Economic revitalization sought here

Friday, December 16, 2011

By Clint Confehr

Senior Staff Writer

Merchants and owners of property around Lewisburg's public square are gathering again on Tuesday at the restaurant next to the old Dixie theater to take stock of their efforts toward improving the historic business district.

One week before that 6 p.m. gathering, Lewisburg's councilmen unanimously granted a request from Lewisburg Downtown Alliance (LDA) Chairman Leland Carden to have the city be the legal entity through which $15,000 in state grant money could pass for LDA projects. How that money might be spent could be revealed Tuesday.

The LDA's meeting comes two weeks after the city's Industrial Development Board held its first meeting in what's now called the Historic First Avenue Building, previously known as the Ladies Restroom. The IDB paid for restoration of what had been a meeting room for farmers' wives, mothers, sisters and daughters while the men bought provisions. Now, it's available for private meetings between officials and business leaders who want to keep information to themselves for their competitive edge.

The LDA's "meet and eat" is to be in the '50s Ice Cream Parlor, Carden said, describing the session - it's open to the public - as when members and guests may learn the latest developments on the LDA's participation in the Tennessee Downtown Program, an arm of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. Among the watchwords of the Downtown Program is that business developers look at a town's square and consider it a reflection of the community. It's a factor when decisions are made to place a factory, store or some other type of business.

A related development for Lewisburg's square is Lewisburg property owner Mike Walker's purchase of the building at the southeast corner of Lewisburg's public square. Longtime residents of Lewisburg remember that building's past. Recently, it changed hands at auction for some $8,000 and Walker purchased it for less. He declined to disclose the purchase price.

"It wasn't much," Walker said, anticipating a closing on the deal by Thursday, Dec. 15.

Walker owns the building next door on First Avenue South, and the old Post Office building that was once headquarters for the Lewisburg Tribune and the Marshall County Gazette. He also owns what had been headquarters for the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association on East Commerce Street.

"The building has scared everybody to death," Walker said of his latest purchase.

While he didn't mention it, buildings such as the old red brick house on First Avenue North, and an old brick building on Shelbyville's East Depot Street near the Capri Theater have either fallen in, or collapsed altogether.

Mayor Barbara Woods has confirmed that at one point she considered purchasing the building, but that was largely to preserve the corner building. Preservationists and city restoration authorities see corner buildings like keystones for city blocks, and Walker agrees.

"The corner is a great location," he said, "but my main purpose is to protect our building" next door.

Walker plans to close up the front door of the corner building and he's been getting prices for windows. The metal awning will probably be removed.

"It's sad that they let the building get in the shape it is, but it's got a new roof," he said of an improvement by a previous owner.

Restoration isn't something new for Walker. He was the construction chief for a project in Camden, Tenn., the Benton County seat on the west side of the Tennessee River and generally between Nashville and Memphis on the north side of Interstate 40.

"I did three buildings in Camden," Walker said. "They were the worst looking buildings on that square."

Those buildings in Camden are owned by U.S. Pearl Co. Its proprietor, James Peach Sr., was traveling in Thailand this week. His sales manager, Lisa Hooper, spoke briefly about the buildings where she works.

"Mike Walker was the contractor and Mr. Peach owns the building," Hooper said. "Mike did a fine job outside and it improved the building greatly.

"Initially, it was two buildings that we turned into three buildings with separate fronts," she said.

The U.S. Pearl Co. has a separate retail store called The Jewelry Factory at Camden, a town of some 3,600 people in a county of 17,300. Lewisburg's population exceeded 11,000, according to the 2010 census. Shelbyville has more residents than Benton County.

However, the town near the intersection of U.S. Highways 70 and 641, is just south of Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park, visited by about 250,000 people annually, according to Bill Kee, executive director of the Benton County Chamber of Commerce.

"It's a small park with cabins, camp grounds and a Civil War monument," Kee said.

While that may sound like Henry Horton State Park at Chapel Hill, Benton County has the river and a Port Authority and the river is among the reasons for Camden's settlement.

Benton County's economic base is "diverse with tourism because of the river and Kentucky Lake," Kee continued, unabashed about shifting into his "chamber talk."

The county has "hills and hollows," he said, "so the agricultural base is not as great as the flatlands of West Tennessee... We have some row crops and livestock. Our retail base is pretty decent."

Small industries there include Jones Plastics, an injection molding business, and a cut and sew operation for Carhartt clothes which he says is "more stable because they sell to a lot of union members who want the union label that says 'Made in USA.' The shop is that rare case where they wanted to be unionized because they wanted a work garment."

He agrees Carhartt would be popular with members of the United Auto Workers union who are working at the General Motors plant in Spring Hill.

As for the U.S. Pearl Co. building on Camden's public square, Kee said what Walker did "was mostly store front revitalization. They were rundown and dilapidated and they did a nice facelift."

Other buildings on Camden's square are offices for attorneys, an investment broker, computer sales and service, a business specializing in clothing such as medical scrubs, a travel company for bus tours, a doctor's clinic, and the Post Office.

"We have one restaurant opening in a few weeks on the square," Kee said. "We hadn't had one for a year."

Ironically, when the Lewisburg Downtown Alliance meets in the only restaurant facing the Marshall County Courthouse, Walker won't be there. He'll be off on other projects.