June 27, 2012BERLIN - "Just two good ole boys..." making a difference for Berlin's downtown and neighborhoods. The beginning of that old theme song to The Dukes of Hazzard, with a new ending, goes some way toward describing Berlin natives Tim Coulombe and Kevin Lacasse, who have been quietly fixing up old multi-family, and some single family, homes in Berlin, making them safe and improving neighborhoods overall.
Most recently visitors to Berlin's Main Street have no doubt noticed the construction going on in the building that once housed Tea Birds Restaurant. While some may have been a little inconvenienced by the work and maybe a little dismayed by the way it looks now, by fall they'll see a transformation that's well worth it.
This building, that has always housed retail units, restaurants and housing upstairs, is the latest project of the two, and their first commercial project.
The building, with a failed roof that brought in torrents of rain and had driven Tea Birds out, was perhaps for some beyond any value. Main Street Program Director Sylvia Poulin, knowing the type of work they had done on housing units in town, approached the two about possibly taking it on.
"We took two to three months to do our homework before deciding," Tim Coulombe said.
After of couple of months of looking it over and doing the math Coulombe and Lacasse decided to go ahead and they approached the city counsel about acquiring it. The city had acquired it for back taxes three years before and the failed roof had taken its toll, still the building had its charms and they knew Berlin needed good retail space.
The two men, who had grown up in Berlin and were college roommates, had formed a partnership, TKB Property, about three years earlier when they decided to look at rehabbing housing in Berlin. The name of their business is New England Family Housing.
When they decided to go ahead with the Main Street project, they had already rehabbed 23 residential properties in town, a total of 68 units. The city council was already aware of the quality of work they did, so when they came before them, the council was ready to listen.
The council initially suggested they acquire it for the back taxes, about $20,000, but with a projected rehab cost of $450,000, adding another $20,000 wouldn't make sense financially.
"We went back and sharpened our pencils, but we just couldn't do it with that," Coulombe said.
Ultimately the council decided it was worth having that commercial building, right in the center of downtown, fixed up, usable, and generating tax revenue, and decided to just deed it over.
A portion of the cost will come from Better Buildings. This program offers a low interest and grant program for commercial uses and partnered with PSNH to help homeowners with improvements with energy efficiency.
The rest is a private venture for their company.
To date, the roof has been repaired, asbestos removed and they are taking the building down to the studs. When that is done they will be looking for bids to rebuild it.
When completed there will be three commercial units on the main floor and six 1-bedroom apartments upstairs. The front apartments will retain all but the top arch of the large windows. Outside, however, the brick work for that arch will remain. The back apartments will have a deck overlooking the Dead River that runs along side the building and has a great view of Mt. Forest. All the apartments will retain the 12 foot high loft ceiling. They will be completely up to code, sprinkled, air conditioned and fire alarmed. The apartments will have hardwood floors and ceramic tile in the kitchen. The building will have a new wood pellet boiler for heat.
The main floor has a long history of retail uses. Before Tea Birds, other businesses included Brody's Ladies Shop, which closed in 1993, The Fashion Door, Raymond's Jewelry and Gifts, The Sheraton Restaurant, Splendid Lunch, and Lavigne & Brody.
Coulombe, Lacasse who were not able to be present for this interview, said they have used local suppliers and contractors for almost all of the work. The only exception is asbestos removal. They were not able to find a local business doing that.
Although they have no definite retail clients yet, a couple of people have approached him about the possibility and City Planner Pam Laflamme told them she has had requests in the past for good retail space.
Work is well underway under Project Manager Tony Smith. He has been the project manager for the other housing projects as well. In fact the first home they rehabilitated was a single family, which Smith moved into.
Smith has lived here about two and one-half years, but had worked for Lacasse for several years before that.
Lacasse has been rehabbing housing in other areas of the state for about eight years, mainly in the Clermont area, another blue collar manufacturing town like Berlin.
A few years ago he approached Coulombe about getting together and doing some buildings in Berlin. At that time, however, the numbers didn't make sense and they backed away.
Then, in 2009 the Neighborhood Stabilization Program became available and they looked at Berlin again.
According the Community Development Finance Authority (CDFA), which administered the program, "The Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) is designed to address the effects of abandoned and foreclosed properties in certain communities and neighborhoods in order to put them back into service for the benefit of rehabilitation and extended affordability.
NSP communities work with the private sector to obtain abandoned properties and, in many cases, rehabilitate the homes and make them available to low-to-moderate income residents."
They decided to put an application together to the CDFA. They had to get the city's blessing and approached Laflamme and Andre Caron, then Housing Coordinator.
The CDFA suggested they form a public/private group, with the city doing the demolition and TKB Property doing the rehab. They did and were awarded $4.3 million in the first round. Later the partnership was awarded another $1 million and TKB was given an addition $250,000 from money still available from the first round awarding.
It is with this money and the low interest money and grants from Better Buildings that they have been able to rehabilitate 23 properties. It has made a big difference in neighborhoods on the east side of the city.
In addition to 97 Main Street, they are also in the midst of rehabbing 81 Mason Street.
Because of the use of public funding in the rehabilitation of housing, there are income limits for tenants. They are 120 percent of the area median income. Coulombe said that comes to about $58,000 for single person and of course higher for a family, so, because income is generally lower here, income limits have not be a problem with renting the units.
In all of these rehabilitations they have strived to use exclusively local contractors when possible. The aforementioned asbestos removal has been the exception. But that could change. Initially, Coulombe said there was no one doing spray foam insulation. Now two local guys have acquired the equipment. So at least one new service, and business, has resulted from their efforts.
For now Coulombe said there is one more building he is looking at. After that he's not sure, but he does see this as a long-term business for him.
He works full-time for the state prison, but in five years he can retire and is planning on making this a career. His wife Kim is a hairdresser, mother and does a lot of the paperwork for the business.
As for properties needing their help, one only has to look around. They won't run out of work soon, and they are doing good for their hometown. Anyone wanting to see pictures of the homes they have renovated can visit their website: www.nefamilyhousing.com.