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RENO READY: Joe Hosmer plans renovations on several old building on Commercial Street to meet his vision for a social district.
SBJ photo by Wes Hamilton
RENO READY: Joe Hosmer plans renovations on several old building on Commercial Street to meet his vision for a social district.

Ophelia's plans out; C-Street moves on

Developers still pursue ethnic dining destination on Commercial Street

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After a lengthy and thoughtful redevelopment effort, Tom and Lori Muetzel this month canceled their plans to relaunch Ophelia’s on Commercial Street. Now, building owners Joe and Craig Hosmer are revising their plans for the the historic space and the future of C-Street.

“After over a year of excitement, planning, hard work and investment, both Lori and I are sad to announce that Ophelia’s at 300 E. Commercial St. will not be opening,” Tom Muetzel said in an emailed announcement to Springfield Business Journal. “Unexpected complications have made themselves so evident that we feel compelled to err on the side of caution and listen to what past experience has taught us.”

SBJ reported two months ago the rehabilitation of the 150-year-old, leased building had unearthed an exciting and troubling discovery: an underground cellar.

The Muetzels’ plans involved a ground-floor restaurant with a central grand staircase descending into a basement bar lined with original foundation walls of irregular, hand-cut limestone.

While attempting to increase the basement height by lowering the floor, contractors found an underground barrel-vaulted room that was full of water.

Rob Foster of co-general contractor Arch Contracting LLC said a pipe was installed to pump the continuously leaking groundwater into a stormwater sewer, making the newly discovered cellar usable as a special events space. But with complicated engineering requirements, it would still take another 11 months to finish the remodeling job. And since the main floor was removed to ease access to the basement, the ground floor restaurant couldn’t be developed until the basement and cellar were finished.

That wait is too long for the Muetzels, so landlord Joe Hosmer said he released them from the lease contract.

“It’s very time consuming, and also very difficult and expensive in that you can’t just go in there with machinery. You have to do a lot of it by hand or with tools that aren’t as efficient,” Hosmer said, noting the project could take two years and up to $2 million – a job he continues to fund with brother Craig Hosmer through their Northbridge 300 LLC.

Redevelopment should restart in January, Hosmer said, after a new tenant is secured with new plans. Several individuals have expressed interest, and he said an undisclosed restaurateur with fine dining experience has a lease agreement pending.

Foster and Noel Day of NSD LLC will stay on as general contractors, Hosmer said, while Hand Architecture and J&M Engineering LLC will remain for design work.

Muetzel, who already co-owns Finnegan’s Wake and Sequiota Bike Shop, said he’s not sure if Ophelia’s will reopen anywhere else in town.

“Opening a restaurant for the third time is pretty much defying the odds in the first place. Going from stop to go to stop again makes things even more difficult,” he told SBJ a few days after the announcement.

Walking away from what had been an exciting project is not easy for Muetzel.

“We are genuinely heartbroken to have to make such a decision,” he said in the announcement. “Not only does Commercial Street have a bright and exciting future which we would have loved to be a part of, but the people and businesses already there have been nothing but kind and supportive.”

Revitalizing C-Street is a major motivation for Hosmer going forward – even with the higher project costs.

“It’ll take longer for it to be break even, but the bottom line is it’ll be great for Commercial Street,” he said. “It’ll be a one of a kind place. And that’s what Commercial Street needs.”

Unique buildings, Hosmer suggested, may have lower tenant turnover, because businesses owners with special spaces closely identify with them. Additionally, a growing variety of high-quality restaurants – especially ethnic options – might gain C-Street a new reputation, he said. The eclectic menu includes Cafe Cusco, That Lebanese Place, Pizza House, Askinosie Chocolate, Big Momma’s and Eurasia Coffee & Tea.

“I call it artisanal kinds of food – and that’s the future of Commercial Street,” he said. “A lot of cities have places like that. There’s Adams Morgan in Washington, D.C., and The Hill in St. Louis – you get a lot of mom-and-pop shops that are better than the average and that kind of becomes a place people go for restaurants.”

Hosmer envisions C-Street as a destination.

“I’d like it to become a gathering place,” he said.

And Hosmer’s putting his money where his mouth is, buying old buildings in the area and decreasing the amount of time he spends at the Hosmer & Wise PC law office to work on the developments.

He’s renovating 334 E. Commercial St. for Van Gogh’s Eatery on the main floor. Joe Gidman, co-owner of Cafe Cusco and Chabom Teas + Spices, plans to open the Dutch-themed restaurant in February or March.

The camaraderie among C-Street entrepreneurs is strong, Gidman said.

“I don’t think competition is a word that we use. The atmosphere on Commercial Street tends to be more synergistic,” he said. “We’ve never once seen a drop in business when another eating establishment opened. We’ve actually seen an increase.

“Like at my tea shop, people come in and ask us if we sell coffee,” he said, “and I tell them, ‘No. We focus on tea, but Big Momma’s Coffee & Espresso Bar two doors down will gladly serve you a cappuccino.’”

New offices also has fueled consumption. Hosmer has created seven units above Van Gogh’s, dubbed C-Street Offices, and three are under construction. Current tenants include two photographers, a lawyer, marketing firm, massage therapy and refugee assistance.

Hosmer hopes to woo a French chef to his next project at 400 E. Commercial St., where Ruthy’s Bar operated before moving down the street to the Frisco Lines building. Hosmer plans to renovate his building with a restaurant, basement bar, upstairs lofts and outdoor seating.

Several other historic buildings are in transition, although progress can be slow.

Titus Williams of Missouri Valley REIT Inc. purchased the former Missouri Hotel earlier this year with partner Matt M. Miller, who later left the deal due to family health concerns. Williams said it’s still in the concept stage, but he’s considering retail, restaurant and a boutique hotel – all of which would depend on the availability of historic and new markets tax credits.

“That would be a real game changer,” Hosmer said.

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