Highlights include a behind-the-scenes look at renovation of the old State Theater, a look inside restaurants open or soon to open, and a look at other downtown office and apartment space.
The tour is a combined effort of the Downtown Kingsport Association, the Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce, the city and Urban Synergy.
"Every Friday at 8 in the morning, we meet at Kaffe Blue. John and Angela Vachon lead the tour," chamber Executive Director Miles Burdine said.
The Vachons own Urban Synergy, which works to attract investors to buy and restore downtown buildings, and they have buildings of their own including the old First National Bank of Kingsport, built in 1927 and home to the Arthur & Ross law firm, and the Progress Building, both on Broad Street.
So far, they've been involved in 20 building purchases with various projects and investors.
Kathy Richards, formerly of Washington, D.C., and a Kingsport native, and Janet Mather, formerly of Bakersville, N.C., and married to a Kingsport native, have moved to Kingsport and they took Friday's tour. They said a big part of the reason was the downtown redevelopment and things like the outside art displays and weekly downtown concerts.
Paul Vachon, brother of John Vachon, and Paul's wife Amber, also took the tour and told how they moved their massage therapy business from Asheville to a building they bought in the Five Points area of downtown. They live upstairs.
The genesis of the tours, which began July 6 and will occur again July 20 and 27 with possible dates in August and beyond, was when new chamber President Tony Hewitt of BAE Systems asked to take a tour of downtown so he could get a feel for redevelopment and businesses locating there.
But when City Manager John Campbell, CeeGee McCord of Kingsport Housing and Redevelopment Authority and others asked to go, too, about 10 people ended up going.
The tour now runs from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. every Friday, although folks can leave early or come late.
The chamber takes care of compiling the lists of tour takers on any given week, making sure the tours don't get too many people at a time to become impractical. About 25 to 30 people took the tour Friday.
DKA works as a liaison with merchants, building owners and other in charge of stops along the way, which include Kaffe Blue, which Angela Vachon's sister owns and operates. It was the original site of Woolworth's, before it moved toward Church Circle, and doors and displays from that business have been reused.
Another stop is the State Theater, slated to open in March 2008 to coincide with the March 20, 1937, grand opening.
Ghost may be cool, but robot scoops the ice cream
Jeff Lane, a partner with Doug Beaty, said that paranormal investigator Joshua P. Warren of North Carolina and his LEMUR Paranormal Investigations in the State Theater's old projection room documented an electromagnetic field that peaked, immediately followed by a 17-degree drop in temperature.
If that's really a ghost, Lane said, it could be the ghost of architect Earl Stillwell, who was upset with the theater owners for straying from the original building front design, or a projector operator who spent long hours in the projection booth.
Plans after renovations include concerts, live drama and limited movies, plus possible live teleconferences and training via satellite.
Up the street at Discovery Ice Cream, which opens Monday and will include a robot serving ice cream, tour participants got an advance look at the coffee, coffee/ice cream and ice cream offerings, as well as the first of two robots to serve ice cream there. It's a prototype for proposed franchises elsewhere.
They also went into the site of a pending Tex-Mex restaurant in the old Betty Gaye building on Broad Street, which was the original home to the Sandwich King restaurant, as well as Divine Delicacies and other tenants in the Progress Building, once home to Montgomery Wards and Parks Belk, and other buildings.
The Vachons said that maple flooring was found throughout the building under layers of tar paper, tile, linoleum and other flooring.
Other Progress tenants include the Creative Trust Agency, Twice as Nice Children's Consignment Boutique and Integrity Capital Management. Barry Bailey, one of the owners of Integrity, said it located downtown because of the "energy" and convenience there.
The group also stopped by Antiques on Broad, in the midst of a facade renovation for a 1939 building that was the original home to Parks Belk.
BBQ ribs on the way
After a stop by other buildings including Breaking Traditions, an upscale billiard parlor and restaurant in the old Anderson Furniture building on Market Street, the tour finishes up at 12 Bones Smokehouse, a pending "fast casual" barbecue restaurant on Main Street specializing in ribs.
Doug Beaty, owner of the theater, hopes to open the barbecue restaurant around Aug. 1, and he and partner Jeff Lane like to show the old advertising for Kingsport Sign Co. painted on the brick walls of the restaurant.
Lane explained that the restaurant is the second franchise in the chain, with the first in Asheville, and that the Kingsport 12 Bones will be the prototype for other locations.
Beaty and Lane said what will become the restaurant once was an alley between the old Ward's Feed and Seed, now Pappy's Custom, and the old bus garage.
More to come...
Angela Vachon said the neat thing about the tours is that although it's a different group every week, each one is unique as renovations proceed and businesses open.
Mayor Dennis Phillips earlier in the week said the tours are a good idea and couldn't come at a better time.
The new allied health building and higher education center downtown are expected to increase the number of college students downtown during the school year from around 900 for the current Regional Center for Applied Technology to upwards of 2,000 in two years, Phillips said.
Economic development driven by downtowns is crucial, according to a regional economic development official who took Friday's tour.
"One of my passions is downtowns," said Andy Burke, president and chief executive officer of the Tri-Cities Economic Development Alliance who saw firsthand downtown redevelopments in Oklahoma City, Okla., Greensboro, N.C., and Charleston, S.C. "The success of a region or community depends on what occurs downtown."
During a PowerPoint presentation that kicked off the tour. John Vachon said that John Nolen's 44-block layout of Kingsport, with radial streets and Church Circle, was the largest planned city done from 1915 to 1965 and one of Nolen's favorites.
Now, with redevelopment downtown, the Vachons said energy and excitement are growing and making it a favorite for investors and redevelopers.
"It's just a feeling when you come downtown now - something has changed," Angela Vachon said.
The chamber, DKA and the Vachons charge nothing for the tour, but space is limited and reservations are required.
For more information, contact the chamber at (423) 392-8800 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Reservations are required no later than the Wednesday before the requested Friday tour.