Business notepad

Downtown projects offer lower-cost condos

At first glance, neither the Interstate Motel (37 Hiawassee St.) nor the parking lot at 12 S. Lexington Ave. (between Patton Avenue and Aston Street) seems a likely spot for an innovative new condo project. One is an unassuming, ’60s-style motel perched right above Interstate 240; the other is just a stretch of concrete. But talk to two of the creative minds behind these projects and you start to see some exciting possibilities.

Real-estate developer Tony Cecil had retired to Mexico when good friend and fellow developer Stancil Kirkland suggested they “do one more development together before it’s all over with,” Cecil recalls.

They began scouting around for a project (mostly in South Carolina where Kirkland is based), but nothing really clicked until Cecil thought of Asheville. He often visits friends up here and “couldn’t help but realize the vitality of the downtown real estate,” he says.

After discovering that “most of the architecturally significant buildings had been picked over,” says Cecil, “I saw that old motel over there and said, ‘You know, that building could really be made to look nice.'”

He adds, “We also felt there was a real need for inner-city suites, smaller units … [and] that people didn’t want to have to spend three or four hundred thousand dollars on something.”

Before committing to this project, Cecil himself had looked for an inexpensive studio apartment where he could stay when he was in town.

“I thought I could find just a little tiny place for maybe $75,000 — but it didn’t exist,” he recalls. “That also pushed me towards doing this.”

After approaching the motel’s current owner and negotiating a purchase price, Cecil met local architect Robert Griffin through friends and solicited his help with the project.

“He’s done a tremendous job,” Cecil exclaims. “He said, ‘Tony, don’t worry — it’ll be pretty when we finish.'”

They chose to reuse the existing structure because “since we were doing inner-city suites, the configuration of putting two [former motel rooms] together lends itself well to that concept.”

The motel, erected in 1965, is also “a very solidly built building,” notes Cecil. “We had engineering studies done [and] pulled cores [from] the slabs. Everything came out well.”

Besides, adds Cecil, “I hate tearing things down … and just filling a landfill when it’s not necessary to do that.”

The facade, he notes, will be dramatically transformed, which will “totally change the character and the look of the building.”

As for the side facing I-240, “We spent a great deal of time thinking about that,” reveals Cecil. “We’re going to enclose the existing catwalk with … insulated windows. Going into the unit, there will also be insulated windows and solid-core doors, so the noise transmission should not be a problem whatsoever.”

The interior upgrade will be equally extensive, promises Cecil. “[Buyers] are going to be very pleased with what we’re doing inside.”

The finished structure will include 31 units ranging from 315 to 896 square feet. There will be six studio apartments, 23 one-bedroom apartments, and two two-bedroom apartments. Advance-sale prices range from $80,550 to $223,650; most units come with parking.

Cecil says they hope to break ground in late July or early August and have the first unit ready by early next year. Buyers have already reserved seven units, and the developers say they’ll continue to offer the advance-sale prices until they have 15 reservations in hand.

“The two smaller units sold first,” notes Cecil. “That tells you a lot about the market.”

Meanwhile, architect Peter Alberice — who’s developing the South Lexington project with fellow architects Robert Camille and Robert Todd through their company, Centrino LLC — reports a similar phenomenon. “The smaller ones have gone quick,” he says.

The seven-story, mixed-use structure is considered a “smart-growth” development, Alberice explains, because it’s being built on underutilized land within the downtown area.

“Building above or on underutilized property is really a good way to achieve the goal of smart growth, because it’s bringing a lot of capital and density into one area and [makes] more efficient use of existing utilities [and] existing transportation networks. Bus lines, streets, roads … they’re already here. There’s very little clearing and grading that needs to be done.”

One notable feature of the building will be a 6,000-square-foot sod roof — the first in downtown Asheville. Popular in Europe, sod roofs are slowly catching on in this country, says Alberice. Both Chicago’s City Hall and the Gap headquarters (in San Bruno, Calif.) have incorporated sod roofs, he points out.

Among the many benefits they offer, notes Alberice, are: reducing storm-water runoff, providing good insulation, absorbing sunlight (cutting down on heat buildup — a common occurrence in downtown areas), and protecting the roof membrane.

“When [the membrane] is left exposed to the sun, it usually has between a 15- and 20-year life span,” he reports. “The Europeans have found that if you … put sod on top, it’s expected to last 40 years.”

The units will “be a little smaller than the average condo in Asheville,” Alberice explains. “There are only two larger units in the project, because we know there will be a market … for the smaller units. That’s why we sized them the way they are.”

Another unusual feature of the project is that the units are being sold as unfinished shells. Each shell will include basic mechanical, electrical and plumbing infrastructure, plus the four exterior walls (including windows and doors). Buyers will have the choice of hiring Centrino to finish their apartments or doing the work themselves.

This way, says Alberice, “the buyer has more control and input on what the interior design is. They can spend as much or as little upfit above the sales price as they want.”

Some buyers, he notes, “are going to do a very minimal upfit. They’ll put in a small kitchen, a bath and some storage, finish the concrete floor with a stain, and then that’s what they’ll have. And then some other people … have more elaborate plans as far as materials and lofts and things like that.”

The finished project will feature 26 condos ranging in price from $79,500 (for a 588-square-foot shell) all the way up to $1,030,000 (for the 4,402-square-foot penthouse shell). Most units will be between 1,000 and 1,500 square feet. The building will also feature retail and office space on the lower floors, plus 49 parking spaces (allocated for sale to buyers).

