PITTSBURG — Community and business stakeholders in Block22 — the mixed-use development project that has revitalized several historic buildings in the block of Broadway between 4th and 5th streets in downtown Pittsburg — hosted a celebration Thursday that included a ribbon cutting, along with speaker panels and an open house and reception that allowed the public to get a sneak peek of businesses that will soon open in what just a few years ago seemed to be a deteriorating part of town.
“This is a once-in-a-century sort of thing that’s occurred in Pittsburg, Kansas that started with a meeting about four years ago when our city manager, Daron Hall, called me and said ‘Hey, remember when the city invested $5 million in the Plaster Center? We have an idea for you downtown,’” said Shawn Naccarato, chief strategic officer with Pittsburg State University’s Strategic Initiatives department, who has played a key role in the project and moderated Thursday’s speaker panels at the Colonial Fox Theatre.
“A brief history lesson,” Naccarato said, “it’s called Block22 because the city founders had plotted out the entire city that they had dreamed, that was just in their head, they got it on paper and it was block number 22 where they were going to start, right here at 4th and Broadway, with four buildings — the four buildings that we today celebrate the reinvigoration, the restoration, and to some extent the resurrection of downtown Pittsburg. It’s pretty exciting.”
City Manager Hall was among the speakers on the first panel at the event, and said the idea for Block22 originated when the city looked into the possibility of demolishing the buildings that have since been renovated and saw how expensive it would be.
“We literally had no way out of this,” Hall said. “We had buildings with plywood on the windows. We’d asked every smart, well-to-do, hard-driving person in town what we could do, we couldn’t get there, and then eventually together we moved forward by determining ‘Hey, let’s expand the scale, let’s expand the scope, and let’s reach out to our community and get as much money as we can and see if that’s enough.’ And it happened.”
Mat Burton, president of the Vecino Group, which worked on developing Block22, also spoke on the panel and said it was the people involved in the project that convinced him to go through with it.
“It’s not often you find leaders who are willing to put it on the line, right?” Burton said. “And so finding leaders that were willing to step up and say ‘I’ll be a part of this,’ that was the compelling part.”
In addition to restaurants and other businesses, Block22 includes PSU student housing, and the university was one of the major partners in making the project happen. PSU President Steve Scott also spoke at Thursday’s event and discussed some of the challenges along the way to completing Block22.
“I don’t think people really understand how hard it was and what risks were involved,” Scott said. “And there were certainly risks on all three partners to take this on and see it through to conclusion. So I did have some thoughts about that too. As a leader you have to think what’s the vision, what can you get to? But you also have to think of the other side and ‘What happens if?’ The ‘if’ didn’t happen. It all moved forward, not necessarily on the timeline we wanted, but it all moved forward.”
Aside from representatives of the three major partners in developing Block22, speaker panels Thursday included students living there and tenants in the space, including owners of new restaurants Brick + Mortar, Juicy’s and TOAST, which will soon be opening.
Travis Lester, co-owner of two of the new restaurants, explained what he is bringing to Block22.
“We are bringing Brick and Mortar, which is an American fare restaurant, started out of Santa Monica, California, along with Juicy’s, which is for my company the first fast-casual that we’ve ever done, and it’s a burrito, Southern California-style Mexican place,” Lester said. “And so we’re excited to kind of launch that brand here in Pittsburg, Kansas.”
TOAST co-owner Heather Horton, who is also co-owner of Sweet Designs Cakery on Broadway, was another speaker on the panel.
“The name TOAST kind of explains the concept,” Horton said. “We’ll have artistically crafted toast plates along with shareables, locally sourced — as much as possible — salads, soups, a really cool environment, just a fun place to hang out, so bright, you know, come in, have a glass of wine, hang out with friends, share, you know, a bunch of snacks. I just foresee the community having a place to come chill.”
City of Pittsburg Assistant Planner Brittan Brenner, who is co-owner of another new business in Block22, also spoke about her new storefront, Sonder & Co.
“We’re an eclectic boutique gift store,” Brenner said. “Everything you buy in our store is locally made, it’s made in this region. So when you buy something in our store you’re not supporting just a wholesaler from possibly America, you’re supporting a person, and we can tell you where that product came from and give you a name.”
Brenner and Horton both said that if everything goes according to plan, their businesses are aiming to open by the beginning of October. Lester said he hopes to open Juicy’s and the bar at Brick + Mortar by Friday, Sept. 20, with the full Brick + Mortar menu available by the following weekend.
Chris Wilson, communications manager with the Crawford County Convention and Visitors Bureau, spoke with the Morning Sun about the new restaurants from a tourism perspective.
"These new eateries won't replace the places people already love,” Wilson said, “they're creating options for an under served market, and that will help them rediscover the downtown area."
City Commissioner Dan McNally, who stopped by TOAST for the open house on Thursday, said he was excited for Block22.
“As somebody that’s lived in Pittsburg all my life, the vibe that’s being generated here downtown, and preserving these historic buildings, you know, just really breathing life into this area, I mean you’ve seen it kind of start to expand from here off of Broadway, and I think that a vibrant downtown and urban revitalization is just healthy for any community,” McNally said.
Mary Harrison, who works at PSU in the housekeeping department at the school’s dorms, said she was excited for Sonder & Co. and the other new businesses at Block22.
“I think this is just awesome, that this is from people that make this stuff themselves, and they’re selling it where it’s helping the economy,” Harrison said. “I think it’s great that they’re doing this.”
PSU student Sydney Martinez, a freshman who is majoring in political science, said Thursday she had visited all the new restaurants for their open houses.
“I really think that Sonder and Juicy’s and all the different new businesses are really going to be helpful and a good asset in bringing people to the college,” Martinez said, adding that they are good environments for students to go to where they can study. “So I think that they’re going to be really good assets to the town, for sure. Not just for students but for other people as well.”
Debbie Vinardi, a registered nurse who lives in Girard but works in Pittsburg at the Via Christi Village, said the owners of Brick + Mortar have done an excellent job setting up the restaurant and she was excited to eat there once it opens.
“I think it would be an awesome opportunity to have a chance to go in to eat,” Vinardi said.