Keevan White sees past the mushrooms growing from the floorboards in the cavernous buildings near downtown Akron.
White sees the future headquarters for his marketing and advertising firm, WhiteSpace Creative — and perhaps down the road, residential lofts and a restaurant in an adjoining building.
White and his new White Hot Properties LLC just purchased the 55,000-square-foot buildings at 243 Furnace St., on the opposite end of the street from Northside Lofts, for $135,000. White said the three acres of land alone would probably be worth his purchase price.
The set of buildings date to 1893 for the original structure and 1935 for the warehouse building. Its previous uses included the Akron Soap Co., Pioneer Cereal Co. and Pockrandt Paint Co. until the mid-1950s.
In recent years, the building has been used for cold storage, but when competitors and colleagues 427 Design bought the property about two years ago at an auction, some of the electric had been stripped from the building.
“It was a little bit of a gamble, but everyone I take through it says ‘She’s in great shape for the shape she’s in,’?” said White, 46.
White is embarking on a costly and big undertaking — roughly $1.5 million to $2 million to renovate two of the four buildings for occupancy by the ad firm, rehab the grounds, including parking, demolish an addition (with the mushrooms) and protect the larger warehouse building from the weather.
White wants to keep the character of the building, with wide-open spaces, wood posts and beams. But the inside will be a fully modernized work space.
White plans on modular work spaces that can be wheeled around or rearranged.
“You move to where the work is, not the work comes to you,” White said.
And because his firm — which counts Smith Dairy, the city of Akron, Parker Hannifin, American Greetings and the Akron Zoo as clients — is a high-tech company, the whole campus will be set up for technology, he said.
White knew that his growing firm of 45 employees, now in a historic building on North High Street, would need a new home. He began looking at locations downtown to rent, before settling on buying. White had been following 427’s blog about their purchase of the building, but ultimately, the small firm decided the renovations were too costly.
427 President Brad Hain said he’s happy someone else will be able to renovate it.
“We wanted to see the building be something nice. If somebody else is going to do the same thing, we’re happy for that,” Hain said.
Last spring, White took his staffers on a tour. He had the Downtown Trolley take them from their current location to the new place.
As workers walked through the dark building with light streaming in from windows here and there, some couldn’t contain their excitement. Others walked gingerly.
“I love it! It’s a gem in the rough. I like that it’s big and open,” project manager Sarah Cross said. “It’s change and I love change. It’s refreshing and new, even though there’s a ton of work.”
White said it’s a good thing he works with people who can see his vision and have confidence that he’ll find a way to pull it off.
Some people have questioned his decision, or the choice of neighborhood.
“I think the area is kind of turning. I think our involvement will help that,” he said.
White enjoys a challenge and getting his hands dirty — he renovated his Canton home by himself, but said he will be bringing in people to renovate the building. His wife, upon her first tour, told him she wasn’t coming back until it was done.
“I think she was a little overwhelmed by the task,” he said.
Brad Beckert, city of Akron economic development engineering manager, said the city is pleased whenever anyone is taking initiative to renovate a historic structure.
“It’s really going to be phenomenal once he’s done with that,” Beckert said.
White is trying to use the historic background to get some assistance. He is seeking status on the National Register of Historic Places, which could help with applying for tax credits, as well as possible tax incentives from the city.
He is also seeking approval from the city to allow him to someday create commercial office space, a restaurant or residential lofts in the warehouse.
“As a company, we’re about storytelling. To have a building that has a story that fits us is a big draw,” he said.
When White found out that the Furnace building had at one time been the Pockrandt Paint Co., that convinced him that it was right.
One of Pockrandt’s stores eventually became Ruppel’s Art and Paint Supply on Carroll Street, where White has been buying art supplies since college.
“It brought the building full circle to me. That made me realize that’s where I should be,” White said.
As for the mushrooms, those will be the first to go, said White. That building will be demolished to make way for the company’s main entrance.
Asked whether he’s scared about the project, White said “moderately.”
“It’s definitely an ambitious undertaking,” he said. “I have a vision of where it needs to go and I’ll have the patience to get it there.”
White hopes to move the offices into the building by next summer, with work beginning this fall.
Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blinfisher and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty.