Tenants pleased with new owners’ investment in Florence Arts & Business Center

Last modified: Tuesday, July 08, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Since the Florence Arts and Business Center, a hulking building at 140 Pine St. that once served as a city elementary school, changed hands a year ago, its new owners have invested about $250,000 in the aging structure.

The work is far from done, but owners Robert and April Gougeon say they are committed to caring for the space. Tenants, in turn, say the work has mostly sweetened what is already a good deal.

Over the past year, the Gougeons have replaced the building’s heating, plumbing and roof.

The individual spaces for the eclectic group of tenants who have occupied the space over the last 20 years has largely stayed the same.

When it became clear last year that the city would be selling the former Florence Grammar School building to private owners, those tenants were plenty worried.

Joshua Braska, who hosts a Thursday-morning show for Valley Free Radio, which occupies a basement room in the center, said tenants were scared enough to consider trying to figure out how they might buy the building themselves.

“Everybody was really freaked out about it — they were really scared about what was going to happen,” said Braska. “There was a lot of talk about someone coming in and trying to turn it into condos and stuff like that.”

But that apprehension was eased, he said, when everybody met the new owners. The Gougeons are local business owners who have pledged to invest in the property, rather than trying to turn it into a cash cow. Previously, they bought and rehabilitated what is now Brick Mill Square in Florence center.

“They’re willing to do the stuff that it takes to make the building modern. Which is nice, it’s really nice to have that,” Braska said.

The Gougeons spent $321,000 to buy the old brick building on Pine Street near its intersection with Park. At the time of the sale, by the city’s estimate, the place needed $1.2 million in renovations, a lot more than the city could afford to worry about. That included updating the obsolete heating system, a new roof, new plumbing, new windows and countless small details in between.

Despite the long punch list, the Gougeons’ enthusiasm for the space is contagious. They walk through the building, pointing out improvements at every corner. Their proudest achievement so far is the new furnace. The new gas unit cut heating costs by almost half, from about $40,000 to about $20,000 annually. It’s a big investment, but Robert Gougeon said he believes its a matter of spending now to avoid problems down the road.

“I’m a firm believer in ‘you get what you pay for,’ ” he said.

The Gougeons have paid for some of the work out of their own pockets, with the rest coming from rent they collect. With so much to do, renovations are on the front burner.

“We had planned on 100 percent of the rents going back into it,” Gougeon said. “We just keep spending any and all money that comes in on renovations.”

This has led to increases in rent, but tenants say the hikes have been manageable and less than feared. Lillian Torres is the director of Casa Latina, a nonprofit in the building for over a decade. She said even though the agency pays $100 more in rent, it is still about half the cost of a smaller space closer to the city’s center. Torres said the agency pays $600 instead of $1,200, “and that was 12 years ago.”

Even with the recent improvements, problems persist. Robert Gougeon pulled out a cellphone to show a video he took of rainwater gushing up through a gap in the floor of the basement area like a reverse storm drain. He recorded that only a few weeks ago, and that was after he thought removing tree roots from the building’s drains had fixed the issue.

Other renovations are also in the cards.

Gougeon said a few inefficiencies remain in place from decades ago, such as the toilet and electrical systems. He said he expects renovations will continue for the next four to five years and will include improving accessibility in the space by adding an elevator.

Glenn R. Connly, vice president of the family owned Mass Commercial Cleaning service that has occupied rooms in the basement for over 20 years, said there’s always more to do, but the Gougeons have been honest and accommodating.

“They’re constantly communicating to us what they’re trying to do and problems that they’re having,” he said. “They’re great people and I knew once they won the bid to buy it that they would do a great job.”

Megan McDonough, operations director for Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity, has worked in the organization’s Florence offices through the community center’s transition. She, too, had fears about the work and the cost, but even with slightly higher rent, operating out of the Florence Community Center still means the agency can put more money into its work.

And despite the building’s quirks, McDonough said, it’s the best place they can be. “It’s an older building, it’s not a climate-controlled, everything-new building, but it’s a comfortable place for us to get our work done,” she said.

Meanwhile, Braska is even more optimistic, and hopes to see new neighbors soon.

“Everything is coming together,” he said. “I would say that in a couple of years the place will be full. Which will be great because that’s kind of what this building is meant to be. It wasn’t meant to be empty. It was meant to be a community space for people.”