I grew up in Homewood and saw a lot of things change there over the years, like Central Park transforming from a cluttered, dirty patch of land with a chunk of blue court, to an open, well-designed, still-a-bit-dirty space with a skate park, to an open, well-designed, not-as-dirty park with a chunk of beige court where the skate park used to be.
Near Central Park, at the corner of Central Avenue and Reese Street, there was a square that, while it might once have hosted a few more stores, was home only to an inconspicuous printing business. As far as my friends and I were concerned, that square was only good for a bit of suburban building climbing.
At one point, there was a liquor store there, but even that eventually disappeared. Not that an ABC store necessarily turns a depressed area into a retail Mecca, but if a liquor store can’t survive there, it seems destined to be a wasteland.
But in the space of a scant few months, an area of town that seemed doomed to squalor has transformed into one of the coolest Homewood destinations. A parking lot where it once would have been strange to see even a single car now spills over into the street almost nightly.
This rebirth lies in the opening of new businesses on the corner, including Little Donkey, a Mexican restaurant from Fresh Hospitality, the same business that operates Jim ‘n’ Nick’s, and Steel City Pops, a gourmet popsicle shop.
Homewood Shoe Hospital moved into a location on the corner two years ago, leaving behind its home of 48 years on 18th Street for a bigger space.
“Here it was depressed,” said Victor Costa, owner of Homewood Shoe Hospital. “The whole area was depressed. It was an older type of shopping center. I guess it was in 2007, 2009, it was only a liquor store there.”
The liquor store left, leaving the building it occupied empty for a few years. But where most might have seen a rundown parking lot and an empty building, John Michael Bodnar, a partner at Fresh Hospitality, saw an opportunity.
“The building itself was a empty box,” Bodnar said. “A concrete block box with no windows, virtually no AC and maybe one door. To a degree it was a benefit to find something like that because you could do anything you want with it.”
But the firm knew exactly what they wanted to do with it. “I worked at Jim ‘n’ Nicks for a long time,” said Josh Gentry, proprietor of Little Donkey. “Nick [Pihakis] is my partner, and we were always standing around in the restaurants eating that pulled pork, going, ‘How could we apply this to a Mexican idea?’ and it just kind of happened. You take that meat and put it in a tortilla and look at what it can be.”
“What instigated Central Avenue was really only one business,” Bodnar said. “It was Little Donkey. We’d been working on that project for about two years. We had nonchalantly been looking for real estate in only the Mountain Brook and Homewood areas, Homewood being our preference because we loved the city. We needed a spot for Little Donkey. We were either going to lease space, or if we couldn’t find anything that we liked, we were going to try to create space, which the latter ended up happening.”
But Little Donkey occupies only about half of the newly-renovated building. Next door will be Octane Coffee, a joint venture between Fresh Hospitality, Brett Burton of Primavera Coffee Roasters and Tony Ripple, a coffee retailer who opened two Octane Coffees in Atlanta. Primavera will also move its roasting facilities from Cahaba Heights to the Central Avenue location. According to Bodnar, renovation will begin within two to three weeks, with Octane opening, he hopes, in a few months.
At the end of the building is Steel City Pops, which is owned by Jim Watkins.
After driving down Central Avenue and liking what he saw in the construction of Little Donkey, Watkins contacted Fresh Hospitality and expressed interest in the space.
“I told them I wanted to do a gourmet popsicle shop,” Watkins said. “They were like, ‘Man, that’s totally awesome. We feel like that would fit in with what we’re doing. We’ll let you know in a couple days.’ They did, and they just felt like it had a lot of synergy with everything else that was going in here. So it was just the right timing. It was a good fit.”
Even for older businesses like Homewood Shoe Hospital, the growth on Central Avenue has been beneficial. “When people have to wait here they say, ‘Well, I’m going to go get a popsicle,’” Costa said. “I think we’re symbiotic, you know what I mean? It’s a good thing that we work off of each other. So I think it’s great. I’ve got no complaints about them.”
The only recurring complaint from any of the businesses was that the influx of patrons to the newer businesses encroached upon the parking spaces for the older establishments. However, Little Donkey offered to put up signs for Homewood Shoe Hospital to more clearly mark their spaces.
“Since the signs have come up, it’s been great,” Costa said. “As far as the growth on this street, it’s phenomenal. It’s the greatest thing I’ve done. First six months was a little tight, but after that I was right.”
When I drove to Little Donkey for the first time, I was shocked. I had never imagined that square as anything but broken and decayed. But with new businesses and more on the way, kids in Homewood will grow up with a much different, and probably better, opinion of Central Avenue.
Andy McWhorter is a Weld Local correspondent. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.