SOUTH BEND -- Developer Dave Matthews' multilayered $8 million-plus plan took another big step Wednesday as he completed the purchase of the building that houses the Emporium Restaurant and several other businesses in downtown South Bend.
"It's important to try and focus on one small area and do it well," said Matthews, owner of Matthews LLC, which will be the new owner. "The East Bank is where my attention is at right now."
Matthews, who would not reveal the price he paid, said he has no plans for the restaurant at 121 S. Niles Ave., which has more than a year on its current lease.
Matthews purchased the entire building from Bruce and Pat Tassell, Bob Beutter and John Boyer.
But other changes are in store for the approximately 20,000-square-foot building, which he plans to update and equip with fiber-optic, high-speed Internet.
Among them are:
-- Fill two 1,700-square-foot vacancies, one on each floor.
-- Keep existing tenants such as Studio C, a hair salon, and BX Films and his own company.
-- Possibly replace the Mole Hole, which he expects to move out in the future, with either a bar or something that appeals to "the youthfulness of the neighborhood."
He also is considering restoring the outer-brick finish to its original color.
But the purchase is part of his grand plan to make the East Bank more appealing to younger people.
"I am trying to get critical mass to that area and make it almost like a miniature Eddy Street Commons in the East Bank," he said.
He already has a $4.5 million project featuring 10 River Race Townhomes going up across the street from the Emporium parking lot.
But Wednesday, he talked of additional plans that he expects to be complete in about two years, including adding two apartment buildings directly across the street from the Emporium, where he already has construction equipment on hand.
That $3 million apartment project includes ground-floor retail and 30 apartments on the second through fifth floors. He purchased the 1.3-acre parcel from the city in 2011 with the stipulation he would not seek a tax abatement on the development.
He also has purchased the building at 521 Jefferson Blvd. that once housed Michael's Hair Salon and the parking lot adjacent to it.
Matthews foresees a possible restaurant in that development with accordion doors opening up to a view of the river and Howard Park across the street.
"We are trying to create comfortable space outdoors," Matthews said, while giving a tour of the upcoming projects he hopes to have completed in two years.
"We are trying to bring that area back," Matthews said of the entire East Bank. "I think it has amazing potential as for it being a great spot to hang out for a lot of 20- to 30-year-olds in the area, and those young at heart, where right now it's not a great location for us all to kind of go.
"I think by building higher quality apartments and getting some concentrated retail space here, it would be a nice start across from the park on the East Race," he added.
"You have white-water rafting, you have miles of river walk you can go on. You're in walking distance of the Farmer's Market and (several) grocery stores," he said. "It's all part of making this area a new up-and-coming part of town."
The adjacent River Race Townhomes will soon have its second and third tenants and could be halfway sold out soon, he said.
And not far away, the six-unit East Bank Townhomes site on Colfax Avenue has been sold out for some time.
Matthews says having a vision and putting things in places where others might simply see an old building, is part of his role.
"I literally walk around town and I try and imagine what could be there and then I have the business experience and background to know what's practical and how much it costs to figure it out if it would make business sense," he said.
"My job is to figure out what could be there next and what should be there."
Staff writer Jim Meenan: