“There’s a lot of good energy to come in the next few months. It’s bringing a lot of new life in this section.” — Tom Underwood, the Westin’s general manager
For most of the past decade, the area of downtown Chattanooga around the former BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee headquarters was seen as a sleepy part of the central city.
In 2009, the Chattanooga-based health insurer and its employees moved out of the so-called Gold Building to a shiny new $299 million campus on Cameron Hill across U.S. Highway 27.
But the area around Pine and West Eighth streets all changed last year when a Westin hotel opened in the 10-story building along with new restaurants and bars inside and eateries and retail shops nearby. And even more development is planned in what has been dubbed "the West Village."
Tom Underwood, the Westin's general manager, says a tequila and taco bar, Citron et Sel, also is opening in the area, and a restaurant offering a steak concept, too, is under construction across Pine from the hotel.
"There's a lot of good energy to come in the next few months," he says. "It's bringing a lot of new life in this section."
On Saturdays, the streets near the hotel close for a laser light show. There's also live music and food trucks. Meanwhile, beverage vendors and businesses in the area offer an open house or specials, Underwood says.
"It creates a nice neighborhood feel and family feel," he says. "It flows out of the hotel, as well. It has been a great addition to the area. The owners had a great vision and brought in a lot of activity that wasn't here."
In 2016, DeFoor Brothers Development, which created the hotel, helped fund a sizable streetscaping project near the Westin to fashion a festival atmosphere as part of the investment. The streetscaping included cobblestone-like pavers and crosswalks to help slow vehicle traffic.
Also, the brothers bought the former Pioneer Bank Building at Eighth and Chestnut streets and moved their offices, along with a couple of other companies, into the structure.
In addition, Alimentari, an Italian restaurant, which the DeFoor brothers company co-owns with Javier Peralta-Ramos, opened at the corner of Chestnut and Eighth.
Additionally, they recruited other businesses to open outlets in the area, such as Peet's Coffee and Tea and the Pinkberry yogurt shop on Chestnut Street between Eighth Street and M.L King Boulevard.
Joy Raynor, manager of Peet's and Pinkberry, says she believes there were upwards of 6,000 people in the West Village to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.
"We stay open during the events," she says. "We have free kids' face painting at Pinkberry and make balloons for kids."
Raynor says she believes that a street market will open on weekends on Eighth Street in the summer. She's looking forward to warmer spring and summer weather which should spur business.
"A year ago, [that section of downtown] was kind of dead," Raynor says. "Now, it's picking up."
In addition, she says, the Read House hotel nearby is undergoing a $20 million makeover.
"There are a lot of conventions in town in April and May," Raynor says.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke says there has been a re-invigoration of that part of downtown by the work of local businessmen and brothers Byron and Ken DeFoor. Berke says the DeFoors "had the tenacity and vision to make it happen."
The 261-room Westin is part of an estimated $88 million being spent in that end of downtown by the DeFoors. In addition to the hotel, the developers, with the help of the city, have tried to animate several blocks around the Westin.
In 2010, the DeFoors bought the Gold Building. One idea was to tear down the building and put about 600 parking spaces on the site. But, they say, they were later convinced that they couldn't dismantle the tower designed by famed Atlanta architect John Portman because it was "a part of history," Byron DeFoor says.
"It's like a city icon," he says.
Following thoughts about refurbishing the building as office space, the DeFoor brothers learned that Portman had designed a Hyatt Regency hotel in Atlanta which had a similar footprint to the Gold Building. The Chattanooga structure could become a hotel, and the idea of the Westin was born.
But, the DeFoors had concerns about the size of the investment and the Great Recession hit. They nailed down financing from a couple of out-of-town banks and finally proceeded with construction. They say the project sprinted to completion.
Ken DeFoor says that workers put in some 40 18-hour days to finish the project, which he believes people like.
"If I had a dollar for the people who said, "'I feel like I'm in New York,"' he says.
Henderson says the hotel that opened last October has seen "a nice, steady ramp-up" and its officials also are looking toward the spring and summer months when traffic into the city is heavier.
"It has been well received by those who live in the area and out-of-towners," he says.
The meeting space inside the hotel has created a lot of interest, Henderson says.
"It has done pretty well in regards to local events and catering opportunities," he says.
The general manager says the bar which opened on the top of the Westin has been popular among locals and hotel guests alike.