Michigan-based chain plans to open salon, school at former S&W site

"Dinner with a side of nostalgia wasn't enough to bring back a stalwart downtown building, but Scott Weaver is hoping a menu of cuts, coloring and manicures might be the recipe for a revival.

Weaver is president of Douglas J Companies, a Michigan-based beauty chain that is making a big bet on the former S&W Cafeteria building, at 516 S. Gay St. Douglas J plans to open a beauty school and salon in the building and an adjacent property, and while cosmetology services are a far cry from the original redevelopment vision - which benefited from tax incentives - downtown boosters are hopeful that Douglas J will provide a spark for the center city.

The storied S&W Cafeteria had closed in 1981, and when a new crop of restaurateurs opened the S&W Grand in October 2009 after a $4.5 million restoration of the building, it was a major civic occasion, not only because it reflected past glories but also because it seemed like a fitting symbol for downtown Knoxville's promising future.

The restaurant resurrection was short-lived, though, and the building sat empty for months after the S&W Grand closed in January. Meanwhile, Weaver's company had planned to buy the Kress Building at 417 S. Gay St. and convert it to a beauty school and salon. Douglas J went so far as to gain approval of a $300,000 grant from the Central Business Improvement District to support the project - although the cash never changed hands - but eventually backed away from the complexities of the Kress deal, which included the development of residential space in the building and involved a longer time frame for completion.

The company still was interested in downtown Knoxville, though, and the S&W building fit the bill. Douglas J has signed a 10-year lease, according to the building owner, and plans to have its first group of cosmetology students taking classes in September, with salon services set to kick off around the beginning of 2012.

While a spokeswoman indicated that Douglas J's investment is largely in its equipment, the building will get an overhaul to accommodate them. On a recent morning, Weaver - with blueprint in hand - gave a tour of the building while auction officials and potential buyers prepared for an upcoming sale of the restaurant equipment. The S&W's ground floor will be home to an Aveda retail store and salon space, with the former bar area offering shampoo services and the erstwhile kitchen transformed into treatment rooms for waxing, facials and body treatments.

A top-floor banquet room with windows overlooking Gay Street will house manicure and pedicure stations, while that floor will also be home to hair-cutting stations. Douglas J also is taking space in the adjacent Athletic House building, which will have classrooms.

Weaver said historic touches in the building, like an old scale and seashell wall coverings, will be preserved and the interior lighting - which had sparked complaints from some restaurant patrons - will be brightened.

"There'll be a tremendous amount of lights," he said.

For Knoxvillians who were thrilled to see an institution from their childhood come back to life, the arrival of a beauty school in the former S&W site may not seem like an upgrade. But the detour is in line with Knoxville's goal of boosting downtown's retail offerings. Weaver said the Aveda store will aim to sell $700,000 to $800,000 worth of product annually, not counting cuts and coloring. And if it's successful, the school should bring an influx of young people downtown.

Bill Lyons, the city of Knoxville's director of policy and communications, said he was personally "very saddened" to see that the S&W Grand didn't work out, but said the city can't dictate specific uses of buildings.

"There are way more restaurants in the downtown now than there were when this came up," Lyons said. "But our major priority was always having the building be restored, and (to) have economic vitality and have life."

The beauty school is definitely good news for the building's developers, who obtained an $814,000 tax-increment financing incentive to help with the restoration. In a TIF incentive, developers borrow private money to pay for improvements but use part of the new property tax revenue from the project to pay down those debts.

Developer Tim Hill said the building owners will be paying off the TIF loan for 19 more years. As for the beauty school, he said Douglas J brings a retail component to downtown "that we desperately need," in addition to providing beauty services at below-market prices, and bringing students downtown for training.

"So … the more people you bring downtown, the better for downtown," he said. "And I think it'll help the restaurants around it. So, yeah, I think it's a real benefit for downtown."

This article was published on Knoxnews.com.