LEE -- Michele LeClair's yearlong wait for prime retail space in downtown Lee has paid off.
In early 2012, the Pittsfield woman started eyeing Lee to establish her first store, looking to capitalize on the community's bustling Main Street economy.
After 25 years of buying and selling antiques, primarily online and at antique shows, LeClair, along with her mother, Pat Hickey, on June 1 opened Finders Keepers in the Consolati building at 57 Main St.
LeClair says the antiques and consignment store has seen a steady stream of customers since its debut nearly two months ago. Finders Keepers occupies the 3,000-square-foot storefront of the former Upstairs Basement, another consignment shop that closed in mid-March after 40 years.
"It's been virtually non-stop," she said. "We've been the flavor of the month, exceeding our expectations."
Longtime Lee visitor Nancy Silva, of Seekonk, loves what LeClair and Hickey have done with the space.
"They've done a beautiful job; it came out nicely," said Silva, who frequently shopped at Upstairs Basement.
Finders Keepers is one of the three businesses in recent months to unexpectedly become part of the commercial and residential rejuvenation at the Consolati block.
Last December, Meow & Growl pet supply store relocated from West Park Street to the former Lee Power Equipment store site, which closed in July 2012. Owner Terri DiGrigoli noted that Main Street foot traffic has been a boon to her bottom line.
"I didn't know how many people visited Lee, until I opened my store here," said the Lee native. "Definitely, the location is great."
The third new commercial tenant, Mac Caro Realty, opened its first storefront office in early June, replacing Country Lady Antiques and Gifts. Principal Realtor Tony Caropreso decided after being a home-based business for 26 years in Lee, it was time to take advantage of a highly visible location.
"You [can't] believe the number of people who look at the pictures of properties we have for sale in our window display," Caropreso said. "That alone is worth the rent we pay."
"A big display window is an asset to any business -- and we have two," added LeClair.
The first-floor turnover of the Consolati building comes as its owner undertakes a $2.7 million affordable housing rehabilitation of the upper two floors, which began nearly a year ago.
Berkshire Housing Development Corp. is currently renovating the interior of the three-story structure, with work being done one floor at a time on the 16 one- and two-bedroom apartments. The third floor is complete, with eight apartments already occupied by previous tenants, according to BHDC Executive Director Elton Ogden.
While the BHDC project is focused on much needed downtown affordable housing, Ogden has also found a great demand for Lee's commercial space. He noted his agency never had to advertise the available commercial space as someone was already waiting in the wings to snap up the storefronts.
"We didn't anticipate a complete turnover," he said, "but part of our plan was to look at the business end and be comfortable to flip the space if it became available."
The Consolati building is the second Main Street block in two years to undergo extensive renovation as part of a revitalized downtown Lee.
In June 2011, local businessman Michael McManmon completed a $3.7 million restoration of the Baird & Benton block at 40-50 Main St., across from the Consolati building.
The project created classroom and office space in the upper two floors -- vacant for more than 50 years -- for McManmon's College Internship Program. The first floor remained commercial space, which includes a new café and art gallery.
Rehabilitation of Baird & Benton, coupled with a new downtown municipal parking that opened two years ago, have been key to drawing several new businesses to Main Street.
However, the Consolati building providing affordable apartments also is crucial to sustaining Lee's vibrant downtown economy.
"It's convenient for people who don't have to travel to the food store, pet store, gift shop, clothing store," said DiGrigoli, herself a Main Street resident.
"This project has all the elements of keeping downtown real -- you have to have people living here," added Ogden.