The Gossip Bench is closing on Austin Avenue, but talk continues about other businesses arriving to take its place and to fill other long-vacant buildings in the heart of downtown.

New tenants, such as Rock Bottom Boutique and The Croft Art Gallery, have opened at 804 and 712 Austin Ave., respectively. Suit City is remodeling space on the ground floor of 707 Austin Ave.

Real estate agents who focus on Austin Avenue say they’re constantly fielding calls. Developers are interested in buildings that were once notorious for their boarded-up windows and pigeon droppings.

“I know people are sniffing around for some interesting projects, but I think everybody is still looking for a deal, maybe buying a building for well under $20 a square foot. That ship has sailed,” Realtor Mike Attas said.

Dan Hetherington has owned and operated the Gossip Bench Antique Mall, 708 Austin Ave., for about eight years. He’s not shutting down because business is suffering. Rather, his option on renewing his lease for three years is approaching, and he does not want to make a three-year commitment. He’s thinking about retirement.

“Business has been good. Traffic has been good,” Hetherington said. “There have been some parking problems, but the number of people downtown has actually increased.”

Don’t expect the Gossip Bench space to stay vacant long after Hetherington moves out.

“I’ve already had a couple of people call me about it,” said Chip Wilson, who owns the building.

Wilson said he’s considering converting the space into a “little arts district,” where artists could paint and showcase their creations. He would work closely with the Croft Art Gallery next door.

Wilson, from Iowa, owns an employee training and development company called 360 Solutions. It occupies a cluster of buildings in the 2100 and 2200 blocks of Austin Avenue. He bought the building that Gossip Bench occupies about 18 months ago because he’s sold on downtown and its potential.

For decades, Wilson said, owners of vacant buildings on Austin Avenue just sat on them, doing little to improve their appearance and refusing to sell until something happened to drive up their value.

Things changed, he said, when the city began to crack down on owners who had let their downtown property decay. It has given owners time limits to remove boards from windows or face fines.

“That has spurred people ignoring their property to take action,” Wilson said, adding that some made their own improvements while others avoided the hassle by choosing to sell their properties.

Waco also created a program to award matching grants to people wanting to improve their buildings’ facades. The money comes from taxes paid by property owners within a downtown improvement district.

Home builder and developer Steve Sorrells wants to restore the facade of the historic Strand Theater at 518 Austin Ave., between Bank of America and Treff’s Bar and Grill. He hopes to tap into the city’s fund.

“I’ve made an application to the city of Waco and, if I qualify, I hope to start work early next year,” Sorrells said.

Observers of the downtown scene say Austin Avenue between City Hall and 10th Street could become a melting pot for people with a range of incomes. Housing on or near the street can range from $395,000 for an upscale condominium or $200 to $600 a month for a unit in the old Waco High School being converted to apartments.

Diverse demographics

Diverse demographics will create an eclectic mix of shops on Austin Avenue, experts say, adding it could become home to everything from drugstores and executive offices to coffee shops and art galleries.

“What we’ve found is that urban areas are much more vibrant and successful when they are diverse in all sorts of ways — race, income, religion, housing types, all of that,” said Chris McGowan, director of urban development for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, who studies downtown trends.

Jhonas Theill owns the Suit City store at 1000 S. New Road but has decided to relocate to Austin Avenue.

“I wanted to be part of a revitalized downtown,” said Theill, who bought 5,000 square feet on the ground floor of 707 Austin Ave. Suit City will occupy about half that space, and the balance represents an investment.

“If you know of somebody who wants to lease it, please give them my number,” Theill said with a laugh.

Brothers Shane and Cody Turner, both Baylor University graduates, bought 707 Austin Ave. about 18 months ago. On the top floors, they created three luxury condos that feature granite countertops, wood floors, 12-foot ceilings, secure parking and stainless- steel appliances. They have sold two for about $200,000 each, while the asking price is $395,000 for the third condo. It features a private rooftop patio and a spiral staircase.

Attas, a real estate agent who works Austin Avenue hard, is marketing the buildings that flank the Suit City location. He’s received a lot of calls but has closed no deals.

“Both of these places are big, nearly 12,000 square feet, but they generate interest because they are so front-and-center in that block,” Attas said. “They represent a challenge because they’ve been boarded up a long time, and nothing is up to code. They would require a complete gut-and-remodel.”

Parking issues persist

Attas loves Austin Avenue’s potential, but portions still have a problem: parking.

“That’s a huge concern for some wanting to develop anything downtown,” he said. “A lot of parking that looks open to the public is not, especially during work hours during the workweek.”

Leslie Long and a “couple of my buddies from the Dallas area,” as he describes them, bought 719 Austin Ave. in the summer of 2007 and placed a bar and restaurant there called Austin’s on the Avenue. Earlier this year, meanwhile, his group acquired a vacant building at 721-723 Austin Ave. as an investment.

The restaurant relies heavily upon Baylor traffic, and when school is not in session, Austin’s suffers.

“We’ve had some rough spots here and there. The first year, people didn’t know where we were or that we had parking behind the bar. The longer we’re established, the better it’s getting,” Long said.

As for 721-723 Austin Ave., Long hopes to place four residential units on the second floor, each with two bedrooms and two baths and covering 1,400 square feet. He plans to do some research before setting a price.

“On the first floor, we see retail and office space, and we’ll open it up for sale or lease,” Long said.

“I’m thinking Austin Avenue will be all right,” he said. “We are seeing more foot traffic, more people wandering around.”

New projects planned

New projects that could generate traffic — and the need for development — include Austin Avenue Flats at Fourth Street and Austin Avenue. It has 49 condominiums, 45 of which are now occupied. Then there is Heritage Quarters on Washington Avenue, which has 106 units and 374 beds and caters to students.

Other projects in the works on Austin Avenue:

* The Business Resource Center will approach the federal Economic Development Administration for money to renovate the interior of the 43,000-square-foot Stratton Building at Eighth Street and Austin Avenue. It already has spent $186,000 in local tax-increment financing money to replace canopies and windows and make other exterior improvements to the multistory building, as well as to resurface the parking lot behind it.

Spokeswoman Toni Herbert said the BRC would use only a fraction of the building. It hopes to make the rest available to nonprofit organizations in need of office space. The BRC could generate cash flow, Herbert said, by making the ground floor available to short-term rentals for events.

* Davin Hightower, owner of the Green Room Grille, 725 Austin Ave., said he has a buyer for the building he owns at 727 Austin Ave. “I’m about to sell it, but I can’t say to whom,” he said.

Hightower said he expects 90 percent of the buildings between Fourth and 10th streets on Austin Avenue to be occupied within two years, adding, “I think that’s reasonable.”

* Joseph Ginnane, executive director of the Waco Performing Arts Co., said “there is talk of something going into” the Waco Hippodrome Theater annex at 724 Austin Ave.

“It’s all so preliminary,” Ginnane said. “If it goes through, we’ll make an announcement in January.”

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