Rob Hawkins
Rob Hawkins recently purchased the building at the northwest corner of 2nd Street and Park Ave. He plans to spend $150,000 renovating the property and open a barbecue restaurant.

Rob Hawkins is an unassuming man. But don’t let his calm demeanor fool you: He’s a man on a mission to rid downtown Sanford of blight.

Hawkins is the owner of Insurance Risk Services, a 35-year-old company that provides field underwriting support for the insurance industry. More importantly, he is the owner of three buildings in the 100 block of Park Avenue.

His most recent purchase is the long under-utilized gas station/bus terminal building at the northwest corner of 2nd Street and Park Avenue.

In the coming months Hawkins plans to transform the corner from a concrete wasteland into a showcase restaurant.

“The concept we’re working on is a barbecue restaurant,” says Hawkins, who is still in negotiations with a restauranteur to operate the facility. “Nothing is final at this point, but that’s the direction we’re moving.”

Hawkins is working with architects and city officials to develop an overall plan for the property. Details have not been finalized, but his broad vision begins with removing much of the concrete surface surrounding the building and restoring the Art Deco features of the building.

Initial plans call for the building to house a kitchen, restrooms and seating for 30 to 40 guests. Hawkins would like to add another 20 to 30 seats outside.

“I’m hoping to put up some of Mike Padgett’s shade structures (“Mike Padgett is one shady guy”) because there is absolutely no relief from the sun on this property,” he says.

Working under an aggressive timetable, Hawkins hopes to finish the renovations and open a restaurant in four months.

“That may not be possible, but we’re going to work hard to make it happen,” he says

Hawkins also owns the building at 118 S. Park Ave., which abuts the 1,227-square-foot building. His long-range vision calls for opening an entrance between the two buildings to provide additional indoor seating.

“I’ve got a tenant in there currently, but that may be something we consider down the road,” Hawkins says.

Often referred to as the Greyhound bus terminal building, records from the Sanford Museum indicate the property served as a gas station from 1929 to 1947. Seminole County Property Appraiser’s records show the current structure was built in 1938 and expanded in 1965.

The building eventually served as a bus terminal, but in recent years the property has been home to a plethora of fleeting businesses — dance studio, cigar shop, gym — each seeming to compete for the title of shortest tenure.

Part of the problem is the roof leaks.

“In its current state, it’s just not going to be leased,” says Hawkins, who expects to spend about $150,000 improving the property.

This is not Hawkins’ first commercial renovation project. In 2011 he purchased the two-story, 5,670-square-foot building at 108 S. Park Ave. Several hundred thousand dollars of renovations later, the building has earned rave reviews from historians and preservationists.

So why take on another rebuilding project?

“I’m tired of looking at eye-sores like this in our jewel of a town,” says Hawkins. “We just need to do a better job with what we’ve got.”

He’s bullish on downtown, though he says more residential properties within a 2- to 3-block walking distance would help bolster business. And he would like other building owners in the heart of Sanford to share his optimism.

“Those guys have to be part of the solution,” Hawkins says. “Sometimes it’s frustrating, but I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

— By Dan Ping

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