It has been 10 years of work, but I am ready for a fresh start in Harrisonburg.
I decided to move to Harrisonburg in 2008 so that my girls could attend a school that focused on music, art, play, and service. It was the right place to raise my family and the right school for my girls. However, it was not a place where I knew I could make ends meet as an architect. I had no clients in Harrisonburg, no business connections, and had only visited a few times to see my now X-wife’s family in Broadway. I knew Harrisonburg as a conservative farm community and not much more. We moved here because it felt like the right place to raise a family not to grow a business.
We purchased a recently built home in Timberville and moved to the valley in June 2008. Our home inspector was a building science expert – a sign of hope for my future in the valley. He and I discussed a new committee that had just formed in the local home builder’s association – the SVBA Green Building Committee. It turned out the Valley’s green movement had started, another good sign for my prospects as a green architectural firm.
I opened our Gaines Group Architect Valley branch in the basement of our Timberville house. My first task was building connections through the Home Builders association and the newly formed green building committee. I created a social media plan and marketed myself through twitter and Facebook. There was no marketing budget in the weak economy of 2008. I was shaking hands at Home Builder Association meetings to let people know I was in town and I would work for CHEAP to build a resume of local projects. I still had a lot of active projects in Central Virginia and was spending a LOT of time behind the steering wheel going to meetings and job sites in Charlottesville.
My first local opportunity in the Valley came from Glen Stoltzfus. He had a client that wanted to get their two-story building in Grottoes LEED Certified. Glen knew me from a building science course we attended together a year or so earlier. He brought me in as a trusted consultant to achieve LEED certification. We held meetings with his clients around my kitchen table. It was a rewarding job and getting to know Glen was beneficial to my local reputation. He had lots of clients and connections and would recommend me to anyone looking for an architect. I was able to pick up a couple of valley projects over the coming months, but none of them went to construction phase. It was a slow process building trust in this very small community in a very weak economy.
Finally, I landed an interview with a couple that worked at Merck. They wanted a “green” house and had heard I knew something about that term from their builder. I scheduled a meeting with them at an ice cream shop in Elkton. The meeting went well. However, I had a Charlottesville address on my business card and no real office in town still working out of my basement. They decided to hire another firm to design their house and told their builder they picked the other firm because they seemed more “permanent.” The next day I was on the hunt for an office in downtown Harrisonburg. I was not going to lose another job because I did not have a professional office space.
There was not much to choose from in downtown Harrisonburg at the time for a small office space. There were buildings that needed a lot of love, there were a few large spaces, and there was some new ground floor space in Urban Exchange that was just finished that was out of my price range. I noticed a sign in a second-floor window above Oasis Art Gallery. It seemed there was small office space in a building that had a lot of potential. I had a dream of creating a center for sustainability in downtown Harrisonburg. I rented the largest office in the building in September 2009 and started inviting like-minded folks to join me. The economy was hard and there was very little work to be found. I was fortunate to have a lot of clients still doing work in Charlottesville and put a lot of miles on my car for a couple of years in the beginning still going to Central Virginia where I had an existing strong reputation. None of my like-minded business friends could justify having an office space in downtown at the time. We continued to dream about a design center, but I was at the mercy of the building owner to lease space to my neighbors (when I moved in the second floor of the building was empty). However, there was an organization, HDR, active in downtown that was doing good work. A monthly newsletter that looked like it was published in word was delivered to my office talking about all the exciting things going on in downtown Harrisonburg. One of the things mentioned was First Friday downtown. I signed up immediately and started hosting artists in my building. This helped me grow my network beyond the Home Builders association and I started meeting Harrisonburg.
My business and reputation started to grow as I established myself in Harrisonburg through volunteer work, builder connections, and my continued work in the Home Builders association. There were days I had no architectural work as I searched for new projects, published blogs, and posted to Twitter. However, those slow days began to be fewer and work started to grow as my reputation grew and the economy rebounded.
From my start in downtown Harrisonburg in 2009 to my move to a larger office in the now Pendleton Bank building on court square in January of 2011 I gained enough work to need help. I hired my first employee in the valley office in March 2011. Things were starting to happen. Eddie Bumbaugh at HDR and Frank Tamberino at the Chamber of Commerce hosted a ribbon cutting at my new Harrisonburg office. We were now an office of two with a defined waiting room and conference room. I had enough work to keep the office working hard and could see my efforts to grow my business paying off. I was doing anything and everything to stay top of mind from exhibiting at the county fair, volunteering on countless committees, meeting with business leaders, to working social media. The most important thing here in the valley is building trusted relationships to grow your business. This takes time and honesty above all else.
In October 2014 I was invited to fly to the Marvin Window plant in Minnesota. On the trip I was able to get to know Jim Higgs, president of Mongers a little better. We had a lot of discussions, but one was about the vision I had for the Train Depot at the corner of Bruce and Chesapeake. I suggested a first-floor window and doors showroom with a selection room for my custom home clients to pick out materials. On the second floor I wanted my new expanded Gaines Group Architects office. There was enough room that I could invite businesses that I enjoy working with to share the space. This was a big dream for our small architectural firm. It was not the only idea the building owners had received over the years. There were lots of plans from lots of people who wanted to see that building saved.
In March of 2015 I started looking for a new office to allow for our firm’s growth. We were very busy and at times had four people in an office designed for two. It was time to move to our next space.
It was also the right time to redevelop the Depot building as Monger’s had decided to move forward with the project that we had discussed on that plane ride. This was a case of right place and right time. I had just completed a couple of small projects for JM Apartments which built trust between our firm and their company. They were ready to expand their Marvin Window and Doors business. We started the process to renovate a 100 + year old beauty that had fallen beyond poor repair. From the conversation in March of 2015 I was on site working with the building owners and contractors on a very regular basis until we were issued certificate of occupancy in July of 2016. It was a labor of love for me as I learned more and more about the history of this building. The new space would allow us to add employees and give us better exposure in the valley. This was the next step of growth for our firm.
We have now been in the building for over two years. I have hosted more parties and tours of the building than I can remember. I have great signage on two major streets in town and I helped save a beloved building in downtown. We quickly grew to 5 people in our valley office and have plenty of work to keep us busy. While we did lose one person, the work has not slowed down. The move to the Depot has been a huge boost to our local reputation and has benefited us tremendously.
In the last 10 years we have gone from a small basement office in a house in Timberville to a large office space in a historically significant building that has helped shape part of the revitalization of downtown Harrisonburg. I have gone from knowing almost nobody in the valley to being able to walk into most any restaurant in town to find a friend. A lot has changed in the time since I moved here with two kids almost ready to start elementary school to today. Some good and some bad has happened. I have built a solid business from the ground up. I have many beautiful projects on my “local” resume that help me to get that next project. I have two girls that love their school because it has a focus on art and music and they understand the importance of service to others. In many ways these last ten years was building a foundation to start fresh. I thought moving to the valley was the start, but I can see now with where I am at and all that has changed, I am just now learning who to trust, where I want to go, the man I can become, and the business I want to build. There are too many people to thank for giving the new guy a chance over the last 10 years. I did not do this alone or without the support of the entire firm in both offices.
This post started out as a summary of my business growth here in the valley, but it is ending with a declaration. I am ready for whatever is next. I am ready to start this next 10 years of service to my community. I am ready for a fresh start with a clearer vision for a healthy and happy future than I have ever had before.