503 W. High St.

The Knox County Land Bank bought the property at 503 W. High St. in downtown Mount Vernon for $500,000 on June 30, according to records from the Knox County auditor's office. The property was paid for through local grant money, Land Bank President Jeff Gottke said.

MOUNT VERNON – In March 2019, when Jeff Gottke served as the vice president of the Area Development Foundation, he presented Mount Vernon City Council with a "downtown strategic plan."

The plan, crafted through community feedback and professional studies over the course of 18 months, was advertised as a “holistic guide for future development." It laid out a 10-year vision for Mount Vernon's downtown district, including specific project ideas and action items.

One of the key enhancement areas identified in the plan was West High Street, which Gottke called "the front door" to the city's downtown district. The plan called for several enhancements to the area, including a gateway sign spanning the street, increased use of bricks and greenery, curb extensions and traffic signals.

“It does not have the same feel as downtown. From the railroad tracks to the Post Office, it looks like any other town ..." Gottke told council. "We want (visitors) to know where they are when they get here."

This vision came one step closer to reality last week.

The Knox County Land Bank purchased the property at 503 W. High St., located next door to the B&O Railroad Depot, on June 30. The half-acre commercial property formerly held Team Sports, a local athletic merchandise retailer.

Gottke, who now serves as the president of the land bank and the Area Development Foundation, said the acquisition will allow local leaders to move forward with plans to rethink the downtown district's west entrance.

"What the downtown plan shows is that the railroad tracks are kind of the defining line between the Historic Downtown area (and the west side of the city)," Gottke said. "That’s what made this building so attractive as a purchase, is because it sits right at the edge of the downtown."

The land bank paid $500,000 for the property, according to records from the Knox County auditor's office. Gottke said two local grants funded the acquisition entirely.

“It was on the land bank’s radar," Gottke said of the property, "but it was prohibitively expensive ... So we waited until the price came down a little bit and we had the means to purchase it.”

Team Sports will remain in-business, Gottke said, just not at its old location (company representatives could not be reached for comment Wednesday). The company had shifted sales models over the years, Gottke said, which led the owners to sell the property.

"They will continue to be in business, they’ll just do it from some other place," Gottke said. "And that was their decision, of course.”

It's unclear what the future will hold for 503 W. High St. The first order of business, Gottke said, will be to tear down the existing building "as soon as we can."

After that, land bank board members are expected to consider a wide array of potential uses for the property. Nothing is set in stone yet, Gottke said.

“The land bank bought that property as a community beautification/downtown development project ..." Gottke said. “So most likely, what we’ll do is tear that building down and then look at how best that space can be reincorporated into the gateway to the Historic Downtown."

The property sits adjacent to the B&O Railroad Depot (where the ADF is based), Gottke noted, which could provide opportunities for collaboration. It's also centrally located between three distinct areas – downtown Mount Vernon, Cooper Progress Park, and the city's west side – making it a uniquely important location.

"It kind of converges in three different zones," Gottke said.

Plans for the property will take time to develop, Gottke warned. It may sit vacant for a while following the building's demolition.

"We bought it more as a speculative property than something we knew what to do with," Gottke said. "But when things like that come for sale, you can’t really let that opportunity go to waste."

Gottke views the project as an opportunity to make downtown Mount Vernon more welcoming. While he could not provide definitive plans or a timetable Tuesday, Gottke seemed excited about what could be accomplished on the property.

"Right now, as it is, it’s not doing much for the look or the use or the function of downtown," Gottke said. "So I guess that’s what we’re gonna be looking for – how can we make that property more aesthetically pleasing, but also something that’s functional for the (community)?"

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.