Calvin Ball bought commercial property on the 300 block of M.L. King Boulevard three years ago in hopes of teaming up with other property owners in the area to revive the street's empty buildings and crumbling facades.
A plan put forward in 2008 called for the area to be transformed into "a Beale Street of Chattanooga," a local version of the Memphis tourist attraction that draws millions of visitors each year.
But officials say that false starts, mistakes and property owners' unrealistic pricing have left most of the surrounding development at a standstill, and Ball remains one of only a few still working to rehabilitate his corner of Chattanooga's onetime entertainment district.
With help from the Lyndhurst Foundation, he's reworking the facade on the former FeFe Lounge building. The club shut down over a decade ago, and the building hasn't been touched since, except by water coming in through the roof.
The single-story building across the street from the nearly empty Renaissance Square measures about 4,000 square feet and would be perfect for a professional office, Ball said, when he finishes his work in March.
This will be the third building he has brought back to life on the 300 block, with the other two serving as a data center for Chattanooga, a hair salon and some apartments, he said.
"We'll get this building all nice and clean and sell it as a shell, but we'll consider leasing it" for about $1 per square foot, he said.
He bought the building, which has extensive water and structural decay, for about $70,000, and could end up spending at least another $100,000 to fix it up, he said. But the success of Salon 30-A next door and his fully occupied upstairs apartments has convinced him that it would be worth the time and treasure to renovate the old musty structure.
"This area hasn't turned the corner yet, though obviously I hope they will one day," Ball said.
And if it does, he said that he stands a decent chance of turning a profit.
"After about three years of this, we're finally breaking even on the note to the bank," he said.
Still, there are challenges in the area, which was a lively street decades ago where Chattanoogans came to enjoy musical entertainment and down a drink after a hard day's work.
"We looked at the buildings around there and there were definitely some facades that needed help," said Jeff Cannon of Greenspaces, who heads the Lyndhurst Foundation's efforts to spur redevelopment on M.L. King Boulevard. "We want to return the street to what it once was."
Cannon has worked extensively on Main Street to stimulate growth in that area, but he said rehabilitators are faced with an uphill battle on M.L. King Boulevard.
Some owners lack the resources or initiative to fix crumbling buildings, while others are content to bulldoze historic structures for parking lots or storage facilities, officials say.
"A big difference between MLK and Main Street is we had willing property owners on Main Street," Cannon said. "Property owners really have to step up like they did on Main Street."
Other times, city planners and historic preservationists simply have different definitions of what it means to stabilize a block.
Cannon said monoliths like the massive AT&T telecommunications warehouse or the city's server building mar the appearance of what should be "a living, breathing street; the 'play' part of 'live-work-play.'"
"We've got to stop making these mistakes; that is not the highest and best use for that property," he said in reference to the city's IT hub on the 300 block.
Ball's Tower Construction originally renovated the city's IT support building as offices and retail space for the M.L. King Community Development Corp., which had bought buildings on the block, but that venture had to be saved by the city when the CDC "could no longer afford to continue to operate," said Elijah Cameron, former executive director of the defunct organization.
Dan Thornton, real property manager for Chattanooga, said the city's use of a restored structure as storage for server infrastructure was meant to stabilize the area.
"We actually saved that building from foreclosure," Thornton said.
Richard Beeland, director of communications for the city, said that the city would be open to beautifying the building in the future.
"We don't want it to be a detriment to development in the area, absolutely not. We would want to be a good neighbor and do everything we could to ensure that area could be redeveloped," Beeland said.
Keys to success
Champy's, an eatery a few blocks east of the 300 block, stands as a recent success story. The restaurant appeals to college students and young professionals, making it one of the few businesses that has drawn UTC students south across East M.L. King Boulevard, Cannon said.
"Even though it's right there, the university has turned its back on M.L. King, so correcting that problem is going to be the Rosetta Stone," Cannon added.
The UC Foundation, the development arm of UTC, could not be reached for comment.
"If this was happening on Main Street, you couldn't get it done fast enough to sell it and make money," Ball said.
But the solution to turning around the rest of the street remains elusive.
James Mapp, former head of the local NAACP chapter who led desegregation efforts in Chattanooga, said that M.L. King Boulevard "hasn't been part of the plan" for Chattanooga's rebirth.
Moses Freeman, a developer in the area, agreed, saying that without a cohesive organization pushing for redevelopment, progress can take time.
Still others point to unrealistic expectations from property owners who are holding out for a financial windfall from the sale of their dilapidated properties.
"What's holding the area back is some of the prices the owners are charging," Beeland said. "We would like to see it redeveloped and realize its full potential, but there are some property owners who have unrealistic expectations as to the value of their property."
Cameron, who now works as development manager for Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise, said the city or a nonprofit agency should pony up the funds to pay the difference between what property owners are asking and what developers are willing to pay.
"Property owners see dollars spent all over the city, and they want a piece of the pie," he said, but "Someone says, 'This is what I want for my property' and the developers walk away. That doesn't bode well."
Whatever the cause of MLK's perceived malaise, Calvin Ball isn't letting it hold him back.
His company, Tower Construction, originally attempted to sell the living units as condos to professionals and students at nearby UTC for about $100,000 each, but there were no takers. So he's renting the rooms in the meantime instead of letting them stand empty.
"This area is ripe for a Main Street-type atmos-phere," Ball said. "I definitely think it'll be here one day."
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6315.