New Choo Choo: $8 million revitalization planned for iconic Chattanooga hotel complex

New Choo Choo: $8 million revitalization planned for iconic Chattanooga hotel complex

July 29th, 2014 by Joy Lukachick Smith in Local Regional News

POLL: Would you like to see a refurbished Choo Choo?

Jon Kinsey speaks during an announcement of plans for the Chattanooga Choo Choo. Several new businesses are scheduled to open in the complex next spring.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster/Times Free Press.

What helped make the Southside bustle in the mid-1970s could now become the catalyst for a new Chattanooga entertainment and music district.

The Chattanooga Choo Choo is no longer the grand lady it was during its heyday.

But part owner and former Mayor Jon Kinsey unveiled a plan Monday to spend $7 million to revitalize the city's namesake attraction and national icon by bringing in two out-of-town restaurants, relocating the Comedy Catch from Brainerd and building a smaller, 500-person music venue into the complex. In addition, about $1 million will be invested in renovating the hotel rooms in Building One, one of several buildings in the complex.

The additions would join the popular Track 29 music venue, which is already located on site, and feed development in an area that has become home to some of the city's most popular and hip restaurants and shops.

The plan is especially expected to pump new life into 14th Street. Terminal BrewHouse sits on the corner of 14th and Market, but the rest of the street is used essentially as an alley, with Dumpsters and trucks flowing to Main Street.

The new music venue managed by Track 29 would be along this artery, catering to smaller crowds and featuring a mix of country, Southern rock, indie and bluegrass. The Comedy Catch, which will move from Brainerd to downtown in time for its 30th anniversary, will be located next door.

Kinsey predicts that those two businesses alone will attract 200,000 people a year.

Bob Doak, president of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, said this plan is what Chattanooga needs to build an after-five night life, pulling together existing venues to spark a vibrant entertainment and music district.

"Now is the time and room to bring an after-five [area] in one of the districts. This serves as the gateway or portal to that," Doak said. "You'll see more and more businesses start up as music and entertainment continues to grow in this city."

Construction on the project will begin Friday.

A drawing of what the Chattanooga Choo Choo is proposing with its restoration project.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

The announcement was made one day before the City Council will hear from residents and business owners on whether the city should change its sound ordinance and create a specific entertainment area where venues that lie within the defined street limits -- that stretch from Fourth Street through Main Street -- can crank up the music until midnight, with a permit. The Chattanooga Choo Choo is within the defined area unveiled last week by the city attorney's office.

Part of the ordinance -- the enforcement piece -- was birthed out of noise complaints from Southside residents over Track 29, owned by Jon Kinsey's son, Adam.

Council Chairman Chip Henderson said he doesn't think the timing of the announcement puts any additional pressure on the council to approve the ordinance. Instead, he sees the new sound ordinance as much bigger than one location or venue -- it's a chance for the city to expand its music and after-hours entertainment and bring in more revenue.

"The sound ordinance is part of a much bigger picture than this piece of the puzzle," Henderson said.

Jon Kinsey said Chattanooga's sound ordinance has to change in order for the city's music industry to grow.

The proposed ordinance would allow venues with a permit to play music that can be heard from the business property line at decibel levels of 80 -- comparable to the sound of an alarm clock -- and a bass decibel level of 95 on the weekend until midnight. The level after 9 p.m. is currently 50 decibels anytime of the week.

A drawing of what the Chattanooga Choo Choo is proposing with its restoration project.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Chattanooga Choo Choo tile

Hotel renovations are expected to take until spring 2015, but without closing the hotel. The first part of construction will be on the new women's restroom and relocating the front desk to make room for the new restaurants.

The Nashville-based Sam's Sports Grill and the Jacksonville, Fla.-based Blue Fish Oyster Bar will be built inside the hotel's lobby facing Market Street.

The plans could include patios that spill into the hotel courtyard, creating an inviting atmosphere for both tourists and locals.

In its early days, the Chattanooga Choo Choo -- which opened in 1972 -- attracted tourists who came to see Rock City, Ruby Falls and the Incline Railway. But Doak said a large number of locals came to eat at the different lounges and restaurants. One of them was named Pennsylvania Station, which was mentioned in the Chattanooga Choo Choo song made famous by Glenn Miller. But in 1987, the Choo Choo filed a bankruptcy reorganization plan and was sold at auction the following year. Thirty investors, including Jon Kinsey, bought and reopened the hotel in 1989.

One local neighborhood association leader said the Southside will benefit by having more options for locals and could help grow the booming area.

"It would be a tremendous add to the area, not only to the Southside but to the city," said Jay Martin, vice president of the Southside/Cowart Place Neighborhood Association. "It also adds to the tourist attraction of the Choo Choo itself."

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.