The Grove Street Center that once served 3,500 Westside residents and had a Dollar General Store, police precinct, laundromat and a resident-owned restaurant sits empty.
Small Treasures hair salon is gone. American Chicken Fish is gone. And the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy that once occupied the James A. Henry building across the street also is gone.
"We want to see the stores come back," said Gloria Griffith, a Westside resident of more than 40 years. "We want the beauty shop, the barbershop and the restaurant."
But the Westside community, which includes eight low-income housing sites, is not without hope.
Two prospective merchants say they can have four stores opened in the center if the landowner will rent to them. Thus far he has declined to do so.
The latest meeting featured Shehnaz Mirza and Karim Badruddin, who say they can pay the asking price to lease a space in the Grove Street Center for a convenience store. They say they can open in six weeks and promise the store will include produce, meat, milk and tobacco, but not alcohol.
But David Collins, the New York-based owner of Grove Street Center, said the space they want -- the former Small Treasures hair salon site -- is too small. It's about the size of a garage, he said, and by the time the shelves and refrigerators are in, there will be room for nothing else.
"I'll speak with anybody, but you've got to understand, you can't put a grocery in a 480-foot storefront. It can't happen," he said. "Then you deter someone who wants to put a full-size grocery there."
Collins said an empty building is no good to him and he wants to get it filled.
"I'm open to anyone who wants to come down and put something in the facility," he said. "My number and contacts are all over the building."
Mirza and Badruddin, who are married, said they don't want to lease a larger space until they know how much business they'll get. So they presented another plan to Collins last week.
The couple say they have 15 years' experience operating businesses. They received a business license in 2009 to operate Asian Attraction in Northgate Mall and on Hamilton Place Boulevard. Badruddin also holds a business license to operate Carisma in Northgate Mall.
They'll operate the convenience store, they said, while another friend will lease space for a hair-supply store, another will do a laundromat and another a dollar store. They say they're prepared to open all the stores in three months.
Collins hasn't yet responded to the group's plan.
The Grove Street Center, deemed the Westside commercial strip in the late 1990s, has been vacant since late 2010. The last business, Special Treasures, was gone before Christmas, Griffith said.
Dollar General, the center's anchor, closed in the summer of 2010, taking away access to food and other grocery products for the more than 1,000 elderly and disabled residents who live in the community.
The closest grocery is Buehler's Food Market, about 11/2 miles away on Market Street. Residents have said it's a hard trek for people in wheelchairs, especially when they're trying to carry bags of groceries.
Collins said it's partly the residents' fault that the Grove Street Center is without business.
"The community itself robbed the laundromat," he said. "They got into an altercation with the Dollar General store and they parked their cars in the back of the building and threw garbage around."
Griffith said Collins' statements are untrue, though she acknowledged there have been some problems.
She said the change machine was taken from the laundromat after the business closed. She said residents had disagreements with the management at the Dollar General store because residents felt they were not always treated nicely. Griffith said store operators would tell women their purses were too big to bring inside or that they couldn't bring their whole family in at one time.
Dozens of Westside residents signed agreements saying they would support a grocery store if it came into the area. Other residents verbally committed to notifying store owners if they saw people stealing.
Griffith said only some people steal and residents will try to prevent it from happening.
"If you've got children who've got easy hands, you need to tell them to keep their hands away," she told a group of about 70 residents and community organizers last week.
"We know who the shoplifters are."