This article is from the Erie Times-News
Erie doesn’t lack for empty office space.
John Persinger, CEO of the Erie Downtown Development Corp., said he had plenty of what he called “nondescript” offices from which to choose when he started scouting for a new home for the EDDC.
The 179-year-old Cashier’s House, located at 417 State St. and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, wasn’t even being offered for rent. But the building’s owner, the Erie Art Museum, was happy to consider the right tenant for the building, which had been sitting empty for 11 years.
“I knew I had found the right place as soon as I walked through the doors,” Persinger said. “This building is really a symbol for Erie.”
To be certain, the building has a certain kind of architectural gravitas, with its high ceilings, elegant chandeliers, hardwood floors and elaborate plasterwork.
But the Greek Revival-style building, owned for many years by the Erie County Historical Society, also has a historical pedigree that matches its appearance.
The 6,700-square-foot building, according to Persinger, was originally built to serve as the residence for the cashier or CEO of the first branch of the U.S. Bank. Eventually, the bank was declared unconstitutional and the building went on to find other uses — as a lawyer’s office, a finishing school, a bank, boarding house, a print shop and a pharmacy. The building now serves as the west wing of the Erie Art Museum.
Persinger, whose organization has signed a six-month lease and expects to continue on a month-to-month basis after that, hopes some of the building’s best days might be ahead as the headquarters of an organization that’s working to rebuild the core of downtown Erie by investing in real estate, attracting new residents, developing new businesses and promoting activities.
From the second- or third-floor windows of the building — and during a quick visit to the roof of the building — Persinger found himself looking down from the upper vantage points of the Cashier’s House on Wednesday.
“I spend a lot of time walking these areas,” he said. “I think it’s important to come off of street level and see what downtown looks like from up here. Could we put in some rooftop bars, maybe a rooftop garden?”
Along with two newly named staff members, Persinger said he expects the Cashier’s House will be more than a place to plan the future of Erie’s downtown. He’s hoping the building itself plays a role in that future.
That’s why he plans to buy a few comfortable outdoor rocking chairs that can be parked outside the building for the use of anyone who cares to sit for a while.
It’s a small step toward creating more public spaces, he said.
“It encourages people to stop and stay in the downtown,” he said. “It’s the simple things.”
He envisions other uses for the building, and they might not be as simple.
Persinger said he and his staff, who took possession of the building in early June, will be moving their offices onto the building’s second floor. He said he wanted to leave most of the first floor open to allow for the possibility of creating space for popup businesses or art installations.
“Many commercial spaces require lengthy leases,” of at least a year or as long as five years, he said.
That’s money many entrepreneurs don’t have, he said.
“What we want to do is help them,” Persinger said. “We would love to have them come in here and try out their ideas before they commit to that long-term lease.”
No one has agreed yet to become the first popup tenant of the historic Cashier’s House, but Persinger said a number of people have expressed interest.
The financial arrangements, he said, will be structured in favor of the prospective business owner.
“I am hopeful that we will be able to do something sometime soon,” he said. “Our goal is to revitalize downtown. We want to be able to support those businesses, not squeeze rent from them.”
For now, the newly-formed EDDC plans to stay in this historic building along State Street that might soon be flanked by a couple rocking chairs. But circumstances could change, especially if it turns out there’s a better use for the space, Persinger said.
“If that’s the case, we can go somewhere else,” he said. “We want to do what’s best for Erie. We want to stay nimble and be able to pivot.”
Jim Martin can be reached at 870-1668 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ETNMartin.