A decrepit block of bedraggled buildings across from the Chattanooga Choo Choo will see the first new tenant in more than 30 years, as a trio of property owners prepare to restore the a high-visibility segment of Market Street to its former glory.
The Hot Chocolatier will move into a new storefront at 1437 Market Street -- what was once the J.M. Sanders Pawn Shop, the "diamond king of the south" -- in late April from its current location in the Craftworks building, owners say. Such a tenant, at a time when the real estate market has thawed across the country and is gaining steam in Chattanooga, could be the crest of what building owners hope will be a wave of renewed interest in the historic Southside neighborhood.
"We wanted to stay on the Southside, and we're hoping we can spur the two empty buildings that are adjacent to us into developing those and getting more activity in that area," said Chocolatier co-owner Brandon Buckner. "Being across from the Choo Choo doesn't hurt either."
The future Chocolatier will occupy one of three buildings, which include the long-shuttered Ellis Restaurant and St. George's Hotel, whose owners say they are moving forward and assembling cash to pay for plans to breathe new life into the Southside.
"You just can't replace these old buildings," said architect Thomas Johnson, who expects to spend $500,000 of his own money and hundreds of hours to buy and renovate the future home of the chocolate entrepreneurs.
"If you want to make it work, you've basically got to work for free," he admitted.
The new location will double The Hot Chocolatier's current 20 seats for patrons, and will expand its space to 2,500 square feet, including part of a new courtyard in the rear.
Surrounded on Monday by piles of bricks, panes of glass and bustling workers, Johnson has plenty of work left to do. A tree is still doing its best to grow through a rear wall, and there are a handful of challenges to get the uncovered patio ready for guests.
But such dusty work is a labor of love for Johnson, who is well-known for his role in preserving old Chattanooga structures. Johnson helped establish parts of the Southside as an official historic district, which uses the tax law to reimburse property owners for about 20 percent of their efforts to preserve historically significant structures.
"I was just tired of looking at the building every day, so I asked the last owner what he planned to do with it," Johnson said. "He wanted to tear it down, so I bought it from him."
In the remaining windows, the three vacant Market Street buildings reflect a vibrant hotel across the street that represents Chattanooga's rebirth from Dynamo of Dixie into a new urban playground. But unlike the successful Choo Choo, which has used the city's industrial past as its calling card, the biggest spike in traffic to the St. George in 30 years has been a wrecking crew that demolished two-thirds of the building for safety reasons in 2012.
"We've had to really go through the engineering very carefully as to what can be done, what's up to code, and how we can save the building," said Marta Alder, who bought the St. George for $245,000 last year.
Alder will meet with architects this week to go over plans for a multi-story condo development and parking garage that would use the existing facade of the St. George for historic purposes, she said. She's still working to assemble financing for the project, but with the engineering studies in hand she expects movement within months, she said.
"I think the three of us [property owners] together can all make that block look really good," Alder said. "I moved up from Miami a couple years ago, and when I saw it I couldn't believe it had been sitting across from the Choo Choo vacant for 30 years. Better late than never."
Ann Gray, executive director of Cornerstones, Inc., has been pushing development on the block for years. The historic preservation agency has focused on restoring the St. George for more than a decade, Gray said, and so far has only succeeded in protecting the facade at the expense of the rear two-thirds of the building, which now consists of a fenced-off pit.
In the end, if developers can get the building occupied by residents and ground-floor retail, the effort will have been worth it, Gray said.
"We've always thought if we could get that stabilized, we could do something with the Ellis Restaurant next door," Gray said. "We are still very optimistic that something new can be done on the front with something new on the back. The facade keeps the historic character. It just seems to be so slow."
Gray is far more optimistic about recent developments at the Ellis Restaurant, which is in a good location to serve both local diners as well as tourists who stay at the nearby Choo Choo and ride the city's electric shuttle.
"Yes, it's really dilapidated, but it's still there, and there's an opportunity to work with that," Gray said.
Scott Coffey, owner of the Ellis Restaurant, is taking steps to refurbish his property -- which is sandwiched between the former pawn shop and the St. George -- from the outside in, starting with the $20,000 sign. The Ellis Restaurant originally shut down in 1977 and never reopened after former proprietor Gus Ellis fell in the kitchen and broke his hip, Coffey said.
Like the rest of the block, the property decayed and was occupied by vagrants. Like the adjoining property, the Ellis Restaurant remained vacant, even as the rest of the Southside grew up around it.
"I get people calling and complaining about the look of the block who have moved in around it," Gray said. "Part of me smiles, because nobody was moving in when we started this project. But we need to get it right."
Today, Coffey and Cornerstones together have applied for a grant to restore the restaurant's sign to its former glory, which could draw immediate interest to the block and represent the first step in restoring the restaurant itself, Coffey said.
If the grant is approved, the sign's neon frogs will again jump from left to right, and its 600 bulbs will once more light up the night. Coffey's dream is to bring in a big-name chef that will cater to local and out of town guests, at a restaurant decorated using a barn full of Chattanooga memorabilia both salvaged from the old restaurant and acquired from elsewhere, he said.
Coffey and Johnson are also working to solicit support from the city, which originally removed street parking in the 1980s to help smooth the flow of traffic down market street from I-24 to TVA. Any potential restaurant or retailer will need those 10 spaces restored. In the meantime, patrons can park across the street, a common occurrence in any urban setting, Coffey said.
"I think the combination of the location and draw of the sign, it's a no-brainer," Coffey said. "If you can't make it in a restaurant there, you can't make it in a restaurant anywhere. I can assure you it will be a memorable experience."
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith, firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6315.