By Bess Hundley

By the beginning of summer, the now-vacant space where Joyful Spirit Café operated for several years should be transformed into a European-style establishment.

Ugo Benincasa, who is developing the R. E. Lee Hotel property that housed the Joyful Spirit, said the new café will offer coffee, specialty drinks, sandwiches and gelato.

Benincasa described the operation as similar to a quick-service café you would see in a European airport — “a Starbucks plus sandwiches and gelato.”

After purchasing the property in August 2011, Benincasa said, he gave Joyful Spirit Café’s owner, Louise Ward, the option of staying without raising the rent. Despite his offer, Ward decided to close the café.

“I think she was ready to move on with her life,” said Benincasa. Ward could not be reached for comment.

Benincasa plans to restore the R. E. Lee building to its original use as an upscale hotel, and he hopes it will be open by the end of 2013.

The hotel will have 39 guest rooms, three apartments on the top floor, a restaurant, a gym, a conference room and shops on the main floor.

Benincasa is positive that the hotel will boost Lexington’s economy.

“We depend a lot on tourism,” he said. “The locals can only support so many businesses here.”

Many believe Benincasa’s project will attract more people downtown and enhance the community’s atmosphere.

“Once you have people living and staying downtown it will change the shape of downtown,” said Sammy Moore, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce serving Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County. “I would love to have 50 more people living downtown because it would change the ambience.”

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