Grant in hand, Stationery Factory owners undaunted in quest to continue 'labor of love'
DALTON — Just over six years ago, Stephen "Steve" Sears and his wife, Maria Cruz, walked into the ground floor of a massive opportunity — to give new purpose to a former letter paper factory and shoe manufacturing company situated on a 3.1-acre lot in the heart of their downtown.
Neither of the two is a developer, though Sears is a Renaissance man. He also is a lifelong Daltonian who used to mop the floors of the nearly 120-year-old brick Flansburg Avenue building formerly owned by Crane & Co.
With the help of a business partner, the couple made their $540,000 purchase in summer 2013 from the same company that laid off Sears at age 47, after he had worked his way up into engineering and management roles over the course of a quarter-century. Cruz is a nutritionist and registered dietitian by trade. Both are big proponents of homesteading, environmental conservation and preservation.
They entered the deal with no particular plan; in fact, their first idea for the approximately 100,000-square-foot space — to establish a natural foods market in the town's center — fell through.
But, with pluck and perseverance, the proprietors have stayed true to their single specific purpose: to be good stewards of this historic property so that it doesn't fall idle or blighted in their beloved community.
Today, aside from contributing to some parking gripes in an increasingly congested downtown, the Stationery Factory is the economic development and creative economy darling of Dalton. Its 20 tenants, mostly one-man-band (or woman) businesses, collectively sustain about 70 local jobs, including artists, brewers, electrical engineers and acupuncturists, among others. Its reputation as a live events and concert venue continues to grow, the space being outfitted and enhanced by hand by Sears, his fellow tenants and musician friends.
"It's a passion; it's a labor of love," he said.
"I never thought I would be running an events business, but it's fun. I like it," Cruz added.
New grant; new challenges
In January, the Stationery Factory was announced as one of 31 recipients of a MassDevelopment grant through the Collaborative Workspace Program, to help support physical infrastructure needs. The Stationery Factory was awarded $100,000 to help bring the building up to code and accessibility compliance. The so-called fit-out grant requires the recipient to match the award.
Three other Berkshire spaces also received grants: Old Stone Mill in Adams ($75,000), Lever Inc. in North Adams ($24,000) and Framework Pittsfield Coworking ($7,000).
"Massachusetts' economy thrives when local entrepreneurs, creators, and small-business owners have the space and resources they need to be successful," Gov. Charlie Baker said during the announcement last month at WorcLab in Worcester.
Sears visited the space for the grant awards ceremony. It's located in the nearly century-old Printers Building, which is undergoing a similar revival requiring millions of dollars' worth of investments.
And therein lies the rub for the Stationery Factory.
Sears, Cruz and their partner, Willa Kuh, put up their own personal capital for the project. At first "no bank in their right mind would get behind us," Sears said. But, the effort has since secured a supporting loan from Lee Bank to continue to keep the building running.
Sears said he initially applied to receive $250,000 through the MassDevelopment program to help cover the approximately $330,000 it will take to bring the Stationery Factory's two freight elevators up to code for passenger use. He even went out and got his own elevator operator license so he could transport patrons in them in the meantime.
He plans to start the elevator work and applying for more infrastructure grants as soon as possible. Additional money is needed to help finish the site's commercial kitchen and to expand the amount of usable space. Housing, a restaurant and a cannery are among the possibilities, though no specific plans are in place.
Sears said he is is not alone in the commonwealth in sharing this dilemma of bringing old industrial spaces up to 21st-century standards and laws.
"Buildings like this don't cost a lot to buy, but it takes a lot to bring them up to code," he said.
The Stationery Factory previously garnered other grants and received a 10-year tax-increment financing agreement from the town, valued at $322,000, that has been in effect since July 1, 2017.
"I'm very thankful that there's money to help," Sears said, noting that he holds no ill will about the safety requirements. Nevertheless, these added costs, and the time and resources it takes to make improvements, are an ongoing challenge.
In between sanding floors, restoring exposed brick walls, building a state-of-the-art sound system, and orchestrating weddings, art shows and parties, the owners are grappling to find pathways to fully realize their vision for the Stationery Factory.
"To make the building sustainable financially is the place we need to get to," Sears said.
Occupants of some of the larger spaces, like first tenant RBD Electronics and Shire Breu-Hous on the basement level of the three-story building and The Dalton School of Art & Creativity on the second floor, all have put in their fair share of capital investments into the building.
RBD Electronics President Ron Sanders relocated his international electronics refurbishing operations from Long Island in New York to two locations in Pittsfield in the mid-1990s, then moved everything to Dalton when Sears, his neighbor in town, told him about the Stationery Factory space.
"I've invested money in the building, done improvements here. It's very convenient, it's nearby to where I do shopping, and I love the town," Sanders said. He added that he just wishes Berkshire County had a better local industrial market to sustain the work he and his 12 employees do.
Sears says the growth within the building has been "very organic," and that he is proud of the natural collaborations that have evolved to collectively support the shared ethos of better shaping the town with the support of small businesses and high-quality entertainment.
So far, the space has hosted "Atlas of Humanity," a world-touring photography show; served as a recording studio for the latest album of local band The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow, and now is the home office and tasting room for the new Silver Bear Distillery.
His personal goal is to make the Stationery Factory a destination for midsize live music events with audiences of 500 to 600 people.
"We are really all about trying to make this the best-sounding venue in the country," Sears said.
This spring, the Big Room is set to welcome rock-blues artist Popa Chubby and singer-songwriter Dar Williams, and it will be a stop on the Crash Test Dummies' 25th anniversary tour for their hit album "God Shuffled His Feet."
The couple say they aren't opposed to finding a good buyer for the whole building, but that they want to continue to do what they do.
"We're letting it unfold, for sure," Cruz said. "We've realized we cannot force anything, so, we'll see what comes and see what works for us and see what works for others we work with."
After spending so much time scraping and painting and sweeping floors, Cruz said, she and her husband finally are starting to step back and appreciate how far the venue has come since the day they bought it.
"I hear people tell me they feel so warmed and welcomed in the space," she said. "We still kind of remember that dirty factory building, but now we're seeing that new space that's really beautiful, and I think other people are seeing that, too."
Jenn Smith can be reached at email@example.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.
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