Business incubator to open downtown

-A A +A

N.C. developer buying old First Citizens Bank building on Gay Street

By Hal Millard

Downtown Lancaster’s path to revival is on the cusp of taking yet another step.
A family-owned company based in Indian Trail, N.C., is in the final stages of purchasing the long-vacant First Citizens Bank building at 115 W. Gay St. – ideally situated at the intersection of Catawba Street directly across from the historic Springs House.
The new owner plans to renovate and redevelop the site as a business incubator for entrepreneurs and small, start-up businesses in need of office or work space. The building also will provide a venue for meetings, parties and other events.
The deal is expected to close in the next couple of weeks.
News of the planned redevelopment comes on the heels of several other high-profile downtown real-estate deals announced in  the past two months.
They include the recent sales of the old Kimbrell’s Furniture building on Main Street and the historic Ellen Dean Hotel property on White Street – both bought by private investor groups with as-yet undisclosed plans for redevelopment.
In June, a German investor announced plans to turn the historic Springs Block on Main Street into apartments and retail stores.
Couple all that with the steady trickling of small retail businesses that have opened downtown in the past couple of years – The Craft Stand, Pelican’s Snoballs, Chicken King and 521 BBQ, among others – and there’s evidence that a long-awaited downtown rebirth might finally be at hand.
Though the newest deal is not planned as a residential or retail project, any new development downtown is great for existing businesses and the city core’s future, said Don and Brandy Geraghty, owners of the popular Craft Stand beer pub, located just steps away at the corner of Gay and Main streets.
“We’re excited to see any building down here trade hands and some kind of new potential move in,” said Brandy Geraghty. “We’re very excited to have new neighbors and to see what comes of it. Anything that opens up in downtown, even office space, will open up (foot) traffic and be good for all of us.”
“It’s a good sign that folks are looking at properties that have been idle,” said Lancaster Mayor Alston DeVenny. “It’s just more good news.”
Future vision
Mark Aslaksen, like the Geraghtys and many of downtown’s new investors and entrepreneurs, sees the area much as they do: a neglected jewel just waiting for its luster to be restored.
Aslaksen is president of Landlogics, the land development and construction firm buying the Gay Street bank property under a limited-liability company he and his family are currently forming.
“I’ve been looking at Lancaster for a while for investment properties,” Aslaksen said.
Having done a lot of work in Charlotte with his company, he said he senses that the explosive growth to the north along U.S. 521 can’t help but come south to downtown Lancaster in the near future.
“I did a walking tour of Lancaster about a month ago,” he said. “There’s a lot of vacancy [downtown], but I think the trend is that there’s more interest in downtown. I think this is the time where people will start wanting to move into the downtown area and have their businesses located there.
“Lancaster is different, to me than, say Monroe, which is near to me,” he added. “Monroe is kind of that same old downtown with nice architecture. The growth there, the potential, however, is not the same as what I see for Lancaster.
“I think Lancaster is the next city to have big growth, a resurgence,” Aslaksen said.
He declined to divulge the selling price of the property until all due diligence is complete, though the 2017 estimated market value of the 7,100-square-foot property was $200,800, according to the county assessor.
Conceptual plans for the property are not yet final, but Aslaksen said he anticipates offering office space for start-ups, with short-term leases available.
That way, he said, small-business people can have viable offices without the great expense, overhead and long-term contractual obligation associated with traditional office leases.
The property currently has nine office spaces in the basement, in addition to five offices on the ground floor, with space to possibly add one more, he said.
Aslaksen envisions turning the bank’s 1,700-square-foot lobby area into a communal co-working space, a concept popular with tele-workers and others without need for a permanent office and typically charged on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.
The communal space also would be made available to those leasing office space, he added, “so those people can get out and interact with others. I think that’s important.”
In addition, that same open space will also be rented out for meetings and events, ranging from business seminars to parties and wedding receptions, he said.
Aslaksen said he also intends to construct a patio and partially enclose the outside area that served as the bank’s drive-thru teller lanes. That will add space and also offer workers and party guests a breath of fresh air.
Upfits and renovations both inside and out must be taken care of, but the building is in good enough shape that Aslaksen said he hoped to begin leasing some office spaces as soon as September.
Completed in 1967, the building was the former home of Security Federal Savings and Loan and subsequently First Citizens. Aslaksen said that amid the planned renovations, the intent will be to honor and maintain the building’s original style, best described as a commercial or institutional version of “mid-century modern” architecture.
However, leaseholders will be allowed to decorate their offices any way they want, he said.
This is Aslaksen’s first foray as a private developer. But, if his hunch is correct, he said the project could be great for downtown.
“We’ll see if it works,” he said. “But, I’m very excited about this.”