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Using an Old Building

Making Your Building an Attraction

Of course you have heard the old adage of, "In retailing, the three most important concerns are location, location and location." But what happens to this concern when you begin to "consider" the possibility of having the opportunity of locating your store in an old building - whether it originally was the corner drug store, jewelry store, a factory or even a flour mill?

Think about this as you are making the decision of the day that you open your new store, or reopen your current store in its' new location. Will you be looking at your business in a strip shopping center, a mall, or other traditional building? Or will that new location be something that has had at least one previous life?

Do you see your business in that new and modern facility? Or are you envisioning a building that has as much personality, history, and uniqueness as many of the products that you are selling?

Going through the exercise of just these few questions will help you to decide what you really do want with regard to your building. If you can envision old oak floors, tin stamped ceilings, and a history that is as rich as the town you are located in, then you are probably the type of person that would consider having their business in an old building, complete with all its' unique aspects. You are also the person that when you go shopping spends as much time looking at the building as you do looking at the merchandise.

Likewise, if you look at that old building as a structure that nobody else wants; a facility that needs more work than you could possibly do, and with the nightmare of so many unforeseen problems just waiting to happen, then you are probably going to take the new facility option. You may be the person who is saying, "I am selling merchandise, not the building."

While Norm Abram likes talking and working in his television show, "This Old House", we have found several retailers who have taken, "This Old Building" and made it into the home for their business.

For those of you who are in the process of making a decision like the one we just discussed, or have ever looked in a shop located in an old building and said, "Having something like this would be nice", we share the thoughts and experiences of these retailers.

Why locate in an old building?

Norma Delano of The Country House in Salisbury, Md. says it from a personal perspective as she states, "Preservation of an old building is a rewarding thing in itself. There is nothing like an old building to create the charm and ambiance, especially for a country store".

Cindy and Ronnie Brezler of Lehman's Mill of Flagerstown, Md. adds that, "a major benefit of utilizing an old building is the atmosphere that it creates. Depending on your location within your community, people often feel it is like a getaway to the country or going back in time when they visit your store".

Again, on the personal pride element, Meredith Miller of Fair Oaks Pharmacy in South Pasadena, California states, "Remodeling an old building is like going on a treasure hunt. It is exciting to find the old bones of the building and work through the many kinks to ultimately come up with a new and improved version of history".

And as Brezler adds, "Having a big old building provides you with lots of room to display and for storage".

What should you do before hand?

The answer to this question would vary from location to location as our retailers are in different communities and are remodeling various types of buildings.

Sherry Fish of Waverly General Mercantile in Waverly, Ohio says you should first research your property. She goes on to say it is important to know what it was used for originally and what uses it has had over its many years.

Gloria Hildebrand of The Country Store of Seven Springs in Powder Springs, Ga. identifies another overall concern: check the zoning, fire and building codes. As an example, she mentions fire codes that require doors on a business to open outward but having an old building where the doors open inward.

Several of our panelists mentioned other areas to be reviewed before you purchase the building: parking availability, storm water management, electrical wiring, plumbing, building structure, termite inspection, local ordinances, handicap requirements, the possibility of asbestos being present, and historical requirements if your building is on the historical registry or would be a candidate to be on the registry.

As Fish said, "Be sure to contact your local officials. Let them in on all that you plan to do for it is better to have them on your side rather than opposing what you may have done without their knowledge."

And now that you own the building

Once you have made the decision to purchase the structure, there is again another round of suggestions from our table of panelists. Several mentioned the need to contact everyone you can that has lived in the area for all of their lives. You may find old pictures of your building that can help you in maintaining accuracy during the restoration process.

Another mentioned that you should begin immediately taking pictures because customers love to see the transformation that took place.

Miller said they engaged the local community in their remodeling. As they were restoring the soda fountain that was in their building, they were able to capitalize on their customers as many of them had been customers of the original fountain years ago.

The historic preservation society in both your area and state is a group that was mentioned several times. One retailer mentioned that it may be necessary to have approval from this group with regard to permits.

It was also mentioned that the historical society can help you to maintain the accuracy of your restoration as well as assist you in obtaining potential grant money.

Financial benefits of an old building

While we mentioned the sentimental reasons for restoring an old building, we also heard of several financial advantages. Delano was told having the wooden floors that were in the old building they bought installed in a new store, would be as expensive as the old building itself. The floors became an integral ingredient in providing the appropriate look for the products they sell.

Brezler found in working on a building that was listed on the National Historical Registry, they were able to receive tax benefits for the repair and restoration work they did.

What to watch out for

When we asked each of our panelists what would you advise someone to lookout for if they were to decide to restore an old building, the suggestions came pouring out.

We repeatedly heard words of caution with regard to budget. "Be ready to spend more money than you are planning", said Miller.

"Never ask your financial institution for the actual amount of the contractor's bid. They are always 25% to 50% over their original estimate", was Fish's suggestion.

Even though you have had the building inspected as we mentioned earlier, there will be many surprises and hidden costs.

Maintenance of the building will be more expensive than a modern building of the same size is the experience of another panelist. "They just seem like they are harder to keep clean", reported Brezler.

While several of our panelists did their own restoration work, those who utilized contractors said to never hire a contractor without verifying that they are licensed and are bonded. And as this is a restoration, do not assume that all work will be done according to the contract. Fish made a point to say that checking each day with the contractor is essential to making sure you and them are both on the same wavelength.

Similar advice also applies to the selection of the architect. Ask for references, and try to find professionals who are experienced in working with older buildings and restorations.

Check everything thoroughly. One of our panelists reports being told by the previous owner of the building that it had been rewired. Looking at the electrical panel, they could see that it had been recently installed. After having purchased the building and started the restoration process, they found that while the panel was new, the wiring inside the walls was original.

Several of the concerns can have a way of "ganging up" on each other. For example, while the plumbing and restroom facilities may appear adequate, if you have to change a building to comply with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), you may find yourself not only having to enlarge a restroom, but add another which can in turn surpass the capacity of both the supply and drainage of the plumbing. And as Delano said, "Plumbing in an old building can be a real mess!"

"Do not let anyone talk you into some modern looking paint, light fixtures, and other aspects of modernization. You can put in heat, air, and water without making it look modern", reports Hildebrand.

Final words of encouragement and wisdom

Several of our panelists told of times when they were ready to give it up. Miller suggests you remember that you are working within the confines of an old design. Some renovations are just not possible. You cannot always move walls and foundations.

In some situations, like Miller's with their tin ceiling, you can find the company that built the original ceiling and match the original construction.

Miller added that it can get out of control if you want to micro-manage every last detail. She told how she searched all over her area for just the right soda fountain marble dispensers to complete the look of the era. "I drove myself and everyone else crazy; they just didn't exist anymore." Then, health department codes restricted her in that she could not use the marble dispensers in current food service capacity. Miller did let go of the idea; all was fine and no one ever knew the difference.

Work with the confines of the building, not against it. And as Delano said," hang in there and do the job right".

"The pros outweigh the cons by far", says Hildebrand. "The feeling you get and the look you have when you walk in an old building makes your work worthwhile."

The final decision remains with you. Do make sure you are making that first decision as to what you want the customer to see. Is it a restored building that just happens to have a gift shop in it? Or is it first your gift shop that is located in a building that adds to the ambiance of shopping there.

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This article is copyrighted by Tom Shay and Profits Plus Solutions, who can be reached at: PO Box 1577, St. Petersburg, Fl. 33731. Phone 727-464-2182. It may be printed for an individual to read, but not duplicated or distributed without expressed written consent of the copyright owner.

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