Last fall, after much construction, Lovelady opened the One-Eleven restaurant on the LaFayette square in the older, unused building next to the City Club gym. The move has brought a glimmer of much-needed vitality back to the downtown area.
Now, the savvy entrepreneur is turning his attention to an abandoned block of buildings on South Chattanooga Street and has an ambitious plan to create a series of small businesses in the formerly blighted area.
Known as the Mars Theatre project, after the former movie house that defined the block of buildings for many years, the renovation was spurred forward by the property’s purchase by Lovelady in July. Although he had originally hoped to fund much of the project through the LaFayette downtown development authority and any grants it could obtain, due to the state of the building, he had to move fast, and fronted much of the initial cost himself.
“Michael Lovelady stepped up as an investor to purchase this property,” said LaFayette councilman and downtown development authority member Chris Davis. “In no way is our city or the council looking to purchase this property after he’s done with it,” he clarified.
“The Mars Theatre project has been an ongoing area that the DDA has been looking at and focusing on ever since this past spring,” said Lovelady. “We’ve had several discussions with DCA and other organizations, talking to them about various funding methods for this project down there...We were not able as a downtown development authority to move forward with the project...it was something that was going to require some fairly quick movement to prevent subsequent decay in that area, and really because of the fact that the Mars had burned and was without a roof and was getting quite a bit of water leeching into the adjacent building structure.”
Lovelady hopes that renovating the area will add new jobs and vitality to the west LaFayette area, and as the Mars Theatre district sits next to the railroad whistle-stop, he thinks that making attractive stores and entertainment will encourage people to stop and spend money in LaFayette. Later phases of the entire project tentatively call for a rail car display and a city museum honoring local police and fire personnel, complete with an antique fire truck owned by the city which is currently without a proper home.
“The whole goal is to take that area and transform it into a more useful facility and get a much higher and better use of out it,” said Lovelady. “In order to do that, you have to look at that entire area as a whole and try to figure our a way, come up with a plan that will make a comprehensive enclave of specialty retail shops and service establishments that actually all compliment each other.
“That particular area, phase 1, consists of about eight individual buildings that up until the other day were just in various stages of disrepair,” he said. “It also includes about 25 storage buildings and the old service station back there. The goals for phase 1 implementation is to basically establish a specialty retail enclave.”
The renovation includes plans for the entire strip of buildings from the Mars Theatre to the old depot building, and will hopefully soon house a restaurant, a sporting goods store and a handful of local boutiques.
“This is going to provide, first of all, an atmosphere conducive for a tourist train stop,” said Lovelady. “Now we have a tourist train that hits that area and doesn’t slow up one bit. Now you’ve got something out there and a reason for it to stop.”
By making the strip of buildings into something retail-friendly, Lovelady and the downtown development authority also hope to make the area safer for pedestrians and more attractive to LaFayette citizens, who will hopefully come back to explore an area that has been considered all but abandoned for a long time.
“The key is going to be the establishment of an anchor business to stabilize the district. Anytime you go into a project like this, you want to come up with either an anchor store or an anchor business that’s going to be your primary business in that area, it’s going to be your primary attraction. The subsequent shops then benefit off that particular anchor business.
“This first business that’s scheduled for completion is located at the north end of the strip and that’s the one that I have slated to house the anchor business...It’s going to be a restaurant that we’re going to model after an Old English tavern. It’s going to offer moderately-priced food consisting primarily of fish and chips, burgers, wings, oysters; we’re going to have an emphasis on seafood. As an anchor business, you’re going to have something there now that’s going to draw people in to come eat, and hopefully before they eat or after they eat, they’re going to have an opportunity to then walk down that strip and then that’s where your retail shops come in.”
The restaurant, which will be known as the Chattanooga Street Tavern, has a tentative opening date in September. “That’s not totally out of the question,” said Lovelady.
“The façade work on all the buildings is the next priority,” he said. “We hope to have all that done by the end of August. And then work on the interiors and stabilization and get that done by October.
“The goals for this are specialty retail items like a ladies’ boutique, an antique shop, a souvenir or gift shop,” he said.
The main storefront, which will be housed in the Mars Theatre building itself, Lovelady is actively marketing as a potential recreational supply store, complete with indoor climbing wall and all the hiking, camping and caving gear one would need in order to best enjoy the natural beauty of Walker County.
“It’s something that can’t stand alone,” said Lovelady of the entire renovation. “It is going to need a little bit of support. And by support, we’ve got to do something to bring that whole area up and improve it...It’s going to be a unique area, it’s going to be a great little specialty shop area with parks, places to walk, places to eat, places to shop. And it’s all in one location, it’s going to have a very historic feel. I’m just very excited about it, and most of the people I’ve talked to about it have been excited about it.”