Church buys downtown Swank’s bar at auction
BY ROBERT NORRIS (firstname.lastname@example.org)
“To make this really ironic, we’ll go in the bar and sign this thing. It’ll be one for the Lord, boys.”
With those words, auctioneer Mike Walker walked through the door of the former Swank’s Jazz Restaurant and Bar to fill out the contract that would turn the building over to Grace Community Church.
The former bar is located at the corner of Court Street and Harper Avenue, right across the intersection from the church.
Pastor Chris Riser said the church has been interested in the old building for a while. “We’ve been thinking about it, wondering if it would ever come open.”
The church is growing and could use the extra space. Sunday morning attendance averages about 230.
“Right now, we run two services and the services are maybe two-thirds full — so we have some room there. But it’s mostly our Sunday school space that’s maxed out. We have some room in the sanctuary, but everything around it is packed.”
Plus, the church has only a “warming kitchen.” A restaurant kitchen with professional appliances would be a big step up.
But minutes earlier when the auction started at 11:03 a.m. Thursday, nothing was assured. In fact, it looked doubtful the church would end up with the building.
Walker, of Lebanon-based United Country Walker Realty & Auction Co., started the bidding by asking for $200,000. The seller was BB&T Bank of Winston-Salem, N.C.
“I encourage you,” Walker told the assembled group of about 25 onlookers, including several Grace Community Church members. “They want to sell it, but they’re not going to give the property away.”
Walker said the 4,680-square-foot property, which originally had been a bank and still contains the old safe, is appraised by the city of Maryville at just over $300,000. A private appraiser had recently valued it at between $200,000 and $250,000 in today’s market.
In response to Walker’s opening call, he got $80,000.
Asked for $100,000 — got $81,000.
“Ohhhh, we’re not gonna do thissss! Who’ll give a hundred-thousand to go?” Walker asked. “If you’re planning on buying the building. They’re not gonna give the building away today. A hundred-thousand — we’re not here to play auction.”
Walker called out for a bid of $100,000 more than 40 more times. It didn’t take long with the quick staccato patter of the auctioneer, but it did seem like time was standing still for a few moments as no one took up the bidding.
“I thought you all came to buy the building. We’re at eighty-one, calling for a hundred-thousand.”
He called at least 20 more times and finally drew out a third bid — $82,000.
The call was still for $100,000.
Then a shout from one of the auctioneer’s assistants standing next to one of the two bidders. “Eight-five!”
“Eighty-five — now ninety. We’ll go the hard way.”
The bidding picked up. $95,000. Then $96,000. Then $100,000. And then settled into a pattern. The church upped the bid again by $1,000 to $101,000.
Church member Steve Benedict was representing the church during the bidding. He stood stoic, with arms folded or in his pocket, consulting between bids with Pastor Riser.
Benedict is in the salvage business and has experience with auctions, so he got the call to handle the bidding.
“The elders asked me if I’d do that, and I told them I’d be happy to do it.”
The church had one competitor for the property: Eric Barton, president of Vanquish Worldwide, a company that operates out of Friendsville but does its work overseas in Afghanistan and Africa fulfilling federal security contracts.
Barton said he wanted to convert the building into office space for his employees.
“I would have bought the building for one-eighty-five about two months ago, but I needed it to be in a HUBzone for federal contracting,” he said, referring to the Small Business Administration program for small companies that operate and employ people in Historically Underutilized Business Zones.
Barton was not sure if that would work out. Neither had he done the diligence necessary to know the true structural condition of the building.
“So it makes me nervous to even buy it. It’s a gamble,” he said after the bidding closed. “It’s cool, it’s a nice building. But the church needs it, too, so it will be great for them.”
That was later. First the bidding had to finish. It was rising incrementally. It took 16 bids to get from $90,000 to $136,000.
More bidding, and Barton brought it up to $145,000. Then another bid from the church.
“Let me guess!” Walker said with a chuckle. He got the answer he expected: “One-forty-six!”
“We’re way under the money, folks. This property tax appraisal is $301,900. We’re not even half away from what the town of Maryville says this building is worth.”
“This is an historic 1939-built building, and we’re giving it away for one-hundred-forty-six thousand dollars.”
He cajoled some more, talking about all the money the bank and the auction company had invested in selling the property.
Barton eventually bid $150,000. The church quickly raised the bar to $151,000.
Walker called for $155,000, but nothing followed.
Finally, 13 minutes and 50 seconds after the bidding started, Walker ended it: “Bidding is closed at a hundred and fifty-one.”
He went inside the building to call the bank. A few minutes later he was back at his auctioneer’s lectern.
“OK folks, I have an announcement. This property is sold, sold, sold! “ Walker yelled, clapping his hands.
From Pastor Riser came a satisfied, “Yes.”
As church members and part of the team of auctioneers entered Swank’s to sign the contract on the bar, a voice came from the background: “It’s sort of like throwing the tax collectors out.”