Heritage Foundation Holds Ceremony to Install Plaque Dedicated to Calvin Lehew
FRANKLIN, Tenn.—On October 23, Heritage Foundation of Franklin & Williamson County board members and stalwarts of the community gathered to honor Calvin Lehew and his visionary efforts that helped revitalize Historic Downtown Franklin over the past three decades. Lehew and his wife, Marilyn, are often credited for leading the renaissance of Main Street that began in the early 1980s, along with John Noel and Ed Stolman.
During the ceremony Lehew recalled his first Main Street purchase—seven buildings for $350,000 collectively—and Heritage Foundation Executive Director Mary Pearce unveiled the entrepreneur’s bronze plaque, mounted at the corner of Fourth Avenue North and Main Street.
“What would Main Street be without Calvin? Thankfully, we don’t have to answer that question,” Pearce said. “The Heritage Foundation is also grateful for Calvin’s vision in saving the Factory at Franklin and his longtime advocacy for the Natchez Trace and land preservation.”
In May, the Heritage Foundation surprised Lehew with the honor, in conjunction with the launch of his book “Flying High,” co-written by Stowe Daily Shockey. Nearly 400 people were in attendance at the event, where Christian artist TobyMac performed.
Lehew was born and raised above a country store in Leiper’s Fork. He spent time in Washington, D.C. exploring politics as a page at the urging of the Albert Gore Sr. family before attending the University of Tennessee to earn a degree.
The visionary’s first revitalization success story lies in the design and implementation of Carter’s Court, an award-winning specialty center modeled after the European villages he had always admired. Just off Columbia Avenue, he molded the set of 25 shops and restaurants into the seventh largest tourist attraction in the state.
“Why did we invest here? Well, this was my hometown and we needed to do something,” Lehew said. “I knew that downtown Franklin needed to adhere to a certain design, and I went to Columbia Avenue to prove to others that the concept would work. Carter’s Court was the biggest risk I’ve ever taken.”
In the mid-1980s, Noel discovered that 20 downtown Franklin buildings were for sale, and promptly called Lehew to help spearhead the Main Street Renaissance. With friends who shared their vision, the Lehews helped lead the Streetscape project, convincing other property owners to take on the cost burden through added property taxes.
Lehew says at the time, he rented the buildings at $3 a square foot, compared to the $25-35-per-foot going price today; a concrete indicative of the impact he’s made on a once-dying downtown.
“More and more towns around the Southeast are seeing us, and want to copy what we’ve done,” he said. “We are a model for the rest of the nation.”
Lehew recently sold the Factory at Franklin, a formerly condemned stove factory that he transformed in the late ‘90s to encompass an eclectic center of creativity containing spaces for retail, dining, learning, entertainment and offices.
Currently, he serves as president of the Natchez Trace Parkway Association, the three-state organization that was ultimately successful in gaining funding to complete the Trace.
Though he says he’s made a graceful exit from the real estate side of downtown Franklin, Lehew references current community leaders who are continuing to lead preservation efforts in and around Historic Downtown Franklin.
“There always work to be done,” he said. “But I’ve achieved my goal. This town is still growing, but there are new people to take efforts over.”