Byfield: Arts co-op, or business incubator?
Rather than let the town-owned buildings depreciate and fall apart, Parks and Recreation Director Walter Burke developed the former Byfield and Reynolds schools in to business incubators.
Several years ago, when Mr. Burke was looking for additional space to host the recreation departments programs, he reached out to Community Development Director Diane Williamson, about utilizing those buildings on High Street. His request was met with jubilation.
"Once a building is vacated, it goes down the tubes," he said. "And it was costing the town lots of money to keep them going. When I found out that we were going to be possibly getting Quinta Gamelin, I decided to get the programs going so when they transferred into the community center, they already had a following."
Space in the old armory on Thames Street, which was being used as the community center, was tight.
"Once (the programs) were all in there and set up, the space was really remarkable," he said.
Mr. Burke reached out to other organizations, inviting them to take up space in the Reynold's building, including the English as a Second Language program and Sagamore, a medical sales company.
It wasn't until 2011 when the idea to expand the "incubator" into the Byfield building surfaced.
Virginia Delgado, a street photographer and ESL teacher, was the first official tenant. She went to Mr. Burke about additional space for use as a photography studio. At the time, only the ITAM Vets were using Byfield for meeting space.
"I fell in love with it immediately," she said.
Her rent is $500, including utilities. It's a fraction of what it would cost to rent commercial space in downtown Bristol.
"It's a giveaway," said Paula Martel, broker/manager of Century 21 Rondeau Associates in Bristol. "It's unfair to the businesses that are out there who are trying to lease up space, and be in competition with a town that's grossly under market."
Ms. Martel has been dealing in commercial and residential property for over 30 years. She said that generally, office space in excess of 2,000 square-feet rents for about $12 to $15 a square-foot. Anything smaller, and the price per square foot gets higher, from $15 to $24.
"If they're massaging and assisting businesses, that's a different animal," she said. "If they're being a mother hen, and then putting (the businesses) out into the community, where we would benefit from that concept, then great. But I don't think that's what's happening."
Dawn Oliveira, owner of Oliveira Textiles, moved her fabric design company from 217 High St. (next to Reynolds), into Byfield for the additional space it offered.
"Sixteen-foot ceilings, and huge windows. It's really like a loft," she said. "You can't touch something like this in New York City. People would kill to get in this space."
Ms. Oliveira's rent is also $500, utilities included. She shares her space with another arts-based designer, Lisa Cadan, who reupholsters chairs.
"This is an excellent location, and I've been really able to build my business," Ms. Oliveira said.
Ms. Oliveira had worked in New York City's garnet district for 20 years before relocating to Bristol. Her husband died of cancer and rather than raise her twin boys alone, she moved to be near family.
Initially, she also transferred her city business to Bristol. But when many of her clientele went out of business along the Rt. 24 corridor, she rethought her approach.
"I had always wanted to design and manufacture my own fabric," she said, rather than assist in decorating a space. "So my sister and I said, let's do this, and we did."
While her sister is no longer involved, Ms. Oliveira said business has been sustainable. There are months when income can be tight, and others when there's an overflow.
"It all depends on whether I get orders or not," she said.
Meanwhile, Sagamore has grown by leaps and bounds. Owner Charles Tate started off in a small room in Reynolds and now rents out four rooms in Byfield. One room serves as leisure room for employees, and two others are conference rooms.
"I think (the town) could be wiser," said Ms. Martel. "They could be more frugal with the towns services and do a better job to reduce our taxes, than give away space to keep a building."
As a business incubator, the goal would be to get businesses grown enough so that they can be sustained outside of Byfield, Mr. Burke said.
"The hope would be that the business owner would find a spot and move out independently, or they would get big enough where we would tell them that they seriously need to start looking at another place to go."
As of last week, all the rooms in Byfield have been rented out, including a small room to the Community Strings Project, which pays $100 a month, utilities included.
"We're really looking to make this into an arts co-op," said Mr. Burke. "We'd really like to draw in more artists, where they could share ideas and collaborate, and form an arts co-op. The town would really benefit from that."