Redevelopment Planned for Square

development.jpgMajor plans have been announced regarding the redevelopment of nearly a block of buildings on the west side of the downtown square in Fayette. Central Methodist University President Roger Drake disclosed last week to this newspaper that the college will fund a $6.5 million project to demolish the buildings and build a new structure with ground-level retail space and two floors of student housing.

A newly-formed company, SPAC No. 1, LLC, purchased the troubled buildings in August from Dan Ruether, who faced pressure from the city to repair the deteriorating buildings.

It is not known when the redevelopment will begin. Ideally, Drake said he would like the building to be ready for students and businesses to move as soon as the fall 2022 semester.

Fayette businessman J. B. Waggoner, who formed the limited liability corporation and spearheaded the effort to acquire the property, said at the time of the purchase, the fate of the buildings was unknown. But after careful inspection and an independent engineering report by Crockett Engineering Consultants, it became clear that the century-old buildings could not be viably rehabilitated.

The report detailed that sections of the buildings are in need of immediate demolition and indicated that most of the second-floor apartments are unsuitable to rent. Most notably, there is no second means of egress from those apartments, which is a violation of code.

“There is no scenario that puts students in that building as it is, or renovated,” Waggoner said. “The engineer’s opinion is that the cost of repairing this facility, the whole block, will far exceed the value of the buildings.

“Roger Drake and Central Methodist University have an entrepreneurial spirit and recognize how the town and university are inextricably intertwined, that the health of one is the health of the other,” he said.

Central Methodist previously owned the block of buildings in the 1990s, before selling to Ruether. Since that time, the buildings have deteriorated under years of neglect. As recently as February 2013, the second story of the northernmost building owned by Ruether on that same block collapsed under heavy snowfall. While the rubble was removed, only a pitched, wooden roof remains of the top story of the formerly all-brick structure. It is known as the R.C. Clark building and was built in 1887. The two storefronts on the first floor remain empty and uninhabitable.

“This comes down to everyone knowing that something has to be done,” said Waggoner.

When the university came on board, plans were formed to allow for additional student housing to be built while simultaneously creating new retail space downtown.

Central Methodist has seen significant growth year after year and there is a need for additional student housing. The poor and dangerous conditions of the current buildings meant that housing students there was not an option.

“The college could not put 60 students into that property no matter what you did to shore it up,” Drake said.

He said the university could spend far less to build a new dormitory on campus, but he saw an opportunity to make a serious economic impact on the town of Fayette.

“We have to give a lot of credit to the forward thinking of our board of trustees,” Drake said. “I think it’s really cool that they understand that the success of the college is tied to the success of Fayette. And I think it goes the other way, too. The success of Fayette is also linked to the success of the college.

“The trustees could have taken a singular focus only on the college and could have built that housing on the college proper at a much cheaper cost,” he said.

aerial-view.jpgThe new building will house up to 60 students in condominium-style apartments on the second and third floors, with three ground-floor units on the interior of the U-shaped building. There will be 10 retail units along Church and Morrison streets. The outward appearance of the building was designed to honor the historic architecture around the rest of the square.

Waggoner said that the desire has existed for a long time to have more student interaction in town. “What better way to do it than to put them in the downtown?”

The students who ultimately live in the new building will be hand-picked by the university, Drake said.

Once the report from Crockett Engineering Consultants showed demolition of the buildings as the only economically sound option, CMU began working with Louisville, Kentucky-based 5253 Design Group to design a new structure that would not only meet the needs of the university but would blend in with the rest of the historic downtown properties.

“I’m really, really happy with where we are. I think it’s stunning,” Drake said of the roughly 32,000 square-foot design.

The redeveloped property will have the same mixed use as the current buildings, only the business model has changed. “Instead of renting apartments, it’s residential space for the university,” Waggoner said.

Economic Impact

The university contends that it will take a community-minded approach when leasing the new building’s 10 retail spaces. Drake said CMU’s chief concern is ensuring the college does not disadvantage an existing business owner in Fayette, but still provides space for economic improvement. “What I’m imagining is a brand new, incredibly beautiful incubator of business. If somebody has a good idea, they need a space, they need a sweetheart deal for rental…as long as it doesn’t disadvantage an existing business owner, we’re the people to come to.”

A project on this scale is unprecedented for a rural community such as Fayette. Amber Overfelt, chair of the Howard County Economic Development Council, called the project a great win for both Central Methodist and the Fayette community.

“Having student housing located on the square will help bring the students more into the community and downtown activities. The new retail space will increase tax revenues both for the city and the county.

“Over the years it has been mentioned numerous times that economic development is a marathon, not a sprint. A project of this magnitude, both financial investment and community improvement, is what you work towards for years. This will benefit all of Howard County and that has always been the goal of the HCEDC, public and private entities working for what is best for our county.”

Prior to the sale of the buildings, only three businesses occupied the eight storefronts. In 2019, two businesses relocated from the block to find buildings in better condition.

Because of the redevelopment plans, the three current businesses and all tenants were forced to relocate. Mackenzie Wells Fitness, a health studio, is planning to open in a new location on the south side of the square (see related story on page 5). The Petrichor Store has closed and is currently seeking a new location, most likely in another community. Lastly, plans are underway to relocate a laundromat that occupies the southernmost storefront.

“We realize that a laundromat is needed in the community, so that’s the last thing we’ll see get out of there,” Waggoner said.

The new building will benefit the community through taxation as well. Although CMU is a tax-exempt entity, Drake said that property taxes will be paid for the lower level. “The value of that real estate will be on the tax rolls. I can guarantee it will be many, many multiples of what they’re getting now.

“The city is good to the college. And I think the college is a good neighbor for the city. I love the partnership we have with the city,” Drake said.

Central College was one of the first, if not the first, colleges in the country to be built as part of a town. Before then, nearby towns grew toward college campuses. “In the spirit of those early designers of Fayette and Central College, what we’re doing right now is completely in that spirit,” Drake said.

A troubled past

The deteriorating conditions of the nearly full block of century-old buildings over the years have fueled controversy between the city and Ruether, the buildings’ former owner. In December 2020, the Fayette city council held a hearing, which Ruether did not attend. At that hearing, the city found that, based on two engineering reports, the Bell Block building, located at 102 and 104 North Church, and the building at 114 and 116 North Church should be considered dangerous. Notices were placed on the front doors of the buildings.

At least one tenant moved out when those notices were placed.

“I do not mean this as a dig on any one single owner, but everyone knows that property has already been demolished by years of neglect. It just hasn’t been cleaned up yet,” Waggoner said.

Waggoner presented redevelopment plans to the members of the city council at a special, closed meeting held on Tuesday, October 19. The council voted unanimously to rescind the city’s previous legal action against the owner of the buildings that required improvements to be made. The council also voted 5-1 to support the redevelopment.

Learn More
Apply Now