Two of Somerset's bright young business minds are trying to give new life to one of downtown's most historic retail spaces.
Michael Keck - brother of Somerset Mayor Alan Keck - and Brandon Sweet are partners in 1776 Holdings, a company that's in the process of revitalizing downtown Somerset.
Already, they've purchased buildings that were sitting empty on East Mt. Vernon Street and the Fountain Square, and moved new businesses - or familiar businesses looking for a new home - into those spaces: The Mole Hole, Serendipity at the Orange Door, and the soon-to-open Somerset Sweeterie.
"It takes a multitude of efforts, people who have the vision from the public sphere and the private sphere, to be able to put something together for the benefit of everyone involved," said Michael Keck. "Without the support from the community, none of it would be possible."
Now, 1776 is working on filling another vacated strorefront - that which used to belong to Food Fair, right across from where East Mt. Vernon meets College Street.
Food Fair of Somerset Inc., was co-founded by Gene Robinson and Jim Sharpe in 1966 and soon expanded to include stores in neighboring counties. The East Mt. Vernon Store was the original, however, but it closed last November. Even before it was a Food Fair though, that space served the public - it was the original Kroger store in town.
"While we are embarking on a new journey for this storied property, I would like to take a moment and pay a special and deferential homage to Chuck and Debbie Hertzer for their years of service to the community of Somerset," said Keck of the individuals who made Food Fair what it was for the community for many years. "Hopefully, we will be able to build upon their oft and fondly remembered legacy."
Ownership of the Food Fair building by 1776 was finalized and made official on Monday, though they had entered into an agreement for the purchase in March.
"We started kicking (the idea to purchase it) around in January, not too long after it shut down in November," said Keck.
Keck said that he and Sweet had strongly wanted to find another grocer to go in there to keep up that tradition. Unfortunately, that proved to be a challenge.
"We made every effort to try to recruit a grocery store to the space,"he said. "My brother Alan was involved from the city perspective in the recruitment effort. We looked at all these parameters. We looked at Trader Joe's parameters. We even reached out to Wal-Mart about (potentially putting in) one of their Neighborhood Markets. We had a local family that expressed interest, but it just wasn't feasible from an economic standpoint."
He added, "Disappointingly, there was no real enthusiasm or interest by any of the parties. For some of the larger parties, some of the building parameters and population parameters were not up to their requirements. We really wanted a grocer in there, but we exhausted every outlet we could think of and it wasn't feasible."
So they started thinking of a Plan B - or Plan C, Plan D, etc. Keck said they "kicked around something in the medical community," such as an urgent care-type facility or a local family physician's office, but the feedback from the medical community on the Food Fair space was just as pessimistic about its feasibility.
"So we turned our eyes more toward traditional retail," said Keck. And there, the line they cast got a bite.
Be You Boutique, operated by young entrepreneur Ashley Dockery, has committed to move into a portion of the space.
"Right now, they're predominantly on-line and have a warehouse here locally, but this will be their first storefront property, which is exciting for us," said Keck.
There is still about 7,500 square feet of space available for a business to make a home in, however.
"At this point, it is about finding a local business that wants to come downtown," said Keck. With the other downtown buildings they purchased, "as soon as we announced those buildings were being renovated and were open for lease, the requests for data were pretty quick and robust. I'm hopeful that the same thing happens with the Food Fair building now that it's public knowledge that a retail or restaurant space downtown (is available)."
Keck said the possibility of another restaurant going there to "complement the growing scene downtown" is a welcome possibility. If that happens, they would like to build a patio on the back for outdoor seating.
That could "take advantage of Somernites Cruise and the bevy of events that the city is going to be putting on - that would be a prime location to enjoy those types of events," said Keck.
However, "we're open to any local business that would want to come in and be part of a growing revitalized downtown."
Keck said it feels like "people are really excited about downtown again," and gives his brother a large part of the credit for that, for "setting the tone and the vision from the mayor's seat."
He added, "Even though I lean libertarian, to have a local government that not only gets out of the way of local entrepreneurs but want to create and foster an environment where they can thrive is really exciting for the local economy, and I think that's a big part of why we're seeing such enthusiasm and investment downtown."
Helping downtown and succeeding in business aren't the only goals of Keck and Sweet, however - the grocery store space on East Mt. Vernon has a long and proud history, and Keck recognizes the important of doing that legacy justice.
"If you're coming into town from the east, that's one of the first buildings you see in what most people would really consider downtown," he said. "We want to create a look on that building as far as the storefront and overall aesthetic experience that ties it in to the rest of downtown and bring back some of that historic feel but with a modern take on it. It's important to preserve and build on that history."