Nationally-Recognized, Quality Local Journalism..

Click here to stay informed and subscribe to the Mountain State’s Trusted News Source.

Click #isupportlocal for more information on supporting our local journalists.


Learn more about HD Media

The streets of downtown Charleston are sleepy these days, save for weekday lunch and dinner enthusiasts and those looking to eat and party in Capitol Street bars on weekends.

An interesting dichotomy is emerging, though — the relative absence of foot traffic does not mean humans are miles away. They’re increasingly nestled in downtown apartments and paying handsome rents, at least by Charleston standards.

Nancy Bruns and brother Lewis Payne are Charleston bluebloods. They descend from the Dickinson family, which built and owned the former Kanawha Valley Bank, which still stands on Capitol Street, an homage to grand brick and limestone exterior.

Lewis Payne moved the family headquarters out of the Kanawha Valley Bank building two years ago. They bought and restored the former B&B Loans Building at the end of Brawley Walkway, renovating the ground floor for the greater Kanawha Valley Foundation. They use the third floor for corporate offices. Bruns said Payne is talking with a future tenant about the second floor.

Directly across Brawley Walkway, Bruns is pouring considerable resources into the venerable Cox Morton Building. Known to longtime locals as the structure which housed a shoe shop on Fife Street — Brawley Walkway’s pre-gentrified name — the building soon will house a long-in-the-works brew pub, a braid-and-twist shop and another business with which Bruns is in talks.

That is to say nothing of the 26 apartments Bruns rents above the planned Fife St. Brewing Co. on the walkway side and on the Summers Street side. The eight on Summers are luxury units, with two bedrooms and two baths. They go for $1,400 to $1,800 a month and cover 1,100 to 1,400 square feet (about half the area of a tennis court). The one-bedroom units above Brawley are basic, covering 550 square feet and renting from $650 to $750 a month. Of 26 units, 25 are leased.

Where old-timers pine for the days of constantly bustling streets, a few businesspeople see opportunities in vacant office space. There is plenty of that available with For Lease signs not hard to find on upper floors.

“We need to take some inventory out of the office market,” longtime property developer Brooks McCabe told the Gazette-Mail last summer. “We have too much. Adaptive reuse is a very good thing for Charleston. It’s one of our big shortfalls, residential housing.”

Bruns is bullish on that idea and downtown as a whole. She is optimistic about Allen Bell’s 67-unit apartment redo of the former Commerce Square building at Dickinson and Lee. And just on the other end of Brawley, apartments above Ellen’s Ice Cream are occupied. The Atlas Building on Quarrier Street is full, counting former mayor Danny Jones among tenants.

“The future of downtown is very bright,” Bruns said. “I’m seeing the demand for my apartments; they never set empty. They want to walk to work.”

There the paradox lies. It does not appear substantial numbers of people are walking anywhere downtown, at least during business hours. It is difficult to acknowledge empty office spaces on the one hand and the convenience of work on the other.

Patrick Jeffrey, 34, lives in Bruns’ building, in one of the larger apartments. April marked his arrival. He moved from out of state to work at the federal courthouse, not one of the older office buildings.

“I like it,” he said. “I was hoping to live downtown before I took the job. I had looked around. It’s certainly not hustle and bustle, but there are plenty of things to do. It’s easy to grab a bite to eat.

“People ask me about Charleston all the time and I say it’s got room to be an up-and-coming place.” As for the typically promoted outdoor West Virginia attractions, Jeffrey said, “You can do that from here. It’s not like you have to live in the middle of nowhere to do that stuff.”

Where did the traffic go?

Population loss is one obvious reason for the absent hustle-and-bustle. Another is COVID-19. Office workers might never return in the numbers of the past, electing to work from home. So people might be pulled downtown for, ironically, the slow, homey pace and proximity of bars and restaurants. Then, with a certain critical mass of residents built up, businesses might have more of a reason to exist.

That’s what Derek Godwin and his wife, Lisa, and braid-and-twist designer Rebecca Cobourne hope. Both are about to be tenants in Bruns’ building.

The Godwins are closing in on opening the Fife Street Brewing Co., while Cobourne — the wife of former West Virginia University and Canadian Football League star Avon Cobourne — is paying for electrical and plumbing needs in what will be her braid-and-twist space fronting Summers Street.

Both the pub and salon are paying for certain renovations, per agreement with Bruns.

Stories you might like

Both welcome ongoing renovations of Slack Plaza across Summers St., though supply-chain problems had slowed progress before winter weather hit late last week.

Cobourne, coincidentally, used to have a space on the ground floor of the Atlas Building before construction disruptions and COVID-19 left her looking elsewhere.

“To have a storefront is key when you’re in a building,” Cobourne said. “Anybody walking by can see you’re performing a service and what you’re doing.”

Cobourne said a braid-and-twist shop is a needed service for Black and biracial people. It is also a market niche in its clearness of intent.

“I’m really big on small businesses and minority-owned businesses,” Cobourne said, mentioning fellow downtown Black businesses such as King Cuts, a barbershop, and Shine Like a Diamond, an auto detailing business.

Cobourne says she is excited about her 900-square-foot space, which for now is papered over as construction goes on. Clients should be served in February or March at the latest, she said.

She also urged minorities to exhibit more determination in chasing dreams.

“We as a people have to go for what we can,” she said. “We can’t always expect no for an answer.”

Cobourne, who is raising four children with her ex-athlete husband, lavished praise on Jennifer Pharr of the Charleston Area Alliance and Charleston City Council. “If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be where I am. She’s given me knowledge on the downtown district. I’m grateful to her.”

Brewing up a storm

 Derek and Lisa Godwin first hatched the idea of a brewery in October 2019. Then the pandemic hit and they had lots of time to think about it. The virus isn’t gone by any stretch, but the world is moving on. So are the Godwins and their friends.

A day after a nasty snowstorm saw them plotting their next move amid a $1.3 million Pray Construction project to transform the rear of the former shoe shop into the guts of the brewery and the front into the bar area.

Renderings show a glossy, high-end space. Workers are laying drains below the jackhammered concrete. The 6,000-square-foot space also includes a basement, where a few old shoes remained when Godwin took over.

Company officials include investors Godwin, Jody Driggs and Josh Dodd; General Manager John Query; and brewer Gil Peterson, hired from Alabama after a nationwide search.

Godwin and Driggs own interests in certified public accounting firms. Dodd is a web designer.

“If you Google ‘small towns,’ the number one thing driving them is passion for the town and the presence of good brew pubs,” Godwin said. “Greenville, South Carolina, their growth all started with one brewery. Now they have 14.”

He would like to foster the same kind of growth here in Charleston.

“We want people to wonder what’s going on at the brewery,” Godwin said. “We want to spend the weekend and maybe some time on the way see everything else as well.”

Greg Stone covers business. He can be reached at 304-348-5124 or gstone@hdmediallc.com.

Recommended for you