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Woolworth, Varisco properties bought by local group

Woolworth, Varisco properties bought by local group

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The chairman of the Downtown Bryan Economic Development Association this week added two properties to his assets.

Randall Spradley is senior vice president for Astin Partners, which owns the Queen Theater, the Astin Building and the old First National Bank building in downtown. On Friday, Spradley closed deals with the Varisco estate for the Woolworth Building and the Varisco Office Building, both on North Main Street.

Spradley did not disclose the purchase price of the two buildings. A listing of downtown properties on the Downtown Bryan Economic Development Association's Web site shows the Woolworth Building at $1.95 million. The Varisco building is not listed under properties for sale.

The three-story Woolworth Building now will be called the Wimberly Building in honor of a large building that once stood there, Spradley said. Asbestos abatement is the first order of business for the 52,000-square-foot structure, to be followed by a process of restoring its historical value.

"The idea is to clean it up, get all the extraneous stuff out of there, paint it but not do any facade work, right now," Spradley said. "We're eager to address the facade and return to an historical look there, but that is a project that requires a great deal of work with the city and will probably be tied in to Phase II [of the Downtown Bryan Master Plan]."

Phase II of the city-funded master plan will involve burying utilities, "essentially redeveloping Bryan Street from 28th Street to 24th Street," Spradley said. Phase I involved engineering, drainage work and landscaping.

The 55,000-square-foot Varisco Building is 60 percent occupied by office staff, including an architect, an attorney and a nonprofit organization. It will continue to operate as is, Spradley said, while the economic development association attempts to recruit more tenants.

On a recent stroll through downtown, Spradley greeted merchants and paused to replace a trash can lid that had been set on the ground.

"How hard is it to just do it all the way?" he wondered out loud.

That philosophy has been employed by many down- town property owners, including Zane Anderson and Michael Schaefer, in an effort to revitalize the downtown area, according to Downtown Bryan Economic Development Association Executive Director John Hendry.

Property owners who have an interest in restoring historical value to the area while recruiting good businesses to occupy the buildings create a district that is "user-friendly, socially vibrant and economically sound," Hendry said.

"We believe [the Woolworth and Varisco buildings] will absorb a significant increase in office and retail occupancy over time," Hendry said. "The Woolworth development is particularly exciting because it has been two-thirds vacant for over 10 years."

Architect Mike Record of the Arkitex Studio works with Spradley on historic revitalization. The Astin Building, constructed in 1915, is undergoing a massive overhaul to restore its original look.

"[Record] understands adaptive reuse of historical structures," Spradley said. "The correct way to do a project like this is to spend a lot of time with the building.

"The craftsmen like that these buildings are very different from new construction. It always demands a high level of creativity and personal initiative."

Although downtown Bryan has a historical look, it's actually quite modern, Spradley said.

He has deemed the downtown district "Fibertown" and says he's looking to bring technology-based companies to the area to take advantage of the fiber optic cable that runs through downtown and is equipped to carry digital information over distance. The city also is equipped to serve technology companies with diesel-generated backup power.

Managed Network Solutions, a wireless Internet technology company, occupies the old First National Bank building on North Main Street, and software company ClickFind occupies the top floor of the Woolworth. Spradley said he'd like to see more technology-based businesses, in hopes that they will complement the retail and entertainment mix downtown.

"It's not about machines. It's about the people who operate them," Spradley said. "The density of pedestrians is what retailers need. The bodies are bringing lunch money and sales tax. Once we get enough foot traffic on the streets, more retail will follow."

The plan to revitalize downtown is a move toward smart growth for Bryan, Spradley added.

"I don't think we're visionaries," he said. "It's logical. We're following high-density trends. I think people try too hard to understand why downtown needs to be redeveloped when what they need to understand is its intrinsic value."

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