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December 12th, 2017

“This year has really been our year!”

I looked at my business partner Joel as he set up scaffolding for our next renovation. I had been working on outlining this update. With each highlight I listed, another two came to mind.

He laughed. “Isn’t every year?”

 

It’s true. Eight years ago Milton was a condemned structure. It was a hulking shadow in a neighborhood of single family houses. It was an unlikely place for our ideas. Sometimes, looking at the beautiful studios and businesses now filling the north wing, it’s hard to remember the mold-speckled ceiling tiles and dried bird shit caking the floor.

Every year has brought leaping improvements.

In 2017 we:

  • Built a brilliant residential space

  • Had our busiest year yet serving quality craft beverages to Alton at Maeva’s Coffee

  • And removed four 40 yard dumpsters of trash as we prepared three classrooms on the north wing for renovation.

Outside the schoolhouse, connections with new small businesses in Alton created a sense of camaraderie, making the community at large stronger than it has ever been.

 

Out of everything, our two proudest achievements of 2017 at The Milton Schoolhouse are these:

  • The completion of our first Construction Lease

  • The bittersweet success of coming full circle as Alton’s small business incubator.

 

The Construction Lease

Only 30,000 of our 85,000 sq ft building is currently renovated for use. We’ve had a waiting list on our commercial studios for two years; our capacity to build more spaces is limited by our own financial abilities to foot materials and time donated in volunteer construction. Until 2017, we could only construct one or two spaces per year to add to our incubator’s occupancy.

Having started a brick-and-mortar business ourselves (Maeva’s Coffee), we know how blessed we’ve been house the shop in a building we already own. Leases are often a make-or-break to new businesses. Scraping together enough funds for operating equipment, product, staff, licenses, and taxes is difficult enough. Typical commercial leases add even more financial stress to setting up a location.

This year my friend decided to open a second location for his restaurant in St. Louis. Not only is he busy running the first location and taking care of his family, he also has the added financial burden of designing and building a second location. While taking this risk, he’s also paying full rent on the space during construction.

He’ll be out more than $10k in lease alone before his doors open for business!

 

I understand this from the landlord’s view. After all, we’ve got property taxes, insurance, and bills to pay, too. If someone decides to take a year to build a space, that can come at a huge cost in lost revenue. His story is what inspired me to create the ‘construction lease’. I felt that, even with this risk as a property owner, it wasn’t fair to charge full rent before a business has the chance to operate.

This is especially important in an operation like The Milton Schoolhouse- where each room needs major updating and improvement for fire and safety before being passed for commercial use. If an entrepreneur takes a financial risk, invests in our space, builds out and grows out- is that investment just lost?

 

These questions were theoretical until Jay and Chantel Harvey of The Rogue Theatre approached us last spring. They had a dream of building and operating a theatre company focused on entertainment, progress, and creating real conversation in the greater Alton area. Chantel had previously operated another business at The Milton Schoolhouse. We loved having her then and were thrilled that she wanted to start a second venture in our space.

Here was the problem: Our availability to build was a year out and The Rogue Theatre couldn’t wait that long to get off the ground. Jay and Chantel’s trust in us allowed us to create a solution to the question, “How can you make leases fair for new businesses?”

They were absolute dedicated to making Milton their home so we came up with The Construction Lease.

 

Here’s how it works:

  • The entrepreneur is given 6 months or until acquiring their business license from the city (whichever happens first) to build rent free, after which they sign an operating lease.

 

  • Before construction, we look at the floor plans for the build out together. We categorize and assign a value to non-trade-specific construction materials. For example, the “electrical” category for the theatre included can lights and exit lights- but not stage lights.

 

  • When we’re ready to sign an operating lease, the business gives us their receipts for the materials they’ve invested. We file the receipts towards the categories previously agreed on and issue rent vouchers to the small business in trade for the materials.

 

  • How does a rent voucher work? Every month, the business can pay up to 50% of their total rent with the rent voucher. The vouchers don’t expire, so a small business has the flexibility to use it however they want. They might chose to use it all in the first few months, giving them time to build their customer base. Or perhaps, if they’re seasonal, they’ll save them for a down time. It’s whatever makes sense for them.

 

The Construction Lease method allows us to continue to help small businesses start by

  • Recognizing their financial risk by giving them some breathing room before they’re open for business

 

  • Thanking them for their investment in transforming an unused portion of our building by trading their materials towards rent

 

  • And giving them their best chance in the first year- the most difficult year of starting a business

 

If we can get a new business to survive beyond year one, we know they’ve got a chance at making it long term. Offering Construction Leases is a natural extension of the safety-nets and low-risk opportunities we already build into our model as a small business incubator.

Jay and Chantel Harvey offered us the opportunity to test the concept in real life. This summer, they signed a Construction Lease and took over the room above Maeva’s Coffee. Six months later it was transformed into a multi-use theatre that has been booked full with events for the last ten weeks.

