Hobo Junction on path to reopen

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

Many in Liberty Hill were left scratching their heads in early March when they could no longer stop in to Hobo Junction for their breakfast and lunch favorites.

The restaurant was closed suddenly due to the building’s condition, but owners say there is a plan in place to get the doors open again soon with Hobo Junction owner Nacona McDowell’s staff cooking up those favorites once again.

Building owner Anderson Price, along with local property manager Kami Prieto, is working out all the details in the rehab project that became quite complicated over time.

“We’ve got Nacona, she’s running the restaurant, everything’s going really well, but that building is extremely old, so we needed to replace that roof,” Price said. “We started looking at the building and trying to decide how we could remodel and keep the look, the really cool painting inside and the original feel and look, but also upgrade it.”

The small, older kitchen needed remodeling and the plan, according to Price, was to assist with the upgrades and work it into the rent over time to make it possible for Hobo Junction to afford the improvements.

“We went and hired an architect and spent a bunch of money getting a full plan showing what we wanted to do and we took it to the City and they said that was going to trigger a site plan review and we’d have to do detention,” he said. “We went and got a bid and that was going to be $1.2 million, which is more expensive than tearing the building down and starting over. If we spend that much money Nacona can’t afford to be there, it’s unrealistic.”

So the next step was to look at what could be done in a different way, trying to address the most critical needs first.

“We have to fix the roof for two reasons,” Price said. “One because it is old and has to be fixed, but then our insurance company said we need to upgrade the vent system and there were some other fire risks. We went and got bids and everyone who came out said the roof would not support what we needed.”

But even trying to replace the roof was creating confusion with the City over permitting issues, so Price had a conversation with Mayor Rick Hall and it looked like that had resolved the issue.

“We finally talked with the Mayor and he said he thought they could issue a special use permit to cover the remodel and if we did less than $50,000 in the remodel it wouldn’t trigger the site plan review,” Price said.

With that hurdle behind them, it looked as though plans could finally move forward, then another issue cropped up.

“One of the permit reviewers pointed out that the porch was built in the Capital Metro easement,” Price said. “They said ‘the City knows that and if we give a permit to remodel for a structure built on property you don’t own we could be liable and Capital Metro could sue us.’ This had become like a year nightmare.”

Undeterred, Price’s next stop was Capital Metro where he was able to strike a deal where he would agree to not change the footprint of the porch and the railroad would sign off on a licensing agreement.

So far, since that time, all sides have been agreeable to the plan that would allow the work to begin.

“With the special use permit and licensing agreement in place we can go in, pull the roof off, replace it, then we can resolve the insurance issues, which are primary ventilation and grease fire prevention, and then we can get it insured and Nacona can go back and continue to function,” Price said. “Over time we will remodel little sections and as her business grows she can support paying more rent, which will help us pay for it all.

“I’m afraid, even if we could do this all at once, Nacona’s business needs to grow to support the added cost. We don’t think this job is going to make the most money, it’s not going to be our best investment, but we still expect to make some money. We’re doing it because over the long run we think this will be really successful and we can preserve something really cool and be part of something that is like a landmark in Liberty Hill.”

Though he is from South Austin, Price owns other property in Liberty Hill and sees how the community is growing.

“It’s nice to see chains coming to Liberty Hill because it provides options, but at the same time I don’t like to see that happening because you want to see some of the cool, original stuff stay,” he said.

“I’m confident if we can get that building in a decent condition where it can serve more people (Nacona) will make so much more money,” Price said. “We bought that building from the original owner of Hobo Junction, and she had sold that business to Nacona (McDowell) and was looking to sell the building and we’ve had lots of plans for it.”

The original plans, dating back to the purchase of the building nearly four years ago, mirrored a similar project in South Austin.

“We’ve done something similar in Southwest Austin,” he said. “We bought an old gas station, that’s now called Graceland Grocery, and it’s this really cool, funky gas station with a great location and it had been for sale. We bought it because we didn’t want it to get torn down to build a giant 7-11. What we ended up doing was acquiring all the land behind it and now it is a wedding event venue and we lease it out. It is a very Austin grocery with all types of cool stuff. It’s still a gas station and then they do barbecue and then weddings in the back. We felt like we were able to make an investment that would turn out okay, but we knew we were preserving something cool and unique.”

That same inspiration came to Price when he saw Hobo Junction, and while the plans have been downsized some and delayed over time, the plan to preserve Hobo Junction is as determined as ever.

“When we saw Hobo Junction we thought it was perfect,” he said. “It is such a cool building, locals love it, and we thought we could build on what we have here. Our goal was actually to buy all the real estate behind and adjacent to it. My thought was to make the whole thing a park with a music venue, maybe a little kids train track and an outdoor bar, then Hobo Junction would serve as food service for the whole facility. Obviously we’d still love to do that, but I can’t force people to sell their property.”

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