Possible developer sparks hope for downtown DeWitt’s vacant corner lot

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A stage currently occupies the empty corner lot in downtown DeWitt.
The only thing occupying the empty corner lot in downtown DeWitt is a stage that the city sometimes utilizes for events like the DeWitt Memorial Association’s Ox Roast. Photo by David Reinke.

Downtown DeWitt’s vacant corner lot, once Hovey’s gas station and now a space sometimes used for recreational events, has another potential buyer after four to five years of searching for someone with the right business plan.

“We will see,” DeWitt City Administrator Daniel Coss said. “I think they are very interested, but with commercial development there can be lots of ups and downs. There’s a lot of due diligence that goes along with commercial development. We’re just in the very beginning stages. They are in the very beginning stages of doing that.”

Bridge St. Hair Co. owner Lindsey Buckner said she “would most definitely prefer to have another business on the corner.” Photo by David Reinke.
Twiggies owner Beth Harendeen said “the general consensus is that everybody would like to see more retail like my business.” Photo by David Reinke.

Coss said city council has placed emphasis on finding the most appropriate business plan for such an important space downtown.

“The vision for that corner lot involves a multi-story, two-to-three story building, that is of mixed-use,” Coss said. “So it has a residential component on the second and/or third floors and a commercial component on the main floor.”

Although its development is a desired outcome by both the city council and local business owners, the corner lot’s history has shown that bringing in the right buyer is a difficult task to manage.

“We’ve had a number of developers that are interested, and then it falls through,” DeWitt Mayor Sue Leeming said. “So we’re not getting people’s hopes up. But from a downtown perspective, it’s an important area.”

When it was decided that Hovey’s was beyond renovation, the city bought the land to take control of that space.

“I don’t want another gas station there,” Leeming said. “It doesn’t fit in with our downtown. So the only way to make sure that that couldn’t happen was for the city to buy it.”

But while DeWitt waits for a potential developer, some local business owners have grown impatient with the city’s failure to capitalize on the space’s potential. Twiggies owner and former Downtown Development Authority (DDA) Chairperson Beth Harendeen said what should be a great asset to the downtown area is an eyesore.

“A kitty litter box is what I would describe that as,” Harendeen said. “A homemade stage and a lot of mulch is really not the most pleasing [sight]. When we’ve spent over a million dollars on a renovation of Main Street and then you have an eyesore like that, it just seems like a poor investment.”

Lindsey Buckner, owner of Bridge St. Hair Co. a salon occupying the cater-cornered lot, said she also feels the lot does not live up to its potential by serving as a recreational space.

“We have so many beautiful park areas to be utilized,” Buckner said. “And the corner of what could be a busier downtown is not where I would put something like that. I hope that we can have somebody come in and develop it. It’s quite a project.”

As downtown business owners, Harendeen and Buckner get a lot of community feedback on what the space should become.

“I’ve heard ideas like a yoga studio, a smoothie bar, even a quaint doctor’s office,” Buckner said. “You have a pharmacy right down the street. I’ve heard—gosh, what other things—a restaurant. Another restaurant. Not another hair salon. Other than that, you know, I’ve heard meat markets. You know, something with fresh produce. There’s lots of possibilities.”

These ideas have not gone unnoticed by city council. Coss said the goal is to find the perfect fit for everybody involved, and “that can be difficult to do.”

“We can’t control commercial markets and we don’t try to control commercial markets,” Coss said. “But the vision is that it does include some sort of retail commercial space, to provide a little diversity to the downtown and generate a little bit more foot traffic to the downtown.”

At one point, the city sold the property to a buyer who was ultimately unable to finance their business.

“There was a purchase on the property, and a lot of big dreams there,” Harendeen said. “But, unfortunately, nothing came to fruition.”

 The city reacquired the space and began their search anew. Coss said city council has learned its lesson.

“We will be a little more thorough and require a few more certainties when we sign a purchase agreement… Just proof of financing or a commitment from a bank that they have financing in place prior to executing a purchase agreement and transferring the deed. So we’ll be a little more thorough in our due diligence as well.”

Despite the challenge, Leeming reflects on the progress made in developing downtown the last few years as sign for further positive change. There are many different directions the corner lot can be taken, and its success will ride on the very reason the city purchased the property in the first place: prime real estate.

“Right now, if you look downtown, we have zero empty buildings,” Leeming said. “We have zero buildings for rent. None. None. It’s awesome…. So it’s a desirable place to be, and that’s a wonderful problem.”

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