Elm Avenue isn’t yet on the verge of giving the booming Magnolia Silos area of downtown a run for its money as a destination.
But there are signs that 2017 could be the year the historic east-side commercial corridor hits critical mass.
A partnership has lined up investors to renovate a long-vacant garage at 300 Elm Ave. into two innovative restaurants in the first half of next year.
Across the street, entrepreneurs are seeking a zoning change next week to facilitate an ice cream shop and bookstore fronting on Elm and a brewery behind it on Taylor Avenue. The Plan Commission will consider the zoning request at its 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday.
The buildings are a stone’s throw from Lula Jane’s Bakery and are within a quarter-mile of the Brazos River.
Sam Brown, who co-owns the three buildings with his sister, Cathy, said Elm Avenue has attracted the imagination of a new generation of entrepreneurs, and next year could be a turning point.
“All of them have different businesses and backgrounds, but all have a passion for revitalization and for Elm in particular,” Sam Brown said. “One thing that really impacts my sister and me is that they’re not just looking for a place to put a business, but they’re truly passionate about seeing Elm come back alive.”
Brown’s red building at 401 Elm Ave. is under contract to sell to Austin and Julia Meek, who own the Pokey O’s ice cream sandwich truck in downtown Waco. Pending a feasibility study, they hope to gut the building and put in a cookie-and-ice cream shop and a bookstore next year.
“It’s not a traditional bookstore, more like an art gallery for books: a small, tightly curated collection,” Austin Meek said. “In the back is a small area where we plan to have public seating for hosting book clubs and authors.”
The Meeks had considered downtown for their permanent location but like the potential across the river.
“As citizens of Waco, we’re very bullish about Elm Street,” Meek said. “It seems as if there’s real opportunities to build a cohesive district.”
Behind that building, Brown said he hopes to lease the old Rubel Junk Co. building on Taylor Avenue to Brotherwell Brewing Co., which has been looking for a downtown home. David Stoneking and Jacob Martinka, principals in the brewing company, could not be reached Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Blake Batson and Corey McEntyre have the Elm Avenue garage under contract and hope to close in the next month or so. Batson owns Common Grounds coffeehouse and Heritage Creamery, while McEntyre owns the Milo Biscuit Co. food trucks.
The partners plan to use part of the 6,000-square-foot building for a permanent Milo restaurant, which would serve breakfast, brunch and lunch based on traditional Southern comfort food, including biscuit sandwiches with locally sourced ingredients and homemade jams.
Another side of the building is to house Gumption, a dinner restaurant with a more eclectic menu, including fresh seafood and an extensive wine and beer list.
“We’ll have a lot of seasonal, local produce, and we’re sourcing fish from a company that does what they call ‘sea to table,’ ” McEntyre said. “They have contractors at every dock in the U.S., and they’ll send out an email every day of what’s available, like red snapper or bluepoint oysters.”
Batson said the partners are close to getting it all financed through a local bank and investors, but the pitch wasn’t easy for a “casual fine dining” restaurant on a long-neglected commercial street.
“Obviously, it was a hard sell,” he said. “Some of our investors have the same values and vision that we have, and that’s what it takes. It’s not just this location. To start a restaurant at all is risky. Only a few make it. But we’re hoping that in Waco, this is the right time.”
The partnership already has applied for downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone funding to rebuild the sidewalk along the 300 block of Elm Avenue and to help with the facade and a patio. McEntyre and Batson said they hope to have the building renovated and ready to open in mid-2017.
“We’ve said for a long time that we’ve had a lot of interest in Elm Avenue from a lot of folks,” Henderson said. “It’s always been a matter of having the right mix between the desires of the property owner and the vision for that corridor and for the community. . . . I think driving down Elm and not seeing anything physically change, people assume nothing is going on, when the opposite is the case.”
“It adds a lot to the health of the district to have businesses open into the evening hours,” she said.
Brown, the property owner, said Lula Jane’s founder Nancy Grayson laid the groundwork for the new batch of prospective businesses.
“There will never been any questions that Nancy and Lula Jane’s was the spark,” he said. “It’s also the anchor of the whole street. Everything hinges on what Nancy did a few years ago.”
Grayson, who opened her bakery four years ago, is also building cottages in the neighborhood near Lula Jane’s and hopes eventually to build “live-work” spaces on the same block.
“People are beginning to see this is a safe, older neighborhood that’s stable and walkable to and from downtown,” she said. “It’s become a very attractive location for folks, not just young couples but people wanting to retire.”
Grayson said she’s happy to see the prospective businesses, but she hopes as Elm Avenue gains momentum the development will complement the existing neighborhood.
“I think the important thing is to keep intact the integrity of this historic part of town,” she said. “We need to be cognizant and careful of the culture and history of East Waco. . . . After it’s developed, it’s too late to go back.”