ONARCHITECTURE- Lynchburg's Pied Piper: Will Kuttner lure us to the Hill City?

Singer-songwriter Lauren Hoffman (right) hangs out with the folks who recently bought Kuttner's Starlight Café in Lynchburg, Carri Sickmen, her partner, Julie Kotowski and their daughter, Ruby.PHOTO BY COURTENEY STUART

Although touting a small southern town named Lynchburg as the next popular hotspot would present a challenge to even the most savvy PR firms, it hasn't deterred former Charlottesville developer Oliver Kuttner. He's been singing Lynchburg's praises for some time now.

Kuttner began buying up real estate in the Hill City over two years ago, and now that Lynchburg City Council has given the thumbs up to his plans to develop 350,000 square feet of old warehouse and factory space on Kemper Street, which he purchased for a mere $1 million, Kuttner– no stranger to bold words– seems to have ramped up his rhetoric.  

Over the last month, Kuttner has been the subject of at least a half-dozen stories in the Lynchburg press, in which he has been emphatically touting the Hill City's charms. During a presentation to a group of the city's young professionals last month, he called the city the "greatest real estate in the nation," according to a News Advance story, and even made a startling attempt to dismantle Lynchburg's reputation as ultra-conservative– due in large part, perhaps, to a recently deceased religious leader who called it home– by pointing out how easy it was to buy rock cocaine.

 "I can walk three blocks from here and I can tell you where you can buy all the crack you want, right now, this minute, guaranteed," he told the crowd. "You can call this a conservative town if you want, but it's a split town."

Clearly, Kuttner's flamboyant enthusiasm can take unusual turns. 

"I convince one person to move, then he tells his brother, who tells his cousin, and then the cousin's parents decide to move," says Kuttner. "I've indirectly brought hundreds of people from around the county here."

Still, he admits it hasn't been easy to lure expatriots from Charlottesville.

"There's been a lot of resistance from Charlottesville about moving to Lynchburg," he says, "but I try to explain to young people, if you don't have money, there's no future in C'ville. Charlottesville is a beautiful city, but it has priced itself out of the range of most of those people.

"In Lynchburg there are beautiful, historic houses just three blocks from downtown, and they're $117,000," he says. 

At the center of Kuttner's effort to lure young people to town is the Starlight Café, a coffeeshop and restaurant he opened last October. Named after Kuttner's other brainchild, luxury express bus service the Starlight Express, the Café is in Lynchburg's former Greyhound station on Fifth Street downtown, which is also the southern terminus of Kuttner's New York-Charlottesville-Lynchburg route. The Café sits like a blue island of urban cool in a veritable wasteland of urban blight. Given the setting, it's hard to imagine the business could ever survive, but Kuttner says it has become a hub of activity.

"It's a really great place," he says. "There's a very mixed clientele, everyone from the mayor and city council to a guy looking for a job... it's the anti-Starbucks."

Two month's ago, Kuttner sold the Starlight Café to two transplanted Charlottesvillians, Carri Sickmen and Julie Kotowski, who last Saturday  put on a show that just about any Charlottesville venue would be proud to host: Jim Waive and the Young Divorcees, David Sickmen, Lauren Hoffman, Sarah White, and Robbie St. Ours. It was a grand new opening for the café, and according to Sickmen, the crowd fawned over the imported talent.

Sickmen's brother, David, founder of the hillbilly rock band the Hackensaw Boys, says Lynchburg reminds him of Charlottesville back in the early '90s, when even struggling young musicians could afford to live downtown.

"Back then, I lived in Belmont, and people would say, ‘Wow, isn't that dangerous?'" he laughs. Sickmen says he learned a lesson when he failed to invest early in Charlottesville real estate. In the Hill City, he hopped aboard the home ownership bandwagon early, purchasing an 1820 house for a fraction of what it would cost in Charlottesville. He moved down two months ago and is working full time helping Kuttner restore the warehouse and factory space on Kemper Street. 

But despite his hectic construction schedule, Sickmen says he's planning to get back into music. Saturday's show, he says, marked the end of his brief musical retirement.

None of the other acts in Saturday's line-up have moved to Lynchburg yet. In fact, Hoffman headed to Israel for at least a month the day after her Starlight performance and may stay much longer. Indeed, while Saturday's concert may have been a success, there's no sign of a mass exodus of young Charlottesvillians to Lynchburg. Nonetheless, both Sickmens hope the Starlight Café will become a place for people to get a look at Lynchburg– and then maybe come to stay.

"For a young artist," says David Sickmen, "you can't beat this place."