Steve Oakes was looking to invest in real estate in a location where he could become part of the “social and economic scene” of the community. He also wanted to find a place with “momentum” where he could see growth potential. Steve says that he found both in Pittsfield.
Steve lived and worked in Manhattan for many years, running an extremely successful animation production company called Curious Pictures. The company, one of the largest on the East Coast, was known for work with Disney, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.
“We were responsible for thousands of TV commercials, including Cap’n Crunch, the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Trix rabbit, Spuds MacKenzie and the list goes on,” he said.
After he sold the company, Steve started to buy and manage rental properties.
“I moved into real estate because it was tangible,” Steve said.
His first rental property investments were definitely in a place with momentum, the then up-and-coming Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. As the market became hotter and prices went up, he knew that he would no longer be able to see the returns that he wanted, and that he needed to find another place to pursue his interest.
“Most of the appreciation in Williamsburg has already happened. Williamsburg property is overpriced,” he said.
Steve decided to sell his property and find that place with momentum, where he could be part of the scene.
“I am migrating my investments to the Berkshires,” he said.
He first purchased a historic building in Lee and then three commercial buildings in Pittsfield’s downtown along Park Square and North Street. He spent more and more of his time in the Berkshires and now lives here full-time.
“I sold a 2-bedroom condo in Williamsburg for $2 million and with the proceeds, I bought the entire Shipton building on North Street. It takes up an entire city block and has 60 tenants,” he said. “It is a better performing investment, too. I am receiving four times the cashflow in Pittsfield than I was getting Brooklyn.”
He is not the only one buying properties on the main roads in Pittsfield’s downtown. He sees that as a major sign of growth that he was seeking.
“You can see things happening in Pittsfield. It has some momentum,” he says. “The Dottie’s building has a new owner that’s renovating. There is new market-rate housing that Allegrone Construction is doing with the Howard Building and the Onota Building. And now he is doing the Wright Building. The cinema has a new owner. The Colonial Theater has got some good momentum. The Barrington Stage is world-class.”
He also notes the increase in the number of entrepreneurs and businesses with younger employees opening in the downtown area.
“One particular success is a company in my Crawford Square building called VidMob. They started as a group of four guys doing some software development for a company whose headquarters is in Manhattan. They doubled in size and are now doubling again. They could be 50 people by the end of next year,” Steve said.
Their employees “tend to be younger by virtue of the demographics of the industry. They are well salaried and love being in an urban setting where there are cultural and natural amenities within a very short distance. This is one of the major positives for Pittsfield. It has a critical mass of the things you need in a City. But, you can be rafting on the Housatonic River or at the dance festival at Jacob’s Pillow in short order,” he added.
He believes that these companies will play an important role in the “momentum” he seeks.
“Most of the people I talk to say there is demand for rentals downtown. As the trend continues, you are going to see more pedestrians and consumers out on the sidewalk looking for local amenities. Even though retail is under siege nationally, the population in Pittsfield is percolating in the right direction to support more,” Steve said.
“I have been working very hard to get a mix of tenants. Of course, part of it is selfish so that the properties perform. But, also, it brings energy to downtown which sparks growth,” he said.
“My low vacancy rate is supported by the efforts of the City. I have seen new businesses come to town and find me by word of mouth as a good citizen landlord. I have affordable spaces in great locations,” he adds.
Steve also worked with Laura Mick, Pittsfield community development specialist, and the Pittsfield Department of Community Development to receive a $25,000 grant for the installation of a handicapped accessible bathroom designed to meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards for a new tenant opening in his building on East Street.
“Laurie and the City’s program for ADA upgrades is amazing. A cash grant allowed me to include a proper ADA quality bathroom in a recent storefront upgrade. I could have left a cramped little bathroom for employee use only. But with this program we got a triple win, adding value for me as the building owner, a real amenity for my tenant, and progress for the public at large,” he said.
Steve is convinced that Pittsfield is a great place to build a business in addition to investing in real estate. In 2018, he started a new business with Milltown Capital called Green Apple Linens.
“Green Apple Linens was invented because we were brainstorming about what Berkshire businesses might need. A commercial laundry for high end linens seemed to be a niche that fit right in with the big hospitality industry in the Berkshires.” he said. “We cater to resorts that own their own fine linens. Our high tech systems produce a wonderful finish to quality cotton sheets that the demanding guests at premium resorts expect.”
The Pittsfield Economic Revitalization Corporation (PERC) awarded a Technical Assistance Grant of $5,000 to Steve for architectural and engineering fees to evaluate a space for a commercial linen start- up business. Steve and his business partner did extensive renovation to a blighted abandoned tire store on West Housatonic Street. The private investment totaled over $500,000. In addition, Steve worked with the Mass Small Business Development Center in Pittsfield to review and refine their business plans.
Green Apple Linens created jobs for 7 to 10 employees in Pittsfield.
Because of the size of Pittsfield, Steve said it was relatively easy to get involved in the social and economic fabric of the City. It has a “small-town feel” even though it is a City. He can meet with the mayor, city officials and bank presidents when he needs to. That was something that would have been impossible in New York.
“The City has been great to work with,” Steve said. “They really try to help businesspeople and startups in any way they can.”
– by Roger Matus