In Easton revival, a credo: Don't fight a building
EASTON, Pa. (AP) -- It was 2003 when a friend told Mark Mulligan to invest in Easton.
"I thought, `No, not yet,'" recalled Mulligan, declining to identify the friend.
Three years later, Mulligan said, he began to see things were starting to get "frothy."
"I went back in 2006 and I said, `I missed it,'" said Mulligan.
But he didn't.
Mulligan, who once sang opera on stages in New York and elsewhere, can point to - and people can now see - the beautiful music being made, in a sense, through his revitalization efforts in Downtown Easton.
The 39-year-old Mulligan, who bought the former Pomeroy's building in 2010, has reopened the Northampton Street side of the building with two restaurants and 22 apartments.
He saw potential in dividing the building into two, 33,000-square-foot structures, with plans calling for the side facing Pine Street to include more apartments.
Mulligan, who is CEO of VM Development Group LLC, also purchased the former Northampton National Bank Building - known today as the National Building - at Northampton and South Fourth streets.
The company also has an agreement to buy the Gov. Wolf Building on North Second Street from Northampton County for $1.925 million, and closed Tuesday on the Alpha Building for $4 million.
And VM Development Group, which is operated by Mulligan and his partner, William Vogt, is part of what Easton Mayor Sal Panto Jr. has referred to as the "largest economic development project in this city," -- the former Simon Silk Mill on North 13th Street.
The mill's redevelopment is estimated to cost $70 million in private and public funding.
Mulligan attended music school in New York City, including Juilliard School. It's Mulligan's artistic background that has partly attracted him to Easton, he said.
To Panto, who played clarinet and saxophone in high school and has dabbled as a disc jockey, he sees Mulligan, a Hunterdon County resident, and his company as helping the city reach a crescendo in terms of redevelopment for the Downtown area and beyond.
"Mark is an excellent construction manager," Panto said. "People have sought him out. He knows his numbers before he gets into a project, and he knows what his investors are willing to pay."
He called Mulligan's move of splitting the Pomeroy's building into two "ingenious."
"I was certainly impressed with his team," the mayor added. "I think when you think about Mark, Mark is the kingpin, but he has the team."
TALENT FOR REDEVELOPMENT
Sitting one day last month in a conference room on the top floor of the National Building, Mulligan comes across during an interview enthusiastic about Easton and confident in his ability to help wipe away decades of urban struggle.
He grew up in Upper Arlington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. His parents, Bernard and Linda Mulligan, are retired professors at Ohio State University.
He says he "probably knew at 14" that he wanted to study music and perform on stages around the world.
"Columbus didn't really have what I needed to be an opera singer," added Mulligan, who graduated from high school at 16.
Meanwhile, his family also worked part time in real estate and along the way, he learned carpentry and construction management.
He and his parents acquired rental properties in Manhattan. Eventually, when Mulligan left the opera-performing world, he moved to the Flemington area, where he and his wife, Kate, purchased a farm.
He has bought, renovated, rented and sold buildings elsewhere, including in New Jersey. With Vogt, VM Development has refurbished properties in Flemington and Washington, in Warren County.
Officials in Washington miss Mulligan for his talents redeveloping older properties.
Scott McDonald, the mayor of Washington, where Mulligan refurbished two buildings, can vouch for Mulligan's talents.
"He's exceptionally intelligent," McDonald said. "One of the things he does best is to take a building and restore it from a historic standpoint."
"He's smart, fair; he's a tough business person, but he's a fair business person," added Sandi Cerami, executive director of the Washington Business Improvement District.
"He dots every `i' and crosses every `t,'" said Cerami. "He saw these two great opportunities in Washington; in the interim, those buildings are fitted out and full."
Panto said as part of his research on Mulligan, he drove to Flemington to see Mulligan's company's work on the old Flemington National Bank and former clock tower buildings.
He says he also spoke to borough merchants and others he encountered on the street to ask if they knew about Mulligan.
"I talked to different people," Panto said. "I saw the projects."
A SENSE OF DEJA VU
It was nearly 30 years ago when the mayor introduced a bright, young man who promised major Downtown Easton revitalization.
The mayor was Panto, in the middle of his first tenure as mayor (he served through most of the 1980s). And the developer, George A. Switlyk, like Mulligan, also lived in Hunterdon County.
Switlyk, who took over many Downtown properties including the Alpha Building, eventually left behind 35 unpaid mortgages totaling nearly $8 million. He also served one year in federal prison in the late 1990s.
Panto expressed concerns when Mulligan, fresh off the Pomeroy's Building, became interested in the Simon Silk Mill.
But whereas Switlyk was an investor, buying property and leveraging it toward a future purchase, Panto says Mulligan is more practical in his approach to development.
"The differences being Mark is hands-on construction management, and he has the skills to do that," Panto said.
Cerami, executive director since 2008 of the Washington BID, doesn't see Mulligan abandoning his properties in the borough or in Easton.
"You should all count your blessings," she said. "You are very, very lucky; he is a responsible property owner."
For Mulligan, the topic of Switlyk is a touchy subject.
"I didn't think this was going to turn into that," he said a one point in the interview.
Mulligan says he became aware of Switlyk from people, including Panto, who mentioned the rogue developer sometime after his company bought the Gov. Wolf building.
"The mayor asked me . `Gov. Wolf . we know you're in Pomeroy . There is this Switlyk guy .,'" said Mulligan.
"I have no doubt in my mind what we are going to do. Pomeroy can be a testament on that.
"You know what? Every town has had their person who came in and failed and came out. The size and the scope of the projects we are doing are not that difficult. The mill is the most difficult. But the Gov. Wolf Building is actually a much easier project than Pomeroy's. . I'm 100 percent leased over everything I own.
"Every project I've ever taken, I've done."
`NEVER FIGHT A BUILDING'
VM's motive is restoration, or what Mulligan calls "readaptive use."
"One of my mottoes is, `Never fight a building,'" Mulligan said. "If a building is in a certain manner, you try to work very hard with it.
"We spend a lot of time working around issues. It's a complicated process . but we're very good at it."
As in the Pomeroy Building: When the developers were examining what to do with it, Mulligan said it came down to a simple premise: "We'll cut it in half."
"The biggest problem is you have to look at it in size and scale .," he says. "Now, there are 46 units; we leased the first 22 (apartments) in 60 days. Every square foot, including the basement, is being leased."
Here, in a nutshell, is Mulligan's plan for the Easton properties -- either those that have come to fruition or are envisioned.
The National is his company's "incubator" building - strictly office rental space.
Pomeroy's is mixed use, including the apartment rentals and commercial applications, such as the restaurants.
The Gov. Wolf Building he expects will become residential, though he says he has been approached about other possible uses.
The Alpha Building is VM's "Class A" property, he says, with another mix of commercial and residential. He envisions moving VM's offices from Flemington into the Alpha Building. "I am purchasing Alpha because I want to be sure that the rest of our investments are going to be secure," he said.
The Simon Silk Mill is being billed as a creative complex for artists and other professionals.
Live, work, play: That is Mulligan's philosophy with the properties he is redeveloping.
Slowly, perhaps, people are returning to cities like Easton, he says, because the suburban structure and new developments wrought in part by the post-World War II boom can't sustain themselves.
"The buildings are all here," said Mulligan of Easton. "We're going back to where we were 100 years ago. It's a really good way of dealing with it."
Information from: The (Easton, Pa.) Express-Times, http://www.lehighvalleylive.com