Mutual cooperation moves Mutual Pharmacy project

Mike Still • Nov 14, 2019 at 12:30 PM

BIG STONE GAP — The first phase of overhauling the landmark Mutual Pharmacy has meant crowded parking on downtown Wood Avenue.

That is a problem that Steve Lawson and Susan Cradic are glad to have.

Lawson, Big Stone Gap’s town manager, and Cradic, executive director of the Big Stone Gap Redevelopment and Housing Authority, are seeing capacity crowds at Curklin’s restaurant, the first tenant in the former pharmacy, four years and $1.16 million after the authority bought the building.

Now Lawson and Cradic hope to see funding come together for phase two: turning the Mutual’s second floor into apartments.

As Curklin’s operators Tracey and Wayne Jordan oversaw a lunchtime crowd Tuesday, Lawson said the restaurant has often filled to its 142-seat normal capacity in its first three weeks of regular operation.

“I think there were things when we started having events downtown, knowing that people could have a drink in a good environment, that made this possible,” Lawson said as he enjoyed lunch. “It’s been like putting a puzzle together, trying to find the edges at first. Now we’ve put together the edges, and we’re starting to fill in large parts of the middle. This is a piece of that puzzle.”

In the summer, Big Stone Gap was looking at the unexpected departure of Walmart, and town officials including Lawson publicly worried about what would happen to other businesses in town.

“Curklin’s often has people waiting for a table, and they’ll walk around downtown and look at shops,” Lawson said. “With the restaurant here, people often will go to the Escape Room and then eat.

“We get a lot of questions about parking spaces these days, and that’s not a bad question to have to answer.”

Tracey Jordan said the restaurant is getting attention from beyond Big Stone Gap.

“We’ve had customers come from as far as Church Hill, Tennessee, and Harlan and from all over Wise County,” Lawson said.

Wayne Lawson said business has kept the couple busy.

“We worked about 86 hours last week,” he said as he greeted two customers. “I’ll take one day off and Tracey will take a day, but we’re ready to come in and help if we’re needed.”

While town officials had envisioned the next step as small Air BnB-style apartments for tourists, Cradic said that the requirements to take advantage of state historical tax credits made that concept too difficult and costly.

The Housing and Redevelopment Authority has now switched to fair-market value apartments in what used to be mainly office spaces in the Mutual’s second floor. Instead of seeking various grant funding for the new phase, Cradic said the authority is applying for a state Housing and Development Authority mortgage to build four two-bedroom and one one-bedroom apartments.

Negotiations have begun with a contractor, Cradic said, and a state authority decision on the mortgage application could come in about 60 days after phase two’s costs are fixed. If those elements come together for an affordable project, she said, construction could begin as early as March 2020.

The upstairs walls have been stripped to frames and basic plumbing pipes installed, Lawson said, leaving replacement of the building’s original windows and apartment construction to begin.

“Susie and I arrived at the same time, and we both have supportive boards who want to see this done,” Lawson said. “Everybody knows this is a good project.”

“Everybody sees what we’ve done here and what else we can do,” Cradic added.

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