See the full Kingsport Time-News article here

Article by: Rick Wagner
December 17, 2006

New Facade grant program to help improve appearance of downtown businesses

KINGSPORT—A facade grant program for downtown comes at an opportune time for redevelopment, according to winners of the four grants given so far.

John and Angela Vachon, owners of Urban Synergy, are set to receive three of the four facade grants given so far. The other is to go to Aaron Carson, a principal in a company called The Mint.

“It’s helped us a lot. It’s helped us a whole lot,” Angela Vachon said, to which her husband added, “It’s helped to bring a lot more prospective investors downtown.”

Under the program, initially funded for $50,000 by the Kingsport Economic Development Board and coordinated by the Kingsport Office of Small Business Development and Entrepreneurship, eligible projects can receive up to $5,000 per facade or $10,000 for corner properties.

The properties selected for awards must be located within the established central business district of downtown and front a public street. All improvements must affect building exteriors and any exterior code violations.

Eligible improvements include doors, windows, masonry repair, signs, awnings, lighting and painting.

The four reimbursement grants total $32,500 of $50,000, which means that $17,500 is still available. KOSBE’s Facade Committee makes recommendations to the KEDB, which has final approval authority.

A fifth application is pending for Pappy’s Custom Motorcycle, 244 E. Main St., in addition to the Vachons seeking more grant money for one of their buildings, but applications will continue to be considered and given until funding is exhausted.

The matching funds are reimbursed to the property owner when the facade project is completed.

The grants are meant to help revitalize and refurbish small business storefronts, improving the aesthetic appearance of Kingsport’s central business district, which could encourage more businesses to locate downtown.

Downtown on the move

Angela Vachon said the grant program fits in with what is already happening downtown.

In a little more than two years, she said investors have bought more than 60 downtown Kingsport buildings for more than $8.3 million. Of six buildings the couple living in Gray owns, five buildings are located in downtown Kingsport and a sixth is in Johnson City.

He works in orthopedic medical sales and in the business, while his wife devotes full time to the business and handles the day-to-day work with contractors.

“Now is the perfect time,” John Vachon said of downtown revitalization and redevelopment.

“Twenty years ago, a few developers tried,” he said. “We’re not blazing trails here. It’s been done all over America.”

His wife said the key to downtown is bringing in people in the evenings and nights.

“We needed our after fives. Your after fives are coming,” she said.

“The Kingsport facade grant is a critical first step in moving downtown Kingsport in the right direction,” Carson, who received the fourth grant for his downtown building, wrote in an e-mail.

“When you live outside Kingsport, you see the potential Kingsport has with a fresh perspective. Kingsport has a window of opportunity to position itself as a unique downtown that can reinvent itself,” Carson wrote. “The Facade Grant is the first step along with the (small business) micro loan. This along with downtown concerts bring awareness. The next step is to continue to aggressively improve the infrastructure such as the streets, lighting, statues, etc. of downtown.”

In talking with the Vachons, it is apparent they all but live and breath downtown Kingsport.

The Kingsport natives will be married eight years in May and have been in the building investment business for more than six years, starting in Johnson City.

Although they live on a mini-farm in Gray, eventually they plan to live downtown, possibly in an apartment.

Banking on a new home?

The Vachons new part-time or full-time address could be inside the old First National Bank building, a 1927 structure at 255 Broad St.

At the corner of Broad and Center streets, it is undergoing facade and interior work.

“We want to take it back with the original architecture,” John Vachon said of the three-story building with a basement that contains about 25,000 square feet. It still has the original main bank vault, with a steel door that a 1927 Kingsport Times article said weighed 12 tons.

“It was built for eight stories,” John Vachon said of the building with steel supports and concrete floors. According to a May 19, 1927, article in the Times, the building has 300,000 pounds of structural steel. A photo in the May 18 paper showed copious amounts of rebar in the safe, and the next day’s editorial lauded the bank.

“It means much to Kingsport to have a building of this type erected at a corner which promises to some day be at or near the business center of the town. It goes to show that the city is not only building up rapidly, but is building up substantially as well,” the editorial says. “The construction of this building is in keeping with the entire policy of the building of Kingsport, which is the policy of building for permanence. The completion of this building will have a tendency to encourage other building of the right kind in the city.”

Now it may be in a similar position, with its facade improvements almost 80 years later drawing attention to the facade grant program.

During an impromptu walking tour of the old bank and their other properties downtown, passersby wave, honk and yell out to the Vachons, saying they really like what the couple is doing with their buildings.

Angela Vachon is quick to point out that downtown by the first of theyear will have 20 restaurants or food businesses, including seven new or expanded restaurants, coffee house, bakeries and expansions.

