The silence that’s permeated the Elk City Historic District for years is being replaced by the hum of drills and electric saws.
Developers are restoring the two-block stretch of Washington Street West, just past Pennsylvania Avenue, to showcase its long-neglected storefronts and forge a niche for the city’s young artists.
A recent announcement from the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts of its plans to build a creative business incubator in the former Staats Hospital fosters a vision shared by builders and entrepreneurs for a strong creative economy in the Mountain State.
From Bully Trap Barber Shop to Sugar & Spice Pastry Shop, Elk City has seen numerous ribbon cuttings in recent months.
With ongoing renovations on the Staats building and others, several other businesses will soon call the neighborhood home, such as Kin Ship Goods and Elk City Records.
Bully Trap Barber Shop owners Michael Fizer and Michael Young, who opened shop late last year, were drawn to the area for the affordable, yet vintage commercial space.
“You want a space with a little bit of history and character to it,” Fizer said. “I think it’s a lot more inviting to people in our generation who don’t really want to live in McMansions.”
History is one thing Elk City has plenty of.
In the late 19th century, the Kanawha Valley was booming from the prosperity of the Industrial Revolution, and factories, saw mills and clay mines were developed on the west side of the Elk River. The area was incorporated into Elk City, a separate town under a charter granted by the Legislature in 1891, with a population of about 2,000 at that time.
But the independent town was short-lived and was annexed into Charleston in 1895, marking the first time in its history that the city’s borders crossed the Elk River.
Developer Dewayne Duncan recently purchased the former Chris’ Hot Dogs space with his partner, Andy Tanner. Duncan fell in love with the restaurant’s interior when he visited it as a student back in 1990.
“It’s pretty much like a little time capsule,” he said of the space, which still boasts original wooden booths, intricate pressed metal ceilings and marble-topped bar.
While he’s still working out the fine details, Duncan plans to renovate the space to likely house a new restaurant with a speakeasy feel.
The reinvestment in Elk City hasn’t come easily.
Earlier this month, roughly $15,000 worth of tools were stolen from a Tennessee Avenue storefront developer Tighe Bullock is renovating for Kin Ship Goods.
“This is exactly what we’re trying to combat in this neighborhood through economic development,” Bullock said. “I believe in the West Side — it’s just really hard to believe this happened.”
Crews have been able to resume work by borrowing tools from one of Bullock’s employees. The shop is expected to open by mid-April.
The Charleston Police Department recently added a new walking beat in Elk City to address heightened concerns over shoplifting.
When it comes to financing, the cards are stacked against blighted areas with high vacancy rates, said Jim Edwards, executive director of the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority.
“Traditional lending institutions are not interested in taking on that kind on risk in areas where the market is unproven,” he said.
The capital costs and debt developers face when taking on projects in such areas present a major roadblock before work is even completed.
“Reducing the carrying costs of land acquisition and rehabilitation costs until you can get some income is key to making this work,” Edwards said.
The urban renewal authority made a deal with Bullock, who is also leading renovation work on the Staats building and others on Washington Street West.
The authority provided a low-cost loan for Bullock to start work on the Staats building three years ago. Bullock pays one percent interest on that loan, while the principal costs will be due in two years.
That deal allows Bullock to pass the savings along to tenants who occupy those storefronts.
Creating a mixed-use business environment is another major facet of Elk City’s facelift. Bullock plans to convert the third and fourth floors of the Staats building into apartments, as well as the second floors above Bully Trap and the upcoming Elk City Records, which plans to open next door later this spring.
“We persuade building owners to keep their second and third floors residential,” said Steven Romano, Charleston Main Streets’ West Side Main Street program director. “The theory is, the more eyes and feet on the street after dark, the safer the district will become.”
Certain factors may pose a challenge to drawing millennials to Elk City, though.
A November 2014 study by Marshall University’s Center for Community Growth and Development looked at social characteristics of the West Side’s three census tracts. It found that census tract 8, which includes Elk City and is bordered by the Elk River to the east and Park Avenue to the west, has the lowest median household income of $22,463 annually. The median household income of Charleston as a whole is $47,582, according to the report.
While census tract 8, with about 900 households, has a lower unemployment rate (6.7 percent) than the city as a whole (7.5 percent), the report notes most workers in that tract work in service occupations.
Charleston Main Streets Executive Director Ric Cavender said about 22 percent of the building space in Elk City is currently vacant, but that doesn’t include upcoming businesses such as Kin Ship Goods, Elk City Records or any of the apartments being renovated.
Over the next few months, that figure will continue to decrease, Cavender said.
In contrast, the vacancy rate in the East End business district in 2015 was just under 15 percent.
Longtime business owners in Elk City are taking notice of the gradual, yet steady changes in the right direction, including Deron Sodaro, whose father opened Sodaro’s Electronics in 1951.
“There’s been ups and downs over the years — it’s not easy,” he said when asked how the store has managed to stay open through the decades.
He hopes to see a revival of locally owned shops in the neighborhood he calls “a neat little community.”
“Maybe we’re starting to swing back from big box stores to small businesses,” he said. “We’re seeing all these large industries leave and people are gonna have to find something else to do. I hope there’s enough business to keep them growing — that’s a challenge for us too.”
Shakira Martin is the store manager for Backstage Bodywear, located next to the Staats building. While she thinks Elk City could help bolster West Virginia’s creative economy in the future, work must first be done to improve the neighborhood’s image.
“You want to shop where you feel safe. When there’s empty buildings and everything looks boarded up, I skip that area,” Martin said.
Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said Elk City’s transformation will be achieved “one building at a time.” The Staats building is what anchors the rest of the neighborhood, he added.
The city’s young entrepreneurs feel confident the reinvestment in Elk City will have a snowball effect.
“The people that frequent record stores and Kin Ship Goods are the same people that will come to this type of barbershop,” Fizer said.
That kind of tight-knit community is what drew Hillary Harrison, co-owner of Kin Ship Goods, to Elk City.
“It’s attracting kind of a younger crowd, which is really what Charleston and West Virginia need,” Harrison said. “Getting young people to live over there is one of the goals — just having a community of creative people.”
Reach Elaina Sauber at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-3051 or follow @ElainaSauber on Twitter.