The small farming town of Colfax is buzzing with something other than the sound of combines at harvest time.
About $3 million in historic renovation work led by a Spokane company that is buying up property there has some of the towns leaders and property owners looking at its many older structures as a potential commodity for growth and revitalization.
We just think its incredible that we have people outside the city interested in our buildings, says Emily Adams, city administrator for Colfax, population 2,900. Were hoping something great is happening in town.
Colfax is located 60 miles south of Spokane and 15 miles north of Pullman and Washington State Universitys main campus. A common route between the two cities cuts through Colfax on its Main Street, and caravans of football fans trek through the town for Cougar home games.
In one of Colfaxs biggest current projects, Chris Batten, co-owner of Spokane contractor RenCorp LLC, says the company has agreed to buy five buildings along Main Street and plans to renovate three of them.
Meanwhile, the Whitman County Port Authority is selling its building on Main to the city of Colfax for a community center, a Colfax company is renovating and plans to reopen an assisted-living center on that thoroughfare, and the city is creating a historic preservation commission and is taking steps to provide restoration tax credits.
A spate of activity
RenCorp currently is performing due diligence on all five of its planned transactions, and Batten says he hopes to complete the purchases in mid-September. The company eventually, however, will transfer ownership in all but the Fonks building to owner-occupants, he says.
The five buildings include the old Masonic Lodge Building, at 211 N. Main; small buildings on each side of that structure; the Hickman Building, a three-story, 7,500-square-foot structure at the northwest corner of Main and Wall Street; and the old Fonks Five & Dime building, a two-story, 10,000-square-foot structure near the southeast corner of Main and Wall.
RenCorp wants to renovate the Masonic building, the small building just south of that structure, and the Fonks building, but plans to demolish the other two to make way for other improvements. The Fonks building is the only one that the Spokane company plans ultimately to retain ownership of.
Another transaction in the works that doesnt involve RenCorp is instrumental to its plans. In that transaction, the Whitman County Port Authority has agreed to sell a building it owns at the southwest corner of Main and Wall to the city of Colfax for $200,000. The port authority will use the money from that transaction to buy its space in the Masonic building, some of which RenCorp plans to sell as commercial condominiums.
That has really helped this project along, Batten says.
The port authoritys single-story structure currently is called the Community Education & Training Center building and is a former Elks Lodge, Adams says. The city plans to open a community center in that building with space available for senior citizens social activities, theatrical productions, and other uses, Adams says. No major changes to the building will be necessary to accommodate those uses, she says.
A few blocks to the south, at 300 S. Main, Liberty Development LLC, of Colfax, is well under way on renovation of a closed three-story assisted-living center in a building that once housed the Wheat & Barley Cafe.
Colfax building inspector Andy Burgard says Liberty Development plans to re-open the assisted-living center in December and rename it The Courtyard. The old Wheat & Barley space is being converted into a cafeteria for Courtyard residents and wont be open to the public, he says.
The Main Street activity has the city hoping to attract more such projects in its many historic structures, and some property owners already are talking about taking on projects with their own buildings, Adams says.
We have a long list of old buildings in pretty good shape, she says. If people see this can be done, it will make them want to do the same thing.
A WSU architecture professor who completed an inventory of Colfaxs older buildings a few years ago found 56 structures on or near Main Street built between 1883 and 1932, Adams says. The variety of architecture in buildings constructed during that 50-year period has compelled other instructors from the school to bring architecture students to the small town to tour those buildings.
To help promote historic renovation, the city is seeking state approval to form whats called a certified local government through which it can offer tax credits for restoration projects.
As part of that effort, the city has appointed nine people to a Colfax Historic Preservation Commission and plans to start its own historic register, Adams says.
RenCorp hopes to start work this fall on the improvements it plans, Batten says. He expects it will take between 12 and 18 months to complete all aspects of the renovation.
The keystone of the project is renovation of the old Masonic Lodge Building, a three-story, 19,000-square-foot structure that Adams says is the towns largest structure. RenCorp plans to restore the buildings front faade to a historically accurate condition, renovate space on the first and second floor as commercial condominiums, and convert the top floor into five residential condominiums.
Batten says four concerns have agreed to take the commercial condominiums. They include American West Bank, of Spokane; Sol Vallarta Mexican Restaurant, of Colfax; Nuxoll Libey Ensley Esser & Nelson Attorneys at Law, of Colfax; and the Whitman County Port Authority.
The law firm and port authority would split the second floor, each taking about 3,000 square feet of office space and moving there from other locations along Main Street.
AmericanWest Bank expects to move its Colfax branch from a few blocks away to roughly 4,000 square feet of floor space on the north end of the first floor. A small building just north of the Masonic Building will be demolished to make way for a drive-through lane for the bank.
Sol Vallarta currently has about 2,000 square feet of floor space on the southern end of the Masonic Building and some additional space in a small structure abutting that building, with its entrance facing Main Street. Batten says RenCorp plans to remodel the restaurants space so that its entrance faces south.
The Hickman Building currently is directly south of Sol Vallarta, and RenCorp plans to tear that building down and replace it with a surface parking lot that likely will accommodate around 22 cars.
On the third floor of the Masonic building, five residential condominium units will feature 20-foot-high ceilings with prominent 16-foot-high windows.
Batten says he typically wouldnt consider a condo project in a small farm town, but believes the living units will be marketable because Colfax is so close to Pullman.
The reality is the median house price in Pullman is higher than in Spokane, he says. A lot of the working people in Pullman live in outlying areas.
At the old Fonks Five & Dime building, RenCorp plans to renovate about 3,000 square feet of office space for the Whitman County Gazette, a weekly newspaper in Colfax. The Gazette currently is located on the first floor of the Masonic Building, where AmericanWest Banks branch would be located, and would move to accommodate the renovation of that structure.
Batten says he also is negotiating with a potential tenant that would open a restaurant in part of the Fonks building.
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