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Wednesday, 02 June 2010 16:40

New venture welcomed by downtown business community

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Downtown Waynesville merchants hope a plan to remodel the old Strand theater as an entertainment venue, restaurant and microbrewery will return the former icon to a Main Street magnet once again.

“We are excited about it. We think it is certainly needed here in Waynesville,” said Tom Massie, owner of Massie Furniture. “I think it will bring a lot of people downtown at night who will be exposed to Main Street and see things to come back and buy.”

Those who grew up during the heyday of Friday night features and Saturday matinees remember the line at the former Strand movie theater stretching a block and a half down Main Street. In the days before television, many people went religiously every time a new picture came to town, recalled Bette Sprecher, who grew up during the era.

During the post-World War II years, there were even dueling downtown movie theaters stationed across the street from each other. The Strand remained in operation until the early 1980s when attendance eventually withered too low to remain operational.

“TV kind of ruined the theater business,” said Massie.

Ed Kelley, owner of Ridge Runner Naturals gallery on Main Street, can’t wait until the new venue at the former Strand opens its doors.

“I have been saying this for ages, that the Strand needs to be turned into a brew pub kind of place,” Kelley said. “I think it will enhance what we already have to draw people here.”

Kelley is a musician and appreciates craft beers, so he will likely be a regular. But as a business owner directly across the street, he’s already plotting how to tap into the presumed bump in downtown nightlife.

“I think I will get trickle down from it,” Kelley said. He hopes the evening foot traffic will inspire merchants to stay open later.

“Waynesville pretty much rolls up the sidewalk at 5 or 6,” Kelley said. “I think it will give people some options of things to do in the evenings, which is something we seem to lack.”

It may also motivate more redevelopment.

“If people see things happening, that is good PR, and that can actually enhance somebody’s perception of what Waynesville is or is going to be,” Kelley said.

That’s exactly the outcome Buffy Messer, the director of Downtown Waynesville Association, was hoping for when chasing a grant to make the Strand venture a reality.

“The project will spur more interest and growth not only in our downtown, but also in our community,” Messer said. “An economically vibrant and growing downtown is not just good in itself — it is vital for a prosperous region.”

Besides, merchants could use some rosy news, she said, not only due to a two-year recession but a winter hammered by snowstorms that kept shoppers holed up at home.

“It was just a really rough winter. The snow came every Friday. It killed their weekends,” Messer said of the merchants. There are certainly signs 2010 will mark a turn-around based on downtown development in recent months. In addition to half a dozen retail shops and a couple new professional businesses, two large anchor buildings have been filled. Main Street Artist’s Co-op moved into the space vacated by Furniture Village and Davis Clothing opened in the former Towne Square space, which had been vacant two years.

There have been two new restaurants to open as well, Nico’s Café and soon Café 50, both of which remodeled downtown spaces in recent months.

While Waynesville’s downtown has been a shining model for Main Street revitalization and the envy of small towns across the state, the once-beloved Strand has remained shuttered. Then a dose of good fortune arrived in February. The state announced a pool of grant money through the new Main Street Solutions Fund, designed to drive economic development by assisting small business owners in downtowns.

“It was the first opportunity we had been given in years for small business,” Messer said. “I couldn’t look back and say I didn’t try.”

Messer and the owner of the Strand, Richard Miller, toiled day and night to complete the application. The grant required an exhaustive business plan and putting it together by the 30-day deadline was be tricky. Luckily, key pieces were already in place. Joey Massie, the Strand’s owner before Miller, had a similar plan to transform the space into an entertainment venue, restaurant and bar. He even had architectural drawings for the interior remodeling work and a business plan. Massie never got the project off the ground, however, because the renovations were cost-prohibitive.

Massie’s architectural drawings and business plan provided a foundation for the application. Meanwhile, a local beer brewer, Kevin Sandefur, happened to have a comprehensive business plan in his pocket for the brewery angle. Sandefur created a business plan the previous year in order to enter the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce Business Start-Up competition.

“We wouldn’t have made it if there hadn’t already been some paperwork in place,” Messer said.

Competition was stiff. There were 29 applications requesting $7 million — but only eight were awarded and $1.95 million given out.

The Strand venture will obviously compete with other downtown restaurants and bars. Jennifer Ewart, owner of Nick and Nate’s, a popular Main Street pizza restaurant known for its outstanding selection of microbrews, wonders whether there will be enough business to go around, particularly during winter months. Nick and Nate’s generally has a wait list going by 6 p.m. during the height of summer tourist season, but the winter months are “very slow,” Ewart said, citing that as the true test facing the Strand venture.

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