Hanover Co-op the latest business to move to White River Junction office park

  • Marty Wardwell works on the renovation of one of the buildings at the Gilman Center for the new administrative offices of the Hanover Co-Op in White River Junction, Vt., on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Barry Austin paints the walls of one of the buildings at the Gilman Center in White River Junction, Vt., on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. The Hanover Co-Op is expected to move in to their new offices in June. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Building 1 at the Gilman Center is under renovation for the new administrative offices of the Hanover Co-Op in White River Junction, Vt., on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. Michael Riva, the new owner of the 12-building business park, is trying to upgrade the complex. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Saturday, February 09, 2019

You can take the Co-op out of Hanover but you can’t take Hanover out of the Co-op.

The Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society, which operates food markets, auto service centers and a commercial kitchen at nine locations on both sides of the Connecticut River, is moving its business and administrative staff to White River Junction, joining a growing array of businesses locating at a revitalized Gilman Office Center off Sykes Mountain Avenue.

The Gilman Center, which was acquired 2½ years ago by a New England operator of self-storage facilities, currently is gutting one of its 12 buildings to make way for the Co-op’s occupancy in June.

It is the latest and biggest renovation project yet undertaken on the 10-acre campus since the business park was acquired by commercial property developer Michael Riva and his family in 2016.

The Co-op plans to move 40 employees who work in finance, human resources, information technology, inventory control, facilities and other departments that support the organization’s locations into 15,500 square feet of space that previously was occupied by Vermont state government offices. The two-floor building, known as Building 1, will have two large conference rooms, break areas, multiple entrances and — critically — ample parking.

“There’s a lot of things that this is going to offer that we don’t have in our current place,” said Ed Fox, general manager of the Co-op, as he guided a visitor through a long corridor of dangling wires, freshly built office frames and newly erected plasterboard. “What this will offer us is better training space for employees, and (it) will be more inviting for people who come here.”

He said the Co-op envisions the new facilities as a “resource center” for the Co-op’s “community partners” — other Upper Valley nonprofits the Co-op works with to advance their missions — and to relieve the overcrowding at its current offices on Buck Road in Hanover.

However, the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society, despite moving its administrative offices to Vermont, will keep “Hanover” in its name and will remain a New Hampshire-domiciled nonprofit, “as it has been for the past 83 years,” Fox said.

Fake wood paneling

The Gilman Office Center was built in the 1970s by the late Frank Gilman, who had extensive real estate holdings of former farmland around Sykes Mountain Avenue. Gilman created Valley Land Corp. to manage and eventually dispose of the commercially zoned assets, which recently was completed.

Home to many small businesses and service firms, the Gilman Center has long been where professionals hang out their shingle. Some of the offices still have the old, dark fake-wood wall paneling that were common in 1970s offices.

One of them was a young lawyer named Peter Welch, who with his law partner Robert Manby was one of the original “anchor tenants” Gilman had brought in to occupy one of the original four brick-and-shingle roof structures, according to Welch, now Vermont’s sole representative in the U.S. House.

“The selling point for us was when he built it out, we got a shower in the office so we were able to run at lunch. The other is he was OK with dogs in the office,” Welch recalled last week.

The Democratic congressman did say that he and Manby — who still has his office at Gilman today — had some “misgivings,” however, because the office buildings were surrounded by a “sea of asphalt” for vehicle parking. “We lobbied Gilman for some landscaping” and Gilman — notorious for being tightfisted with money — “in a concession to us, cut a hole in the pavement, went to the woods to get a birch tree and planted it in the hole.”

Riva, the Gilman Office Center’s owner, resides in Fayston, Vt., in the Mad River Valley, and his family owns and operates nine self-storage facilities in Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut and formerly ran an asphalt paving company. The Rivas have been expanding gradually into commercial real estate, Riva said last week while providing a tour of the 90,000-square-foot complex near Sykes Mountain Avenue.

The Rivas were no strangers to Sykes Mountain Area commercial real estate before they purchased the Gilman complex. In 2014 they acquired several small parcels and buildings along Beswick Drive and DeWitt Drive, a stone’s throw east of the Gilman Center, where such businesses as Allard’s unfinished & custom furniture and coffee roaster Mg Coffee Roasters are located.

“I was looking in Burlington because Chittenden County is booming, but my broker said the first place we should go is White River Junction because there’s property here we should really look at,” Riva said. “As soon as Valley Land Corp. started breaking up the last of Sykes Mountain Avenue, it was clear the money was coming here.”

$1 million for renovations

The Rivas bought the Gilman Center parcel, which included such longtime tenants Green Mountain Children’s Center, USDA field offices, U.S. Postal Workers Union and Easter Seals, for $2.25 million. But the office park had seen better days.

Nearly 40 percent of space was vacant as the state of Vermont had nearly finished relocating its government offices to a spanking new building on the banks of the Connecticut River off Bridge Street in White River Junction, and many of the buildings had fallen into disrepair.

“We knew we were going to have to dump about $1 million more into it,” Riva said.

One of the first projects Riva undertook was to install 567 solar panels at a cost of $475,000 on the roofs of the original four buildings that generate enough electricity to power 35 Vermont homes.

The old incandescent lights are being swapped out for LED lighting in renovated space. Air conditioning units and furnaces have been replaced. The parking lot in front of the building has been line-striped and a cluster of overgrown pine trees that were scattering needles and blighting the lawn have been removed.

And new tenants have moved in, filling much of the space vacated when the state offices left, including administrative offices for Twin Pines Housing, Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles offices, Fisher Auto Parts supplies, autism support services provider Keene Perspectives and primary health care provider Ideal Health Care, as well as cottage industries such as herbalist and medical marijuana-extract tincture maker Z Botanicals & Hemp Co.

All together, there now are 36 tenants occupying the 12 buildings, and Riva said the available space left to rent has shrunk to about 13,000 square feet.

Riva does not hide the fact that the Gilman Center is not a high-end office like Centerra Business Park on Route 120 in Lebanon, with its cluster of well-heeled high-tech startups. The Gilman Center serves a different market, he said, but also one that is in short supply in the Upper Valley.

“Convenient, affordable office space is hard to find,” Riva said. “We understand this is not class A institutional office space. We’re okay with it. There is a huge demand for class B office space in this area.”

Building 7 currently is being renovated for the new outpost of the American Legion, which once occupied space in downtown White River Junction.

The new Legion space will be divided into a lounge and bar for members on one side and a public cafe operated by the Legion on the other.

“I said if you’re not going to do this, I’ll find somebody,” Riva said, recalling when he explained explaining to the Legion what he thought would be a moneymaker. “They said they want to do it.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.