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The Reporter - Nov./Dec. 2011

Keeping Up Appearances

What’s behind a recent trend of downtown renovations?


For H&R Block, the recent renovation of its Princess Street exterior was prompted by a feeling the existing facade was giving the company a dowdy image. For Trailhead’s James Malcolm, renovations were driven by pride of ownership as he moved his outdoor gear outlet into new premises. And for James Brett Coiffure, which works closely with its clients to enhance or change their style, it’s now routine to similarly change the salon’s facade every few years.

Princess Street is a jumble of storefronts that compete for our attention. Some remain static for years, so it’s worthy of celebration when retail establishments and their landlords decide to renovate and, better yet, renovate with panache and taste. It’s also worth asking: Why? When so much of business is focused on the bottom line and the economy is in ragged shape, does such renewal pay off or is it carried out for other reasons?
For H&R Block, the key figures of its exterior renovation were district manager Wendy Labine and landlord Elia Anagnostopoulos. Labine, who had been overseeing renewal at the company’s 11 other outlets in the area, wanted to redo the downtown flagship, inside and out. The company is known for tax preparations for lower-income individuals who lack an accountant, and Labine believed the store’s exterior wasn’t sufficiently professional to reflect its work with a broad range of clients. “We felt the storefront looked dowdy, and decided to improve it,” she says. As well, the landlord had recently re­furbished the adjoining building housing Olden Green and Feel Yoga, leaving H&R Block even more outdated. “We looked like the poor neighbour,” con­fesses Labine.
The whole front was replaced, with a new sign, the door moved to a side and some limestone from under the facade recovered with brickwork alter­ed to offer the same look. H&R Block paid for the front door, new glass and sign, while the landlord footed the bill for the al­terations to his building, although Labine notes that ultimately gets written off in the lease. Her immediate share: $10,000.
Does it pay off? “Yes,” she answers quickly. “We will market the exterior. We need to attract more middle- and higher-income clients and we stand a better chance now as we look more professional.” And the ex­pend­iture sends a signal: The company, which has been downtown in different locations for more than 40 years, expects to be around for the long term.
Anagnostopoulos, who is now renovating the exterior of the adjoining Smith Army Surplus store, sees this costly effort on the three buildings as an obligation. “If you are privileged enough to own a property in Kingston, you owe it to the community and yourself to put these buildings back to their original splendour. There was a reason why they were built that way. With ownership comes responsibility,” he says.
How much did it cost him? “A lot more than I wanted,” he responds. “But it’s an in­­vestment. My family believes in downtown Kingston. We enjoy making sure these properties are what they should be.”
James Malcolm took on the responsibility of being landlord — and steward — earlier this year when he bought the former Modern Furniture building to move and expand his Trailhead outdoor sports outlet. The building had once housed the Strand and Tivoli theatres, but in the 1950s it took on the look of that modern era to complement the furniture store’s name.
Malcolm has learned that he has to feel good when he comes into his store. That means the goods should be neatly displayed, there should be an expansive space and the exterior should make him feel proud. Although the exterior renovation seems extensive to onlookers, in fact very little was required, says Malcolm.  “For the most part, it’s just a fantastic paint job and revealing of the [upstairs] windows. Those windows have been closed off for about 50 years,” he notes.
Impressive as the windows are on the top floor, what most will probably note first are the gold touches, insignias and pillars revealed from the past, accenting the Trailhead sign itself. When the renovation started, Malcolm felt it would be cosmetic and relatively cheap, but he was prepared for the worst, since he had no idea what was behind the facade. The Pat Powers construction team stripped the exterior back to the studs and could feel detail in the pillars on either side. “I said let’s strip it down. I don’t care what the cost is. If I have to redo it after, I will,” he notes.
He’s delighted with the results. “It’s well worth it. It fulfills my heart. I like the character. If you attempt to modernize a building, you can’t recreate the beauty of the past. Show me a newer building that looks better. So why would I do anything but restore it to what it was?” he says.
It cost him under $60,000. Will it pay off over time? Sales are up after the move, but many factors are involved. Be­sides, making money wasn’t the objective here. “It has my name on it, and I want it to look great. It’s part of who I am. From a business perspective, I sell high-end gear so having a low-end front wouldn’t fit. The worry would be the opposite: Of being too high-end and intimidating people,” he notes.
Brett Stickle oversaw a renovation at his downtown store, James Brett Coiffure, that won a Heritage Week award in 2009 from the Downtown Kingston! BIA and the Frontenac Heritage Foundation. It followed expansion of the salon into the neighbouring Subway sandwich store, located on Princess just below Montreal Street, and was carried out in collaboration with his landlord, the Splinter Group, which wanted both sides of the building to co-ordinate. The rich chocolate wood paint and the gold, simple lettering for the company name catch the eyes of passersby. “Instead of a gaudy logo, we wanted our signage to be simple and elegant. It’s just letters, with no bright lights. We wanted to emphasize and brand the name,” he says.
Expect some changes in the near future that will incorporate some of the elements of his new midtown salon, which uses the window for a billboard and now has an upscale, grey logo as well as similar lettering to the downtown store. He’ll also eventually design his website, Facebook page and business cards to match that logo. Total cost for each facelift: about $20,000. But he believes “you have to keep changing. People take you for granted if you don’t change. We’re in a profession that must change.”
The renovations are each done by one business. But over time, they create the impetus for others to change and help attract national businesses to give downtown a chance rather than sticking to malls, says Jay Abramsky, president of Keystone Property Management Inc., who frequently brings leaders of such companies to town. “The place sells itself when they get here. People are astonished at how active it is and how great it looks.”

Schachter writes The Globe and Mail’s Monday Morning Manager and Managing Books columns.