Future of Bank Building looks bright

Damien Sherwood – COTTAGE GROVE SENTINEL – Aug 13, 2020

After 18 months of construction and renovation, the Bank Building has re-opened for business — and business is booming.

The man behind the project, local developer Len Blackstone, took on the building project in a bid to improve the city’s access to jobs and has introduced a unique space for office rentals as part of that mission.

“It’s provided a space for people to work,” he said. “But it also provides a space for small business that’s just getting going.”

As well as being gutted and remodeled for modern appeal, outside changes to the building have returned a nostalgic charm to the corner of Main and Sixth streets.

In point, the renovation of the building’s façade is meant to replicate its classic appearance from a century ago.

Built in 1904, the two-story building was originally the site of the Cottage Grove Bank, earning its namesake. When that institution failed and moved out in 1929, businesses began claiming space and a hodgepodge of changes contributed to the building falling out of recognition. Decades of patchwork modifications had stripped the building of much of its original aesthetic, causing a lack of architectural continuity between its ground floor businesses while leaving the second floor’s face to weather and crack due to inattention.

“It looks like three different buildings,” said Blackstone when he started the project in earnest last year.

Choosing the Bank Building was part of Blackstone’s strategy to tackle to Cottage Grove’s largest downtown opportunity cost.

“We started with the biggest, ugliest building downtown,” he said. “It was a diamond in the rough.”

At the time of purchase, the Bank Building had seven low-income apartments upstairs and was home to Juanita’s Latina Store, Jim Downing Realty and Christi’s Barber Shop downstairs.

After renovation, six middle-income apartments have been filled with tenants upstairs. Meanwhile, Juanita’s remained downstairs (though relocated in the building) and the rest of the space is occupied by financial advisor Edward Jones, new Italian restaurant Bartolotti’s and Blackstone’s own project, the Bank Building Offices.

Response to what the renovated building is offering has been energetic.

“Our apartments upstairs were rented, in some cases, months before they were done,” said Black-stone.

Bartolotti’s, too, has seen an unanticipated rush of patronage. Just hours after the restaurant’s inspection was completed last Monday, Blackstone recalled that people were lining up at the door.

Blackstone was able to tap into another apparent need in Cottage Grove with the introduction of his office spaces.

Private offices, personal cubicles and open workspaces are all available to be rented out to members while conference rooms, “Zoom Rooms” for private online meetings and hourly passes are rented out to the general public.

The unique setup is geared toward remote workers, small businesses, organizations and startups which need workspace but can’t justify the cost of renting a whole building.

“There’s really nothing that is like this exactly in Cottage Grove where you can rent an office, where you can rent a cubicle or you can rent an open space,” said Blackstone. “It’s opened up an opportunity that never existed in this town.”

Though finishing touches are still being done, of the 10 office spaces, eight have been claimed while one of four cubicles has already been rented out.

The office spaces are new not just to the building, but to the town.

The building’s renovation is the product of Blackstone’s own desire to leave a lasting impact on the city.

“This all started with a very simple question I asked myself, which is, ‘What can I do to help Cottage Grove?’ I didn’t realize at the time that that would be such a life-changing question,” he said.

The city’s Housing Needs Analysis reported in 2018 that Cottage Grove’s vacancy rate was less than 2 percent. Blackstone was on the committee which helped put the analysis together and he said, in terms of apartments, the vacancy rate is effectively zero.

Blackstone approached the problem using his background as a management consultant and brought in a team to do an analysis.

“I treated Cottage Grove like it was a client,” he said. “My goal: well-paying jobs. That’s what I was after.”

Blackstone pointed out that, in his consultant experience, solutions are typically found in obvious oversights rather than epiphanic realizations.

“I’ve often said, don’t expect the ‘Wow.’ Expect the ‘Duh,’” he said. In this case, “jobs are connected to business. Business is connected to buildings. And buildings are connected to land.”

Though he initially intended to create a nonprofit which would recruit companies to relocate to Cottage Grove, at the end of the day Blackstone realized he needed a better revenue model to accomplish the task of bringing lasting changing to the area.

That in mind, he got his real estate license and, after helping broker some local real estate deals, got to work on his own project with the Bank Building.

As the project nears completion, Blackstone feels he’s accomplished the goals he’s set out to do.

“I think we’ve played a small part of what needs to happen in Cottage Grove, which is to create an environment in which business can thrive and grow,” he said. “It provides space for business to happen.”

Blackstone added that he has a tremendous amount of gratitude for the ways the community has contributed to the project.

“The support that this project has had from this community is incredible,” he said.

In reflecting on the contributions, Blackstone noted that he saw convergence of a diversity of people in to get the project done as a symbolic of the potential for unity.

Despite community members having vastly different viewpoints, Blackstone was heartened to see them come together.

“It didn’t matter when it came to building this project and it doesn’t matter with regard to build-ing a community,” he said. “What we have in common is so much greater and so much more important than how we differ. Our differences — our diversity — is actually our strength.”

With the building on its feet and operational, Blackstone is now focusing on touching up the last few details to round out the project’s completion.

“But in one sense, it’s never done,” he mused.


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