Emporia is the type of community that constantly faces opportunities and threats. Individuals who go above and beyond the call often make the difference in the general direction of the region. Instead of focusing on business advice, design information, upcoming events, or our other general topics, this newsletter article will focus on a family that did something that many said wasn’t possible. They saved a building, grew a business, and are helping the community.
The Guillen family has worked tirelessly over the past four years to save a condemned building on the brink of demolition. In 2017, the 407 Commercial Street building was a topic of serious conversation at the City of Emporia. The back alley wall was crumbling, and the resulting structural issues were causing significant potential hazards for alley vehicular traffic and the pedestrian traffic that often frequented the area from local entertainment establishments. The building quickly cycled through two owners, and in 2017 the owner was in the process of handing the condemned building over to the City.
Some local officials were convinced that nothing could be done to save the structure, and it would have to be torn down. A mid-block building demolition isn’t a simple task. Town Royal (to the south) and Ban Lao (to the north) have shared walls with 407 Commercial Street that were never designed to be exterior exposed walls. Given the relative age of the buildings, you never know how adjacent buildings will react. There is a building (occupied by The Station) to the west of 407 Commercial, so a breezeway to a parking area isn’t really possible. A tear down meant the loss of property taxes, potential impacts to adjacent buildings, loss of potential jobs within a commercial structure, and the loss of an upper story that could have a variety of uses. But, the building needed a LOT of work.
When we say that the west wall of the building was crumbling, we mean it was on the brink of collapse. The interior of the building had been neglected for some time. An upper story stairwell was open to the elements, and front plate glass was literally held together with packing tape. It was bad.
In 2017 An owner of 407 Commercial Street walked into Little Place Tax Service (then on 6th Avenue) to talk through financial issues and speak about turning the building over to the City of Emporia (likely for demolition). Alma Guillen asked a few questions about the structure because she had started searching for a business home that she could own in the area of the 300 or 400 Block of Commercial Street. Little Place Tax Service provides tax assistance, book keeping and financial services that specialize in helping our local Latino population, and proximity to other financial services firms, local Latino businesses, and foot traffic made 407 Commercial Street attractive. However, the building came with a warning; could the structure be saved?
A four year odyssey ended this past Saturday with the opening of Little Place Tax Service, and the results of labor are simply stunning. It seems that the back wall that was causing building issues wasn’t the original back wall (it was one addition among many to the building), and Alma Guillen’s financial prowess was necessary to navigate financing needed to impact a proper restoration.
Buildings have appraised values, and rehabilitation projects can raise those values, but they still must produce a building that makes financial sense. The Guillen family worked with a local financial institution to secure some building financing, they worked with Emporia Main Street on an Incentives Without Walls loan (a Kansas Department of Commerce program through Kansas Main Street), and they worked with the Kansas State Historic Preservation Office to secure historic tax credits. The tax credit process is particularly arduous for individuals who didn’t grow up speaking English, and Emporia Main Street Board Member Sally Sanchez helped with some critical translation efforts to move the project along. Throughout the building process, the Guillen family faced obvious structural issues, skyrocketing materials costs, a pandemic induced construction pause, and a host of other issues.
People often talk about the need for intelligence, financing, solid concepts, and a good team within the realm of entrepreneurship and development. People often underestimate one of the most important traits of any entrepreneur: perseverance. The Guillen family persevered through a number of challenges, and now they have a first floor commercial building that is simply stunning. The restoration of floors, ceiling tiles, and the upgrades throughout the facility went far beyond simply saving a structure. The new offices and conference rooms will allow for community financial literacy outreach, and the experiences gained through the development process will aid other community members in accessing financial support.
Eventually an upper story rehabilitation will be pursued, but for now Alma and her family and friends have earned a well deserved pause to focus on their new business location. If you want to have a “wow” moment, and congratulate a new downtown business owner and developer, we encourage you to drop into 407 Commercial Street and say hello. Difficult things that move the community forward are worth doing, and what Alma Guillen and her family accomplished is worthy of high praise.