Chameleons have a rare skill, for they can look forward and backward at the same time.
John “Jack” Kaiser, president of Banbury Place, and his mother, Patti Cigan, both owners of Banbury Place, share that skill, for they could look back to Banbury Place’s industrial roots and forward to its evolving potential.
Banbury Place was a Uniroyal-Goodrich factory with 1.9 million square feet of floor space that once employed 4,400 people, many blue-collar workers descending the North Hill with their lunch pails and work-hard ethic.
During World War II, it became an ammunition factory, the Eau Claire Ordnance Plant, employing up to 6,200 workers, with 61 percent being women, meaning thousands of Rosies the Riveters.
It reverted to a tire factory after the war and today, it’s a mixed-use powerhouse, where 155 businesses employ about 575 people.
Looking back, Cigan and Kaiser didn’t want to pretend that Banbury wasn’t once a place of grit, grease and sweat.
Cigan said, “We’ve tried to not make Banbury into something that it isn’t. It was industry. It would look wrong to erect a façade.”
Looking forward, they saw it could be so much more, with tenants ranging from canine training to Taekwondo lessons to custom carpentry to ocular prosthetics to photography to electrical engineering.
There’s also self-storage and conference facilities. There’s even heavy industry, for American Phoenix, Inc. is also there, banging and clanging as it processes large-scale rubber.
International Harvester Apartments
However, at the end of Banbury Place, there’s a sanctuary — Banbury’s loft apartments, a chic reinvention of one building out of 20 that comprised the former factory.
In keeping with Banbury’s industrial past, rather than giving Building 16 a trendy name, they named it International Harvester Apartments, after the International Harvester parts warehouse that it once was, built in 1910 to keep Chippewa Valley combines and tractors running.
It’s a prime location, for Banbury Place’s apartments abut the green and gurgling Eau Claire River gorge, with its accompanying bike path.
Phoenix Park is a few pedals away across the S-Bridge, as is downtown Eau Claire, with its Micon Cinemas Downtown Budget theater and with $4 seats (three bucks on Tuesday!).
There are hip, downtown bars, like Dive and The Eau Claire Fire House. Hungry? There’s the Livery Restaurant & Saloon and Stella Blues.
Want culture? There’s the gleaming Pablo Center at the Confluence with its rivers-front perch. There’s even a bus stop outside Banbury. For those who want a life adjacent to amenities, Banbury Place’s apartments deliver.
Loft living and the living is easy
Banbury Place’s apartments also deliver on the inside, with their lofty ceilings, exposed brick walls and generous windows. Because Banbury was built for heavy industry, its walls are equally heavy. You don’t hear the outside world or the adjacent commerce and industry. It’s quiet and the living is easy.
It’s made easier by the amenities, such as a laundry, storage and an adjacent garage with a remote electronic operator and exterior key access, as well as a sleek, urban community room, which can be rented for parties. The non-big city cost? Just $30, which will buy you one burger in some Manhattan eateries. The community room has a full kitchen, rest rooms, pool table, and room to party.
There are also guest suites available for tenants’ visitors, costing $40 for one night, $35 for two or three consecutive night, $30 for four or more consecutive nights. The capacity to entertain guests and house guests appeals to retired boomers, businesspeople and Millennials. Banbury’s myriad amenities have produced 100 percent occupancy. Tenants stay put and become more than neighbors.
Kaiser said, “We have some very long-term tenants that have become very close friends.”
And its affordability, with 610-square-foot, one-bedroom apartments costing $650 a month and 1,665-square-foot two-bedroom, all utilities included, appeals to all demographics.
Kaiser said, “We have a young professional just out of college, retired couples, and a 90-year-old lady.”
And Cigan said, “I love the diversity of tenants, from young to old, and how well everyone gets along. It definitely is a community within a community.”
The first loft opened in 2000 and there are 35 today, which includes eight extended-stay, furnished apartments. Although Cigan is not a trained architect, she sketched the transformation from an abandoned brick building to hip, high-ceilinged abodes.
A well-built and well-loved structure appealed to Cigan at the outset.
Cigan said, “I saw its potential because of the solid structure of the buildings and the fact it was so well maintained over the years.”
And Cigan had long been itching to build.
“As a little girl, I sat with paper and made building plans,” she said
Those plans were passed to an architect, but the vision was Cigan’s, as were the layouts.
Kaiser said, “She has the ability to visualize. She sees potential. She’s a visionary.”
That vision was about more than transforming a factory into lofts, but also tapping into the mixed-use zeitgeist, placing people, young and old, not on the periphery of cities, but downtown, adjacent to eateries and exercise and entertainment options. If Cigan is the visionary, Kaiser makes the vision real.
Cigan said, “Jack follows through.”
Kaiser said, “I have been involved in Banbury Place since my father and I purchased it in July of 1992. I oversee the day-to-day activities/operations.”
One-hundred percent occupancy, happy tenants, hundreds of adjacent, busy businesses, and the lights burning again in a once-abandoned factory didn’t happen overnight. Challenges had to be surmounted, such as acceptance by some in the community.
Kaiser said, “Being a former tire plant, getting people to come to and accept Banbury was a long-term process.”
Tenacity won the day.
“We kept at it and today Banbury is well accepted as a part of downtown and the City of Eau Claire.”
Of course, mistakes were made.
“We underestimated the time it would take to develop and the costs of developing.”
And the developing never ends.
Cigan said, “I come in everyday and help with design of interior improvements.”
The envisioning and execution all works for the residents.
Gary Polden, who’s lived at Banbury for three years, said, “We definitely like what’s happening with downtown Eau Claire and are happy to be close to that.”
Polden likes what’s inside too.
“We love the brick walls and hardwood floors. People who visit always say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I didn’t realize how tall the ceilings are.’ It’s so sound proof it’s like living in your own house.”
The walls aren’t the only thing that’s solid.
“Management couldn’t be better,” he said. “If you call about a maintenance concern, within a half hour, someone is here. They’re wonderful landlords. We’re retired and we’ll stay here as long as we possibly can. Each floor is like its own friendly neighborhood, so much so that we often keep our front doors open.”
Larry Elmore, who’s lived at Banbury for 12 years, said, “Banbury is centrally located. There’s so much downtown to do and it’s within walking distance.”
Elmore also likes the industrial aesthetics.
“I like how they refurbished the old building and kept the majority of the architecture” the masonry walls and timbers and factory hardwood floors.”
Kaiser and Cigan are also appreciative.
Kaiser said, “We thank Eau Claire for accepting Banbury Place and making it a part of the community.”
And Cigan said, “Eau Claire is our home. We’re all trying to better our community.”