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On the East End, 'big things are happening'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After almost 10 years, the work of East End Main Street program is starting to pay off.

You can see the results as you drive along Washington Street East. A couple of new shops opened recently near the Capitol -- Magic Makers and Hush, an organic health-food store.

Not far away, exterior renovations to the former New China Restaurant are ending, where The Empty Glass owner Chris Chaber hopes to open his new live-music venue.

Down the street, check out the new brickwork on the building beside the Main Kwong restaurant. There, the family of Main Kwong owner Carina Kwok plan to open a Japanese hibachi-style sit-down restaurant this summer.

And on a vacant lot at the corner of Ruffner Avenue, the Main Street group hopes to open its long-awaited outdoor market -- the East End Bazaar -- also this summer.

"It's almost too much to comprehend at this time," said Ric Cavender, director of the East End Main Street program.

"It takes a while," he said. "We're approaching our 10th anniversary in September. When you hit 10 years, big things should be happening. Big things are happening.

"There's real excitement. Young people are moving into the East End. The reason why there's so much activity, I think, is the domino effect: One person sees something happening on a building and decides to do something with their building."

Cavender and his predecessors can take some of the credit. They've been working behind the scenes, trying to make the East End attractive to business owners.

Main Street offers matching grants for façade improvements and new signs, along with free business counseling and design services.

Salon Indigo owner Stephanie Reese got a sign grant when she opened her shop in 2010, Cavender said. "It was done by a local artist. As soon as she signed her lease, she gave me a call."

Although not a Charleston native, Reese decided to move here. "I asked her, 'Why here?' She said it's close to the Capitol, close to General Hospital. When she drove by, she could feel something happening.

"I use her as an example, but there have been many projects. All new businesses, we go over their business plan, try to make sure they're a success. I think we are known now as the business hub.

"We also try to recruit. Magic Makers is a great example."

The Huntington-based costume shop traditionally rented space at the Charleston Town Center every fall for Halloween. "They were a major sponsor of Hallow East last year. We talked to them, tried to find them a location. We're working with them now to get their signage completed."

With East End Main Street's help, the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority has been trying to get owner Philip Chin to renovate and rent out the old New China building since 2009.

Those efforts soon could be over. Chaber is negotiating a lease with Chin. He's already won a conditional-use permit from the city's Zoning Board for what he describes as a live-music venue -- an extension of the existing club he runs on Elizabeth Street. Chaber could not reached Thursday for comment.

Cavender said he's been working with Chaber for a while. "He's been working to get his Ts crossed with Philip Chin. He's another responsible businessman.

"The Empty Glass is recognized across the nation as a venue for live music. I personally think it would be a very smart business move, and another great victory for us in getting these buildings properly refurbished."

Eddie Kwok, the 21-year-old son of Karina, said he's been helping his family get the new restaurant off the ground while home from college for the summer.

"We're planning on operating a hibachi grill, and we'll have sushi, too," he said. "It will be about two months to the grand opening."

Main Street, through design consultant Mike Gioulis, helped with the façade plans, he said.

"The restaurant will be on the first floor. We'll be able to fit 90 to 100 people. Lunch and dinner, seven days a week, 365 days a year."

Compared to the casual, mostly take-out Main Kwong next door, "We're trying to make it a little more formal," he said. "We're trying to make it very traditional Japanese. We're in the process of applying for a liquor license to serve sake and beer."

The probable name is Umami -- Japanese for delicious, savory taste, he said.

Cavender is crossing his fingers that the New China deal goes through. Along with that, CURA has been targeting the empty building directly across Elizabeth Street, another former restaurant. The property, owned by the Dandy family trust, is tied up in bankruptcy court. CURA's East End Community Renewal Plan identifies both sites as keys to the success of the entire neighborhood.

"People have invested millions and millions of dollars in their buildings in the last few years," Cavender said. "You have these empty properties. They're off-putting.

"Normally these larger buildings are renovated first and the smaller ones follow," he said. "We're seeing the opposite."

Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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