The pounding of hammers and whir of power tools heard along the 100 block of South Main Avenue in recent weeks is a prelude to the banter of hungry customers who will soon be coming downtown to eat.
Jason and Julie Gilliland, owners of Site Design Studio in nearby Weaverville, N.C., are renovating the former Main Street Mall building with plans to bring a family eatery to the lower level and a couple of loft apartments upstairs.
Their intention, Jason said, is to “attract an existing restaurant that may be looking for a second location.” They have already begun conversations with some successful eateries in Weaverville. And they have a list of seven or eight others in the Erwin area compiled with help from the town and and county’s economic development board director Tyler Engle.
“There are a few in Weaverville who have some interest,” Jason said. “We have a lot of opportunities. But we want to get probably three or four weeks more into our construction before we bring them in to see.”
Upstairs, Jason said, will be front and rear lofts that will be leased for long or short term, or a combination of both.
Short-term lodging possibilities include Airbnb.com hospitality marketing to hikers, whitewater rafters, fly fishermen and others who visit the Erwin area for outdoor recreation and also half-year leases for medical interns and others who come to the new Unicoi County hospital for temporary stays.
The Gillilands have about 10 years’ experience working in similar projects through their landscape engineering and development planning company in Weaverville, but this has been their own investment. They are also the first investors to the take advantage of the new Downtown Erwin Loan program implemented earlier this summer to provide low-interest loans of up to $25,000 for the purchase and renovation of downtown buildings.
Jason said their loan commitment gives them one year to complete the project but the terms of the loan — interest-only payments for one year and savings on their down payment and closings costs — is allowing them to expedite that schedule.
“We’ve been able to spend less of our own capital on payments and closing and use that to do more improvement,” he said.
While the new loan program has been a great asset, Jason said, it was not the reason they chose to invest in Erwin.
“We came to Erwin out of appreciation for streetscape infrastructure the town did, which is tremendous,” he said. “And it was pretty obvious from infrastructure, the town is committed to growing. And that was very attractive to us.
“We live in Weaverville, which is the same size as Erwin. We’re comfortable with that 5,000-person market, and that was an attraction.
“We see Erwin as bedroom community to Johnson City like Weaverville is a bedroom community to Asheville. And it’s cheaper to invest in Erwin than it is to invest in Asheville right now.
“The loan program was great, but it wasn’t our initial attraction.”
And since they have been in Erwin, Jason said, they could not be more pleased by the foresight, patience and encouragement they have received from Bank of Tennessee, the town, the development board and others they have worked with here.
“They believed in us and we’re just really excited to be in Erwin,” he said.
Email Sue Guinn Legg at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.