Project could incubate small businesses

Architect wants to convert Rossignol building

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

A building that once housed a big ski manufacturer may now become a small-business incubator.

Rossignol’s former headquarters on Industrial Avenue was vacated following the company’s 2005 sale to California-based Quiksilver Inc. The last of the employees recently moved out as the company consolidated operations.

Now Burlington architect J. Graham Goldsmith has proposed converting some of the 144,000-square-foot building into office space. The idea is to offer inexpensive yet customizable offices that fledgling businesses can afford.

“The concept would be to have multiple small offices … that could share certain common spaces such as reception, conference, break room, exhibition space and an existing locker room/work-out facility as well as bathrooms, etc.,” wrote Goldsmith in a letter to the Williston Planning Commission. “Tenants could start with just an individual office and enlarge within the building as their business grows.”

The town’s zoning rules, however, do not permit the building to be used solely as offices. Buildings in the industrial district can only include offices as an accessory use.

Williston Town Planner Lee Nellis is currently updating the town’s land-use rules. He said he will propose a change in the code that permits small-business incubators in industrial districts.

The change would be narrowly written to allow incubators without opening up the districts to general office use, Nellis said. The Selectboard must approve that change and the new rules as a whole.

The proposal for Rossignol’s former headquarters is modeled on a similar project at the former Lane Press building on Pine Street in Burlington.

The 150-year-old structure housed a printing press and warehouse space until Goldsmith bought it in the 1980s. It now accommodates 35-40 small businesses, said Yves Bradley, a broker with Pomerleau Real Estate who is working with Goldsmith.

He said there are few large manufacturers left in Vermont, making it unlikely the Rossignol building could ever be leased as currently configured.

But Bradley said demand for small, inexpensive office spaces is high. The proposed offices would be leased for $8.50 per square foot.

“We could start moving people in now,” he said. “The question is only who and how many.”

Greg Dirmaier, a broker and partner with J.L. Davis Realty in Williston, said the proposed prices would make the new office space among the least expensive in Chittenden County. Base rates per square foot range from $7 to $16. After fees are tacked on, prices can top $20 per square foot for the nicest buildings in the most desirable locations.

Dirmaier agreed with Bradley that there is little demand for large industrial buildings.

“I’ve been in the business a lot of years, and I used to get many calls from out-of-state manufacturers looking for space,” he said. “Now that’s almost non-existent.”

Plans filed with the town call for dividing a portion of the building into nine sections and adding entrance marquees and signs for each of the new tenants. Offices would range from 1,434 square feet to 30,862 square feet. Some of the existing warehouse space may also be leased.

The project must receive site plan approval from the town and await a zoning change before the proposal can move forward.

Rossignol’s North American headquarters were located in the facility for more than 30 years, said Hugh Harley, who retired as the company’s president in 2005.

Harley said he was a salesman for Rossignol in the late 1960s when he was asked to look for a place for the French company’s U.S. and Canadian operations. He said the Williston site was picked over another location near Boston.

During the 1970s, the facility was a booming manufacturing center. But after the ski industry declined in the early ’80s, manufacturing ceased, Harley said. It continued to serve as a headquarters building and a distribution center until last year, when Quiksilver moved those operations to Utah.

Conversion of buildings abandoned by companies like Rossignol is critical if Vermont’s economy is to flourish, Bradley said.

“The question is how do you take an existing manufacturing building and keep it from going dark,” he said. “This proposal will add flexibility and use the facility creatively.”