Chris VanDuyne spends his workdays in a Federal Emergency Management Agency office on the 52nd floor of One World Trade Center in New York City.
On Monday, he was building a computer algorithm that would decide how many FEMA people to send in response to Hurricane Harvey.
On Friday, he was in Rochester, Argos and Warsaw. He spends his free time in north central Indiana. He and his father Michael, working as Small Town Indiana Corp., now own eight of 21 structures in downtown Argos and 10 of 21 commercial storefronts.
They also own the former Baileys Hardware Building at 712-714 Main St. and hope to bring their personal brand of economic development to another town.
Closing on the Baileys building was Friday. Work on the building should begin within days.
Michael VanDuyne grew up on a farm seven miles south of Argos at the Fulton County line. He, and the rest of his family, went to school in Argos. He has an affinity for the place.
A former Lobdell Emery employee, he is the boots-on-theground part of their business and is joined by his brother Richard VanDuyne.
Chris VanDuyne and his wife Leslie, a Rochester, N.Y., native he met in Indiana University, have settled in New York City. They also have a house in Plymouth.
Chris graduated from Plymouth High School in 2001. After earning a bachelor’s degree, with honors, in economics at Indiana University, he eventually earned three master’s degrees: government management and healthcare management from Indiana University and econometrics and system design from Columbia University.
That’s basically economics and statistics. And how to redevelop a failing little town was his Columbia thesis.
“I’m now proving what I thought in college was right,” he said.
He’s got a three-pronged approach to redevelopment.
The first: Get owners to re-invest in their properties.
The second: Work with government to develop help and incentives for businesses.
The third: Pair business owners with capital so they can grow and expand.
For the VanDuynes, there’s more to the process than buying and fixing old buildings. They find ones with living spaces on the upper floors and get those apartments ready first.
The revenue from the apartment rent not only pays the mortgage, but allows them to re-invest in the next building. In the meantime, it’s the downstairs that now benefits. They can offer cheaper rent, which frees capital for small businesses to get established or grow. Once growth starts, it seems to snowball.
It can work
“Two years ago, this time of day, maybe one car at a time would drive by,” Chris said. “Now look. It’s busy.” There’s a resale store across the street. A new woodworking business has opened. There are no empty parking spaces outside the two downtown restaurants or tavern. Buildings have been painted. Windows have been repaired. It’s looking up in Argos.
VanDuyne was standing outside their latest Argos project, 100 S. Michigan St. There’s a tattoo parlor on the street level. Upstairs, three apartments are planned.
Wallpaper from the 1920s is peeling. There’s dust aplenty. An earlier repair to brick is evident over a graceful arched window frame. Old furnace pipe hangs from the ceiling. “They’re usually just beat to crap like this,” Chris says of the buildings they buy.
Yet in the very front space one of the three apartments is taking shape. Big, tall windows overlook Michigan Street. There’s recessed lighting in the kitchen, an ample closet and one or two bedrooms. The flooring is new. The paint color is a popular gray and the trim is white.
It’s the type of place that would appeal to a younger person, Chris notes.
They hope to do the same with the Baileys building. When it closed there were two apartments on the second floor and the third was an archery range/construction project. Chris and Michael say they envision using both floors for apartments, creating as many as seven living spaces. That’s the first prong of Chris’ redevelopment theory.
The basement houses Joe Gady’s Farming for Life business. VanDuyne said he’s met with Gady about staying but nothing is final.
The ground floor will be a brewery. The brewery team is comprised of Cory Thomas, Mike Doran, Chris Markley, Jared Tyler, Andy Strasser and Rick Wilburn. Their first 30 months rent is free so they can invest their money in permitting, equipping and supplying their new businesses. That’s the third prong of Chris’s economic redevelopment theory, providing financial incentive, or capital, to new and young businesses.
The local climate
The second prong was perhaps most elusive here. A 9 a.m. Friday morning meeting with Mayor Ted Denton, to confirm an offer of help securing $10,000, was the final piece. Fulton County Council will be approached Sept. 19 and asked for a $10,000 county economic development income tax grant for the Baileys project.
Only if that doesn’t work will the VanDuynes consider a tax abatement. They’ve never used or sought an abatement. It was city officials who suggested it Friday morning.
“We enjoy paying our taxes,” Chris told Denton, Fulton County Economic Development Director Terry Lee and various others on Friday. “It’s important to be able to pay our taxes, so that the town can do exactly what you’re doing. We don’t want to be the nicest building in a rundown town, which is why in Argos we never asked for money because we want them to use their money to support other people.”
Maneuvering through property deals is nothing new to the VanDuynes. Maneuvering through Rochester’s hoops took some getting used to.
In the end, the father-son team could sum up the 16-month process as successful. But at any given time during those 16 months it was arduous, sometimes frustrating, and at one point, almost dropped.
Amy Roe’s part
They give Fulton County Chamber of Commerce Director Amy Roe credit for finally bringing everyone together and developing a plan.
That plan includes:
•Connecting the VanDuynes with the brewers; • $20,000 from the Rochester Redevelopment Commission, funds captured by a downtown Tax Incremental Financing District that are earmarked for redevelopment in the district;
• Grants from Northern Indiana Public Service Company and Duke Energy that amount to $7,500;
• Support for a special exception to downtown standards that allows them to repair the back of the building with block instead of brick, which saves an estimated $30,000;
• And the city’s help securing CEDIT funds.
Had that not all come about, the VanDuynes may not have agreed to purchasing the building. Their repair estimate started at $ 187,000.
A team sport
“Economic development,” Chris said, “is a team sport.”
Others looking to brighten the downtown’s future with similar projects have to realize that there are tons of incentives to bring big business and industry into a community, but there’s very little venture capital available for small business and entrepreneurs. “What do you do for the little guy who wants to get started?” Chris asks.
His father suggests a municipality must be willing to offer practical incentives. He suggested that a discounted water bill for several months is a perfect example.
Statistics show a small business owner might fail several times before he or she reaches success. But with automation taking more and more production jobs, Chris added, entrepreneurship will be the key to keeping small towns alive. Retail areas are just as important as office parks and spec buildings when it comes to economic development, he said.
Downtowns, Chris insists, “They’re huge. My generation, we’re looking for a lifestyle. A hollowed- out downtown isn’t going to do it.”
Looking back on his first experience here, VanDuyne advises cooperation is key to success. “Work with as many people as possible. It seemed like every time we added someone to the equation they brought something with them.”