Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Family Affair

Family Affair
By Lee Chilcote

Michael Fleming first noticed the solid brick fa├žade and big, storefront windows of the former Oddfellows Hall on Lorain Avenue when he was training for a marathon. Wedged between a storefront church and a biker shop, the building seemed like a diamond in the rough.

“I was running one day, and the building jumped out at me,” says Fleming. “Lorain may be shabby and a bit down-at-the-heels, but it’s a very pretty street, and it’s affordable.”

Fleming saw that the property was for sale, and one day he ventured inside. The first thing he saw was the mahogany bar, covered in dust. That’s when he fell in love.

“I’ve always wanted to live above a bar,” says Fleming, who worked as a chef in Boston and Miami before moving back to Cleveland, his hometown, to pursue development in 2005.

Last year, Fleming bought the Ohio City building for $150,000 with his dad, his mom and his brother. The family members formed Solo Development LLC to invest in Cleveland real estate. They plan to renovate the first floor storefront and turn the upper two stories into loft apartments. Michael and his brother David will move into two of the apartments, and rent out the third.

“We are making an investment in the center of Cleveland,” says Ken Fleming, Michael’s father. “Since we purchased the building, we’ve seen other new developments sprout along Lorain.”

Ken Fleming cited over $16 million in investment on Lorain Avenue, including such projects as the St. Ignatius Performing Arts Facility, Providence House Campus expansion, the D.H. Ellison Company, the Cleveland Environmental Center, and the United Office Building.

The Flemings’ development was financed by Western Reserve Bank in Brecksville, in partnership with Cleveland Action to Support Housing (CASH), a non-profit whose mission is to provide low-interest loans to help spur reinvestment in Cleveland neighborhoods.

“We helped to finance the project at a reduced interest rate,” says Marcia Nolan, Executive Director of CASH. “We made deposits with Western Reserve Bank, and this enabled the borrower to save money.” She added, “Our work helps to make projects like this feasible.”

The developers will spend an additional $275,000 to create apartments in the building. The units will have a contemporary, loft-like feel, and will include such amenities as new kitchens and baths, in-suite laundry, and open floor plans. The third floor – which was originally used as a ballroom in its heyday, and has fourteen foot ceilings – is being transformed into a two bedroom, loft apartment. Michael plans to move into the apartment when it’s finished.

Renovating the building has turned into a family project. “My dad, my brother and I came down on Saturday mornings to tear apart the old plaster and lath from the walls and ceiling,” says Michael Fleming. “We spent about four months doing that before hiring a crew.”

During the redevelopment, the developers have coped with many challenges, including moving walls and reconfiguring electrical and plumbing systems. Michael is determined to restore the cove ceilings in the old ballroom, which were badly damaged by a leaky roof.

“Rehab is like peeling off layers of an onion,” Michael says with a laugh. “It’s a good learning experience.”

The Oddfellows building, which was built in 1870, has a rich, varied history. Over the years, it has housed the Hungarian Men’s Singing Society, the Communist Party of Northeast Ohio, and a hardcore music club called “Speak in Tongues,” among others.

Now that his rehab project is in full swing, Michael has fallen out of love with the building. Yet he still believes that the investment in Lorain Avenue will pay off over time. “One of the reasons I moved back to Cleveland is because it is an affordable place for a young person to invest, and it has great, historic buildings,” he says. “There’s so much opportunity here.”

Michael is already planning future dinner parties in his new home, and he has even talked about starting his own restaurant on the first floor. At the moment, however, refinishing the mahogany bar will have to wait. He’s got a lot of work to do before moving day.

[Note: This profile was written for Cleveland Action to Support Housing (CASH). It was published in Cool Cleveland.)

Two Organizations I Admire

Recently, I've been inspired by the work of two exemplary organizations, the Galilean Theological Seminary and Passages Inc. The GTC provides training and mentoring for Hispanic pastors that serve the Latino community on Cleveland's west side (they are the only organization of their kind in the state of Ohio). Passages provides job readiness, mentoring and fatherhood programs for African-American men in Cuyahoga County. Thanks to referrals from my friend Nicole McGee, a fellow grant writer, I wrote small grants for each organization.