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New shops, street work have downtown Longview on grow

By Glenn Evans
July 20, 2013 at 11 p.m.

A Longview dad stepped into a downtown shop Wednesday, a green Lobo football jersey in one hand.

"Whew! That is huge, I've never seen something like that," store owner Gary Christie told customer Brian Williams.

Christie, owner of Gary Christie Custom Framing and Gallery since 1996, folded in the sleeves and tapered the waist on the signature Dave Campbell uniform. The "No. 1" on the oversized memento remained prominent in the shadow box frame Williams picked out for the gift to his Lobo sons.

No sooner had Williams left with his order receipt than Jennifer Terry walked into the shop at 210 Fredonia St.

"I need to pick up a frame," she said, sending Christie to fetch the veterinarian certifications that probably now are hanging in the Little Animal Hospital on Bill Owens Parkway.

People are shopping downtown Longview, where business activity is picking up amid a flurry of street improvements that challenged but did not shut down commerce.

A third customer entered as Terry left.

"For me, business has been steady downtown since I got here - the only glitch was that six months to a year we had street construction," Christie said. "I've been happy to have that done. You look at it, it looks great. I'm real happy to have Citizens National Bank, too. They really have been a great neighbor."

<h3>Major addition</h3>

A half-block south on Fredonia Street, the newly renovated lobby on the first floor of Longview's tallest building began welcoming customers Monday.

It's been five years since Chase Bank vacated the 10-story, circa 1955 granite building where Citizens National now resides.

"It looks great, and we're thrilled for the community to come see it," said bank President and CEO Brad Tidwell. "We really believe this is a good investment for us in the long term. And it's a really good investment for Longview. (The building) could have easily become an eyesore."

Outside, there are big clues of a new major player downtown. The most evident are the bank's lighted signs atop the downtown landmark, and removal of a Plexiglas awning that made odd, creaking sounds and puzzled sidewalk pedestrians.

Inside, the theme of the two-story lobby might be "forward to the past."

"We left the basis of the structure alone - the beautiful marble, the wood, the terrazzo (floor tile)," Tidwell said of the roughly $850,000 interior restoration. "I think we just accentuated it."

The bank commissioned downtown photography studio owner Tammy Cromer-Campbell to refurbish 14 or so vintage photos of Longview that comprise a 20-by-11-foot collage overlooking the marble steps from the Tyler Street entrance.

<h3>Art, history on display</h3>

Elsewhere in the bank and its first-floor public area, a sculpture and six paintings including Texas artist Amanda Dunbar's three-section triptych of Caddo Lake are on loan from the Longview Museum of Fine Arts next door.

There's also a 12-foot long panorama of Tyler Street in the 1930s shot by Rogers & Price, which preserved such scenes for several East Texas towns of that era.

The Gregg County Historical Museum has loaned artifacts now filling two cabinets flanking the Fredonia Street entrance.

Tidwell said 55 percent of the private offices in the building, called the Kilpatrick Building for the Shreveport life insurance company that owns it, are leased to lawyers and others. The bank is occupying about 20,000 square feet on the first, second and basement levels.

Having already resurfaced and reopened the bank drive-through that fronts on Methvin Street, crews are sprucing up a 125-spot parking garage next door.

<h3>'Where to park?'</h3>

The Citizens National garage, in which spots will be available on long-term lease, overlooks Green Street, where businesses have been challenged since this past year by road-blocking construction on the nearby railroad underpass. Now, they are about to get a double-whammy. The downtown streetscape project, which gave Tyler Street its vintage look with raised medians and an old timey clock, is slated to begin soon for Green Street between Tyler and Methvin streets.

The next problem, many downtowners say, could be finding a place to park.

"Where are we going to park?" asked Ricia Hulsey, co-owner of Salon Pink by Ricia & Sherri. "So far, (the underpass work) hasn't bothered us at all. All we're worried about is where we're going to park. It'll be better once all of this is done. It'll be perfect, having a new bridge and street."

Fixing the underpass where Green Street slips beneath the railroad that crosses downtown began in October. There is no date for reopening the infamous "truck-eating" underpass, but east-west traffic on Tyler and Cotton streets tentatively is expected to return Aug. 15.

