OLEAN — Stephanie Timblin was excited by the prospects for downtown.
As executive director of Rural Revitalization Corp., based on North Main Street, when a $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant from the state is announced, it’s hard not to get excited.
“We knew very early on we wanted to be a part of it,” Timblin said.
And with a number of projects under the agency’s belt, she felt it would be a good opportunity for RRC.
“As a rural preservation corporation, we are also familiar with (Empire State Development), with the state agencies through other projects … We’re familiar with the process, we’re familiar with how it’s been rolled out in other communities,” she said. “We started taking a look at the map — what’s open, what’s for sale?”
What followed was a partnership with one of the city’s longest-tenured landlords to rejuvenate one of the city’s architectural treasures.
She and others quickly zeroed in on 124 N. Union St. — home of the local Masonic Temple for well over a century.
The five-story brick structure looks virtually unchanged since its construction, with the Masons serving as good custodians for the historic structure, Timblin said.
“Clearly, the Masonic Temple is an absolutely beautiful, historic building and an anchor to downtown,” she said.
Through a friend who is a local Freemason, Timblin got in contact with Nick DeBergalis, president of the Masonic Temple Association and other group leaders, who were interested in partnering with RRC.
DeBergalis said the lodge has long toyed with giving up the structure due to market concerns.
“Even back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, they were talking about selling the building,” he said. “There’s a surplus of retail space in Olean, so filling out the smaller office spaces has been a challenge.”
“We met in Nick’s kitchen … and kind of had a brainstorming session — what can we do, what makes sense?” Timblin said.
As submitted to the DRI committee, plans include renovations to the first floor for retail space; converting office spaces on the second and third floors into market-rate apartments — a combined 12 one-bedroom units and four two-bedroom units between the floors; and renovations to the Masonic Temple hall on the fourth and fifth floors.
The apartments will be “smart” apartments, Timblin said, with Internet-connected security, heating and other systems. She hopes to get the expertise of first-floor tenant Boundless Connections to assist in the work.
All told, the groups seek to conduct a $3 million renovation to the building, while asking the local planning committee in charge of vetting projects to help secure $1.5 million.
The building currently has more than half a dozen tenants, ranging from Boundless Connections and McCarthy’s Emporium on the ground floor to professional offices and service sector businesses on the second and third floors. The second floor is also home of the temporary lodge hall in the colder months.
Timblin and DeBergalis hope to reconfigure the first floor space to find room for the upper floor tenants that would be relocated due to the apartment plan.
Under the agreement drafted between the organizations, the Masonic Temple will retain ownership, while RRC will serve as property manager. A revenue-sharing agreement is also being ironed out.
The funds to the Masonic Temple will be used for temple space upgrades and furthering the organization’s services to the public, DeBergalis said.
While structurally sound, the building is in need of updating, DeBergalis said, especially when it comes to heating.
“We had a catastrophic failure of the boilers about eight years ago,” DeBergalis said. Since then, the lodge has been refitting heating equipment as necessary. The upper floors — which have been the lodge’s home since construction in 1892 — are not yet heated, with space heaters used during rare winter events. The lodge relocates to vacant space on the second floor during cold weather.
“Naturally, the tenants come first,” he said, adding some vacant space on the lower floors also have not been refit.
(Editor’s note: This is the third in a series on projects being presented to the local planning committee for the $10 million state Downtown Revitalization Initiative awarded to Olean in September.)
By BOB CLARK, Olean Times Herald