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Mountain Home Magazine

Dream It. See It. Do It.

Jun 16, 2015 07:11PM

Nancy Anne Roller

It’s a landmark in Williamsport—an old factory complex that takes up a city block, with a tall brick smokestack that still says “Raytown,” after a former owner. Just walking around, it has the “gently shabby” look of industry that has disappeared, reminding us of the work our grandparents and great-grandparents did in these mountains. But, beneath the exterior of this 100-plus-year-old factory, a major new development in the area has taken root and flourished. For this crusty old building, which was once home to the world’s largest pajama factory, now houses some of the most innovative artists and craftsmen the area has ever seen, and has incubated many fledging businesses with a new vision for this city.

It was seven years ago that Mark Winkelman, New York City architect and co-founder of Downtown Design Group, “went to the dark side,” as he puts it, “of becoming a developer.” He turned the whole idea of development into an artistic vision.

“The first rule of developing is to pick a simple project,” he explains. And, in choosing to develop the Pajama Factory, he broke that first rule.

But the building simply spoke to Mark, and to the work he had done in Manhattan. “I spent a good part of my career restoring old buildings in Soho/Tribecca.” And the design and layout of the eight buildings that comprise the complex contained nineteenth century ideas of how a building should work that lend themselves to a twenty-first century interpretation.

The buildings were all built fifty to sixty feet wide, which let in natural light and ventilation in all parts of the buildings. There were a few tenants that he inherited: a Cobbler Shoe Outlet that has been the retail mainstay in the building for over thirty years; Equinox Limited, an outdoor gear design and sewing factory that specializes in lightweight travel gear and eco-friendly bags that has manufactured in the building for over twenty years; and Trebecca Designs, home to two goldsmiths, which features gold and silver jewelry. In the rest of the nearly 300,000 square feet, he envisioned a holistic building, with art studios, startup businesses, living spaces—all in one building. So, instead of simple, and instead of simply looking for a monetary return on an investment of time and resources, Mark was envisioning a community looking for creative ways to live and work. In essence, he was creating an architectural performance art “installation.”

Initially, Mark thought this project would attract artisans and other creative people from larger cities, like New York and Philadelphia. “We didn’t know anything about Williamsport,” he said.

Instead, the first tenants came—for short stays—from the local area, only to be replaced over time by local small businesses, non-profit groups, and artisans who began to stay and grow. The first new tenant to “stick” was Erik Guthrie, of White Knight Gaming and Erik’s Edibles. He’s been at PJF for three years, and is expanding his area to create a safe, monitored gaming space for kids. There’s Way Cool Beans, a coffee shop where the beans are roasted and you can get real drip coffee in an inviting atmosphere. The community radio station WPXI has their offices on the main floor. The Williamsport Community Woodshop anchors the southeast corner of the complex, offering classes and a complete workshop available by the week, month, or year. The upper floors are filled with studios of all sizes. And, as word in the artistic community has spread about the Pajama Factory, people in the cities that Mark thought would be the first to work in the community growing here are joining the “founding locals” of north central Pennsylvania.

The logo of the Pajama Factory, coined by New York advertising executive Suzanne Winkelman, is “Dream It. See It. Do It.” Suzanne, Mark’s wife, does the marketing for the complex, and helps get the word out to people looking for a place to create. As for both Mark and Suzanne, what once started as a project has become a second home, as they discover Williamsport and enjoy the charms of a small city, where everything needed for urban living is available, and, due to the smaller size, always convenient. New York is still home, but they look to spend more time here.

Currently, forty percent of the complex is occupied. The remainder of the building will be divided into more work spaces/studios and live/ work spaces. One of the exciting developments at the Pajama Factory is the apartments, with two already rented and over sixty more planned. The dream includes both loft apartments as well as smaller, more economical apartment/studios. This simply continues the vision of an organic economic development. Barb Andreassen, co-manager of PJF for almost three years, and a studio tenant specializing in graphic arts, design, and writing, says that the process is slower than a traditional development plan. But the goal is to create a community, a platform, and support for the artisans and small businesses that join the Pajama Factory. This type of development takes time to flourish, but it is precisely this blend that “humanizes” the building. In the future, Barb, Mark, and Suzanne look ahead to growing this type of living and working beyond the confines of the complex, into the neighborhood itself.

It sounds utopian. But Mark Winkelman is a practical architect/developer, not a starry-eyed idealist. He sees this entire project as simply good business.

“It’s the only way [the Pajama Factory] is sustainable. Otherwise, it turns back into an old building, filled with pigeons.”