Sparks set to sell downtown site

Developer near deal with downtown furniture store owner to purchase building




The northeast corner of Broadway and Evergreen Boulevard won’t be the same without the Sparks Home Furnishings store, located there since 1951.

But a change is likely on the horizon for the familiar brick-and-glass building and its double marquees emblazoned with the company’s identity, “Sparks,” spelled out in big blue letters. A downtown developer is moving forward with plans to transform the building into a multitenant space for a second Torque Coffee Roasters coffee shop, new headquarters for Olson Engineering Inc., and more office and retail space, although the store owner says nothing is settled yet.

Sparks owner Tom Craig says the property sale isn’t finalized. But if the expected deal comes to pass, it will mean an end this summer to a family-owned company that has been downtown since 1882. The company is now in its fourth generation of family ownership.

Developer Ryan Hurley, whose company has been acquiring and redeveloping downtown real estate for six years, has commissioned a design for renovating the building, lined up a couple of tenants and deposited earnest money toward purchasing the site. He expects the deal to close in June for the 40,000-square-foot structure at 1001 Broadway. The store sits one block west of the main freeway overpass that carries vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians over Interstate 5 and into the downtown core.

“It’s important as one of the gateway properties to downtown,” said Hurley, of Hurley Development LLC.

He anticipates spending $1.5 million to renovate the Sparks site, across C Street from Vancouver’s historic Academy building and grounds, the focus of the Fort Vancouver National Trust’s $10.6 million fundraising purchasing and restoration campaign. The $38 million Vancouver Community Library opened in 2011 on a site kitty-corner from Sparks.

Craig, 60, said his store will operate as usual until the real estate deal becomes final. He’s been in this position before, said Craig, a descendant of Marshall Rowe Sparks, the company’s founder. The Sparks site came close to selling a few years back, but that deal never closed.

“You never know if it’s going to come to fruition,” Craig said, although he is ready to sell the property.

“I have to retire at some point,” said Craig, who co-owns Sparks with other family members and has worked in the business for 37 years.

Neither Craig nor Hurley would disclose the selling price being discussed.

“We’re pretty confident about moving forward,” Hurley said.

The developer said Olson Engineering will take up about 50 percent of the east side of the building, at the northwest corner of C Street and Evergreen.

“Torque is taking the corner of Broadway and Evergreen,” Hurley said. A small retailer or office user would be ideal for another space just north of the coffee seller’s space, he said. A health care provider is interested in a small, separate space in between the spots proposed for Torque and Olson Engineering.

“We want to have seating for between 60 and 80 (people),” said Ryan Palmer, who co-owns Torque, a coffee wholesaler that operates a roasting facility and coffee shop at 501 Columbia St. That coffee shop will remain open.

Vancouver-based Olson Engineering’s 28 employees now report to two office spaces, said Kurt Stonex, a principal and spokesman for the company.

“Our plan has always been to relocate into a single location,” he said. “This will improve collaboration.”

Hurley expects last year’s uptick in home sales to increase demand among engineering firms for downtown office space. His earlier downtown projects have attracted Web-based design firms as well, such as Gravitate Design Studio in the former Koplan’s Home Furnishings building at 1012 Washington St. Hurley brought Gravitate into the space in 2011 and Gravitate has since renovated it.

Hurley also recruited high-tech apps maker Woobox to lease space at 808 Main St., part of his downtown holdings.

“We really need to be more thoughtful and creative to get the small companies here,” he said.

‘Engineering feat’

Hurley, 39, learned about real estate development working as a project manager for Hinton Development Corp., a Vancouver-based developer of industrial property.

He arrived on the downtown real estate scene in 2009 with his first project, the $1.5 million rock-climbing venue, The Source Climbing Gym, on a vacant city lot at West 12th and Main streets. Hurley also bought and remodeled side-by-side vacant buildings on Main Street, and last year purchased for $3.2 million the fully leased Pacific Tower building at 915 Broadway, just south of Sparks.

Hurley has high hopes the Sparks makeover will activate the downtown sector with new energy. Vancouver-based LSW Architects will design the remodel.

“The building is tired,” Hurley said. “To create a fresh facade on the outside will not only increase the visual appeal, but the activity level.”

As for the Sparks building itself, Hurley said the structure is one of the first with a “poured-in-place” foundation made by pouring the liquid concrete into molds. Heavy timbers were used in the building’s midcentury rafters, as were wooden plank floors, Hurley said. He hopes the remodel will expose some of the historic workmanship of the post-war-style building.

“The building was an engineering feat back in its day,” Hurley said.

Sparks owner Craig credits his grandfather, Harry Craig, for the solid structure.

“My grandfather was an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) graduate” in civil engineering, Tom Craig said.

Harry Craig came into the family business through his marriage to Norma Sparks, the daughter of Marshall Rowe Sparks. The store at Broadway and Evergreen opened during the 65th year of business for Sparks, which started as a tinsmithing shop somewhere below Fifth Street in 1882. The business evolved into a hardware store that sold everything from tools to work boots. It moved to Fifth and Main and, later, to a site at 607 Main St. before relocating to its present site.

Sparks’ inventory changed with consumer tastes. It sold dishes, toys, appliances and gifts when it opened at 1001 Broadway. Today, the store specializes in home and patio furniture.

“We’re one of the oldest family businesses in the Western United States,” Craig said. He has two sons, but both are pursuing separate careers and neither one is interested in taking over the family business.

“They’re doing their own thing,” he said. Craig admitted business has been tough for Sparks over the last few years of recession. He takes pride in his family’s long reputation for doing good, honest business.

“I hold my head high when I walk around town,” Craig said. “We took care of everybody.”