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Downtown renaissance continues with Moneywise's pending purchase of Woolworth's building

The iconic red-striped sign is not going anywhere. Neither is the '50s-era luncheonette with its black-and-white checkerboard floor, homemade milkshakes and James Dean-friendly lunch counter.

But changes are afoot at the historic Woolworth’s building at 19th and K streets — and the development could mean good things for Bakersfield's downtown.

The three-story, 44,000-square-foot mid-century modern built in 1949 is currently in escrow, and if everything goes the way it should, the Moneywise Guys, CEO Sherod Waite and co-owner David Anderson, will become the newest owners of one of downtown Bakersfield's most cherished structures.

"Our intention is to preserve the historic nature of the building," Waite told The Californian. "We're keeping the luncheonette and leaving the outside pretty much as it is."

The business partners, who declined to disclose the purchase price, think of the old Woolworth's as, first and foremost, a community asset. They're going to occupy it and take care of it, but in essence, it belongs to current and future generations.

"It's not going to be the Moneywise building," Anderson said. "It's the Woolworth's building."

Mark Sheffield, who owns the building with his wife, Linda, wasn't ready on Tuesday to talk freely about the pending transaction, not until the couple are able to inform all of the vendors who sell goods at the Five and Dime Antique Mall & Luncheonette, the current business that has occupied the building since the the Sheffields bought it in the mid-1990s.

Escrow isn't expected to close until November, so the antique mall should be in operation for a while. But Sheffield's hopes are high that the move by Moneywise from southwest Bakersfield to downtown will continue what many believe is a renaissance of sorts for the central business district.

Indeed, Bitwise has set its footprint in downtown Bakersfield. Now Moneywise.

"There are other things in the works I can't talk about yet," Sheffield said. "But I think they're going to be pretty good."

Bakersfield City Councilman Andrae Gonzales, whose ward includes the downtown business and arts district, said he thinks Moneywise's planned move downtown is just one more indicator of something that's been percolating for a long time.

"Lots of people want to be in downtown Bakersfield," Gonzales said. "And I'm very proud of a local, successful business making such a significant investment in the heart of our city. It really shows their love and care for our community.

"I'm working with at least a dozen new or soon-to-be owners of downtown property at the moment," he added. "They're all excited about their individual projects, and about what's happening collectively throughout the downtown area."

Bitwise Industries is opening its tech hub downtown. Now that Bakersfield-based Moneywise is planning to move from Stockdale to downtown as well, it raises questions about a reverse exodus, businesses moving back to the city core in a reversal of the retail flight from America's downtowns in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

"Yes, there are lots of examples across the country," said Moneywise's CEO Waite. It hard to find a city where it's not happening, he said.

Austin and Anna Smith, co-owners of Sage Equities, a local commercial real estate firm with a particular focus on downtown's unique urban environment, said Moneywise's decision to move "signals a shift in perceptions toward downtown serving as a place to live and work on a daily basis and not just as a food and entertainment destination.

"As more companies move their offices downtown, it will help support the economic future of our entire region by pouring resources and support into the area which boasts the largest concentration of local businesses," the couple said in an email.

"Cities are judged by their downtowns," they said. "The healthier this area becomes, the better the overall image of Bakersfield."

For Anderson and Waite, the excitement is palpable. They've known each other since they served together on a mission to Mexico when they were 19. They're now 46, and they've spent their adult lives building their business.

This next step is huge for them.

"I think what's important about this deal, and David does, too, is we're occupying this," Waite said.

"In the investment world, they want their money back in four to seven years," he said. "That's not our jam. This is going to be our home. This is going to be where our company and our business lives."

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.