Parking long has been a downtown challenge, even without construction occurring.

The Citizens National Bank multi-story garage is one of three downtown. All are private, but the one in the old Petroleum Building is closed and of dubious usefulness with sharp-curving ramps and asbestos infestation.

A multi-story parking garage for courthouse employees and the public is in the five-year plan envisioned by Gregg County commissioners. The court in April agreed to seek someone to evaluate the need for new parking and previously approved $150,000 in seed money in this year's budget for the potential project, loosely estimated at $5 million.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on recent relief from downtown parking tickets. City officials soon will post advertisements to fill the pedestrian parking officer position vacated a few weeks ago by retirement.

<h3>Downtown streetscape</h3>

Digging out adequate clearance beneath the underpass accounts for $6.4 million of the $52.6 million bond issue voters approved in 2011.

The same type of downtown streetscape work that's already spruced up Tyler Street and a block of Fredonia Street next is planned for Methvin and Center streets. That $11 million job was funded by a 2007 bond issue, said Longview city spokesman Shawn Hara.

The coming work will exhibit the same theme as Tyler and Fredonia streets now sport, but Hara added it is not clear whether the raised medians on those streets will appear on the Methvin Street portion.

Hara said the vacant lot where the Historic Downtown Farmers Market sprouts each Saturday, at Center and Cotton streets, is slated for new lights and resurfacing. So is the adjacent, city-owned parking lot on the other side of Center Street along Cotton Street.

<h3>Grand opening</h3>

Traffic already has picked up in a 6,000-square-foot showroom that's been vacant the past several years.

Savvy Sisters, an upper end consignment shop, is drawing commerce and customers from beyond Longview, owner Trina Griffith reports.

Griffith and her sister-in-law, store manager Kim Cline, spent six weeks to refurbish the first-floor showroom in the Weaver Building at Center and Methvin streets.

The store opened June 15, having moved from a 2,000-square-foot space in Towne Lake Plaza on Spur 63.

"We really feel like our walk-in customers have tripled from where we were," Griffith said. "And we love the downtown charm. It was just really a perfect fit."

Customers from near and far seem to agree.

"We've got people from all over this area," she said. "We've got some really good buyers and consigners from the Longview area, and today as we speak we've got some people from Shreveport shopping. We feel really great about it, because we're getting so many people from other destinations."

Griffith also reports positive negotiations with consigners from the prestigious Highland Park community in Dallas.

Savvy Sisters is participating in the Downtown ArtWalk scheduled Thursday, by which time Griffith said she hopes to announce a grand opening date for the shop.

The Weaver Building tenant also confided there are whispers another new business might be eyeing the former coffee shop space that faces Green Street.

"From what I've been told, another business is going to go in there," she said, adding she knew only it is not a coffee shop.

<h3>More to come</h3>

Relief from parking challenges becomes more critical with new tenants settling downtown and more on the horizon.

The nonprofit group creating Longview World of Wonders, a hands-on children's discovery center that's been kind of a traveling show so far, has announced a $10,000 matching grant it will use to help renovate its downtown home.

Putting a new facade on the old Texas Furniture building on Tyler Street is an early phase of the work by the World of Wonders group, which is working to raise $1.9 million to make the children's center a reality.

The center could open as soon as 2014, officials previously reported.

And Buck Farrar, who supervises health inspections for the city of Longview, said this past week that another entrepreneur is adding to downtown's growing menu of dining options.

LaChelle Webb has applied to open a restaurant, appropriately called LaChelle's Webb, and applied for a liquor license. The eatery will be in the former Brother's sandwich shop on Tyler Street, and Farrar said Webb is planning to open as soon as next month.

<h3>'Great downtown'</h3>

Christie the framemaker isn't the only longtime downtown denizen looking with a smile on all the new activity.

In a way, attorney Ralph Pelaia believed in downtown Longview when metaphoric tumbleweeds were more plentiful than delivery trucks.

Pelaia in the early 2000s commissioned the mural that looks down on what now is the Longview Museum of Fine Arts' sculpture garden at Tyler and Fredonia streets.

"Every great city should have a great downtown area," Pelaia said. "Longview has created an atmosphere conducive to people to get out and walk."



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