BankNote building beckons infant businesses
The smokestack of the BankNote building juts skyward like a six-story high red lipstick. Its owners hope it will be seen as a symbol of the transformation of the century-old mint into a magnet for schools and information-age businesses.
The former factory has been getting its facelift since 2007, when Denham Wolf Real Estate Services and Taconic Investment Partners bought the building for $32 million. The new owners have redesigned the parking lot, installed handsome new windows and refurbished interiors in their effort to attract tenants to the building’s vast 450,000 square foot space.
The economic recession that has rumbled the nation has forced the owners to alter their original business plan. Less is heard of a Chelsea-market-style food shopper’s paradise on the ground floor. More is heard of schools and government offices.
But three new tenants have given the owners cause for optimism: Fedcap, a non-profit that offers employment to people with disabilities; the neighborhood office of Rep. Jose Serrano; and the Sunshine Bronx Business Incubator, which comes closest to the original vision the owners announced when they gathered elected officials and community leaders to celebrate their acquisition of the building.
Four hundred entrepreneurs, looking to launch Bronx-based businesses will inhabit 180 workstations occupying 11,000 square feet when the Sunshine Bronx Business Incubator opens its doors in February.
“The future of New York City is right here in this building,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg, at the ground breaking on Nov. 3.
Citing ventures that began in five previously-established city-sponsored hubs, the mayor called these shared workspaces crucial to keeping New York economically stable and technologically ahead of the nation’s other cities. Incubators, for fashion, culinary and media start-ups have generated 150 jobs thusfar, he said.
As the first of its kind in the Bronx, the BankNote’s incubator intends to bring the borough hard-to- find resources that start-up businesses need, such as conference rooms, networking forums and desk space at an affordable price, according to Sunshine Suites co-founder Cheni Yerushalmi.
“There’s a lot more entrepreneurial zeal in the Bronx than anyone realizes,” he said, adding that the incubator will not only provide its tenants–or “shiners” as he calls them–with state-of-the art office space, but also with business advisers from Baruch College to help “channel” that energy into successful marketing and expansion strategies.
A chance to expand and hone her business ambitions is exactly what Clarisel Gonzalez hopes the incubator will do for her growing business, Puerto Rico Sun Communications, an umbrella website for online multimedia projects focused on the Latino community.
Gonzalez was among the first of 85 entrepreneurs to inquire about Sunshine space within a week of the groundbreaking.
“It’s something new to the Bronx and it makes me proud,” said Gonzalez, who grew up in Mott Haven, before moving from place to place throughout the Northeast and Puerto Rico as a self- described “gypsy” journalist.
Two years ago, she returned to the borough and registered her business, which centers on podcasts, photojournalism, blog entries and social media advising. Realizing she had to find ways to earn from her endeavors, Gonzalez began advertising, recruiting sponsors, teaching and, most recently, hosting networking events.
“I’m all about networking,” she says with a wide smile, adding that as soon as she heard of Sunshine’s Bronx location, she announced it on her blog.
Gonzalez stresses the importance of collaboration with other tenants of the incubator. “It needs to be part of a community mindset,” she said. “There needs to be something beyond a cubicle space.”
Yerushalmi argues that Sunshine will provide another layer of community to the Bronx—one built on existing success stories.
In addition to a desk for $295 a month, and the option of additional co-working stations for $195 month, the BankNote “shiners” will share access to a vacation home in Vermont, online blogs and live feeds of seminars with 1,600 entrepreneurs from Sunshine’s two Manhattan-based incubators.
In a conference room in the NoHo incubator furnished with sliding wood-paneled doors and leather Scandinavian-style chairs, Yerushalmi explained that the BankNote incubator began when the city’s Economic Development Corporation sought bidders for a $250,000 grant. Through a year of research and strategic planning in collaboration with the Bronx Chamber of Commerce, Sunshine won the bid.
“The Bronx is new territory,” said Yerushalmi, adding that he thinks his plan will bring more interest to the borough and embolden projects already there. Applicants include businesses with Bronx-based clientele, including financial consulting and child welfare start-ups, he said.
“There is so much interest, I don’t think we can know all the types of industries that could be there,” he says.
As the BankNote goes, so goes Hunts Point, believes Kellie Terry-Sepulveda, executive managing director of the nearby Point Community Development Corporation, whose Garrison Avenue headquarters were once part of the BankNote property.
“The neighborhood was planned around the BankNote,” she said. When it ceased to be used for manufacturing, with the help of her organization, it became an outpost for artists. Now, it’s embarked on a new course. “It’s a wonderful trajectory narrative for the community,” she said.
A version of this story appeared in the January 2011 issue of The Hunts Point Express.