Consultant: Jasper primed to have success with lofts downtown

By ED HOWELL
Posted 3/19/17

A consultant advised Jasper leaders Tuesday night that the city already has elements in place for downtown loft apartments, with officials saying they can serve all ages and incomes.

Ron Drake of Siloam Springs, Ark., a former developer and …

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Consultant: Jasper primed to have success with lofts downtown

Posted

A consultant advised Jasper leaders Tuesday night that the city already has elements in place for downtown loft apartments, with officials saying they can serve all ages and incomes.

Ron Drake of Siloam Springs, Ark., a former developer and former Main Street president, also suggested the backs of some downtown buildings be renovated, as they give a blighted feel to visitors. However, overall he was positive about Jasper’s potential.

“You’ve primed the pump (in Jasper) by having these really cool experiences — great restaurants, great retail,” Drake said. “Every single loft you build here in downtown, if you do it right, and you don’t charge too much and you make them cool, you are going to rent. They are going to rent, and it will create vibrancy in your downtown.”

Drake (rondrakeconsulting.com) spoke to about 50 invited community leaders at Musgrove Country Club in Jasper as part of a two-day emphasis by the Jasper Main Street program to look into loft apartments in existing downtown buildings. Drake made tours of the upper floors of Los Reyes Grill, Bernard’s Store for Men, the Ivey Building and Twisted Barley, as well as held meetings with businessmen and city leaders.

The event coincided with a quarterly training meeting for Main Street Alabama that was held in Jasper. Mary Helmer, the president and state coordinator of Main Street Alabama, also attended the meetings. Also participating were Brent McCarver, chairman of Jasper Main Street’s Economic Vitality Committee, and Mike Putman, executive director of Jasper Main Street.

A market analysis undertaken by Jasper Main Street in 2016 indicated about half of 1,000 people surveyed said they would consider living in downtown Jasper, with most showing an interest in loft-style housing there.

McCarver said the tours of the buildings led to informative dialogue with Drake, who left many ideas for the local leaders.

“When he walked into a room, he said things that everybody, even the people who owned the building, said, ‘Oh, my gosh, that would be great,’” McCarver said.

In his presentation, Drake opened with compliments about Jasper, pointing out items such as cool shops, the murals from artist Missy Miles and the Walker County Arts Alliance’s public art project of mule statues.

“Jasper has done a really good job with the retail spaces that are downtown. I’ve been amazed. They’re beautiful. They get it,” he said, adding that he has been in great restaurants and seen a great shopping atmosphere while in the city. “I was amazed at all the opportunities, all the great boutiques you already have here.” 

With second-story empty areas available at those buildings, opportunities are available in those areas, he said, noting as an example that the third floor of the former Burton Building, now home to Los Reyes Grill on the first floor, has great potential.

“It has tremendous opportunity for some incredible lofts,” he said. “The views up there could be amazing.” 

In talking about possibilities for the community for lofts, Drake said it was “beyond possible” for Jasper. “It is just a matter of getting started. You guys are on such a great path to go forward, that it is very possible.” 

Drake repeatedly went back to his development experiences in Siloam Springs (www.siloamsprings.com), a city of about 15,000 people that sits near the Oklahoma border, between Fayetteville, Ark., and Tulsa, Okla. The town is 45 minutes from Bentonville, Ark., where Walmart has headquarters, and 45 minutes from Fayetteville, which is also home to the University of Arkansas. He said that made it similar to Jasper, in that it was close to a metro area but also retained its small-town character.

However, Siloam Springs has developed so that people from the large cities now come there to hang out, he said, adding that the town took off after it was designated a Main Street community. He showed some examples of trendy, creative businesses developed in old business space.

Drake noted how his first redevelopment loft projects were overdeveloped and too costly, losing money on it at first.

“We made them too nice,” he said, noting others sometimes still think people want to stay in large luxury lofts that people will pay $1,000 for. However, while that may be true in Birmingham, it is not likely true for a smaller city.

He pointed out a mixed development at an old hotel that came later with businesses downstairs. Upstairs, the space was divided up into four units, keeping the wood floors, exposing the brick and exposing the ductwork. “It has a little bit more of a cool factor than we did before,” he said. “And we toured buildings (in Jasper) that could be like this.” 

Essentially, “we let the age of the building tell the story,” Drake said, adding that while it looks cool, he did not spend much money on it. “It’s not about spending money. It’s about making things cool.” 

He pointed out the back of buildings seen in Jasper one block to the south of Viking Drive, also known as 19th Street.