They hope to add another restaurant to the mix, putting it in the second story of the old bank building. In their Progress Building next door, a 1929 building at 247 Broad St. that originally housed the Montgomery Ward department store, Angela Vachon’s sister is about to open up the Divine Delicacies bakery.

An existing tenant, the Creative Trust Agency that does advertising and marketing, plans to move from the second floor to space being renovated on the third floor.

“We feel there needs to be a little bit more publication on it,” Angela Vachon said of the facade grant program.

Power washing of the bank facade next store began Monday, and restoration of wood and metal windows on the building started later in the week.

All told, the facade project is projected to cost about $38,800, with the reimbursement grant to cover $7,500. However, they are reapplying to get another $2,500 — or the maximum for a two-facade building.

By the first of the year, Ross and Arthur, a law firm, is to occupy the front of the first floor. Plans are for a reception hall on the third floor that could be served by the restaurant.

“We just want to put more feet on the street,” Angela Vachon said. A psychologist’s office may move in the back of the first floor, she said of the building the couple has owned since November of 2004.

Granted, more money

The Vachons also received a grant for their building at 114-116-118 Market St.

“We’re going to pull the metal facade off and we’re going to repoint the brick,” Angela Vachon said of the 1920 building. The 12 old apartments upstairs are to be turned into five or six luxury loft apartments.

The grant for that building was $5,000, while the total facade fix cost is $26,000 to $29,000, she said.

The final building for which the Vachons received a grant is at 233-235 E. Sullivan St., a building in the Five Points neighborhood built in 1917.

The grant of $10,000 is to offset facade costs of about $36,000, which includes new windows for the second floor and new store display-type windows for the first floor. Interior work includes a makeover of an accounting firm’s office.

The couple said they have not decided which project will come next after the bank building.

Nearby is another building they own, a vacant one at 311 E. Sullivan St., but it was turned down for lack of information. The couple plans to resubmit the application.

Carson, a native of Telford in Washington County, Tenn., received a facade grant for his building at 201 Broad St. at the corner of Broad and Market streets. It houses, among other things, the Paper Tree.

Carson received a $10,000 grant for the facade project to cost about $20,000.

“The facade grant at 201 Broad St. looks to change the look and feel of the corner of East Market and Broad which are both historically significant streets.

“The second floor of the building is being transformed into luxury high-end lofts for professionals. This ranges from 12-foot ceilings, exposed brick and wood floors to brand new windows that replaced the old and cracked windows from years past. This is expected to be complete for the first tenants by the end of January,” Carson wrote.

He said the facade grant will go toward visual improvements including “flags on the side of the building and awnings that have a consistent look and feel, which will help elevate the perception of Kingsport businesses.

“By being one of the first to rehab and redevelop in Kingsport (and there are some other significant players in the market), the aim is to generate the overall awareness and bring people back into the city. This starts one building and one business at a time. If leadership continues with its focus, this will be the start of a new era in Kingsport’s downtown.”

Carson lives in Philadelphia and met the Vachons in Johnson City a few years ago, and they introduced him to downtown Kingsport, Angela Vachon said.

Future facades feasible

Although nothing beyond the initial $50,000 from KEDB is committed, officials said they believe the facade grant program will continue.

“This is an outstanding program. I think the needs are going to far exceed our $50,000,” Mayor Dennis Phillips said.

“My opinion is when the $50,000 is all given, we will sit down and assess the success of the program,” Phillips said. “It would certainly be my recommendation if at all possible we continue the facade program.”

Aside from aesthetics, he said the money is an investment that will pay off with increased property and sales taxes.

“It’s a chain reaction,” Phillips said.

Mile Burdine, the executive vice president and chief executive officer of the Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce, also said the program should continue and at a higher level if possible. Phillips said any additional federal or state grant programs also need to be sought to go along with the local funding.

The new facades must go before the Facade Grant Committee, which makes recommendations, and the KEDB, which has final approval authority.

Bob Feathers, facade committee chairman and owner of WorkSpace Interiors, said applicants should provide as much detail as possible and include realistic estimates.

The Downtown Kingsport Association plans to apply for a facade grant for its restoration of the old Kesterson Photography building on Main Street, and DKA President Bill Testerman said he and other downtown businesses and building owners hope to apply. His business is Blakley- Mitchell on Broad Street.

KOSBE, a partnership of the chamber and city of Kingsport, is accepting applications now, and the KEDB is next scheduled to meet again Jan. 9.

For more information about the facade grant program, contact KOSBE Executive Director Aundrea Wilcox at (423) 392-8801 or awilcox@ kosbe.org or NETWORKS — Sullivan Partnership Director of Business Development Betty Martin at bmartin@networkstn. com or (423) 279-7682.