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Franklin Building full with tenants for first time

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WATERTOWN — Spaces for tenants in the Franklin Building are full for the first time since the building was restored about three years ago.

The final vacancy was claimed by The Whimsical Pig Custom Services, a picture-framing business that opened March 3 after moving from the ground floor of J.B. Wise Place off Public Square. The business, which had been at its former location for about 10 years, leased the interior space from the Watertown Local Development Corp., or Watertown Trust, which serves as the landlord. The agency manages the space for Neighbors of Watertown, which restored the building and manages its 16 upper-floor apartments.

The Franklin Building’s 10 commercial tenants are a testament to the recent downtown growth that has generated interest among small businesses, said Donald W. Rutherford, CEO of the Watertown Trust.

“I think the activity that’s going on downtown has spurred interest in the building,” Mr. Rutherford said. “You read about the renovation of the Woolworth Building, Empsall Plaza and projects Brian Murray is leading at the Lincoln and Solar buildings. All of those things have centered the attention on downtown, and we’ve also had a more aggressive marketing approach for the building that has given us the ability to fill it.”

Last summer, the agency hired Pyramid Brokerage Co. to market the building because it had a challenging time filling multiple vacancies, Mr. Rutherford said. Under that agreement, the broker takes a 6 percent cut from the first year of tenants’ leases; the agency has offset that cost by increasing lease amounts for some spaces from about $9 to $10 per square foot.

The Watertown Trust has emerged this year from a period in which finding stable tenants was a challenge, as businesses opened and closed quite frequently.

During its first three years managing the space, the agency lost $8,000 to $12,000 a year because of vacant spaces for which it was responsible for paying utilities, Mr. Rutherford said. It has a “master lease” agreement with the Neighbors of Watertown in which it pays a set amount each year as the landlord. This year, the agency will owe $47,560.

“We were losing a little bit every year, but the board gave me the flexibility to hire a broker to fill spaces,” Mr. Rutherford said. “Right now, we would break even or make a little bit.”

Blue Cat Cycles moved into a storefront on the building’s Franklin Street side in November; in December, a jewelry store opened next to the bicycle shop. Then in March, the law firm Legal Docs by Me opened on the same side.

The building is expected to become an even more popular destination for visitors this fall, as the North Country Arts Council plans to build an 80-seat art-house theater this summer in vacant space leased behind its storefront on Public Square, Mr. Rutherford said. Council organizers hope to raise enough money for that project by the end of June. That would allow the theater, called the “Screen on the Square,” to be built in July and August, and then open in September.

“They have given us the timeline to open by September 1,” Mr. Rutherford said. “They hope to raise the majority of funds they will need by June 30. And if they need financing, the agency could give them a small loan.”

The independent theater’s launch is expected to be a boon for The Whimsical Pig by bringing more attention to the building, co-owner Danielle M. Carman said. Ms. Carman co-owns the business with Shannon R. Allen, Kira L. Cody and Avery L. Carman.

“We’re super-excited about that,” Ms. Carman said Tuesday. “It’s exciting to have more culture in Watertown, and it’s nice to see downtown come alive again.”

The Whimsical Pig recently became corporate sponsor of the North Country Arts Council after moving into the Franklin Building, Ms. Carman said. She said the council helps get the word out to its members about the business.

“It lets local artists know that they can come here to get their prints framed,” she said.

Other tenants in the Franklin Building are Revolution Real Estate, Ray’s Barbershop, Self-Direct Inc., NNY Autism Foundation and Comet Music Studio.

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