KJ | Downtown gains another anchor in renovated Chernowsky’s building

Source: Kennebec Journal, February 19, 2012, KEITH EDWARDS 

AUGUSTA — Richard Parkhurst stood over Water Street on the newly built glass-and-concrete balcony of one of his luxury loft-style apartments carved out of the almost 150-year-old former Chernowsky’s clothing store building.

He is convinced downtown Augusta is ready for high-end living.

“People will want to live here — there’s no doubt in my mind,” he said. “I’m really excited about what’s going to happen downtown. It’s ready; it’s primed. There is great opportunity on this street.”

Parkhurst is no casual observer of the downtown’s revival. He’s got $600,000 riding on it.

He’s banking on tenants spending between $1,000 and $1,200 a month to rent the two-bedroom high-ceiling apartments.

They feature exposed beams and ducts, tin ceilings, trim custom-made from wood re-purposed from the same building, new bamboo and hardwood floors, skylights, brand new appliances in custom kitchens, new energy efficient windows and other materials, gas fireplaces mounted on river rocks. There are also custom touches crafted by subcontractor and artist Patrick Guerette, of Waterville, such as an old safe from the former Chernowsky’s he plans on converting into a wine rack.

Guerette said Parkhurst gave him freedom to be creative.

“We’re trying to do something new, but keep that old historic character,” Guerette said. “We’re saving the past — they don’t make stuff like this anymore.”

Parkhurst already has tenants for the two street-level retail spaces below the apartments. One, Sonny’s Museum and Mineral Shop, has been in operation since late last year.

The other, a proposed upscale sports bar and lounge, Charlamagne’s, is expected to open by early summer, according to Tina Charest, an Augusta native and owner of the planned business.

“I wanted to own my own business in the service industry,” said Charest, who is treasurer of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, a nonprofit organization advocating for downtown revitalization. “I am a person who loves people, who enjoys keeping very busy, who believes life is worth living, who has a passion for music and who truly wants to see Augusta’s downtown flourish again.”

Charlamagne’s would feature light music some nights and sports on TV on other nights, she said. It’s intended as a place of “socialization in a classy, comfortable place.”

Charest said she’s working out financing with the bank and the first stages of construction could begin this month.

‘Identity of the city’

Parkhurst, an owner of Oakes and Parkhurst Glass in Manchester, isn’t the only Parkhurst investing in downtown Augusta. His son Tobias bought and renovated two buildings a short distance away on Water Street.

Tobias’ buildings are both full, including five upper-floor apartments, a ground-level tax preparation business, and the Downtown Diner, which draws a large following of patrons each day.

“I had no problem renting them out,” Tobias Parkhurst said of his apartment units. “There are a lot of perceived barriers to development here that just aren’t true. I don’t think you could find a more cooperative city than Augusta.”

The city approved a tax break to help spur Richard Parkhurst’s project. The tax increment financing deal is expected to return about $8,000 per year in property taxes back to Parkhurst for five years, while remaining amounts are retained by the city for economic development.

In 2010, the city also had propane tanks installed on Commercial Street using tax increment financing. The tanks run behind and adjacent to the one-way section of Water Street to provide fuel in a partnership with Augusta Fuel Company, heating apartment buildings and fueling cooking in restaurants.

Without the propane tanks, the Downtown Diner never would have been able to come downtown, Tobias Parkhurst said.

State Sen. Roger Katz, who was Augusta’s mayor when the propane tanks were installed, said he’s excited to see the revitalization of the downtown take hold.

“I’ve never seen so many people excited about downtown, even in a down economy,” Katz said. “It has been an influx of new people, committed to downtown. There is an excitement and energy and we’re moving in the right direction.”

About two years ago, Katz called the Parkhursts and a small group of other local developers into his law firms’ downtown offices when the former Chernowsky’s building was being foreclosed upon. He pointed across and down the street at the building, and asked what the developers were going to do about it.

“There is no such thing as a great community without a great downtown,” Katz said. “It’s the heart and soul of the community — the identity of the city.”

Turning the corner

Richard Parkhurst took the project on, buying the adjacent properties at 226 and 228 Water St. for $100,000.

The United Way of Kennebec Valley is leasing about 3,000 square feet of space for its offices on the second floor.

Parkhurst anticipates two apartments will be ready by March, two others by April, and three other apartments will also be developed. Parkhurst said he’s had daily calls from people, wanting to see the space.

The upper floors of the building had primarily been used for storage. Parkhurst said they removed 14 40-yard Dumpsters worth of stuff from the building during renovations.

Guerette said sales receipts were found from Chernowsky’s dating to the 1930s.

As of next month, Guerette said he and a five-person crew will have been working on the project for about one year.

The building was constructed in 1866, a year after a major fire ravaged the downtown. It was built by the Deering and Holoway Company in the Italiante style, with the concrete facade added in the late 1930s or early 1940s. It was Chernowsky’s Store For Women from 1910 until it closed in 1994.

The Parkhursts see the likely tenants for the high-end apartments as young professionals, people into the arts or, alternatively, retiring Baby Boomers looking to live in a more urban setting without the hassles of mowing lawns. The apartments are within walking distance of downtown workplaces, shops and restaurants.

The biggest obstacle in developing the downtown projects has been prevailing negative attitude toward the downtown, the Parkhursts said.

“I think we’ve turned the corner; it’s a very different attitude toward downtown than it was four years ago,” Tobias Parkhurst said. “Augusta is lacking in medium- and high-end housing.”

With MaineGeneral Medical Center’s construction of a new regional hospital in north Augusta and the proximity of the State House complex, Tobias Parkhurst thinks an opportunity will be missed if the downtown isn’t developed.

“We need to keep a good cross-section of housing here, not just low-income housing,” he said.

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