades as the shopping malls and big-box retailers sprang up near highways and other major thoroughfares, making trips downtown for goods and services less necessary. 

The '90s saw the beginning of downtown revitalization in urban and downtown areas, particularly among young middle and upper-class individuals and families. 

"It's like a pendulum," Nisbet said, "People moved away from downtown and now it's swinging back. There's a certain amount of nostalgia about going downtown."

With more than 600 businesses, downtown Kingsport is hardly dormant. The problem is that those businesses are spread over 44 blocks, which sometimes gives the appearance that there's not much going on. Areas where there is more activity, such as the antique district along Broad Street, are offset by areas that include empty storefronts between businesses. 

"In the areas where there is heavy foot traffic, you see businesses clustered in those areas," Siglin said. 

"Then you'll see buildings that are empty. And if there are several buildings empty in a row or close by, it creates this gap. So you've got areas of heavy traffic and areas of no traffic.

Coupled with no visible nightlife, those gaps have given Kingsport the image of a sleepy town. Changing Kingsport's after business hours is something the DKA is working to change. Last month, DKA held an Octoberfest concert starring San Bush on the Citizens Bank lawn off Main Street. The event attracted more than 800 people on a Friday night. The DKA plans to hold four to six such events next year. In doing so, they hope to stem the tide of young professionals who head out of town on the weekend to enjoy music and other artistic pursuits. 

"We don't have a lot of reasons for people to come downtown at night," said Mark Freeman, a DKA board member. "A lot of people are finding that need being filled in Asheville or other places. We need to find some way to compete with that."

Keller created an after-hours option this past summer by presenting free bluegrass concerts outside on Broad Street Friday nights. He plans on bringing back the 15-week series in 2005. 

"I was just trying to create some summertime atmosphere." Keller said. "All I've done is take from the community since I've been here. The bluegrass series is my way of giving something back. If someone else can do something, that would be great, too. If it gets more people to come downtown. then it's good for all of us." Vachon thinks a key component to revitalizing downtown is getting more people to live there, something he and his wife, Angela plan on doing in the future. 

"People who are moving to downtown areas consider that to be their neighborhood," Vachon says. "It becomes a walkable community. People want to get back to that. With lots of green space, parks, coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores. Those are the types of things that will happen if people move downtown."

Creating such a culture won't come without challenges. Normal Sobel, who owns a 17,500-square-foot building on the corner of Center and Commerce Streets, is in favor of downtown revitalization. But he also thinks developers must proceed with caution. 

"There are all kinds of issues, and they all have to be handled with kids gloves." Sobel said. "If my building was turned into a bunch of apartments, where would people park their cars? It's a big issue and we've got a lot of buildings. 

Sobel remembers when the hub of community activity was located downtown. He's also seem attempt to revitalize the district come and go. 

"It's been in the rebuilding stages for 27 years," Sobel says. "The evolution never stops. We have businesses that used to be that are no more. Hardware stores. Movie theaters. I remember when there were seven men's clothing stores. Even now, we've got 80 law firms and a bank on every corner."

Sobel leases space in his building to six other businesses, including Mary's Kitchen Shop, and several specialty shops that give downtown a vibrant, diverse flavor. 

"A lot of people think downtown is just antique stores, which is fine. There's definitely a place for that,"Skull said. "But there's a place for the specialty shops, too. People just need to know we're here."

McLaughlin sees Kingsport as a place that can once again be a center for local commerce and socializing. 

"Part of our purpose as a business is to help individuals in their mind, body, and spirit," McLaughlin said. "That's a big part of the community as well. We want downtown to be a destination. We want whole families to come down here and run into their neighbors. That's what Kingsport can offer that a lot of other places can't."

A lot of eyes will be on Pacific Grill, which should open sometime after the first of the year. The Hsus' decision to open a restaurant at that particular location might raise a few eyebrows; four such ventures have tried and failed on that spot before, making it a seemingly less-than-ideal location to open a restaurant. 

But they heard similarly gloomy forecasts when they decided to open Cafe Pacific in Johnson City. The restaurant has been open for seven years, while a second restaurant, Cafe 111, has been operating for two years.

Other projects are also underway to help the livability of the downtown area. The city recently received a $400,000 grant for a Broad Street Enhancement Project. Intersections at Market and Broad Streets and Center and Broad Streets will be turned into round-abouts. The plan also calls for additional landscaping and other amenities such as brick patios, new lighting, benches, tables, crosswalks, decorative waste cans and road resurfacing. The project will commence in the spring. 

Another proposed project is to expand Glen Bruce Park to include an interactive water fountain and a band shell. 

"The first thing you have to realize is that bringing downtown back is a lot of relatively small things in a lot of different directions," Freeman said. "Whether it's adding an entertainment venue or an interactive fountain, those are things that a lot of cities are doing to reinvigorate their downtowns in addition to the redevelopment efforts."

With downtown on the brink of becoming a redevelopment area, proponents hope to move the project forwards by offering tax increment financing (TIF) to prospective redevelopers and business owners. This would enable property owners to use the increase in property tax revenue to fund the redevelopment project.

"TIF is the natural next step," Siglin said. "TIF will help both the young developers who want to start out. It will help someone like John Vachon, who's already bought a couple buildings. But it's also going to help other developers who say I can adjust my financing to actually lower the overall cost to develop."