In a year where we’re all tired of talking about COVID, there’s no other story which can approach the economic impact of the state’s decision to close restaurant dining rooms and “non-essential” businesses.
I put “non-essential” in quotes because if it’s your business and it’s paying your rent and grocery bill, chances are you find it essential.
Some businesses felt the sting worse than others. Three Star Mall completely shut down, even for mall walkers, and Bath & Body Works didn’t reopen until July.
Restaurants with a drive-thru window conducted business that way with their dining rooms closed. Other restaurants offered pick-up service or started delivering throughout the city or county just to stay afloat.
Warren County’s biggest industrial employers – including Bridgestone, Yorozu, and Morrison Industries – all shut down for some length of time on a voluntary basis. USA Gym and Three Star Cinema were among other popular businesses forced to close due to the government mandate. Hairdressers also found themselves unable to work due to social distancing requirements.
Nearly every store on Main Street was forced to close, and the once-bustling Park Theater still hasn’t bounced back with a normal show schedule.
Among the victims of COVID-19 was the Gondola food bar, once a universal gathering spot for families after church on Sunday. Gondola owner Jimmy Zavogiannis made the difficult decision to close the food bar March 15, a food bar that was roughly 50% of his total sales.
“It will probably hurt my business,” Jimmy admitted at the time, “but sometimes there are things more important than money. If someone were to come in here with coronavirus and infect four other people, just look at what a domino effect that could have. We’re trying to be proactive instead of reactive. I’d rather be the first to take this step than the last. When a virus is going around the way this one is, I feel we have to do something here locally. We have to do our part to keep it from spreading.”
The stretch from mid-March to late April was a brutal span for business activity. It’s certainly not a smiley, feel-good story, but the COVID-forced closures of 2020 created a ripple effect that’s still rippling.
Huddle House, Grandy's arrive
Few things generate the excitement of a new restaurant opening in Warren County, especially a new chain restaurant. We love it!
There was untamed enthusiasm Oct. 7 when Huddle House opened in the old Captain D’s building on The Strip. The remodeling project seemed, at times, like it would never be finished and rumors even circulated that Huddle House had changed its mind and wouldn’t be coming. But that turned out to be inaccurate information as Huddle House greeted large crowds with pancakes and created instant happiness.
Just two months later, Grandy’s opened at the old Bojangles spot on Dec. 7. Grandy’s is a fast food meat and three that could be called a less fancy version of Cracker Barrel. The food is delightful.
The two restaurants hired about 45 employees each, bringing a boost to the local economy to accompany their omelets, meatloaf and fried okra.
Old Fraley's springs to life
The city spent $5.2 million renovating Main Street in a project that started in August 2004 and wasn’t finished until January 2006. The old Fraley’s building sat vacant during the duration of that project and it’s been empty since.
But something magical happened this year. A massive Fraley’s renovation began and new retail tenants are on the verge of opening at the historic downtown location.
The old Fraley’s building, long a source of inactivity, is about to be energized. Southern Traditions and PI.E pizza are two of the businesses set to locate there with one more retail spot available.
This is going to be a tremendous boost for all of downtown McMinnville, which is finally walking with real swagger. Main Street is regaining its mojo and it’s great to see.
Hotel getting closer
One of the top 10 business stories last year was that construction had just begun on a 74-room Hampton Inn hotel and retail development on Sparta Street.
Well, construction lasted the entirety of 2020 and the hotel is still not ready to rent rooms. But it's certainly taking shape and the retail space that’s close to Sparta Street also looks like a gem.
The massive investment by businessman David Hunt marks the first hotel built in McMinnville in nearly 30 years. Quality hotel space is widely considered one of Warren County’s most glaring needs, especially with a newfound emphasis on promoting tourism and with a new robotics center across the street at Motlow College.
Unless disaster strikes in the construction process, the new hotel should be finished in the coming months.
JC Penney gone
JC Penney had been an anchor at Three Star Mall since the mall opened in 1981. But the department store chain couldn’t weather a tumultuous 2020 and closed its doors in October.
In the end, even the racks and fixtures were for sale as one of McMinnville’s most memorable stores left town, replaced by online shopping. JC Penney had been rumored to be closing its local store several times over the past decade as the chain endured its share of struggles.
But every time store closures were announced, the McMinnville JC Penney's managed to avoid being on the dreaded list of stores to be closed.
That luck changed in June when Penneys announced it would be closing 154 stores and McMinnville was included on the list.