“You guys need to work on some of the back of your buildings,” he said, noting visitors are sometimes brought into the city by way of 20th Street. “Backs of building can be OK. They can have a completely different urban feel, almost a big city feel, as opposed to the front of the building, which is a charming, quaint side of the historic buildings.” 

He said people coming through the Regions drive-through or parking in the area each day are being sent a signal that the city is not that revitalized. He said they see the backs of buildings that are “a little bit blighted. It’s not terrible, but it is a little bit.” He said it was an opportunity that is “low-hanging fruit” that would not cost much to renovate.

Drake pointed to another site he dealt with back home involving a back loading dock area. It was rehabilitated to a big outdoor space with services and entertainment area. “This is one of the most vibrant places in Siloam Springs,” he said.

He also pointed out Okmulgee, Okla., an old oil town whose population was cut in half from the 1950s to 12,000, but is about 45 minutes from Tulsa, pointing to a similarity to Jasper.

The buildings had character because they were built during the heyday of the town more than a century ago. He noted that city has also improved over 24 months, approaching $20 million in investment downtown and 200 people moving downtown and about 20 buildings being renovated.

“The whole community is turning around,” he said.

He talked about many of the people living in the lofts being regular people, both younger and older, some with families and some single. He pointed out a widower in her 50s helping her neighbors. “It is a community of people who live in these buildings. It is not just students,” he said.

“Our country as a whole is moving back to downtown. More people live within two miles of the city center now than they have in 50 or 60 years,” he said.

Drake also said many are downsizing into smaller housing, trading it for travel and simplicity. “People are spending more money in the United States on experience than they are on retail,” he said. “I feel like your retail is an experience. Retail is even shifting to where you are not just going to buy stuff, because you could do that on Amazon. You are going to a shop or a restaurant for an experience.” 

The best way to bring life to downtown Jasper is to have people living downtown, he said. He quoted a “conservative” 4-year-old statistic that says a couple who pays an average of $750 a month in rent downtown spends about $9,000 a year. Having 50 lofts downtown in Jasper could lead to $450,000 being spent there, he said, adding that doesn’t include friends and relatives who visit them.

Before renovating the empty spaces, Drake said the first priority should be to leverage the existing potential, including the front, back and top of buildings — even the basements.

“Make sure it is for all income levels,” he said. “It is good to have some $400, $500 or $600 lofts,” and then some $950 or $1,500 lofts, too. He said it is good to consider a small studio loft for $500, such as for a student right out of school or an entrepreneur working on web-based duties. Down the hall can be higher-rent apartments for young professionals.

Moreover, to entice companies requires good quality of life, and corporate leaders could rent out spaces for their employees coming in for six months to a year, he said.

He urged the leaders to concentrate on pedestrian friendly activities there, and give an environment where people can make connections to others, “where everybody knows your name, like ‘Cheers.’”

Drake also said investment will come from one’s own town as outsiders are not doing the work. However, he said it is better if the investment comes from local people.

As for dealing with asbestos, that would usually be involved with remodels in the 1950s and 1960s involving the glue in the flooring, he said. Its removal is not a major cost concern as it once was, as one project he knew of it only cost $2,600 to have it removed.

“Lead-based paint is more of an issue, but it is still on the grand scheme of things, it is less than half of 1 percent of the cost,” he said.

Drake and Helmer noted that the age groups of people living in lofts is spread around, with Drake calling it surprising. Helmer feels the trend maybe older. “It is a lifestyle choice,” she said, noting it can involve empty nesters or older people with disposable income.

Drake said it is likely low in numbers of peoples in their 20s, and then even among decades older than that.

Officials at the meeting said they felt good about the chances the Alabama Legislature will pass new historic tax credits for renovating older buildings to replaces ones allowed to expire. McCarver said Jasper Main Street could also offer resources for helping to get tax credits. He also noted Main Street is also accepting applications for some renovations, specifically for the front of buildings.

Helmer said lofts can be done in Jasper, noting that the downstairs business elements of buildings are decided in many cases.

She and Drake said it is also workable to do renovations in buildings so that businesses downstairs are not adversely affected, such as by running open ducting. “There are ways to do it. It is not like traditional homes where everything is hidden behind the walls. Loft apartments are more open and easy to get to with those kind of things,” Helmer said.

Drake said it makes it more challenging. “It is not impossible. The flip side is you have great retail down below,” he said, noting the trade-off may be paying a little more to have a plumber to come in over the weekend, for example. “It is a good problem to have,” he said.