A developer with experience in offices shifts his focus to apartments. Will the project break free?
Bernard Croghan hopes to spend a good chunk of the next few years in jail — by choice.
A Manatee County developer who has mostly leased shared services space for the past 15 years, Croghan isn't going to be locked up. He and his team instead seek to turn the abandoned Manatee County jail, in downtown Bradenton in the new Judicial Center complex, into a 100-unit apartment complex geared to young professionals. “I've always liked urban redevelopment more than suburban new development,” Croghan says. “And I've always wanted to do one in downtown Bradenton.”
Modeled a little after WeWork and WeLive's dorm-like live-work-play centers in big urban centers such as Washington, D.C., and New York City, the plan is to complement the complex with millennial-fueled amenities. That includes a laundry room that doubles as a recreation room with a TV and dining tables. It also includes turning the rooftop, a onetime prisoner basketball court, into a courtyard barbecue deck.
Croghan estimates the redevelopment is at least a $9.5 million project, which includes renovations of the building after leasing it from the county. Apartments, in the early planning stages, will be listed for $600 to $900 a month, including utilities.
Rents like that in the area are rare, says Ogden Clark, co-founder of the Manatee Millennial Movement and a Manatee County Neighborhood Services employee. “There is virtually no housing in downtown Bradenton millennials could afford,” Ogden says. “This project could be very beneficial.”
Yet Croghan was somewhat skeptical when Manatee County Property Manager Charlie Bishop called him earlier this year with what the official termed an “interesting project.” The pair toured the six-story jail, at 1051 Manatee Ave. W. “It was a hot, dark prison,” Croghan says. “But it was also smack dab in the middle of everything.”
Croghan quickly grew passionate about the project. He and his team were the only entity to submit a proposal to county officials by a Sept. 15 deadline. Croghan says he never seriously considered other uses for the building that could potentially be more profitable, such as condos or an assisted-living facility. County staff has 30 days to go over the proposal, suggest changes and present it to county officials.
A Philadelphia native, Croghan worked for banks and lenders in commercial real estate and moved to Manatee County in 1999. He and some partners built ComCenters into one of the largest shared-services office landlord firms in the Bradenton area. ComCenters provided small offices, meeting space, administrative functions and other executive suite services for a variety of small business.
“But when the crash happened, our small business clients got murdered,” says Croghan. “There was a lot less demand for the offices we used to lease easily.”
Croghan sold his stake in ComCenters and turned to the next evolution of the field: co-work space. In a project separate from the proposed jail redevelopment, but could be complementary, Croghan is also working on Connect Bradenton. It's a planned co-work space in the former BB&T Insurance office at 801 Old Main St. in downtown Bradenton.
Features at Connect Bradenton, says Croghan, will include premium coffee in the morning and cold crafted beer in the evenings. That project, a $600,000 renovation, is expected to be open early next year.
The key to both projects, says Croghan is to listen to what potential customers — young professionals — want in workspace and housing. “We have to build communities for young folks,” he says. “These are the people who will someday run this town.”
— Mark Gordon