Downtown buildings, some a century or more old, remain from the era when they contained separate bakeries, butcher shops and greengrocers. Meanwhile, the supermarkets that replaced them are being replaced by deliveries and meal kits.
Hotels built near train stations to serve railroad travelers have given way to newer businesses for motorists, while cinema theaters and opera houses remain standing, even as Netflix, Hulu and Redbox take movie customers away from Blockbuster. Structures that once housed lodges and benevolent societies look for new occupants while those organizations lose members.
In many small towns like Chanute, officials face the question of how to repurpose commercial infrastructure for the new century, both downtown and elsewhere.
That issue is now focused on a 120-year-old building on Chanute’s west Main Street. For some, the original Masonic Temple at 112 to 120 W. Main, more recently housing Red Pepper restaurant and later a flea market, could be a new beginning for historic preservation, economic development and downtown renovation.
Or it could just be torn down and leave a large gap between two other occupied businesses on the block.
Chanute Regional Development Authority Executive Director Matt Godinez said first that all good towns have good downtowns.
“That’s the motto that I try to live by,” he said.
Downtown a neighborhood
Downtown, he said, should be everyone’s neighborhood and citizens need to preserve, revitalize and keep them clean.
Phil Chaney, who is both a Chanute city commissioner and downtown property owner, sees the Masonic Temple issue as having the potential to kick off a revitalization trend and to create a good result from a bad situation.
Main Street Chanute Director Ruthann Boatwright said that it is a chance for several groups to collaborate. She sees opportunities occurring simultaneously, including the reboot of the Kansas Main Street program by the Kansas Department of Commerce.
Chanute commissioners voted on Nov. 25 to find the 1899 Masonic Temple building in violation of city code. At the Dec. 9 meeting, they discussed a bid of $218,000 to demolish the building, which does not include the waterproofing and stabilization of common walls with adjoining buildings to the east and west.
City demolition of condemned residential housing costs much less. If the three-story brick building were removed, it could cost taxpayers much more than the bid, possibly up to $1 million or more.
Officials would prefer to revitalize the building, in keeping with the downtown buildings that house Colborn’s Kitchen and other businesses.
Godinez said the Colborn’s Kitchen renovation attracted a lot of attention, compared to other projects. The former Kress department store and a nearby B.P.O.E. building house Consignment and Little Consignment clothing stores, and the former Oddfellowws lodge building (also formerly Self Service grocery store) houses Playmakers Bar & Grill.
“It’s been a quiet movement,” Godinez said.
The CRDA office was originally a bank building and then a photography studio, and Godinez said its renovation was a labor of love.
“We wanted to keep the luster,” he said, noting that the job required finding a contractor, John Guiot, who specializes in restoration and was willing to remove seven layers of paint rather than just tear everything out and start new.
The Colborn’s Kitchen renovation cost more than $68,000.
“The Colborn’s thing is absolutely fantastic,” Chaney said. The Kress renovation was great, too, he said. Chaney said he hopes the Temple building will show the need for a plan and a committee focused on planning for downtown revitalization.
Boatwright said that people who meet with representatives of other community downtowns say they envy Chanute for the character of the unique, old-style architectural features.
Offer for engineer
The day after the Nov. 25 city commission vote, the new director of Kansas Main Street was in Chanute and walked to the Masonic Temple. The state office has offered to provide an engineer to look at the structure, provided interior access is available from the owners, Dick and Carolyn Lisman. That visit will likely be in January.
Godinez said if the building is structurally stable, it makes fiscal sense to renovate it. He said the cost of new construction is astronomical by comparison.
“We could never fill that spot for $1 million,” he said.
Godinez said for maximum grant potential, it needs to be in private ownership.
“They (grant administrators) want to see someone with skin in the game,” he said.
Chaney said he has received calls from local people willing to invest in preserving the building. He said it is highly likely an investor could be found for the structure, and the amount the city would spend on demolition could be used instead to secure financing for renovation.
Boatwright said Main Street still offers the Incentives Without Walls program that has assisted with work on previous Chanute downtown buildings through no-interest loans.
“That same collaboration can occur again,” she said.
Ground-level commercial use among downtown buildings is often divided between retail businesses and services such as financial advisors, beauty salons or attorneys. In that area, Godinez said Chanute’s judicial center and city offices in the Memorial Building make downtown a logical office location.
Upper floors in downtown buildings are viable as residences. Godinez said young professionals such as teachers or engineers often want downtown apartments for their first jobs out of college.
“It’s in,” he said. Whether a building is renovated for residential or retail is a chicken-and-egg matter, Godinez said.
Over the past year, Chaney has renovated five downtown upper-floor apartments, four of them occupied and one ready to go. He said most of his tenants are under age 25, and came to Chanute from other communities.
“They were all looking for apartments,” he said.
He has six other locations he plans to renovate by 2022.
Since the upper floors were previously used for residential apartments, they were grandfathered into regulations. Changing the use from commercial to residential may require upgrades to meet fire and other codes, though.
On the other hand, some people who telecommute or work from home now prefer somewhere away from home for office work, some place with office equipment or internet access available.
Chaney said it takes about $8,000 to $10,000 to renovate a 400- to 500-square-foot apartment, and rents run about $1 per square foot a month.
“When you’re done, it’s a beautiful thing,” Chaney said, adding that he liked the Block 22 downtown residential apartment project in Pittsburg, although it had gone way over budget.
“It looks great,” he said.
Just looking from the outside, Chaney guessed the Temple could have as many as 30 upstairs apartments.
He said having upper rental apartments also provides more than one potential source of tenant revenue.
“That’s what downtown buildings should be about,” Chaney said.
Godinez said that even the most successful downtowns have vacancies and are revitalizing.
“This is a recycling labor of love,” he said, and the effort cannot just be for one year.
“Let’s focus the next 20 years on downtown,” Godinez said.
But he said every downtown is different and what works somewhere else may not work in Chanute. He said commercial use needs to be something consumers can’t get elsewhere.
“Millennials are looking for those experiences,” he said.
Boatwright said that part of her vision for the Masonic Temple building is as a retail and service incubator. She said even if the building is past salvaging, it is important that the community made the effort.
“I’m all for ‘Let’s find out,’” she said.
The building appears to have a good roof.
“That’s going to be a big difference in what the inside is going to need,” she said.
Godinez said the overall community mentality will be a big part of revitalization.
“It’s all about passion,” he said.
“It’s a community pride thing,” Chaney said. “This may be the thing that we need.”