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Photo by Mark Kennedy / Rebecca Card, Lewis Card and Cody McCarver, from left, are pictured inside the renovated Dunlap Mercantile Company building on Rankin Avenue in Dunlap, Tenn. on Nov. 16, 2020 The three are partnering to redo several buildings in downtown Dunlap.

As they age, some small towns need heart surgery.

Dunlap, Tennessee, is a case in point. With about 4,800 souls, the Sequatchie County seat — a bustling coal-mining town in the early 20th century — is about as populous a medium-size liberal arts college.

Like many of Tennessee's hundreds of smaller cities and towns, Dunlap's downtown district lost foot traffic during the last half century.

"Of the 30 (commercial) buildings, 17 were empty," said Lewis Card, Jr., a retired Chattanooga industrialist and philanthropist who is investing in property there.

Nestled in a lush valley between the Cumberland Plateau and Walden's Ridge, Dunlap seems poised for a rebound. For decades, Dunlap's historic commercial district — once the beating heart of town — had been in decline. But that has changed dramatically in the last few years, according to residents, with more development on the drawing board.

Card, along with his wife, Rebecca, a retired Dunlap dentist, are dedicated to helping revitalize — some might say resuscitate — the town's historic district. They have bought six buildings since last year near the intersection of Rankin Avenue (Highway 127) and Cherry Street.

"We purchased one, and then another, and then another," Lewis Card explained.

The Cards say they want to renovate the buildings to contribute to the emerging downtown district so it will be a point of pride for residents and a tourist destination for people drawn to the scenic Sequatchie Valley.

The Cards said they studied the restoration of small Tennessee towns such as Franklin, south of Nashville, and Livingston, northeast of Cookeville, to get ideas for their Dunlap properties. They are producing a television show about their experiences and hope to one day replicate the formula in another town.

"We get on the state roads and stop at little towns," said Rebecca Card. "We love Franklin, Livingston. I wanted us to have a little town like that."

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Rebuilding downtown Dunlap

The Card's first-class restoration of the old Dunlap Mercantile building on Rankin Avenue recently opened as a combination tourist attraction and community gathering spot. Open Thursdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m., Dunlap Mercantile has already hosted church services and concerts.

Dunlap's Cody McCarver, formerly of the musical group Confederate Railroad, has partnered with the Cards in their Dunlap ventures. One of their buildings is being converted into a recording studio.

"My vision is that we end up as a destination for people from other states to enjoy music, food and B&Bs," McCarver said.

McCarver, a disciple of so-called "outlaw gospel" music, said the Dunlap developers have an unofficial theme song, an old hymn called: "We are Working on a Building for Our Lord."

He said the Dunlap Mercantile will soon host a screening for a film called "Stand On It" which features McCarver and actor John Schneider in a cinematic nod to the 1970s classic Burt Reynolds film "Smokey and the Bandit." Schneider is also involved in the television production about Dunlap's improvements.

Building boom begins

The two-story Dunlap Mercantile building, which was built in the 1890s, operated as a general merchandise store for 88 years, records show. The building is now filled with antiques, vintage clothing, and furniture made from wood reclaimed during the renovation.

Dunlap city leaders say private investment from the Cards and others has been a catalyst for a kind of reinvention that has been hoped for for some time. Of those 17 empty buildings, only one or two remain available, they say, as investors have stepped up to develop shops, eateries and B&Bs.

"I envision that downtown Dunlap will become a destination point," says Janis Kyser, executive director of the Sequatchie/Dunlap Chamber of Commerce, noting that the city has received a $125,000 state grant to promote downtown projects. "We want to create big-time amenities with small-town charm."

The goal has long been to reinvigorate the historic downtown district as a community asset and a place where tourists will gather to patronize restaurants, stores and recreational areas, city leaders say. The downtown attractions will pair well with the Dunlap Coke Oven Museum and a public walking trail to attract visitors, they say.

"Not only is it important to me, it's important to my offspring," said Dunlap Mayor Dwain Land, whose family has lived in the Sequatchie Valley for seven generations. "This (revitalization) is important for the history and future of Dunlap."

Mayor Land said the development of the historic downtown district has "snowballed," which bodes well for the city's tax base. More tourists equal more revenue. But he also thinks that a walkable downtown Dunlap will create a sense of community among residents.

"When I was young you could go downtown and get an Icee and read a comic book," he recalled.

In the Cards

Rebecca Card is a native of Dunlap. Her father owned Hatfield Drugs there and she worked at the soda fountain in the 1970s, she said. More recently, she practiced dentistry in Dunlap for over two decades.

She says that she and her husband, Lewis, who remains chairman of the Card-Monroe Co., were retired and living in Naples, Florida — where they helped raise millions for local charities, including the Naples Children's Education Foundation — when she felt a call to return to East Tennessee.

"God just put a tugging on my heart," she said. "We needed to do something for my little town."

The centerpiece of the town renewal is Dunlap Mercantile, the backbone of downtown commerce for much of the 20th century.

When the Cards bought the two-story brick building on Rankin Avenue in late 2019, it was in disrepair. Flooding had caused the wood floors to buckle and the ceiling was starting to cave in, they said. McCarver remembers the first day they visited Dunlap Mercantile, and he had to muscle the front door open with his shoulder because of warped wood.

Renovations revealed a host of treasures, including invoices and store documents stretching back a century. Also, the new owners discovered an old rope-operated elevator near the rear of the building that they have restored. There are also the remnants of a horse stable out back and a kit car factory on the property.

The Cards have also purchased buildings in adjoining blocks that they plan to make into retail and entertainment spots. One, an open-air space called The Yard, includes a fenced plaza that the owners say will soon be an alfresco dining area. The Yard features a mural of the old Dunlap train depot and a map of the Sequatchie Valley.

The Cards say they have counted up to 25 cars and trucks a minute passing by the Dunlap Mercantile Building on Highway 127.

"We want them to slow down, walk around and see what Dunlap has to offer," Rebecca Card said.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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