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Jim Bambrey runs one of Tennessee's best-known attractions in the Chattanooga Choo Choo, but from his office each day he sees a trio of rundown and vacant buildings across Market Street.
"We get comments from guests," he said. "They see that and think they're in a bad part of town."
But developers and city officials said that after decades of unfulfilled promises, work may be underway to save and bring back into use the forlorn Southside structures on the 1400 block of Market.
Chattanooga architect Thomas Johnson has bought one of the buildings and there's a move afoot concerning the redevelopment of at least one other.
"I got tired of looking at it like it was," said Johnson, who has invested in and redone several other old buildings nearby on Market Street.
Johnson bought what for many years was known as the former J.M. Sanders Jewelry Co. for $225,000, he said. The developer said he has already fixed the roof of the 1930s-era building and begun refurbishing the inside with the hope of attracting retailers to the 5,000-square-foot space.
"I'm putting it back like it used to be and then will get tenants," said Johnson about the J.M. Sanders site, which was dubbed "the diamond king of the South."
Meanwhile, the nearby former St. George Hotel, too, is seeing some potential activity that may lead to its reuse.
Chattanooga businessman Craig Driver, of St. George Development LLC, said there's "positive synergy happening," though he declined to be specific because of a confidentiality agreement.
"There are things on the move," he said.
Ann Gray, executive director of the historic preservation group Cornerstones, said the four-story building erected in 1917 could get a new owner.
"There are two or three interested parties," she said.
Gray said she's hopeful one of those will come through with a purchase and a reuse plan for the structure that served patrons arriving in the city when the Choo Choo was a railroad station. Gray said what may happen is that the front of the old hotel could be preserved and then the rest of the site undergo redevelopment.
Already, the rear of the building, which is on Cornerstones' endangered buildings list, has been torn down because of safety concerns.
Squeezed between the St. George and Johnson's building is the old Ellis Restaurant, which has a different owner.
Gray said there's hope that building could be combined in some way with Johnson's project.
Kim White, who heads the nonprofit redevelopment group River City Co., said that all it often takes is one building to spur the revamping of others.
"Thomas has a great reputation of taking buildings and turning them into something special," she said.
White said Johnson could fit as many as three retailers in his space, and he's talking with the city about putting on-street parking on that side of Market.
"It's important for those buildings to have on-street parking," she said.