Chattanooga's famous Warehouse Row is roaring back.
After slumping from bustling regional attraction to a mostly vacant complex, a new push to sign up tenants appears to be working. The early 20th-century complex of eight warehouses again echoes with voices after a decade of fits and starts that caused some to question the property's future.
The former outlet mall hit its peak under then-owner Prime Outlets in the 1990s, when the complex housed about 30 outlet stores for name-brand manufacturers. By 2006, fewer than half of its 23 tenants were retail establishments.
The north building's 175,000 square feet of office space lay completely empty, and most of the retail tenants had fled by the time that Atlanta-based Jamestown bought the building later the same year.
Though local favorite Blue Coast Burrito sold salads like gangbusters to TVA employees during the lunch hour, a few hours later the complex was empty.
It just wasn't working.
Jamestown, however, had a new idea for Warehouse Row: a high-end office and retail complex, similar in scope to the company's other properties at One Times Square and Chelsea Market in New York, said John Healy, leasing agent for Sperry Van Ness.
"The concept behind this was to create a unique space," Healy said. "Everything about this building is a little bit different."
Local designers created a custom look that screams "premium space," he said, which has reeled in boutique shops to replace departed outlet stores.
Tenants began to flock back to the Row's rejuvenated office and retail space, and the flow has yet to subside.
The Public House, Revival Uncommon Goods, Cosmetic Market, Embellish and Amanda Pinson moved into the retail space in 2009.
Kayce Hughes, Petunia's Silver Jalapeno and Rhinoceros leased new space in 2010. The following year, Lines Orchid, Ellies Fine Lingerie and Homespun Parties & Events moved in.
So far in 2012, Warehouse Row has attracted Shadowbox Paperie, Gallery 1401 and Southern Burger, with more on the way.
Sue Markley, owner of new tenant Gallery 1401, said her business had accelerated since she moved in from Main Street.
"I had more people in the first four days than I had at the other place in four months," Markley said. "I think people are very surprised that a small town has this caliber of shops."
As that initial surprise passed, word began to spread that Chattanooga possessed something special. When the complex was featured in lifestyle magazine Garden & Gun, shoppers began to arrive from "from all over the Southeast," said Kelly Scott, a leasing agent for Jamestown.
By the end of the year, Scott expects two more tenants to round out the high-end retail space.
"We've only got 4,000 square feet of retail space left," she said.
That's down from 37,000 empty square feet just a few years ago.
The formerly empty office space is now home to 101,000 square feet of tenants, including Access America, Propex, Barge Waggoner, the U.S. Attorney's Office and Hamico.
New tenants tore out the dreary drop ceilings, exposing rich wood beams and old brick walls. Large windows allow light into the open spaces.
It's the place for chic, avant-garde companies that want to make a statement to their employees, Healy said.
"We've got 350 people working in here now, and by the end of the year we'll have 700," he said.
They aren't simply cannibalizing other downtown properties, either, he added.
"We have not relocated any office space from downtown," Healy said. "We've brought people from suburbia. It's been true absorption."
Even so, there's work yet to be done.
Healy still has more than 30,000 square feet of office space left to rent in the 175,000-square-foot north building. And the food court remains essentially empty, with just two eateries.
After Jamestown cut short the leases on the existing food court tenants, new restaurants have been slow to replace local favorites like Blue Coast Burrito.
But that doesn't worry Healy, who believes that as foot traffic picks up, additional food tenants will rush to take advantage.
"There's a lot of vacant space downtown, but people seem to like this space," Healy said. "It's just a more fun place to work."