The best part? The method works! Our second construction lease is now underway on the main floor of the building. We’ve also had the chance to share this concept with local political leaders in Edwardsville and Woodriver, as well as to community-minded landlords in developing areas of Chicago, who all hope to encourage other property owners in developing neighborhoods to take our lead.

 

Growing Full Circle

We made breakthroughs on helping more entrepreneurs launch their dreams in Alton, Il with pioneering the Construction Lease.

 

Our second great achievement in 2017, as always, were the growth and bittersweet “graduations” of the year.

The first graduate was Carrie Carpunky of Carrie Carpunky Photography. The Milton Schoolhouse was the first commercial home for her business. After five years of brand development and growth, she signed the lease on a large storefront property in downtown Alton. To read more about her success and story at Milton, check out our farewell post here.

Our second success was Alicia Jeffreys, owner of Shampooches Grooming. Like Carrie, The Milton Schoolhouse was Alicia’s first commercial space. Two years ago Alicia quit her day job to start her own business as a full-service pet groomer. Shampooches grew and Alicia added her first employee mid 2017. In October, she purchase a commercial building that has set vacant on the main stretch of Upper Alton for several years. We’re thrilled that Alicia and her phenomenal operation are now part of a rising number of small business breathing life into the Upper Alton area.

 

These bittersweet partings are a wonderful reminder of our mission here at The Milton Schoolhouse. We are revitalizing an abandoned schoolhouse, yes, but more so we are helping our neighbors turn their passion into their profession.

 

There is no greater gift to yourself, your family, or your community than to live your life doing what you love. We are honored to have been the jumping off point for more than two dozen artists and entrepreneurs here in Alton.


We’ve recently updated our list of businesses- with another new business coming to the studio currently under construction coming in January! To see our list of current businesses and visit our “Hall of Fame” of those who have grown from our incubator, click here.


 

Previous Updates

January 7th, 2017

Here at The Milton Schoolhouse, we are wrapping up our seventh year as a brick-and-mortar business incubator in St. Louis riverbend region. Since 2009, we’ve been dedicated to turning this once condemned structure into a rich and welcoming foundation for renewal in our neighborhood. Last year, four of our hosted businesses were honored by receiving recognition in the AdVantage’s Best of the Best awards. After signing two new leases this month, we are happy to announce that all of our currently renovated studio spaces have been filled.   

 

Templar Brewing Update

Since our update in August, Templar Brewing has made the decision to forgo their operation plans and liquidate their current investment. While the midwest brewing industry may be exploding in popularity, the realities behind this type of business include significant investments for fees, licenses, and equipment costs that leave fledgling businesses at the mercy of many unknowns. The time and resources associated with pursuing their operation exceeded even their most liberal estimates. We are proud of the gentlemen at Templar Brewing. They worked tirelessly to build what is an extremely complicated startup, taking on more risk and dreaming greater than most folks will ever dare. The tenacity of their spirit is not to be underestimated and it wouldn’t surprise us to see these brothers emerge as successful entrepreneurs in the future.

 

Locally, their work was heartily supported among our community. Templar was able to receive building permits and permission to acquire a local liquor license for our property. This precedent removes major obstacles to other food or beverage start ups at The Milton Schoolhouse. We are currently in early discussion with two businesses interested in this potential. If you would like to discuss what opportunities may be available at this location for a business that requires similar licensing, email Meredith at meredith.elston@gmail.com to set up a time to meet.

 

Construction at The Milton Schoolhouse

If you have followed our progress long, you will know that since our purchase of the building in 2009 we have struggled against our failing roof. This autumn brought fantastic news. Through the combined efforts of the team at Lowe’s Contractor Services, the consultation of our friend Robin Terry (Haunted R Theatre), and Joel Elliott’s tireless research and meticulous architectural sketches, we’ve found a solution that will protect our businesses and cost far less than we had imagined. After years of searching, patching, and making do, we look forward to 2017 being the year in which we begin installing a new metal roof on the north wing of our structure.

 

Developments at Maeva’s Coffee

In the last four months, we’ve been gifted over $12,000 worth of restaurant equipment from an anonymous donor. Joel Elliott has begun to install these pieces into our 730 sq ft commercial kitchen. While these behind-the-scenes advancements aren’t always apparent to the public, our kitchen staff are enjoying the change. The best part? The new bread-proofer is up and running. That means we now make homemade baguettes for our cheese tarts and CINNAMON ROLLS!

We are still discussing on how this equipment could be used to expand our offerings at The Milton Schoolhouse. But, coupled with the licensing we were granted last summer, we’d love a foodie with an entrepreneurial spirit to work with us on this project. If you’ve ever wanted to run a little take out counter, set up a Japanese eight-seat style ramen bar, or start a little pizza pop up- talk to us!

