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Hamilton wants to turn empty lots on Main Street into urban backyard bar

A new venue for food, drink and entertainment
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Posted at 7:00 AM, Aug 11, 2020

HAMILTON, Ohio — A historic building and a pair of vacant lots located along Main Street in downtown Hamilton will soon see new life, thanks to plans to transform the properties into an outdoor backyard bar and community gathering spot.

Dave and Emily Ernst of Hamilton and Jeff and Gina Bucalo of Liberty Township recently formed a joint venture, HUB on Main LLC, to purchase the properties spanning 501-515 Main St. The longtime friends plan to build Hamilton’s Urban Backyard, or HUB, a new kind of venue for food, drink, music and more entertainment.

The idea is based on a similar concept found in Petoskey, Michigan. Given that city's recent growth, particularly in the restaurant space, the group said it was a perfect time to try and replicate the concept in Hamilton.

The plan centers on preserving a 165-year-old building at 501 Main St., at the corner of F Street. Dave Ernst said the exterior will be restored to reflect its original Italianate architecture. Inside, the first floor will be converted to a craft beer bar that opens up to the HUB. A second-story apartment is also planned in the project's second phase.

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A newly formed development group wants to transform several vacant properties along Main Street into Hamilton’s Urban Backyard, or HUB, a venue for food, drink, music and more.

The remaining vacant land, which includes roughly 7,000 square feet of green space, will be outlined with fire pits, a turf area for games like cornhole and bocce ball, picnic tables and trellis-covered seating. There will be open-air dining for food trucks and/or modular kitchens. The HUB will be pet- and family-friendly, Ernst said, a space that can be used year-round.

"This location historically was a community gathering space and the center for the neighborhood as far back as mid-1800s, so we're bringing things full circle," Ernst said. "We really want to celebrate Hamilton, its history, and be a spot that people in the city can come and enjoy."

The HUB has the potential to be a catalytic project, officials said. Over the past five years, Hamilton’s downtown has experienced over $84 million in investment, according to the city's Department of Economic Development, including infrastructure improvements, new market-rate apartments, renovated office and retail spaces and a newly renovated riverfront hotel.

But the HUB "fills in one of the biggest missing pieces of the puzzle," said Dan Bates, president and CEO of the Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce. It anchors that particular portion of Main Street. Newcomers to the city, like Fretboard Brewing & Public House, Smoochies Boba & Crepes, and Billy Yanks, a burger and bourbon bar coming soon, sit a few blocks away. The hope is that the HUB sparks additional growth in that immediate area.

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A newly formed development group wants to transform several vacant properties along Main Street into Hamilton’s Urban Backyard, or HUB, a venue for food, drink, music and more. (Rendering provided by City of Hamilton)

"It's huge," Bates said. "The part of Main Street that's closest to the river has had some major investment. But then you have businesses kind of scattered throughout the rest of Main Street with empty spaces in between. It's going to be cool. It's going to be a little different. It's going to be an outdoor gathering space, which makes it a destination point, something that's really going to drive foot traffic. The businesses on Main Street are thrilled."

Ernst said the HUB could open by late summer/early fall 2021. He and his partners are currently working through a due-diligence phase.

That timeline falls in line with the projected debut of Spooky Nook, a $165 million sports, entertainment and event complex being built at the former Champion Mill paper factory site. Construction is underway with an anticipated opening next December. The 1 million-square-foot venue, which will stand as the largest indoor sports complex in North America, will include over 60,000 square feet of available restaurant and retail space.

"That [Spooky Nook] is the icing on the cake," Ernst said. "We are honored to do our part to ensure that growth continues for the people of our city.

"We have been very excited about what's going on in Hamilton, and we thought we needed to be part of it somehow," he added. “We have witnessed first-hand what [businesses like] Municipal Brew Works, The Casual Pint, Tano, Fretboard and others have done to put Hamilton on the map as a social destination. It's moving. We think, given where we are, there's a lot of real estate and potential with properties further west of us."