The neon “OPEN” sign was flipped on in the window of Bob’s Mini Mart last week, signaling the return of a community institution in the heart of the Western Carolina University campus and the opening of the first business located in the university’s new Noble Hall mixed-use facility.
Aside from the sign lighting up, there wasn’t much in the way of fanfare as the convenience store that first opened on WCU’s campus about three decades ago re-opened at 8 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26, following a hiatus of a year-and-a-half. Store owner Bob Hooper said his hope was to be back in business in time for WCU’s Homecoming so that visiting alumni could come by the store. “Quite a few” did pass through Saturday, Oct. 29 – the day of the Homecoming football game, Hooper said. “It was nice to see them come by,” he said.
The history of Bob’s Mini Mart goes back to the 1980s. Hooper said his father was originally from Cullowhee, but he was born in Atlanta and moved to Cullowhee in 1974 in search of “peace and quiet.” In 1979, the younger Hooper took over ownership of a laundromat operating in the university’s old commercial strip, and then, a few years later, he opened a second business – Bob’s Mini Mart. He eventually got out of the laundromat business but continued to operate the convenience store as a tenant in the university-owned commercial strip alongside other campus fixtures such as the Townhouse Restaurant, the Varsity Shop and Pressley’s Barber Shop.
The years of doing business went by, until fire broke out in WCU’s commercial strip on Centennial Drive during the morning of Nov. 21, 2013, heavily damaging space occupied by three businesses – a Subway sandwich shop, Rolling Stone Burrito and the Mad Batter Bakery and Cafe. Over the ensuing months, the Board of Trustees of the WCU Endowment Fund, owner of the property, decided to accelerate the development of a mixed-used facility that was already in the university’s long-term master plan for construction at the site. The space occupied by Bob’s Mini Mart was not damaged in the blaze, and Hooper was allowed to operate until April 26, 2015, when he had to close down to allow for demolition of the entire commercial strip to make way for the new building.
The new 120,000-square-foot Noble Hall, with capacity for 420 student beds spread over all four floors, and commercial space on the ground floor, opened for student housing just in time for the start of WCU’s current fall semester, but preparation work for business tenants has been ongoing since then. The $29 million facility is named in honor of Noble Nine, the group of nine trustees from the late 1800s who were instrumental in the development of the little mountain school that evolved into WCU.
Hooper, who holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Georgia, said the customer count at Bob’s Mini Mart has been improving gradually since his Oct. 26 re-opening in his new 2,179 square feet of space. He said he expects business to get better as more people on campus find out he is back in operation, and especially as other businesses open in Noble Hall. He has hired four WCU students to work in the store and said he may be hiring two more as sales pick up.
WCU general counsel Mary Ann Lochner has provided updates on when other businesses are expected to open. A new Subway should begin operating later this month, while two others, Chili’s Grill and Bar, and MadStone Cafe and Catching Light Books, are predicted to open in early January. Blackrock Outdoor Co. is expected to commence operations sometime in early 2017, she said.
When the owners of the combination cafe/bookstore and the sandwich shop join Hooper in operating out of Noble Hall, it will signify the return to campus of four of the business owners who were uprooted as a result of the 2013 fire. In addition to the Subway, owners of Rolling Stone Burrito and the Mad Batter are partnering with City Lights Bookstore of Sylva on the new MadStone Cafe and Catching Light Books venture.
By Randall Holcombe