MOUNT VERNON – One of downtown Mount Vernon's most visible commercial properties has received state occupancy approval, clearing the way for potential redevelopment in the future.
The first-floor corner property at the Woodward Opera House, located at 101 S. Main St., received final site approval June 23, according to building manager Danny Gum. This will allow business to be conducted there.
The desire among building leadership, Gum said, is to stick to the original plan for the space, which is currently referred to as "Harvest Market & Café."
"The plan is to have a deli, a bakery, a café with seating – a grocery store, similar to Whole Foods," Gum said. "It’ll just be all locally grown produce, meats, things like that.”
The corner property has been vacant since 2016, Gum said, when Sips Coffee House left. It previously housed various men's clothing stores, including Colonial Men's Shop, according to records kept by the Knox County Historical Society.
The property next door, which will be part of the future market space, housed various shoe stores before briefly becoming the home of Paragraphs Bookstore.
Gum said in late June that Woodward leadership was open to hearing proposals for the newly approved space. While the Woodward could run its own market and grocery store, Gum said prospective tenants are also welcome to approach the team with ideas.
“We’re looking at doing that ourselves, plus we’re also looking at proposals from prospective tenants," Gum said. "We’re not ruling out anything right now – as a matter of fact, I’m having a meeting tomorrow with a prospective tenant. And then that’ll have to go before the board, and they’ll make a decision."
Gum declined to comment on a potential timetable for the project.
"I don’t want to raise expectations, so I’d rather not say one way or the other," he said. "We have our own wishes, I’ll put it that way. Whether they’re realistic or not, or will come to fruition, that remains to be seen.”
The space totals 5,000 square feet, according to Gum, and it consists of two main rooms: one with a commercial kitchen, service counters, and space for seating; and the other lined with accessible storage shelves.
Gum said a health-centric grocery store had once occupied the space, and it succeeded. That fueled the leadership team's interest in revamping a similar concept.
"There used to be a market in there. It was all locally grown produce and meats. And it did well – it did very well. People downtown loved it," Gum said.
"So with the addition of the new apartments down here, and the move from the bigger cities to this area, and the demand for healthy foods, we just think that would be the best use for all the spaces.”
Gum added, however, that this idea may not pan out. Planning is still in the early stages.
"That’s our wish – that’s our prayer – but it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what’s gonna happen," he said.
RESTORATION COMPLETE: On the same day the state approved the Woodward's first-floor corner property, the final touches were put on the building's decades-long restoration project.
The Woodward installed new signage on the north side of the building, meant to replicate the original appearance of the opera house.
According to Gum, the oldest available photo of the Woodward was taken in 1885 (roughly 35 years after it opened). In it, the letters "Woodward Opera House" can be seen painted in white on the north side of the building, facing Public Square.
"It’s part of the restoration. Any time you restore a building, rather than repurpose it, you want to get it back to how it looked originally," Gum explained. "This is the final phase in the restoration of the building. The final phase. Everything else is restored as it was in 1885 except for that.”
Jeff Gottke, board president for the Knox County Landmarks Foundation and a member of the Knox County Historical Society's board of trustees, said this final touch symbolizes the community's passion for preserving its history.
“I think Knox County is very proud of its history," Gottke said, "and it’s nice to see that being preserved and celebrated through historic-looking signage on one of Knox County’s most historic buildings.”
The restoration of the Woodward Opera House began in the 1970s, according to the its website, but did not pick up steam until 1994, when the Knox Partnership for Arts & Culture was formed. The Woodward Development Corporation was born in 1997, and it purchased the building in 1998, opening the door for a 20-year, $21 million restoration effort that would include $11 million in state tax credits.
The Woodward Opera House hosted its first live performance in 98 years on Jan. 24, 2019. In the time since, Gum said building leadership has focused on finishing the job – preparing the first-floor corner space for state approval, so it could pass structural safety inspections, and adding the final touches to the building's facade.
“We were still working on the Harvest Market & Café. When the building opened, occupancy was granted by the state on every other part of the building except for that one – it was still under construction," Gum explained.
"And just today – just today – the state inspector was in here, the structural inspector, and that was the last piece of the puzzle to get occupancy on that. So that’s finished now, too."
Gum had a hard time describing the feeling of seeing the project completed.
“Chill bumps. Relief. It’s just so nice to get this occupancy up here. It was like our final step. I can’t explain it," he said. "Like I said, whenever the inspector signed off, I literally got chill bumps. Just elation.”