New project to adds to downtown redevelopment

A vacant, three-story building on Fountain Avenue will get a makeover and new business this summer, joining a list of nearly $20 million either spent or planned on renovations in the downtown block.

Chris and Rebecca Lewis spent about $110,000 to purchase 10-10½ N. Fountain Ave. last month from Wellington Square, the real estate arm of the Turner Foundation.

The historic, three-story building most recently housed Itsy Fits, a children’s boutique that has since closed. However, the structure is in need of numerous repairs, including a new heating and cooling system and other upgrades.

“This building has been screaming for help for a long time,” Chris Lewis said.

The work could be completed as early as August, and will eventually house an art studio that will allow patrons to take painting classes while drinking wine.

It is just one of several projects in recent years completed by either the city or developers to revitalize that block downtown.

Last year, the city completed a $1.2 million streetscape project that opened the block of North Fountain Avenue to two-way traffic between Columbia and Main streets. That project also included adding brick pavers, and new curbs, gutters and sidewalks.

In 2012, the Turner Foundation, a local philanthropy group, spent $100,000 to renovate the former Meeks Building. That site now houses a retail store for the Doug Frates Glass Studio. Running With Scissors, an art business, also previously occupied space at the Meeks Building but has since vacated.

Bada Bing Pizzeria also recently signed a five-year lease to move into a previously vacant site at 40 N. Fountain Ave., and is still working to renovate the building to fit the restaurant’s needs.

Just next door, a roughly $16 million renovation project was completed at the historic Bushnell Building at 14 E. Main St. Local attorney and developer Jim Lagos, who owns the building, also recently renovated the third floor of that property to allow for an expansion for CodeBlue, one of the tenants there.

Along with the conversion to a two-way street, Veterans Bridge will get a $2.7 million makeover next year and local officials are trying to raise money to build a roughly $10 million parking garage downtown at the corner of North Fountain Avenue and Columbia Street.

Opening more areas of downtown to two-way streets would help the area recover faster, Lagos said.

Those improvements, among others, have made a noticeable difference in recent years, said Sam Beloff, who owns Rose City Fine Jewelry and Loan, 26 N. Fountain Ave. He has seen businesses vacate the area over the past few decades, but he is now seeing more interest from entrepreneurs who are interested in working downtown.

The recent street conversion alone has already led to increased foot traffic that didn’t exist several years ago, Beloff said.

“The common comment prior to all of this was that Springfield’s downtown had a bombed-out look,” Beloff said. “And I would defy anyone to make that kind of a statement about our downtown now. In fact it’s probably just the opposite.”

The project at 10-10½ N. Fountain Ave. was appealing in part because it’s small enough it can be completed within a few months, said Chris Lewis, a private contractor who owns Phoenix Builders and the Phoenix Properties Group.

Making a profit is important, Lewis said, but he added he and his wife gravitate toward projects that they feel can have a bigger impact on a community.

The couple also owns the Buckeye Sports Lodge at 126 W. High St., and their company is working with the Turner Foundation to renovate four apartments in the upper floors of the Firesale Warehouse Store, 122 E. Main St.

Renovating the Fountain Avenue building allows the couple to play an early role in reviving the street, Chris Lewis said.

“This seems like kind of ground zero for the renaissance that’s starting to take shape downtown,” he said.

The new business in his property will be owned by Tracey Tackett, Lori Taylor and Danielle Finch. The art studio hasn’t been named, but could open by August.

The studio should be a good fit for downtown and could attract customers who will shop at other local businesses, Taylor said.

“It helps to have landlords that have the big picture in mind to try to make things better,” she said.

The Meeks Building has three tenants now and some interest has been shown in the last remaining storefront, said Daren Cotter, Turner’s chief financial officer.

The foundation wants to attract a mix of retail, food and art to Fountain Avenue, Cotter said, and believed the block was positioned well for redevelopment after the conversion to a two-way street. That helped lead to selling the 10-10½ N. Fountain Ave. property.

“Our mission is to help the community, not necessarily be real estate developers, so we were happy to sell that to Chris Lewis, knowing that he would do a nice job with it and get it back into use,” Cotter said.

The last unoccupied building on that side of the block is the former Lagonda Bank building at the corner of Fountain Avenue and Main Street, which the foundation’s real estate arm also owns.

“We don’t have any immediate plans for that building but that would be one in the near future we would hope to develop,” Cotter said. “The storefront there could be a large restaurant, it could be office space up above, it could be a lot of things.”

The Turner Foundation also eventually wants to replace the former Carter Jewelers Co. Building at 12 N. Fountain Ave. with a new building, although that project is in the more distant future, Cotter said. The site was destroyed in a fire last year and demolished.

“We just think downtown development should be tight and we don’t want too much empty space,” he said.

The next step to continue recent development is to identify a small- or medium-sized business interested in moving downtown to create more foot traffic and continue the momentum, said Bill Harless, executive director of the Center City Association, an organization that promotes downtown.

The organization is also making an effort to attract residents to other downtown areas, including adding bike racks and repair stations throughout the area.

Fountain Avenue was identified as a key for redevelopment during a Regional Urban Design Assistance Team study more than a decade ago, said Tom Franzen, assistant city manager and director of economic development for the city.

The redevelopment study focused on redeveloping Fountain Avenue as part of the spine that connects the northern and southern arts and education districts of the city, he said.

“These are things that a lot of different people have worked on at different points in time,” Franzen said. “It’s nice every once in a while to pick your head up and look back and say we have made some progress, although we’re not satisfied.”

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