Williamsburg of the West? The Academy could anchor historic area

New owner plans downtown ‘village’ but needs $16 million

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 
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The new owner of The Academy envisions the historic, massive brick landmark as the cornerstone of future development that will complement and bring new energy to the 366-acre Fort Vancouver National Site and downtown Vancouver.

But $16 million needs to be raised in order to make it happen, supporters said during a Tuesday press conference in the ornate chapel of the former Catholic school.

Supporters from the nonprofit Fort Vancouver National Trust say shops and restaurants could eventually ring The Academy’s 7-acre grounds to serve tourists, a project that could be modeled after a similar concept in Colonial Williamsburg, Va. Called Merchant’s Square, the 18th-century style retail village includes more than 40 shops, restaurants and attractions for area visitors.

That could done here, using the historically preserved Academy as a centerpiece for a village that could support Vancouver tourism, said Elson Strahan, president and CEO of the trust.

“The whole goal from any master planning standpoint would be to continue to highlight The Academy,” Strahan said.

“We would look to the property surrounding The Academy to provide other amenities.”

Tuesday’s event also launched a campaign to raise the $16 million — $5.4 million for initial renovations and planning and $10.6 million to buy the structure from the Hidden family, owners since 1969. Ancestors of the Vancouver family supplied the brick building materials for The Academy, built by the Sisters of Providence. Led by Mother Joseph, the order arrived here in 1856 from Montreal to set up a Northwest network of schools, hospitals, orphanages and other social-welfare operations.

Vancouver philanthropist Ed Lynch made the first $2 million pledge at the Tuesday event, attended by about 50 people. “I hope others will step forward as they see fit,” said Lynch, 91, co-chairman of the trust’s 24-member board of historic preservationists.

Strahan expects donations for The Academy to come both from within the community and from outside the area, as people learn of the one-year capital campaign.

“We absolutely believe that’s the case because Mother Joseph’s work extended throughout the entire Pacific Northwest,” Strahan said.

The legacy continues through the work of Renton-based Providence Health and Services, said Sister Susanne Hartung, chief mission officer for the nonprofit hospital system, which generated $240 million in net operating income in 2012.

“For us, it is the origin of our ministries,” said Hartung, who last year brought more than 2,000 Providence workers and associates to Vancouver to tour The Academy. “They loved this building. I hope they will understand the importance of it going forward.”

Strahan said the trust will try to keep The Academy’s mostly office tenants as plans go forward to assess and begin work on the three-story building and its huge paved lot in the heart of downtown.

The lot currently serves rent-paying tenants and parking lot customers. Some worry about the loss of downtown parking if the building becomes a destination.

“The truth is, every time you lose parking downtown, it’s a significant issue,” said Pam Lindloff, a retail real estate expert and associate vice president with NAI Norris Beggs and Simpson.

The Academy tenants now mostly include private counseling and consulting businesses, professionals who typically use the space for appointments only a few hours per week, said Bob Bernhardt, a broker and co-owner of downtown commercial real estate firm Coldwell Banker Commercial Jenkins Bernhardt Associates.

Bernhardt and his colleague Wally Hornberger helped negotiate the real estate deal between brothers Monte, Bill and Oliver Hidden and the trust.

Talks started several years ago but were shelved with the economic downturn, Bernhardt said. He had long set The Academy’s value at $12.5 million, although it was originally listed for $16 million.

“It’s difficult because you don’t find many comps,” he said, using a real estate term for comparable properties.

The building will at least need a new elevator and roof wor k, said Mike True, chief financial officer and chief operations officer at the trust.

The organization manages more than 150,000 square feet of historically preserved office and public space at the national historic site, an operation that generates a net profit of between $300,000 and $400,000 annually. The money is used by the trust for capital improvements which are expensive on histrionically registered buildings, Strahan said.

“We plow the additional revenue back into work on the site,” and to ­leverage grant funding, he said.

The organization is funded by private donations, grants and the net revenue it generates as acting property manager of the West Barracks and Officers Row.

“The trust has a master lease from the city of Vancouver, which is the underlying owner,” Strahan said.

That won’t be the case with The Academy, which will be owned outright by the trust. The site could complement the city’s holdings, said Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt.

“This transition is wonderful news. Not only because of its continued effort to preserve the history of our community, but in the vision for it to become another key destination point for our city,” Leavitt said.