SPRINGFIELD — What used to be a huge downtown void is being filled with bountiful business opportunities.
The former Walt’s Furniture building at 405 N. Laurel St., vacant since 2014, is being transformed into an economic hub by Carlson & Co., created by a merger of James Carlson’s retail, floral and events-planning/rental operations.
“We just merged all our companies together to make it easier for our clients, easier on the eye,” Carlson said. “It’s basically a brand that we came up to make us a diverse company that offers four or five different kinds of services that people can come to.”
Carlson’s Springfield Holdings entered into a lease agreement with the Springfield Downtown Development Authority for the building in January. Carlson agreed to invest a minimum of $500,000 and create several additional tenant spaces.
“There are currently pending contracts,” Carlson said. “We are excited about that. We look for the whole building to be completely occupied in 2020.
“That’s our goal.”
Shoppers got a taste of what Carlson & Co. will be like last week. One of his other downtown facilities, The Local on Laurel, hosted a Pop-Up Shop June 17 through Saturday.
“It was completely set up with what we are going to have in our retail store,” Carlson said. “We’re focusing on all kinds of men’s and women’s clothing, and decor and all that kind of stuff.”
At one point Friday near lunchtime, nearly 20 customers were waiting in line to pay for items. More than half of Carlton’s retail items were sold.
“Our whole vision behind this retail establishment is to bring in a little bit more shopping,” Carlson said. “Just from the Pop-Up sale, we had people from Richmond Hill and Pooler — just a large, diverse group of people not even local. We had people from Wilmington Island who came who learned about it through social media marketing.
“We can see growth in our small town by bringing outsiders in. That’s our ultimate goal — to expand growth.”
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had an adverse effect on Carlson’s rental business but it is on the verge of taking off again, he said.
“COVID-19 did have a huge impact but we were able to focus a little more on our retail side,” he said. “We were able to jump-start all of our fall weddings. We are actually double booking now due to the limited space that we had for our clients before COVID-19.
“We have to reshift weddings to the fall and spring of next year but we have plenty of time to get all the inventory, information and buy merchandise.”
Carlson said The Local on Laurel, an events venue at 606 N. Laurel St. that opened last year, has greatly exceeded his expectations.
“We been able to host a lot of corporate things during the week and weddings, class reunions, birthdays and baby showers on the weekends,” he said. “It’s definitely been rewarding to see the overhaul and transformation of that building.”
Carlson has badly needed more room for his other businesses for a few years. Joann’s Florist has 2,300 square feet of space at its current location at 508 N. Laurel St. In the Walt’s building, it will have a sales floor of 4,300 square feet.
The flower shop, which has existed for more than 30 years, will be joined by a retail shop and what used to be known as Carlson’s Premier Events, a rental company, and other businesses. The original blueprint includes rooms for up to 12 other businesses but a potential owner is interested in taking up a majority of the remaining space.
“(The Carlton & Co. part of the building) will be completed by mid-July or the end of July,” Carlson said. “We hope to have a complete grand opening, kind of like a block party, in August, probably mid-August.”
The building will feature three entrances. Two of them will be for Carlson & Co., which will take up the left side.
“It’s looking real good in there,” Community Development Director Erin Phillips of the DDA said.
The Springfield City Council created the DDA in 2016 with the decaying Walt’s building largely in mind. Its initial proposal for Carlson to move into the building exceeded his budget to do so.
“It took us a while to figure out what to do with that building and I think we all had a learning curve with what we could do,” Phillips said.
Under a lease deal reached in January, Carlson agreed to invest a minimum of $500,000 in the building and create additional tenant spaces. He will take ownership of the building after five years.
“This plan is much simpler,” Phillips said. “I think James takes a bit more risk in this plan because — instead of the deal being funded by the DDA and him coming in after completion — he is doing all the work himself now.
“... It’s going to take three years from start to finish but — at the end of the day — it all seems to work out. I think he is going to do an excellent job in the building. He has a very strong presence in Springfield with his businesses. Springfield is very special to him and he wants to be here.”
Carlson’s business mind never stops churning.
“We have goals,” he said. “We’re looking forward to finishing this project and beginning another one. We have intentions to find another piece of property and bring some additional growth and different kinds of businesses to Springfield.
“We feel like there is a need there.”
Carlson appreciates the DDA’s assistance.
“I think change is good, at least making the correct change,” Carlson said. “With the DDA, I think we hit it good. The DDA has really been an asset to our community.”
Other Springfield’s business owners, some through DDA facade grants, have also spruced up their buildings, making them more enticing.
“We’ve just got to keep it up,” Carlson said. “We are not in any kind of rut right now. People are wanting to contribute to their businesses and make them better.”