Downtown building undergoes facelift

Downtown building undergoes facelift

Jeff Sams is hoping renovations in downtown Decatur bring more workers, visitors and shoppers to the area.

As he watches out his office window at the corner of North Main Street and West Prairie Avenue and the work the city of Decatur is doing on the streets below, Sams is excited about the transformation taking place.

"Downtown is as good as it ever has been," said Sams, co-owner of Sams/Hockaday & Associates Inc. and New Horizons Insurance Marketing at 122 W. Prairie Ave., Suite 200. "That's what helped us stay."

Tired of dealing with such annoyances as parking meters, Sams said the search was on to move elsewhere.

The changes spurred by the city's $14 million streetscape project have given Sams and business partner John Hockaday the confidence to make its own investment in and commitment to downtown. The more than 100-year-old Sams/Hockaday building is being remodeled with renovations to the second floor complete while the search for occupants below continues.

They decided not to listen to those who told them to tear down the building, which was built in 1912, Sams said.

"We're not the only ones who have reinvested in downtown," Sams said. "The more that do it, the better the city is for it. Making it a parking lot we didn't think was the answer."

Sams said there has been some interest in the lower level space, but nothing has been finalized. Trying to work on a real estate deal has been a change of pace for a company used to selling insurance and connecting insurance companies with agents.

The office for Sams/Hockaday, which used to be on the first floor of the building, now occupies part of the second floor. Its office then flows into the New Horizons portion.

Sams/Hockaday was started in 1981 and sells insurance products directly to consumers, primarily seniors. New Horizons is the less-widely known addition to the business that was developed in 1992 and serves about 10,000 agents across the country, Sams said.

Despite needed changes to the 7,500-square-foot first floor and mezzanine level of the building, some features are being kept as Sams hopes whoever occupies it in the future will incorporate some of the unique design aspects.

A grand staircase became a popular place for bridal pictures when the Van Law Department store was located in the building at 201 N. Main St. during the 1960s and 1970s. Earthen Pottery and Shop 201 had tried to incorporate the staircase into its layout before the businesses separated and moved elsewhere last year.

While the building has housed a car showroom, arcade, art gallery and retail stores, Sams envisions a restaurant that can take advantage of the windows and use the staircase to lead to possible dining areas upstairs.

They're willing to wait for the right fit and the space can be divided to fit various needs, he said.

"We are in no hurry to just put someone in there," Sams said. "We want somebody in there long term."

Throughout the renovation process, Sams said they have discovered things about the building they never knew.

A blue star, like the business has been using in its marketing, was found in the cement that been covered up on the floor near the building's front door.

“We couldn't believe it,” Sams said. “It had never been uncovered. We had no idea it was there. It could have been there since 1912.”

Every brick was torn off the exterior and replaced. All new windows were installed and a new heating and cooling system was added. One boiler heated the whole building before, Sams said.

"We knew we had a rock solid building," Sams said. "It was in our best interest to tear off the bricks and get all new on."

Part of the mezzanine around the inner front of the building has been torn down, which Sams said enables them to fully utilize the windows which had been blocked on that level.

By the time the lower level space is occupied, Sams hopes the transformation has made the downtown area the vibrant place it has the potential to be, while benefiting from the slowed vehicle traffic that could lead more pedestrians to walk around.

SOURCE: Decatur Herald & Review

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