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Vision Quest

Cooper’s Commons Complex Is Shaping Itself into a Destination

Kate Gourde

Kate Gourde

Kate Gourde laughed as she talked about how she’s spent the past several weeks rolling up her sleeves and “diving back into things” at Cooper’s, the curtain and specialty gift shop she’s been managing for the past several years.

“I felt like I had been neglecting my own business and was anxious to really sink my teeth back into it,” she told BusinessWest, using some intriguing language to sum up what she and her husband, Robert, have been doing for the past three years.

This would be a comprehensive conversion of the former Country Squire Furniture Shop on Main Street in Agawam into a home for a host of small, and complementary, businesses — a project that is far from complete, but has advanced to the point where Gourde feels comfortable spending much more time at Cooper’s, which is located directly behind the landmark named after Ensign Thomas Cooper, the Civil War naval hero who once lived there.

Only a few small spaces in the 14,000-square-foot building on Main Street in Agawam are not occupied, and plans are emerging for those rooms as well. And as the business names on the large sign on the front lawn reveal, the repositioning of this property has gone pretty much according to the vision that Gourde related when BusinessWest first talked with her in February 2012.

Indeed, as she led a tour of the property back then, Gourde pointed to a large space at the front she thought would be ideal for a small restaurant. It is now home to the Squire’s Bistro, operated by Fred Withee, former owner of Storrowton Village. Likewise, she said another two-room space toward the front would be ideal for a hair salon — it is now occupied by Shear Techniques, which moved roughly a mile down Main Street — and that a large space toward the back of the property would be perfect for a dance studio; LHQ Danceforce & Wellness has set up shop there.

These ventures have been joined by a consulting business, a skin salon, a massage therapist, the Individual and Family Counseling Center, Dupre Hypnosis, and even state Rep. Nicholas Boldyga, who set up his regional office there last fall.

Not everything has gone according to the script, certainly, said Gourde, who noted that some early tenants had short stays, promoting more due diligence before leasing out space. Overall, she described the conversion as both a “journey” and a “learning experience on many levels,” as she and her husband have added ‘landlord’ to their professional résumés. But the blank canvas that existed in the winter of 2012 has been filled in pretty much as they envisioned it would be.

What remains is more hard work to make Cooper’s Commons the destination that the Gourdes intend it to be. This includes effective marketing of the complex, she said, adding there has been use of a website, social media, and some television spots to promote the location as a place to “spend an hour or spend a day.”

“We’ve done our best to continue to work on the branding of the location and the promotion of the location to help all of our tenants move forward,” she explained. “That’s all we want — to see everyone take care of their own business and do well.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked at length with Gourde and some of her tenants about how Cooper’s Commons has come together, and what the future holds for what all those involved hope will become a retail destination.

New Lease on Life

Dianne Palazzi had been doing business about a mile to the south on Main Street, in one of Agawam’s myriad strip malls, for more than a quarter-century, and had no real desire to leave that location.

But one day, while she was shopping at Cooper’s, Gourde asked her to take a look at a two-room space within the old Country Squire building.

It wasn’t love at first sight, but something approaching it, said Palazzi, who admitted that the ornate fireplace in one of the rooms helped stir the imagination and eventually prompt her to sign a lease.

Fred Withee

Fred Withee says the unique space in the old Country Squire furniture building was a perfect fit for his new venture.

I saw the fireplace, and that’s all it took,” said Palazzi, who became the first tenant in July 2012, with a laugh. “It took a while for people to find out we were here, but now things are picking up  — we’re getting more walk-ins. This is a great location for us.”

This same story, or something closely approximating it, played out several times over the next several months as the Gourdes worked to fill in that aforementioned blank canvas, with spaces tranging in size from 200 to 2,700 square feet.

Indeed, Withee said he was semi-retired after selling Storrowton, but was looking at a possible new venture, a coffee roaster, when he started talking to Gourde about the old furniture store he’d frequented years earlier.

Today, his establishment features some furniture he bought there, as well as a collection of antique tools amassed by Gourde’s father, Arthur Leary.

“I have a grandfather clock, a painting, and some lamps — I brought them back home,” he said. “I knew the building well, I was a good customer, and when I looked at this space I knew that this is where I wanted to be.”

He said business has been good, though challenging, as it has been for many in this sector. Overall, he sees a good deal of promise, not only for his eatery, but for the complex as a whole.

“As people find out we’re here and visit, the ambiance gets their attention,” he said. “We couple it with good food and a friendly atmosphere, and they come back, and the same is true for the whole complex.”

When she talked with BusinessWest in 2012, Gourde said the space wouldn’t exactly sell itself, but she believed that once people saw it, they would want to make it home.

And that’s what has happened.

Gourde said the property has been developed in two phases, with the ground floor coming first, with a focus on retail, and then the second floor, which has been shaped mostly into offices for professionals, ranging from Boldyga to a business consultant to a home-care business operator.

The first floor was filled by the end of 2012, said Gourde, adding that there was a short lull, followed by a somewhat frantic push last fall and early this year to fit out the second floor for interested parties.

The process of tenanting the structure — a home that was expanded several times after being converted into a furniture store — has gone very much according to the original vision, with the size, shape, and amenities in each space often dictating its new use.

“We let the building speak to us about where the spaces would fall,” said Gourde. “And it’s an interesting building, because there were so many additions over the years. We had to figure out how to connect that addition to this addition and connect the front to the back. And with everything having to be up to code, for fire and handicap accessibility, it had its challenges, but it all worked out fine.

“Each space is definitely unique,” she went on, “and it’s been fun to watch how each tenant’s personality has come out in their space. We kept the common areas kind of subdued and calm, with classic colors and such, but the tenants took the ball and ran with it when it came to their own space. Overall, it’s classic and charming, with a contemporary twist.”

She said converting the Country Squire has been both a “monumental undertaking” and a labor of love, one that has included taking on the often-challenging role of landlord.
“We’ve learned a lot of lessons,” she said with a laugh, adding that the learning curve is ongoing. “It’s been an interesting project; about a year into it, my husband looked at me and said, ‘how do you like being a landlord now?’ I kept hoping it would get easier, but it hasn’t.”

Moving forward, while contemplating whether to convert the remaining second-floor space into apartments, as originally planned, and deciding when to start the elaborate (and expensive) process of repainting the complex, the Gourdes will focus much of their energy on marketing, making people aware of the of all that’s happening in the old furniture store, and helping their tenants succeed.

“It’s amazing how many people know the building because it’s a landmark,” said Gourde, “but because we didn’t change the front of the building drastically, many people are still unaware of all the changes that have happened within, so we’re trying to get the word out.”

The sign outside Cooper’s Commons

The sign outside Cooper’s Commons tells the story of how the complex has become populated with an eclectic mix of businesses.

To make them aware, the Cooper’s Commons website has been revamped, with links to the websites of the tenants. Meanwhile, there has been some marketing across several media, said Gourde, adding that the message is that the complex isn’t an office building — it’s a retail destination.

“I think that we can make this into more of a draw to bring people in,” she went on, “and let people know that there are so many things here to do and see. You can spend an hour or spend the day, depending on how much time you want to give it.”

Building Momentum

While Gourde is neglecting her own business far less than she was months ago, there is still much to do at the Commons, from finalizing plans for the remaining space to that aforementioned painting project, to marketing the complex.

This was all part of the vision Gourde laid out nearly three years ago.

As she said, it hasn’t all gone according to the plan. But for the most part, the complex has come together as the couple had hoped, and when people see the huge red building now, they don’t think of furniture — they think about an intriguing mix of small businesses.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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