It's been a little more than three years since the final band walked off the stage at Sherlock's in downtown Erie, bringing to an end more than 40 years as a music venue and meeting spot.
On Monday, the Erie Downtown Development Corp., which bought the property along North Park Row and State Street in September 2018, opened the doors to what it hopes will be a different sort of gathering spot, the Flagship City Food Hall.
No plan was announced for the property in September 2018 when the EDDC paid $2.95 million for eight parcels along North Park Row, State Street and West Fifth Street.
But the EDDC — a business-backed organization launched in 2017 to purchase, renovate and repurpose real estate in downtown Erie — had been keeping its eyes on the property for a while.
Even before John Persinger was named the group's CEO in March of that year, the board had been negotiating to buy Sherlock's and the other buildings from Thomas "Tippy" Dworzanski, Persinger said.
Renovating the upper two floors of the buildings for use as apartments was a given. Plans for the ground floor weren't as clear.
"We wanted this to be a community space," Persinger said. "We talked about what brings the community together. What reaches across the rural-city divide? What can cut across racial and socioeconomic differences?
"We kept coming back to food," he said.
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Part of a bigger plan
Another five months passed before the EDDC announced its plans in March 2019, not just for the Sherlock's space, but for all eight parcels.
The EDDC described its plan for a $30 million culinary arts district that included both the fresh food market, apartments on the upper levels and the food hall that opens Monday.
Persinger lays no special claim to the concept.
"Food halls are not a novel idea," he said. "We have been to food halls in Boston, Pittsburgh, New York, Denver and Salt Lake City."
The difference, though, is that this food hall, including nine food vendors and a bar, would be about Erie.
This would not be another food court. No floppy slices of pizza made by the same restaurant chain that sells them on the highway. No buttery pretzels alleged to have been made by someone's aunt.
The food hall was intended to reflect the history, culture and talents of the Erie community, including its population of new Americans, Persinger said in numerous interviews and public appearances.
Speaking to the Manufacturer & Business Association in May 2018, even before the notion of a food hall was public, Persinger joked about one day buying an artisanal pepperoni ball in Erie.
“They have to be Erie businesses,” he said. "We don’t want a downtown that looks like upper Peach Street.”
Not everyone is happy with the EDDC's vision for reshaping downtown. The organization drew ire when it did not extend the leases for restaurants located along North Park Row.
Others, including Preservation Erie, have been critical of plans to tear down the former Greyhound station, home in more recent years to Resolution Nightclub and Coconut Joe's bar.
The EDDC has maintained that it would be impossible to fully renovate and reinvent those spaces with those tenants in place.
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New look for an old space
Matt Wachter, vice president for finance and development for the EDDC, said he's happy with the finished food hall.
And he's pleased with how quickly an idea became reality as the EDDC set about reinventing a series of 100- to 150-year-old buildings.
"We had to find our investors," he said. "It was no easy task. There is no textbook for how this is to be done. There is no step-by-step process."
Past patrons of Sherlock's who visit the food hall will recognize brick archways and other architectural features.
But the transformation from that old space to this new one is startling. The building is a study in 150-year-old bricks, gleaming fixtures and surfaces and sparkling new windows that look out to Perry Square.
The business model for the food hall recognizes that everything inside the facility costs money, from pots and pans to dishwashers, range hoods and ovens. Instead of paying traditional rent, tenants will pay an average of 25% of their receipts based on gross sales.
The EDDC says it's a way to share the risk with their tenants, some of whom are new business owners.
“There are many people in the food and beverage industry who are very talented but they don’t necessarily have the capital to open a restaurant,” Wachter said in January 2020. “If they are successful, we are successful. In many ways, it’s a true partnership.”
Natasha Pacely, the owner of Taste of Love Catering in Erie, was among the vendors working in the food hall during the week of Nov. 8, organizing her space and thinking ahead to opening day.
"I walked in and saw Natasha," Persinger said. "She had a big smile on her face and I asked her 'How do you like it?'
"She said, 'I love it. I am ready. I am excited.' "
She's not the only one.
John Buchna, executive director of the Erie Downtown Partnership, said this and other EDDC projects have the potential to help put Erie in a new trajectory.
"This (the food hall) is exactly the type of thing that is going to help us in that transformation," he said.
Buchna said he's sampled the food from most of the vendors and has faith in their potential.
"This is what you need," he said. "This is all local. They are all creative entrepreneurs who are willing to push the envelope to the next level. I think this is going to get better and better."
Persinger thinks it will.
And there's more to come, including the opening soon of new State Street retail spaces. completion of the Flagship City Public Market, the opening of scores of new apartments and the construction of two new buildings and a parking garage. Most of the work is expected to be done by sometime in 2023.
Reflecting on the completion of the food hall recently, Persinger said he recognizes there is still a long way to go.
"We have to remind ourselves this is one of 12 projects and that we have to stay focused on getting the others done and open," he said.
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Flagship City Food Hall in downtown Erie: A closer look