 

 

We hope everyone had a fantastic holiday season. We’re looking forward to another amazing year in Alton- thank you so much for your continued support!


 

August 23rd, 2016

The Milton Schoolhouse has now entered into its seventh year as a business incubator for small brick-and-mortar based businesses in the St. Louis riverbend region. The growth we’ve experienced in the last couple of years has been incredible. Since 2009, the building has been transformed from a condemned structure into a rich and welcoming cultural hotspot in our town. Last month we were recognized in the AdVantage Best of the Best, with Milton Schoolhouse-based businesses voted the area’s favorites in the following categories:

 

 

Best Massage- Massage at Milton

Best Photographer- Carrie Carpunky Photography

Best Pet Grooming - Shampooches

Best Coffee - Maeva’s Coffee

 

We are proud of the milestones achieved by Carrie Carpunky (Carrie Carpunky Photography) as she celebrates her fourth year of success in her commercial studio and Bobbi Brooks (Massage at Milton) for celebrating her third year of entrepreneurship at the schoolhouse.

 

 

 

Patio Update

This spring, a concrete front sidewalk and side patio were poured to provide outdoor seating for visitors. The new seating has been enjoyed by many customers this summer, especially under the new lighting in the evenings.

This side patio was to be a precursor to a larger patio in the center front of the structure that would accommodate expanded seating for both Maeva’s Coffee and the planned tap room of Templar Brewing Company. However, we were forced to put further patio construction on hold as our small outdoor improvements sparked a property tax assessment of the structure that increased our annual payment by a proposed 165%. After working with local authorities, the outcome was that our property taxes will now only double from 2016.

We are committed to providing lower-cost business space for new businesses, and any further tax increases would mean raising our current rental rates to accommodate the tax burden without accruing debt, since our current rates are calculated with a very thin margin. As a result, the large outdoor patio has been put on hold until Templar Brewing’s tap room has been completed or further studio space has been refinished to accommodate a greater number of commercial tenants. Unused funds collected from our 2015 crowdfunding campaign have been put into savings to use towards a larger patio when the building is able to support the changes it would bring.

Maeva’s Coffee + Kitchen Progress

In July, The Milton Schoolhouse went under a five day shut down for a large remodel in both Maeva’s Coffee and the commercial kitchen below. This was the first step to create a expanded food service and a walk-up tasting tap in partnership with Templar Brewing. Incredible progress has been made toward bringing this former classroom up to the health and safety standards necessary to support an anticipated large-scale food service expansion. Through hundreds of hours of labor from volunteers and our staff at Maeva’s Coffee, we were able to complete these projects during our shutdown:

 

  • 800 sq ft of commercial restaurant quarry tile flooring installed

  • full coverage of FRP on the walls + ceiling of the kitchen

  • installation of new electrical + gas lines to support anticipated future needs

  • better lighting installed for greater safety

Before the end of 2016, we will be able to install a commercial hood and fire suppression system, a second gas convection oven, a bread proofer, and a walk-in refrigeration unit that will allow us the storage space to begin milk and food delivery- saving many hours of labor a week in milk and grocery runs.

 

The public space of Maeva’s Coffee also received attention during this time. Closing to the public allowed us to:

 

  • replace the polyurethane finish on our counter tops with commercial spray epoxy

  • repurpose and refinish a 14’ section of bowling alley for expanded shop seating

  • replace and refinish new chairs for the shop

  • install a self-serve water counter for faster service

  • give the shop a deep cleaning that is difficult to do because of the long shop hours

Continuing 2016 Improvements

Architectural plans have been created and approved for the expansion of the kitchen into the lower hallway of the schoolhouse and the addition of a walk-up food counter and seating. Construction on the lower hallway of the north wing will begin this year as the schedule of Templar Brewing allows. This addition will change the dynamics of The Milton Schoolhouse. It will require 4,000 sq ft of hallway to be finished, and brought up to fire code. This area will be used for  for seating and walk area leading to a secondary restroom. The eight stall girl’s restroom, original to the 1904 section of the structure, is well on its way to becoming two separate restrooms with three stalls, and two sinks in each.

On the residential level of the schoolhouse, two of four classrooms have been completely stripped and prepared for construction. This month, we will undertake our first installation of 1,000 sq ft of metal roofing to replace the rapidly failing EDPM roof. Should installation be successful, we look to replace the roof of the entire north wing in the coming months, when weather permits. We have also begun soliciting quotes from local glass companies for replacement windows on the upper level. The frames on the third level have rusted through in places, creating potential fall hazards. We’ve patched them together for now but each classroom renovated on the top floor will need modern windows meeting current fire safety codes before we apply for residential permits.

 

Currently, we are build-testing a design for a studio-style residential space in one of the third-floor classrooms on the north wing.

 

For photos of our progress and updates on current events at The Milton Schoolhouse, check out our facebook!