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Developers betting on downtown Salem

By JONATHAN BACH
Of the Statesman Journal

SALEM — Emma Heinz figures she walks by the building near the southeast corner of Liberty and Chemeketa streets in downtown Salem at least five days a week.

“(It's) kind of an eyesore right now,” said Heinz, 20, a barista at the nearby Allann Brothers Cafe.

Look through the front window of the building and you'll see a crumbling interior and an empty showroom floor. But you'll also see a color-coded architectural plan propped on an easel showing the new life developers plan to breathe into the run-down space.

New owners are betting big — $3 million big — on Salem with plans to renovate the space at 260 Liberty Street NE. It's just one in a spate of downtown development projects. The floor plan inside calls for four tenant spaces ranging from 2,200 square feet to 11,200 square feet and divided between three floors.

FT, LLC scooped up about half a block of downtown Salem — including what was once a Wells Fargo branch along with parking spaces behind the buildings — for $1.77 million at the end of August.

Pacific Office Automation, a Beaverton-based office supplier, signaled earlier this month it wants to move in and get cozy. The company president, Douglas Pitassi, is part of FT, LLC.

Plans show owners will make 29,800 square feet of tenant space available in 260 Liberty next to the old Wells Fargo. The office supply company could occupy 7,800 square feet on the ground floor. Other tenants are expected to lease the rest of the building. Estimated costs for the remodel are $1.3 million, according to a city press release.

Around the same time as the deal for 260 Liberty was closing, a group including developer Chuck Sides purchased the nearby Statesman Journal building for $2.6 million, with plans to turn its south end into office space.

And less than a mile away near the Willamette River, Park Front LLC is redeveloping part of the old Boise Cascade lot for an estimated $8.9 million. The city recently granted those developers, including former city councilor TJ Sullivan, $749,000 in urban renewal funds.

“Overall, the development is being driven by housing,” said Alex Rhoten, principal broker of Coldwell Banker Commercial Mountain West Real Estate. He threw a caution flag, though, noting the pace is still about half of what is normal.

Apartment complexes such as South Block may make downtown an appealing place for new commercial tenants looking to draw residents for business.

A 2015 study from ECONorthwest forecasted the state capital's population will bloom to almost 270,000 by 2035, signaling a need for more housing in coming years.

“It's affordable compared to some of the other opportunities in larger towns,” said Salem Mayor-elect Chuck Bennett about why the city's downtown has become attractive to developers. “We're the second largest city in Oregon and our prices are still affordable whether it's in housing, commercial or industrial land.”

Low commercial interest rates along with high rental rates and people finally putting properties up for sale are also a factor. Sheri Wahrgren, Salem's downtown revitalization manager, said she would never have thought some of the buildings that have sold would.

“Clearly it's the market,” she said.

Next year may continue to see new ownership, she said, with “new blood, new ideas.”

Last week, Salem rose substantially on a list from the Santa Monica, Calif., based Milken Institute that ranks the best-performing cities of the year.

The institute judges cities on economic indicators such as job and wage growth. Oregon's capital moved up 27 places to number 45 of 200, beating out more populous cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles.

Heinz, the barista whose cafe will soon have new neighbors, has seen the renderings in 260 Liberty. “It's gonna be a nice addition to downtown,” she said.

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Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com

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