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Franklin Building still in the red; new tenants could change situation

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It has been a revolving door of businesses moving in and out of the Franklin Building since a $10 million restoration was completed almost three years ago.

But a new batch of tenants is giving business leaders some hope for the Public Square landmark.

Gone are Covered in Chocolate! desserts, the Whispering Angels gift shop, a locksmith and a pilates business. And America’s Own secondhand shop also is closing.

But they are being replaced by Blue Cat Cycles, RE/MAX Empire Realty, the Northern New York Autism Foundation and Self-Direct Inc., a home health care and equipment agency that provides help with traumatic brain injuries.

“Things are looking up,” said Donald W. Rutherford, CEO of the Watertown Local Development Corp.

The WLDC, also known as the Watertown Trust, manages the commercial space of the former YWCA building. Neighbors of Watertown, which restored the building, is responsible for overseeing the 16 upper-floor apartment units. All 16 units are rented.

Earlier this year, the Watertown Trust hired Pyramid Brokerage Co. to market the building because the WLDC was struggling to find commercial tenants. The broker receives 6 percent of the amount from the lease’s first year. To help offset that, the Watertown Trust decided to increase its lease amount from about $4 per square foot to $10 per square foot.

The North Country Arts Council is housed in a Public Square storefront and a piano teacher leases a small office in some interior space. The Arts Council also leases some interior space for a planned theater in what was the pool area of the YWCA. About 1,500 square feet of “inner” space, which could be divided into three offices, remains vacant.

With businesses moving in and out, the building remains slightly in the red, with $45,464 in annual lease revenues coming in and utility and other yearly expenses at $47,577, for a $2,133 loss. If the building were fully leased, revenues would be $86,710 and it would be in the black with about a $39,000 profit, Mr. Rutherford said.

Murat M. O’Hara said he was forced to move out of the Lincoln Building, across Public Square, because of a planned renovation there. He said the Franklin Building was the only suitable downtown space he could find for his bicycle store. He hopes to be completely moved in by Nov. 1.

On the Franklin Street side, the new space is smaller than the location he had occupied for the past 11 years, but he will make it work, Mr. O’Hara said. He plans to make customers aware of the new location through social media and fliers.

“We’re not going to have the visibility that we do now,” he said.

Katherine E. Robertson, the Autism Foundation’s director, said she previously visited the Franklin Building and fell in love with it before the organization decided to move there. The foundation moved in Aug. 1 after relocating from the group’s former site, which closed a couple of years ago.

Ms. Robertson and colleague Jamie R. Todhunter run the office in an 800-square-foot Franklin Street storefront.

Mr. Rutherford said he was happy to get the real estate office to move into a Public Square storefront because Stephanie Converse, an associate broker with RE/MAX Empire Realty, is respected in the community.

Self-Direct, with offices in Baldwinsville and Utica, is moving into the Watertown market, he said.

But it’s not all good news. The Arts Council has not proceeded with plans to open an art house theater after proposing it two years ago.

Last week, the Watertown Trust board agreed that the space should be marketed because it’s costing the WLDC money to have it sit idle. If a tenant were found, the Arts Council would be given “a first right of refusal” for that space before another party could claim it, board members said.

In recent months, Mr. Rutherford said he has communicated with Arts Council President Michael C. Miller — mostly through emails because Mr. Miller has been out of town on business — about the theater prospects and has been told the organization still wants to move ahead with the project. The Arts Council still needs to obtain some funding, Mr. Rutherford was told. Mr. Miller could not be reached for comment.

For the past two years, the WLDC has given the Arts Council a discount rate on its lease, charging just $1.95 a square foot. Without the discounted rate, the building would not be losing money, Mr. Rutherford said.

Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham, the Watertown Trust board chairman, remains optimistic about the economics of the commercial space.

“We have the responsibility to run it like a business,” he said, adding that the building “is fairly close” to breaking even.

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