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April 22, 2019 FOCUS: Small Business

Armory redevelopment jolts Manchester's lagging commercial office footprint

HBJ Photos | Joe Cooper Developers John Gasper and Peter Bonzani have renovated the Manchester armory at 330 Main St. into more than 20 small-business office suites. The 43,000-square-foot building was a much-needed addition to the town's sparse office-space footprint. Tenants include a wig shop (shown right). It also stores boats, cars and other automobiles.

When the state decided to shed several armory bases in recent years, some Manchester officials envisioned an opportunity to redevelop its military outpost into a medical facility, given its proximity to Manchester Memorial Hospital.

Those ambitions never materialized for the long-vacant armory at 330 Main St., but the 43,000-square-foot building today provides another key need for the town: commercial office space.

In less than two years, developers and Bolton residents John Gasper and Peter Bonzani acquired the three-story building for $235,600 and converted the majority of its space into small-business offices. The longtime friends have filled 80 percent of the 20-plus, 400-square-foot office suites it created, with nearly all tenants — ranging from a digital radio station to a psychotherapist — coming from out of town.

Tenants, on average, pay $400 a month in rent.

“As far as affordable office space, something like this is hard to find in town,” said Gasper, a veteran volunteer fireman who also moved his antique fire truck restoration business, Gasper's Automotive Restoration, to the armory's gymnasium.

The armory's revival is good news for the town of Manchester, which has far less office space than its smaller neighbors, including Glastonbury and East Hartford, in addition to towns like Windsor and Windsor Locks.

As of year-end 2018, Manchester had just seven office buildings — not including medical facilities — comprising 144,958 square feet of space, according to commercial broker-advisor CBRE. Only 10 percent of that space is vacant.

Meantime, in its shadow, Glastonbury and East Hartford each have 1.5 million square feet of office space, with vacancy rates of 13.3 percent and 34.4 percent, respectively, CBRE data show.

Manchester's lack of office space may surprise some, given its standing as a retail and restaurant hub for communities east of the Connecticut River.

“I've tried to fill that market,” said Bonzani, who began eyeing development projects in town more than a decade ago, attracted to Manchester's prime position between UConn's Storrs campus and downtown Hartford. “That's really what I went after.”

Gary Anderson, Manchester's director of planning and economic development, said there's no apparent reason why the town has so little office space compared to its neighbors.

In recent years, however, the town has welcomed several major industrial and mixed-use developments, he said, in addition to a newly minted 103,000-square-foot headquarters for Bob's Discount Furniture and other projects at the Buckland Hills mall.

Creative uses

The armory isn't Bonzani's first project in town. In 2006, the former Pratt & Whitney engineer purchased Hilliard Mills, a woolen mill that has since been converted into a 103,000-square-foot mixed-use development.

Two of that property's six buildings are now dedicated to office space, which is near capacity with 43 tenants.

Three other Hilliard Mills buildings are being renovated by year-end into a banquet hall and bridal suite for weddings.

Bonzani, who said he has an enthusiasm for buying and flipping historical buildings, is also converting Manchester's former Glastonbury Knitting mill into a senior-housing complex.

The armory, built in 1923 and formerly occupied by the National Guard for training, vehicle storage, recreational activities and military dances, is now being used by a wide variety of small-business tenants.

It hasn't yet drawn interest from businesses in the healthcare industry, according to Gasper, despite being flanked by Eastern Connecticut Health Network, Community Healthcare Credit Union and the Manchester Pharmacy.

To date, 17 of 21 office units have been leased for three-to-five years. Occupants include several artists working in ceramics, painting and drawing, and a massage therapist, tennis racquet distributor, drum instructor, recording studio and wig shop. A 10,000-square-foot gymnasium in the rear of the building is also being used by Gasper's other business venture, Manchester Vehicle Storage, which safeguards cars, trucks and boats.

Gasper and Bonzani, partners in Armory Group LLC, have invested about $200,000 into renovating the former military facility with new electrical updates and other cosmetic improvements like new lighting and paint, among other changes. They plan to spend another $250,000 to add an elevator, additional staircase, brick repointing and decorative fencing outside.

Gasper and Bonzani say they are confident they will fill the remaining four suites and five others that will come online when they complete the next phase of renovations to the armory's third floor.

“We have amenities in town, there are tons of restaurants and retail,” Bonzani said. “I think that has been a big boon to the success” for early tenant growth at the armory.

This story has been updated

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