(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second 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.
David Dewhirst has nearly quadrupled his initial goal of rehabbing 10 historic buildings, and there is no end in sight.
For most of the past two decades, the well-known and respected developer has focused on what he calls “the downtown core.” His projects, highlighted by this graphic, have included the Daylight Building on Union Avenue, the Arnstein Building on Market Street, the former Holston Bank Building on Gay Street, numerous structures on Market Square, the Emporium and Firestreet Lofts on West Jackson Avenue, and the JC Penney Building still underway on Gay Street.
In early 2015, he completed work on the White Lily Flour Mill in the Old City, renamed The White Lily Flats, with residents now moving in. There are 47 housing units in the structure that was built in 1873.
“We have a penchant for buying buildings without knowing what we are going to do with them,” Dewhirst observed. One of those was The Standard on West Jackson.
“It looked like a great place to have a party,” he said. In fact, it is, having hosted hundreds of entrepreneurs and others at Knoxville’s first two “Start-up Day” events which are designed as a celebration of the community’s start-ups.
Along the way, Dewhirst has built a team of equally committed individuals. One is Mark Heinz, a colleague and partner for slightly more than a decade. The two ironically connected at a Harvard Law School forum.
“He comes-up with the crazy ideas,” Dewhirst says of Heinz who first talked him into helping with converting the Holston Bank Building into lofts.
During our interview and in other meetings, we have seen the passion that Dewhirst feels for his work, the vision and philosophy that are core to that passion, and the propensity to embrace the Nike slogan – “Just Do It.”
So, 20 years and nearly 40 buildings into his work, what about the future?
“We are running low on unrecovered historic buildings in the core of downtown,” Dewhirst says, “However, there is a several lifetime supply as you go north, east and even south. The near north area will be considered downtown proper in a few years.”
There was also a very intriguing fact that he called to our attention, one that says the migration of people back to the central city core has not come close to running its course.
“Downtown is one-twelfth of its density potential for retail, residential and offices,” Dewhirst says. That fact comes from comparing a density map from 1920 with one from today.
“We haven’t even come to the end of the beginning,” he says. That reality and the passion he has for saving and repurposing historic buildings will continue to contribute to Knoxville’s growth as a very attractive place for entrepreneurs to live, work and play.