STERLING – In business, time is money, but many entrepreneurs are realizing that historic preservation also unlocks value.
Business building projects are often done at a frenetic pace, and corners are cut to preserve the bottom line. But a movement is growing in the downtown based on the belief that making money and embracing history are not mutally exclusive notions.
Contractor Scott Hibbard has defied naysayers and brought several buildings considered to be lost causes back to life. In the past 3 years alone, he has increased the property values of 22 of his downtown units from $110,000 to nearly $1 million.
Hibbard, who often works with architect Al McCloud on his meticulous restoration projects, spent several years returning the Dr. Moses Royer home to its former splendor. McCloud now has an office in the Royer home.
“People don’t realize how important it can be to fix these distressed properties and bring them back onto the tax rolls,” he said.
“Officials seem to first look at increasing the tax base, when the primary focus should be improving the properties.”
Hibbard is now part of Sterling native John Brady’s ambitious restoration project on First Avenue.
Brady’s first business venture was Urban Outlet Inc. After spending some time at the Northland Mall, Brady brought the apparel shop back to the downtown, eventually buying the building at 311 First Ave.
Earlier this year, he bought the building next door, and Brady is maximizing the potential of the nearly 16,000 square feet of space he now has on three floors.
He and fiancée Jamie Shierry, a Prophetstown High School grad, are overseeing several business expansions simultaneously. Part of the lower-level warehouse space is being used to accommodate UOI’s growth.
“We needed more room for our merchandise because we are expanding our online presence for UOI,” Brady said. “There is an online warehousing and shipping department now.”
UOI now has a staff of 25, and its online business is growing at a brisk pace.
A new business, BB Children’s Boutique, will expand the apparel operations into what Brady believes is an underserved niche.
“A lot of customers asked us to carry kids clothing, and I had always thought about going in that direction,” Brady said. “There aren’t many places to go for kids clothes, and you see a lot of the same stuff everywhere.”
Brady hopes that BB’s, which is named after his 6-year-old daughter, Brylee Brady, will open in late July or early August.
Jason Fargher is Brady’s partner in JJM Printing, which focuses largely on printing for clothing and an array of promotional products. That business has been in the building since December 2013.
Insurance firm Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. will continue to rent the space next to BB’s. The door between those businesses will eventually lead to apartments. There will be three or four units that Hibbard is helping to restore.
“I would like to see all of First Avenue downtown developed as retail, and I think having residential here helps with that,” Brady said.
UOI offices are being set up above the store, after the upper level was gutted and restored. The clothing store even has its own photo studio, where shoots are done for the website.
The restoration of the UOI building started 3 years ago, and the classic charm is now being brought back to the rest of the space.
Many historical treasures have been uncovered throughout the process, and Brady plans to showcase the antiques upstairs against a backdrop of huge exposed brick archways and tin ceilings.
Brady has a collection of bottles that were found, circa 1920s, that he guesses were used for moonshine during the Prohibition. An old city parking meter is also now part of the decor.
Young Brylee sits at a computer in one of the offices, working on a sandwich. With the confidence of a 6-year-old who has a business bearing her name, she announces her future plans.
“I like to hang out here with my dad because I want to work here when I grow up,” she said.
Hibbard is leaving his mark on the exterior of the buildings.
“The old limestone header is being uncovered on the facade, and the exterior will be brought to its original look – period-specific with a modern twist,” Brady said.
A faded sign painted on the brick was exposed that reads “Cash for butter and eggs”, unveiling yet another part of the buildings’ history. Brady said the buildings date back to about 1880.
Brady is confident that momentum is building downtown.
“Riverfront development is picking up, and a lot of good things are in the works for the downtown,” Brady said. “Everything is tied together, and I think we are starting to see it bounce back.”
Sterling Main Street Executive Director Janna Groharing said Brady’s entrepreneurial spirit is generating excitement.
“I can’t wait to unveil the first half of this project,” Groharing said. “It has really added to the good energy we have going in the downtown right now.”
Groharing said the city is fortunate to have risk-takers like Brady, Hibbard and McCloud who are willing and able to take on the painstaking process of historical restoration.
“Restoring these historic buildings is a big part of what Main Street is all about,” Groharing said. “We are lucky to have people with the vision to invest in these projects.”