Thirteen units have been reserved so far, and Alberice hopes to begin construction toward the end of the year.

For more information about the 37 Hiawassee St. project, call Amy Edwards at Tessier Associates (254-9842). To learn more about the 12 S. Lexington Ave. project, call Camille-Alberice Architects (251-5550) or visit their Web site (camille-alberice.com).

— Lisa Watters

Biotech incubator lands first tenant

“Because we’re losing manufacturing jobs (which is a trend everywhere),” notes Ray Bailey, president of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, “when we can replace some of those with other good-paying jobs, then that’s a positive.”

Bailey is remarking on the announcement earlier this month that Phenix Research Products, a California-based supplier to the biotechnology research market, has chosen Asheville as the site for its new corporate headquarters and East Coast distribution center.

The company will set up shop at the Biotechnology Incubation and Training Center and expects to employ nearly 45 people within two years. The Biotech Center is one of two facilities established last year on A-B Tech’s Enka campus, using buildings and land donated by BASF (the other one is a small-business incubator).

The decision to target biotechnology was a collective one, says Bailey. “A group of people got together, including folks from UNCA, Western Carolina University, Mission St. Joe’s Hospital [and] some other folks who have a general interest in economic development. We were looking at some ways we could … bring good-paying jobs to the area. That’s where biotechnology came into play.”

Next, explains Bailey, “We aligned ourselves with the North Carolina Biotechnology Center at Research Triangle Park. They are assisting us and they have a person who is located [on our campus] to help us try to find other businesses, other industries that might want to come to Buncombe County.”

The Phenix recruitment effort, coordinated by the Buncombe County Economic Development Commission, also included the state Department of Commerce.

“This is a really big deal for Asheville and all of Western North Carolina,” notes Vice Chairman David Young of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners (Young also chairs the Economic Development Commission). “Phenix Research Products is the anchor tenant we’ve been looking for to kick-start the entire Western North Carolina biotechnology effort. Their presence here will only aid in getting other biotech companies to locate in our area.”

Phenix, reports Bailey, will occupy space in the center for a couple of years “until they get their feet on the ground, and then they’ll be moving into commercial space.”

Looking into the future, he says: “My hope is to see both [centers] full … with small businesses and biotech companies so that we can create jobs for our community. We’d like to have 25 different small businesses or companies in there at one time.”

Hot on the heels of the Phenix announcement, the Economic Development Commission had another biotech-related announcement to make.

Kendro Laboratory Products — an international supplier to the biotechnology, pharmaceutical, clinical, diagnostic and blood-processing sectors — plans to expand its Weaverville manufacturing facility over the next eight months, creating about 20 new jobs at the Weaverville plant (which already employs roughly 450 people). Kendro also plans to site its new world headquarters in Asheville (creating roughly 90 office-and-professional positions).

— Lisa Watters

EPICS helps unemployed professionals

It started back in March of 1999. That’s when the N.C. Employment Security Commission’s central office in Raleigh urged local ESC offices throughout the state — especially those with full-time employment counselors on staff — to create support-and-networking groups for out-of-work professionals. At that time, the focus was on top-level and middle managers who’d been laid off and were having a hard time finding a new job.

More than four years later, Empowering Professionals In Career Search — the Asheville group formed in response to that suggestion — is still going strong. EPICS has also broadened its scope to include other professionals, such as “manufacturing engineers, attorneys, sales representatives, professors, social therapists, psychologists [and] nonprofit-organization directors,” explains Mary Raine Moore, an employment counselor at the Asheville ESC.

The group tries to lessen the inevitable struggles associated with losing one’s job by offering a place where people in the same situation can meet and share their experiences, while taking advantage of resources and networking opportunities that can help them in their search for work.

EPICS also offers programs on a range of topics related to finding employment, such as: Coping with the difficult emotions stirred up by job loss; Using networking and informational/referral interviews to find the “hidden” job market; Building confidence in job interviews; Creating unique resumes and cover letters; Information about the local labor market; How to do a self-assessment; Financial-management tips during lean times; Self-employment and business start-up; and Leadership fundamentals.

The presenters include Moore, group members, and community leaders with expertise in a particular topic of interest to the group.

Because EPICS members are in transition, the group is very flexible, says Moore. “Topics … are decided upon according to the group’s needs at the time,” she explains.

Individual testimonies, both oral and written, demonstrate members finding “a rebuilding and strengthening of self-esteem and confidence after periods of discouragement and depression,” Moore reports.

The group, she notes, also “serves … as a social outlet where new friendships are [made], as well as a reason to get up in the morning and somewhere to go to help encourage [members] and renew their impetus in their job search.”

Employers, says Moore, can also benefit from EPICS, because they have “at their fingertips a pool of top-rated professionals who are determined to remain in Asheville and the surrounding area and who are ready to go to work immediately — professionals who are eager to offer their best and who are well aware of the abilities and transferable skills they have to offer to add to the employer’s bottom line.”

Due to space limitations, EPICS is open only to Buncombe County residents. Members are typically professionals with at least a four-year college degree and a history of work experience. Previous salaries range from $30,000 to $75,000 or more. Some members may be considering a career change, and many are actively involved in community affairs.

For more information, call Mary Raine Moore at 251-6200. Employers can also learn more about the professionals in EPICS by subscribing to The Existing Industry News, a free e-newsletter produced by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Department. To subscribe, e-mail Sharon Willen, director of existing industry services, at swillen@ashevillechamber.org.

— Lisa Watters

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