Steve Duprey’s new Smile Building is another key step in adding vitality to downtown Concord
Developer Steve Duprey is bullish on downtown Concord. He has lived in the state capital for more than three decades.”I admit to some bias,” said Duprey. “It’s a great community with the best attributes of a city, but small enough to have the best attributes of a small town.”In August, Duprey watched as the first clients move into his latest major project, the Smile Building on South Main Street across from the Capitol Center for the Arts. Once the site of the former Sanel Block and a 19th-century manufacturing company, the $15 million commercial real estate project represents the promise of further downtown revitalization in Concord – and the complex challenges that come in the current economic climate to plan and finish a major project.The five-story Smile Building – so named because Duprey, who is known for his sense of humor, figured the name would resonate far more in the future than putting his own name on the building – is now home to administrative offices of Concord Hospital, the new home for the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen and the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce. The complex also has been LEED-certified for maximum energy efficiency.”This is bringing in more than 300 workers who weren’t here before,” Duprey said of the new economic and creative dynamic in the South Main Street area. “I’m a big believer that if you don’t have a robust, viable and livable downtown, you have lost the heart of the community.”The impact of the project has proven substantial.Concord Hospital was able to centralize administrative functions that had been scattered in various locations, and Susie Lowe-Stockwell, executive director of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, said the entire experience has revitalized her organization.For years, the League had searched for a new home after outgrowing its North Main Street location, but it looked as though it would have to move from Concord where it has been located since 1931.Through a community-wide effort to keep the organization in Concord, Lowe-Stockwell said the organization was prompted to apply for Community Development Finance Authority tax credits to sell. The $900,000 netted from the sales of tax credits to the businesses jump-started the League’s capital campaign and gave it the financial resources to move into the Smile Building as it sold its old property.”It was a great private-public partnership and community effort that has helped us and developed some of the blight in the downtown area,” Lowe-Stockwell said.With more space for classes, offices and a museum containing items that were once packed away in the old location, the League has been given new visibility in the community.Being across the street from the Capitol Center, combined with the opening of 45 affordable housing units behind the Smile Building – half of which have been set aside for working artists – is leading to a diverse economic community in a formerly afflicted area.”We are already experiencing a raised awareness by many of the people who are coming in here,” Lowe-Stockwell said.”This is critical for our downtown,” said Carlos Baia, deputy city manager of Concord, about the Smile Building. “When I arrived in 2007, we considered the South Main Street corridor one of the most neglected. We thought it could be at least 10 years or more before it could reach equivalency to North Main Street.”Baia cited the desire to “creatively work together” and maximize public-private cooperation as one of the reasons why there has been a mini boom of $76 million in development projects in Concord this year. He said when complex projects such as the Smile Building work, it can “set off a chain reaction of one project at a time.”In particular, Baia said, the one-piece-at-a-time developments in Concord are setting the city up for major economic growth when the economy finally recovers.’It can be done’Duprey has seen his fair share of real estate ups and down. He and his partners spent years digging out of a financial hole after the residential real estate market crashed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.He also admits to learning many lessons over the years, and one of those is that developing a new building on spec in this climate in a non-starter.”I don’t do projects nearly as fast as I used to, and that’s OK,” he said. “Markets can change in a heartbeat, so don’t get involved in projects that have a huge exposure. In the commercial market, we don’t start a project until we have enough lease commitments to pay the debt.”Duprey said he had the old Sanel Block in his sights for years and made almost annual purchase requests to the owners. Officials at the Capitol Center had also hoped he would develop the area, which had become unsightly. After the owners finally agreed a few years ago, he began the scramble to make the financial pieces of the puzzle fit.”I don’t think people realize how much work this took and how much homework he (Duprey) had to do,” Baia said. “It was a challenge putting the project together during this time. It’s not what a lot of people were doing.”Duprey lined up tenants, found bankers willing to work with him, secured federal New Markets Tax Credits and utilized city approval of a state statute to pay the first five years of property taxes based on pre-development valuation of the property. He was also able to take advantage of a depressed construction market to find reasonable building costs.The goals were twofold: limit exposure and “keep rents affordable,” said Duprey.Duprey is taking this formula and moving to his next project, which is next door to the Smile Building at 43 and 45 S. Main St. Though he would like to keep the old bindery building, Duprey said, it’s too cost-prohibitive to rehabilitate it. Instead, the new four-story, 70,000-square-foot complex will have an estimated $12 million price tag. Construction is expected to begin this winter, and Duprey hopes it will be open for occupancy on April 1, 2013.What pleases Duprey is that the Smile Building is receiving rave reviews, both for its architectural design and energy efficiency.”We’ve shown that it can be done downtown,” he said.When the New Markets Tax Credit restrictions lapse, Lowe-Stockwell said, the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen plans to buy its space in the Smile Building.”It’s a new experience for us, and I think the growth of this district is going to raise the bar in Concord,” she said.