The department store industry in general is on the decline. The industry generated about $230 billion in revenue in 2000, according to an analysis from Statista.com, but will only generate about $100 billion in sales this year.
The departure of JC Penney leaves a loud silence and an emptiness at one end of our mall.
The departure of Goody’s adds to the mall’s woes as Goody’s and GNC are two other longtime tenants which proved unable to make it out of 2020 still standing.
Mall officials are said to be in negotiations with other tenants to replace the dearly departed, but no deals have been announced.
Mall officials say they are waiting for contracts to be finalized before saying anything.
Job losses surge
Prepare to wince. Warren County had 24.3% unemployment in April, according to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, easily the highest number in the past 20 years.
Warren County unemployment had been listed as 3.9% in March before business closures caused the number of job losses to launch into another orbit.
Sevier County, the tourism capital of Tennessee, had the worst unemployment in the state at 29.5% in April. That number could be expected with a tourism-dominated economy at a time when most everyone was staying home.
To put our local figure in perspective in terms of jobs lost, our community lost more than 3,000 jobs in one month, the state said. That’s the equivalent to losing about three Bridgestones.
If there’s a ray of sunshine, Warren County flexed its muscles and showed the ability to rebound. In November, Warren County unemployment was back down to 5.5%, according to state figures.
Spec building done
Truth be told, this accomplishment should probably be ranked higher, but talking about spec buildings is not necessarily a topic of conversation most people find sexy.
The spec building is a 50,000-square-foot shell of a building that’s a great tool in recruiting jobs. Instead of showing a company looking to locate in Warren County an empty field and saying, “You can build here!” a spec building is far along in the process, greatly reducing the time needed for a business to get up and running.
Our spec building represents a $2.2 million investment by our Industrial Development Board. During normal times, I’d think there would be no problem attracting a company to fill the spec building and bring jobs to our community.
We all love jobs and politicians love to talk about bringing them. I hope it’s not a strike against us that Warren County has become the Coronavirus Capital of the World.
New Regions branch
McMinnville’s two longtime Regions Bank locations closed and consolidated into a new $4 million facility at 1035 New Smithville Highway.
The new bank features two virtual teller machines where you can talk with a banker 365 days a year. Bank manager Rodney Baker says the new Regions principle is that banking needs don’t always arise neatly between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Therefore, Regions wants to be available when needed.
The virtual teller machines are called VTMs. One is located in the bank entryway while the other is available in a drive-thru lane.
"With a few exceptions, you can do anything at the VTMs that you can do in person because you can talk to a live banker," said Baker, who has managed our Regions Bank locations for the past seven years. “A lot of regular banking hours are not accessible to people who work late. Our philosophy is we want to offer banking for what life demands. There are always situations that arise.”
Station Pure Art reopens
In continuing the push to enhance our downtown area, the long-dormant Station Pure Art building received a new tenant in 2020.
The Station Pure Art is now Pure Wealth Partners after Dan Sellers and C.K. Cayce-Taylor joined together to create the new business which opened June 22.
“We got the building June 1 and there were a few 100-hour weeks involved with getting it ready,” said Dan.
Added C.K., “We really wanted to embrace the history of the building and the fact it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.”
Slowly but surely, nearly every available space downtown is starting to fill up. The old Warren County Furniture building and old Dinty Moore restaurant are the two most noticeable empty buildings that remain downtown.
New restaurants take over familar locations
It may forever be known as the old VFW, or it may one day be able to escape that label and form its own identity. Either way, building owner Scottie Keel put much effort into renovating the facility and in February Wild Bill’s BBQ opened there.
“I really can’t thank Scottie and his guys enough for all the work they did on this,” said restaurant owner and esteemed police Lt. Bill Davis.
Wild Bill’s BBQ has a menu full of tasty food such as baked beans, white beans, french fries, cornbread, green beans and more. If you don’t want the signature BBQ offerings, there are wings, ribs, chicken strips, and burgers.
Speaking of old restaurant spots, new tenants located in the old Billy’s in Newtown and the old Gondola at Plaza Shopping Center.
Sam and Denice Benson opened Sampa’z, a pizza parlor, at the old Gondola spot in May. The restaurant has been benefitting from repeat customers thanks to its really good pizza and flavorful food.
In Newtown, the old Billy’s became Nelo’s Mexican Restaurant on Sept. 23. As predicted, the restaurant has been a big hit, drawing huge crowds. The success of Nelo’s supports the theory that it’s impossible to have too many Mexican restaurants.