Photography by Carol B. Stewart
Electrician. Entrepreneur. Innkeeper. Developer. Steve Kay, who grew up in Anderson, has deep roots in the Electric City. His grandmother was fondly known as “Momma Kay” around town, and his great-grandfather ran a streetcar in the early 1900s.
Kay started working at Hill Electric when he was 18 and ended up buying the company in 1991. Now he is transitioning that company to a younger generation while celebrating the five-year anniversary of another labor of love, The Bleckley Inn, a boutique hotel downtown. Not one to rest, Kay has also just embarked on his next venture, The Bleckley Station, a new 16,000-square-foot event venue currently under construction.
UBJ recently caught up with Kay to talk about his experiences, downtown Anderson, upcoming additions to The Bleckley and the city he calls home.
You’re selling your company Hill Electric. Why?
I bought the company in 1991, when I was about 45 years old, from Walter Hill who had started the company in 1954. I’m selling because I want to give the next generation the same opportunity I was given years ago. The transition is planned over several years, and I’m still involved as a stockholder and advisor, just not on a day-to-day basis. I’m selling to in-house employees. It’s a process, but it’s a formula that worked when I bought the company and gives them the same opportunity that I was given.
What was your first development project in Anderson?
It was the original building at the Bleckley Inn. We converted an old bank building that is now our private residence. We live on the third floor and it’s one of the five buildings that make up the Bleckley Inn. After that came the former Dixson’s ice cream property and then the building on the corner where J Peters restaurant is located.
Tell me about The Bleckley.
The concept really came about when the Budweiser Clydesdales were in town several years ago. We housed the horses in our carriage house and saw that the horses had a good place to stay the night, but their caretakers had to go out to the interstate to find a hotel. That’s when we decided to renovate warehouse space we had bought into a hotel.
We’ve outgrown this event space, and that’s why we’re doing the event center. During the week, we do a lot of corporate retreats. We have a neat, walkable downtown, and we want people to know that you don’t have to go to the coast to get away. We’re available, we pay attention to detail and there’s a story for every room.
How did you get on this path?
It started as us [Kay and wife, Lynn] being empty nesters. We were living in a subdivision, but my wife said she was tired of keeping up the big yard and wanted to move downtown. We approached John Pratt, who owned the original building we now live in, and convinced him to sell us the building. It took us a year just to clean the building out. There were no windows, and the pigeons owned it. The bones were good, but it had to be completely stripped down to the timbers and brick. It took a year to get to that point and then another year to build it out. That was the beginning.
How did you accumulate your properties?
It was a significant investment in purchasing the building that became our residence. I decided to buy the adjacent buildings that now comprise the hotel, because I didn’t want to put the investment in the building I renovated and not control what was around me. I didn’t know at the time what it was going to be; I just knew I needed to control it. Pretty soon I got tired of living next to a slumlord, which was me, and knew it was time to improve those buildings. It was obvious to me that downtown Anderson needed a downtown hotel. So I went from electrician to innkeeper.
It’s been five years since the Bleckley Inn opened. Is it successful in your opinion?
It’s never exactly what you want it to be, but the community has embraced us, and I can’t say enough about the pride the community has for the Bleckley. Even if they don’t stay the night with us, they bring out-of-town guests to the Bleckley to show them “look at what we’ve got.” There’s a lot of pride, and that’s kinda neat.
Did you always only consider Anderson to build when leaving the suburbs, or did you consider other cities in the Upstate?
No. I grew up here. My grandmother used to come to town every Saturday. We would park in front of Woolworths and I would come with her and sit. Everyone in town would come to visit and talk to Momma Kay. I’ve known this city as a child, and this is where you came. Another town never crossed my mind.
How has Anderson changed over the years, and what would you like to see going forward?
Here’s the answer that everyone says, including my mother: “We need more shops.” And we do. We need more than the restaurants. I think everyone would like to see more retail and a broader mix than we have. That’ll have to work itself out as people see the need. Downtown is a destination. That’s changed, and that’s a good thing. Everyone is trying to do his or her part, and it’s starting to happen.
What is your biggest challenge in developing properties in downtown Anderson?
It’s a challenge just to deal with the old buildings. In everything I’ve done, we’ve tried to maintain the old building and keep its character. It’s very worthwhile to keep the history, but it’s both a blessing and a difficulty downtown. There’s patina and color, but working around everything to keep that is a challenge sometimes.
It’s much easier to just demolish a building and start fresh, and sometimes you have to do that. The event center is like that. The existing building wasn’t salvageable, but we were able to keep some of the materials, and those will go into the new building.
The event center, Bleckley Station, is your next big project. Anything else out there that you’d like to tackle?
You can’t go to downtown Greenville and not see all of the tower cranes with apartments and condos under construction. There’s a need for that here in Anderson, and whether I do it or someone else does it, the trend is that people want to be downtown. I’ve got enough right now on my plate getting the event center completed, but if someone else doesn’t do it, there’s definitely a need for upscale condominiums in Anderson. I think there is an interest for folks to live downtown, but they don’t want to sacrifice anything. They want a garage, outdoor space and security. I think they’re meeting that need in Greenville, and I think there is a market here in Anderson for it.
You have a Tesla charging station at The Bleckley Inn. How did that happen?
We had a guest who lived in New Jersey whose son was attending college at Anderson University. They called and said they had a Tesla that they were thinking about driving down and wondered if we had a charging station. I said no, but I’d check into it. I mean, if there’s anyone in the Electric City that can take care of charging an electric car, it’s a guy who owns an electric company.
Turns out that part of Tesla’s strategy was to locate charging stations in boutique hotels because their customers tended to stay in places like ours, so it was a good fit. They contacted us and installed the station. Tesla supplied and provides the equipment as a convenience for their customers – we just provide the power.
It’s not every day, but sometimes you’ll see a Tesla parked in the back. Sometimes they stay with us and sometimes they just need a little shot as they’re passing through.
Have any other family members joined you in the business?
My son initially worked on some of the first construction projects and then struck out on his own. He’s an economic development guy involved in the Main Street program and now resides in Michigan, but he got his start working with me doing renovations. Lynn, my wife, does a lot of the design and takes care of quality control.
Is there one particular project that you are most proud of?
Well, it all goes together and it’s all ended up being the Bleckley. I believe over the past five years we’ve developed a brand. We’ve tried to do a good job, and I think people have recognized that quality that we’ve put into it. So everything has come together – all of the renovations we’ve done come under the umbrella of the Bleckley. So will the event center. I think we’ve built a reputation, and we work every day to maintain that quality and reputation.