When Corned Beef and Co. moved out of the Roanoke City Market Building to a site a block away on Jefferson Street in the early 1990s, some questioned the decision.

Could the restaurant still be successful away from the core of downtown?

Nearly 30 years later, Corned Beef still has lines of customers waiting to get in on cold Saturday nights. A similar decision to move might be less controversial today, as downtown Roanoke has filled out commercially over the years. But the Market Building and its connected streets — especially Market Street with its row of shops and restaurants — is still considered the heart of downtown. Even with downtown’s growth in the last decade, it can be hard to get visitors to turn the corner off Market Street and onto Church Avenue, and around the other side streets that lack the activity of the main drag.

That extra push might be coming, though.

In the last year, new redevelopment projects have been announced that are expected to bring more people to some less-traversed areas of downtown, and several new retailers are already in the works.

A Richmond developer’s investments along the west end of Salem Avenue have brought new restaurants and a brewery to the once-forlorn street. Along Church Avenue, just down from Market Street, the former Fire Station No. 1 was purchased by a local developer with plans to repurpose it with retailers and a restaurant. The city bus station is expected to relocate and new retail and residences will take its place on Campbell Avenue. A boutique hotel is in the works on Jefferson Street in the historic former Liberty Trust building.

No new development downtown might have received more attention last year than the sale of the former Heironimus department store building, located just a few doors down from the fire station at Jefferson Street and Church Avenue. The 110,000-square-foot relic was left to fade away for more than a decade until Richmond developers purchased the vacant property last summer with plans to create about 80 new apartments and commercial space. The former department store was one of the last underutilized major properties downtown, and the news of its sale left some of its neighbors and other downtown merchants thrilled. Not only would it be bringing new residents, but it would create spaces for new businesses.

“We think bringing the large and iconic Heironimus building back to life will be great for the neighborhood,” said Chris Johnson, one of the principals of the building’s new owner, The Monument Companies. “There will be more residents to frequent existing and future businesses. The storefronts will be engaged with the street creating an exciting, safe and active atmosphere for the surrounding blocks. Roanoke already has a great downtown. We hope this project will make it even better for everyone.”

Larry Davidson, the owner of Davidsons men’s clothing store, has operated on South Jefferson Street across from Heironimus since 1964, and the store has been in downtown Roanoke for more than 100 years. He doesn’t see a lot of the foot traffic coming off of busy Market Street even though he is just a block away. With the Heironimus and fire station redevelopments, he is hoping for that to change.

“I can’t even express to you how excited I am,” he said.

New retailers downtown

A few weeks ago, North Carolina-based Mast General Store announced itself as the first tenant for the Heironimus building, with plans to open next year. The company, which has 10 other locations, is a specialty destination retailer that is considered a huge get by economic development and tourism officials in the region. The Heironimus property still has two more commercial spaces available that are already generating a lot of interest, Johnson said.

Storefronts follow residential development, Johnson said. “We think existing and future businesses will be encouraged about the continued expansion of the downtown population. Mast will also be an amazing addition to downtown. People travel from all over the place to visit Mast stores. You will see a lot of people coming to downtown to check out Mast, and I’m sure they will remember downtown Roanoke as a fun and lively place to visit.”

Mast’s recruitment to Roanoke was a years-long process. Lisa Soltis, a Roanoke economic development specialist, said her first contact with Mast was in 2007. And she periodically touched based with the company over the last decade.

Realizing that a destination retailer like this would need a collaborative recruitment effort, Roanoke Regional Partnership Executive Director Beth Doughty became involved. Doughty, who usually works on large economic development projects, helped brand the region as the type of place where an outdoor and specialty retailer would have success, and highlighted the downtown investments made in the last few years. Tourism officials and Downtown Roanoke Inc. were also involved in the recruitment, Soltis and Doughty confirmed.

