Spokane’s downtown Commercial Building has been a gritty survivor, a refuge and a home to ambitious dreams.
In the mid-1990s its former owners converted the three-story structure on a tough block of West First Avenue into affordable, modest apartments filled by downtown’s low-income denizens.
In 2007, in a major upgrade, the Commercial Building became the corporate office and hub for BlueRay Technologies, a new venture by business owner Erick Hansen.
When Hansen took over the building, more than 40 low-income tenants were displaced. Some community officials took heat for that disruption, but they supported his venture, saying the company would manufacture thousands of high-quality Blu-ray disks and create dozens of high-paying jobs.
Since then, Hansen’s company plans have stalled due to financing, a dismal economy and legal complications.
Still in Spokane, still managing his tech company, Hansen recently rolled out one more idea and another ambitious plan for the Commercial Building.
He said he’s within a year of launching an education center there called the University of Digital Technology, which will teach digital production and tech skills in an applied setting.
To finance the education center, Hansen has returned part of the Commercial Building to its low-cost housing roots. He has turned the second floor into affordable, furnished apartments that primarily cater to area students.
A key partner in Hansen’s new plan is Nicola Mann, who has taught college business courses in Great Britain. Mann’s first job is to insure that the 26 apartments inside the building are occupied and well-maintained.
If that plan succeeds, her next job will be launching the first courses for the digital university.
“Our plan is that with the revenue from the apartments we’ll be able to operate the university,” Mann said. She said she hopes the first courses in what will be a for-profit program will start next year.
If all goes by plan, the whole building will be filled with multiple uses: the education courses would be offered on the third floor, directly above the 26 remodeled apartments.
On the main level and in the basement is Hansen’s rechristened company, BlueStar Technologies.
So far about 10 of the apartments have been rented, with occupants paying as little as $340 a month for a shared room or $420 per month for a single. That fee includes laundry, utilities and basic cable.
Managing the apartments is 19-year-old Sara Hug, a community college student who started working with Mann earlier this summer.
She and Mann see the apartments being successful by representing the Commercial Building as safe, quiet and student-friendly housing. In part to offset notions that the West First area has a higher-than-average crime rate, the apartment fliers say occupants must adhere to a policy of no smoking, no drugs and no alcohol consumption. The second-floor area also has a strict quiet zone rule at certain hours of the day, Hug said.
“We have Wi-Fi in the building in our communal areas,” she said. Residents share bathrooms and kitchens.
Renters don’t have to be students to move into the building.
Finding interested renters hasn’t been difficult. Washington State University Spokane student Daniel Ruben Morales moved in recently after relocating from Pullman to Spokane to take courses.
Morales said he found the apartments on Craigslist, then moved in when he found they were near enough to let him walk to and from his classes. He’s a junior in the speech and hearing sciences program.
“For me it was the location,” Morales said. He’s using a single bedroom unit and paying just over $500 per month.
He approves of the rules regarding noise and drinking. “I drink but I don’t do it here,” he said.
Hansen’s venture, BlueStar Technologies, remains in operation, he said. During a recent tour of the building, Hansen said the equipment owned by his firm makes BlueStar one of the few independent Blu-ray disk manufacturers in the world.
Blu-ray disks, first marketed in Japan, are considered the primary storage format for high-quality movies and audio content. The name Blu-ray refers to the blue laser used to read the disc, which allows far more information to be stored than a DVD disk does.
In 2009, Hansen sold the Commercial Building to Dan and Stacie Olson, two Tri-Cities business people who were also investors in his BlueRay company. They paid $1.8 million for the building and now lease space back to Hansen.
Mann said she shares Hansen’s goal of creating a lasting academic program that can help Spokane-area residents find ways to improve their lives and create high-quality jobs.
The courses they’ll offer will be quicker, easier-access versions of courses typically offered by colleges. The instructors will be drawn from area companies that are involved in tech production, as well as contacts she and Hansen have in the media, she said.
“What I’m also doing is trying to learn what the people in Spokane want,” Mann said. “What are the skills they need? What kinds of jobs are people looking to fill?”
Because of the economy, one key focus will be using the university to bridge the distance between school and work, Mann said. “We want to make it easy for companies and students to connect to each other.”