(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series of Knoxville developer David Dewhirst whose worked has helped transform the city’s downtown into a location very attractive to entrepreneurs and other creatives.)
By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
When you enter the offices of Dewhirst Properties, you immediately know there is something very different and creative about the enterprise’s leader.
You come face-to-face with a collection of old alarm clocks on shelves to the left of the front door. There are dozens of clocks, but David Dewhirst acknowledges that it is just a small part of his vast collection. And clocks are not the only items that the Chicago native has been acquiring as he points to other items in his South Gay Street space.
In fact, for the past two decades, the Knoxville developer has been collecting and rehabilitating buildings in Downtown Knoxville. Over that period of time, the engaging Dewhirst has played a critical role in transforming the center city into an area that helps attract and retain the all-important creative class.
“It was nothing I set out to do,” Dewhirst says. Yet, today, his company has rehabbed between 30 and 40 buildings, mostly for mixed use purposes heavily weighted toward loft development.
Those in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region who are focused on growing the local entrepreneurial ecosystem clearly credit Dewhirst with playing a key role in helping provide many of the features that attract young entrepreneurs.
The irony is the fact that it is Dewhirst’s own entrepreneurial nature and vision that have helped transform a largely moribund after working hours downtown into the vibrant place that it is today.
“I wanted to be a history major, but the pay would have been nearly non-existent,” Dewhirst says. So, he looked around and decided on something else.
“Aerospace Engineering had the best sounding name,” he says in his matter of fact manner.
After graduation from the University of Tennessee, Dewhirst accepted a position with General Dynamics in Ft. Worth, TX, where he was assigned to the team working on the F-16 fighter aircraft.
“It was a fascinating project to work on,” Dewhirst says, noting, “but I didn’t live and breathe engineering.”
So, he took a different job with General Dynamics that included overseas work while also securing his MBA from Southern Methodist University.
“This would be my ticket to getting out of engineering,” Dewhirst explained. Ending up in Washington, DC, the entrepreneur-in-waiting lived in the city’s downtown area where he gained an appreciation for the urban environment.
He ultimately left General Dynamics, joining a new venture fund that invested in several entities including one of Lee Martin’s.
“It was a great idea, but too soon for itself,” Dewhirst says of Martin’s start-up that he managed after moving back home. Later, he worked overseas for Mike Conley’s Regal Corporation and soon embarked on what would become his true passion.
“I saw an old, decrepit building with a for sale sign,” Dewhirst says of the 133 South Gay Street site next to the legendary Harold’s Deli. “It was a beautiful building and incredibly inexpensive.”
It took two years to rehab the building on his own time. Dewhirst lived upstairs and eventually leased the downstairs to several attorneys.
“I finished that first building in 1997 and decided I wanted to be an historic building developer,” he says. With the proverbial “game on,” Dewhirst tried to find a way to buy everything he could find in the downtown area.
“I thought if I could renovate 10 of these small buildings, I would never have to work for someone else again,” he concluded.
Today, Dewhirst Properties has far exceeded his initial goal, employs over 40 individuals, and is recognized for the numerous restorations that carry his imprint.
NEXT: The evolution of Dewhirst Properties as well as a look into the future.