“I felt like Roanoke was already a good fit,” Soltis said. Mast had opened in other cities that are similar to Roanoke, such as Asheville, North Carolina, and Greenville, South Carolina. Soltis and Doughty believe a store like this could help other retailers downtown. The neighborhood’s visitors, especially tourists, often don’t just stop at one store, but will browse through several within walking distance.

Catherine Fox, the spokeswoman for tourism group Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge, said while the tourism draw of the region’s outdoors amenities is huge, many of those visitors still congregate downtown. Visitors want to go to a place that has a lot of walkability, she said, and downtown fits the bill with its eclectic shops lining Market Street and the restaurants and bars in the neighborhood. Mast General Store can be an anchor store for downtown, she said. And its location around the corner from Market Street could help spread out the downtown offerings.

“I personally see the development of the Heironimus building as a landmark achievement,” said Garland Properties co-owner Aaron Garland, who manages 16 West Marketplace next door. “I think it had the potential to miss the mark if they had not secured a retail tenant, but I think Mast General will be a great neighbor.”

He said there are already new plans in the works at 16 West.

Developer John Garland and three other partners purchased the 37,000-square-foot property at 16 W. Church St. in 2009, making a bet on downtown growth. The building was transformed into 16 West, which houses businesses including the Little Green Hive coffee shop and a Carilion Wellness workout facility. A few restaurants have occupied a space in the back of the building, but it’s been a tough spot without a storefront to draw people in from the street.

Now there is a new vision for the space that reinforces its identity as a marketplace.

Mark Ferguson and Alex Dykes are transforming the ground floor into a craft vendor market and community kitchen. The idea plays on the popularity of the Riot Rooster craft fairs that have been held at 16 West the last few years. The new space will be called “Crafteteria,” a nod to the S&W Cafeteria that was housed in the building for many years, Ferguson said.

The new market will keep the businesses already located in 16 West and will add spaces and booths for craft vendors. The model is similar to an antique store, Ferguson said, but the booths with feature local specialty crafts and prepared foods. The kitchen in the back of the building will be available for rent, and up-and-coming chefs who want to sell prepared foods at the Crafteteria or caterers who need a professional kitchen for a short time could use the space, Ferguson said. He and Dykes hope the new business model, which is expected to launch this spring, will drive more people — and, in turn, more development — to Church Avenue.

What’s next

Hall Associates broker Frank Martin said the new developments are already having a ripple effect on commercial spaces downtown.

He has sold a number of commercial properties in the area over the years and said he has been getting a lot of calls recently. He said the surge in commercial development is likely because of the new residents, but also because a lot of people still work downtown. Having people walking around on their lunch break or living in the neighborhood can be crucial in driving interest. More than 2,500 people live downtown and more than 15,000 people work in the area, according to the 2018 annual report from Downtown Roanoke Inc. Recent investments to the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, which is just outside the core of downtown, could also help fill up empty spaces, Martin said.

He said the former Fallon Florist building on Church Avenue is under contract after being vacant for several years, while the former Tudor’s Biscuit World restaurant next door is still on the market. Hall Associates also sold the former Studio Roanoke property on Campbell Avenue to local developers at the Wilkinson Group after another long vacancy.

Dale Wilkinson is also the developer behind the Fire Station No. 1 property on Church Avenue. He hopes to start construction on that spot later this year with new retail — a second location for Black Dog Salvage is in the works — and a restaurant and bed-and-breakfast-style lodging. He believes this could be another anchor space for downtown.

However, he has a different view for the theater space, which he thinks is in an underutilized part of downtown. Wilkinson is looking to put a retailer with prepared foods or a grocery in that spot to target people who live and work downtown.

Davidson remembers when downtown was flush with people and had a wealth of stores like that where locals could buy staples.

He said he doesn’t think downtown will ever be like it was in the 1950s, but in the next few years it could be very vibrant and very active. And the new developments along Church Avenue and Jefferson Street will help all of downtown in the future, he said.

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