Cook: A certain party at the station

Cook: A certain party at the station

July 29th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Pardon me boys, is that a new Chattanooga Choo Choo?

"This is truly going to be the entertainment center for our city," announced Jon Kinsey from the Choo Choo steps on Monday morning.

It was the first news conference held at the Choo Choo in five years, and man, they made up for lost time. There was a six-piece brass band, mayors and former mayors, the police chief, the sheriff, council members and a big poster proclaiming what so many of us have hoped and longed for: a renovated Choo Choo.

The Chattanooga Choo Choo will be returned to its historic stateliness and grandeur.

Long ago, the five-story hotel was resplendent. There was a dining room, billiard room and barbershop. A bathroom on every floor, which was swank for 1871. President Hayes even visited. (Would you have been more impressed if I'd said Chester A. Arthur?)

The Choo Choo has long been the architectural soul of the city, our original aquarium. Travel anywhere in the world, and somebody finds out you're from Chattanooga, and what's the first thing they do?

They start singing. Oh, Glenn Miller, we owe you so much. (If only the press conference had started 'bout a quarter to four Monday afternoon).

Yet recently, Main Street has blossomed, while the Choo Choo hasn't. For all its global fame, many people finally arrive at the Choo Choo and ... and ... sigh. Rather disappointingly.

"Do the lights on the sign even work at night?" one friend whispered after the press conference.

They will soon.

Work begins Friday on $8 million worth of renovations expected to bring hundreds of thousands of people to that area of downtown each year, reignite 14th Street as a main thoroughfare into our city's (unofficial) entertainment district and remake the Choo Choo as a place -- sorry -- the place people go come spring 2015.

"The real hot place to be," said Bob Doak, president of the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Kinsey -- the city's former mayor and an owner of the Choo Choo -- is the main investor in this. The money's his, but the original idea isn't.

"My son had the idea four years ago," Kinsey said. "I told him it was too early."

Four years ago, Main Street was just getting its sea legs. It had no Flying Squirrel, no Crash Pad. The Terminal Brewhouse and high-end Alleia had just opened the year before. Track 29 -- which Kinsey's son Adam and wife Monica own -- wouldn't for another.

So Kinsey waited.

Now, he thinks the timing is right to renew 14th Street -- running between Terminal and the Choo Choo, it's now known for its smoky loading docks and dumpsters -- by anchoring four new venues on that side of the Choo Choo, each spilling out onto the edge of Market and 14th.

• Sam's All American Sports Bar and Grill, a Nashville favorite that's opening its seventh location here.

"We were named one of the top 16 sports bars by Maxim," said co-owner Sam Sanchez. (Here's one for you: in 2000, Sanchez used his home equity as a loan to start the bar. And didn't tell his wife.)

• Blue Fish Oyster Bar

• A smaller, 500-seat version of Track 29.

• The Comedy Catch, which is moving back to downtown to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Really good for downtown, really bad for Brainerd Road.

Plus, Kinsey is investing $1 million into hotel room renovation. (Long ago, the hotel housed one of the first telephones in the city. What if, nowadays, it offered free Gig to hotel guests?)

As the Choo Choo goes, so goeth our city. Over the years, it has mirrored its surroundings: during the age of railroads, the Choo Choo -- then the Stanton House -- was a luxury destination, later remodeled as a passenger terminal. That's when the majestic lobby dome was built.

As rail travel slowed, the Choo Choo closed in 1970, then reopened as a tourist hotel, an early harbinger of our city's shift to a service economy.

Singing waitresses replaced real baggage clerks. Working train cars became nostalgic hotel rooms.

At the end of the press conference, as the brass band was packing up, I asked Kinsey how many jobs this project would create. He wasn't sure.

"I hesitate to put a number on that," he said.

That was the only thing missing from Monday's announcement. Nothing could be finer than this renovation bringing back to life the beautiful old Choo Choo while also helping folks put a little jingle in their step ... and pocket.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.