Natalie Burkhart’s First & Main Investments, LLC, working to renovate Downtown Vincennes
By Bernie Schmitt
It always takes someone to get things started.
That’s what happened when Tony and Natalie Burkhart moved Burkhart Insurance from Willow Street to First Street in 2005.
“We outgrew our building on Willow,” said Natalie Burkhart. “When we came here it was a wide-open space.”
The rehabilitation of what is now the Burkhart Insurance Building at 16 N. First St. was the first in a series of projects the Burkharts have engaged in over the last several years, projects that grew from a desire to make downtown more attractive.
Working and living
The First Street building came with a sizeable living space above it, so the Burkharts not only moved their business, but they moved themselves to that location, too.
“We tweaked things, but there was already a pretty nice living area upstairs,” she said. “But the building had sat for two years and it was overgrown with weeds and there was a lot of trash we had to get rid of. Tony wasn’t sure about it.”
They had considered other buildings to house the insurance company, but Heath Klein of Klein Realty talked the Burkharts into the First Street location.
“Natalie said we should go for this one,” said Tony. “There was old, ugly tile down here, and I went along with a magic marker drawing where I wanted the walls for offices.”
Since 2005, however, the insurance business has grown even more. The only space left at the First Street building is a two-car garage. While they own an adjacent property, the Murphy Building, which has conference and exercise rooms, Burkhart Insurance needs office space.
“We’re growing,” Natalie said. “But I won’t let them take my garage.”
While the two often work together, it’s Natalie who has been the driving force behind downtown property rehabilitation. She alone owns First & Main Investments, LLC, the company from which they buy, fix, and then sell downtown properties.
“I’m the budget person,” she said.
“Yeah, I don’t operate in the budget very well,” Tony said. “I’m always saying, ‘It would be cool if we could do this … ’”
But Natalie Burkhart also puts her own sweat equity into some of the rehabilitation. She does much of the painting needed, and she has refurbished stairways and floors. What she or her husband cannot do, they hire out to businesses that have insurance with them.
“We hire our clients,” Tony Burkhart said.
In 2007 Natalie’s First & Main Investments bought what most remember as the Market Street Pub (also Harley-Marie’s) building located across the street. They bought it at a sheriff’s sale and after some basic cleaning and repairs, sold it within two days.
Keeping an eye on downtown
They have bought, repaired, restored, and sold a number of structures in the downtown area. They look at various properties and trying to determine their potential during frequent evening strolls along Main Street and the surrounding areas.
“We lived downtown when we were first married,” Natalie said. “We lived at 19 S. Third Street upstairs and Tony started his insurance business downstairs. We liked being downtown and we took walks back then, too.”
In 2008, First & Main Investments bought what once was the fabled Barbara’s Gift Shop building along Patrick Henry Drive. That summer Natalie had finished with the painting and the repairs, and she and Tony were washing the windows, the last thing to be done.
“Cheryl McCormick came walking by and asked what we were doing,” Tony recalls. “We told her and she was immediately interested in buying the building for her practice.”
The building at 120 Main is now Insight of the Wabash, Dr. McCormick’s optometrist practice.
More purchases came, including the Murphy Building in 2010 (formerly Murphy’s Tavern), the Tri-State building at 24 N. First St. (now occupied by Tri-State Printing and Embroidery) in 2014, a building at 405 Main Street in 2016, and most recently, the former Vanessa’s building at 211 and 213 Main. Shortly after that, First & Main Investments bought the Harrison Building at Fifth and Main.
“We would drive or walk down Main Street and say, ‘What can we do?’” Natalie said. “‘What has potential?’”
Large and small restoration jobs
Some of the structures need little to no work, others need quite a bit. But the couple is not afraid to tackle large projects, even if they seem impossible at first.
“We can see what they might be, what potential they have,” Natalie said.
The Harrison Building was sold soon after some tuck pointing was done and the Attic-Salt store moved into its Main Street retail space. The owners of Sure-Clean were looking for a project, and soon First & Main Investments sold it. A barber shop and a salon now occupy main floor space along Fifth Street, and the Burkharts say Sure-Clean plans to make the upper floors loft apartments.
The building at 405 Main St. was sold to Tim Goodwin. The Burkharts are holding on to the Murphy Building and its antique bar; it houses the insurance company’s conference and exercise rooms. Natalie Burkhart said they are holding onto the Tri-State Building, too.
After quite a bit of renovation to the former Vanessa’s property (it is actually two buildings), Jenna’s Bakehouse is now located at 213 Main, and Root’s Florist is at 211 Main. The Burkharts cleaned out and created a one-bedroom loft apartment upstairs at 211 Main.
“We do a lot of cleaning out of buildings,” Natalie Burkhart said. “There is usually a lot of junk left in them.”
But in taking off the drywall at what is now Jenna’s Bakehouse, Natalie found old-fashioned tin on the walls, and also on the ceiling. She painstakingly caulked the holes made in the tin from drywall nails.
The Burkhart mission isn’t to gobble up a lot of property for the sake of ownership or to make a huge profit. It’s a mission to help make downtown Vincennes a more vibrant and inviting place to be, whether it be for business or for pleasure.
“We sell for what we have in it,” Tony said. “We try to help our local economy by using our clients for work and it benefits everyone.”
“It’s a win-win situation,” Natalie said.
Lists of repairs and costs are made for every investment, and Natalie keeps track of it all. She’s the one calling the shots, making decisions as to what is viable, and most importantly, what is cost-effective.
The Burkharts’ efforts have led to increased property values, more business, more jobs, and have helped keep young people in Vincennes, with ways they can realize their dreams. Renovating downtown property has simply led to a better downtown.
“Living down here there is need for more entertainment and shops, and we’re seeing more variety of businesses coming downtown,” Natalie said. “It’s working out for everyone.”