ENNIS (CBS 11 NEWS) – On May 14, 2013, Ennis Mayor Russell Thomas went to sleep with his phone on silent. He woke up around 12:30 a.m. on May 15, to a knock on his door.

“A police officer knocked on my door and said, ‘Mr. Mayor, you need to come downtown. We’ve been hit by a tornado,’” Thomas recalled.

Five century-old buildings in the historic downtown of Ennis were damaged by the storm. One person suffered minor injuries.

The Historic District of downtown Ennis covers seven city blocks and includes more than 80 buildings from the city’s early days of railroad activity.

While trains still pass through several times a day, many of the storefronts stand empty. Grand buildings with ornate ironwork and historic plaques – date stamped back to the early 1900s – have ‘for rent or lease’ signs resting in the window.

Mayor Thomas says many of the owners are out of town, absentee landlords.  The owners of five buildings damaged in the tornado weren’t interested in renovation, Thomas said.

“The insurance proceeds would not pay the cost of restoring a historic building,” he explained.

In the months after the storm, applications for demolition permits began coming in to City Hall.

Many Ennis residents didn’t want to see anything but footprints left behind, so the city figured out a way to save them.

Mayor Thomas says the council turned to an untapped economic development fund, and proposed a 30-percent return on capital investments for people willing to buy the damaged buildings, and restore the historic character.

The proposal gained enough interest, the mayor says, that they expanded it: to 22-percent cash back for anyone willing to renovate a historic building within the downtown area.

Ennis cardiologist Dr. Meg Sullivan grew up loving historic architecture.  She and her husband are now part-investors in 10 historic downtown buildings, including the old Southern Auto Building.

“It wasn’t beyond hope. I had grown up seeing buildings much worse than this, in much worse condition, get a new life,” said Dr. Sullivan.She envisions the space as a possible theater.

Attorney Ross Massengill and George Wartsbaugh are investing in the old Emporium building, which was also damaged.

“We’re restoring it back as close as possible to the original,” said Wartsbaugh, owner of Barbeque Wood Flavors.

They’re turning the three-story structure into law office space, meeting space, and a conference center.

“This was a department store growing up. I remember coming in here, getting my blue jeans and everything. It was a part of Ennis,” said Massengill.

According to Mayor Thomas, nearly 30 historic buildings have switched ownership in the last six months.

The sound of construction now competes with train noise in downtown.

People talk of opening a brewery, new boutiques, and even loft living space.

“I’ve been here since 1986 and I’ve never seen energy as high as it is right now,” said Thomas.

Because no one in Ennis was seriously hurt in last year’s tornado, Mayor Thomas considers it heaven-sent.

Dr. Sullivan agrees.“The interest wasn’t here before the tornado hit.”

(©2014 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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