By Dave DeLuca
Are you a small web startup company looking to jump to brick and mortar? Maybe you’re a massage therapist looking for an affordable space. Perhaps you’re a struggling artist looking for a place to display your work. If so, you absolutely must meet Elizabeth and Hugh White. They have made a career out of helping small local businesses find homes.
Hugh and Elizabeth are proud owners of a sizable chunk of downtown Corvallis, including Madison Plaza, Madison Square, Western Plaza, and the parking lot at 1st and Monroe. But the properties are not as noteworthy as the diversity of their tenants.
NotQuiteYourMamas, Julie Evens PhD, the Corvallis Homeless Shelter Coalition office, and Trout Mountain Forestry LLC are just a few of the businesses and professionals that call the Whites their landlord. A handful more includes Heart of the Valley Choirs, Discover Counseling, Koriander, the Metabolic Research Center, and The Corvallis Advocate. At any given time, the Whites have around 60 separate tenants composed of a variety of small and eclectic businesses and professionals. They purposefully divide their buildings into cozier suites to make the spaces more affordable to sole proprietorships and small businesses.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Elizabeth Busch was born in San Diego, California and raised in Pasadena. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in political science from Northwestern in 1965. She became a teacher of primary education. Hugh was born in Washington, D.C. and raised across the Potomac in Arlington, Virginia. In 1961, he began serving in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He was awarded a bachelor of science degree from Purdue in the field of mathematics in 1967.
The couple met over a game of bridge in that same year, and married in 1968.
Hugh served as a Corvallis city counselor twice in the 1970s, but has no desire to repeat the experience. He earned an MBA from OSU in ’76. The couple bought their first downtown property, Madison Plaza, in 1978. In 1982, Liz was awarded a master’s of arts in teaching from SDSU. In 1992 Hugh retired from the Naval reserve. It was not a moment too soon. Property management was about to get a whole lot more difficult for the couple.
In January of 1993, Madison Plaza’s only tenant, JCPenny, pulled up stakes and left. Hugh and Elizabeth suddenly found themselves with a three-story, 24,000-square-foot building ideal for a department store and little else. They had a choice to make. They could either hope for another big store to arrive, or they could begin to divide up the spaces for smaller tenants.
“The minute people knew that it was gonna close, the one occupant they wanted more than anybody else was Nordstrom’s…well they weren’t gonna come,” Hugh recalled.
“So,” Liz continued, “we did it a floor at a time. We did the main floor. The next year we did the downstairs, next year we did the upstairs. It started out as retail. But then over time…we just divided the spaces. As we divided the spaces, we got more tenants. More tenants, more work.”
Along the way, they developed a passion for the work of remodeling and repurposing the spaces. “You’ve got to do it first class from the get go. Absolutely. And you’ve got to have spaces that, when the door opens and the tenant sees the space for the first time, they go, ‘Wow! This is where I want to be. This is where I need to be.’”
They seem to be always working on their buildings and for their tenants. It has clearly become a labor of love. For example, they would love to install pneumatic tubes in Madison Plaza as a tribute to the long history of the building. They are also looking to replace parts of a brick outside wall with glass blocks to increase lighting. They are waiting for the right time to remove the old safe from Penny’s with a crane, if they can find someone to buy the antique, that is. “It’s gotta be worth at least a couple beverages,” Hugh thinks.
Don’t worry about the Whites having too much time on their hands. One of their larger clients moved out of Madison Square recently. Oregon Tilth had voraciously devoured every single space that ever came up in the upstairs of the property. Three thousand square feet became available when the NPO research organization moved to south Corvallis. After remodeling the space with maple and hickory floors, Hugh and Elizabeth filled it with new clients. Two massage therapists now make the space home, along with a physical therapist, a hypnotherapist, a computer whiz, a women’s coach, an acupuncturist, a yoga studio, a social worker, and possibly a hairdresser. Just like with the departure of JCPenny, the increase in tenants increased the Whites’ workload. But Hugh seemed to take the work in stride and focused instead on the property.
“And the space looks dynamite!” he said.
One of their tenants, local artist and Studio262 owner Jennifer Lommers, says Hugh has made a positive impression on her already.
“He’s easy to work with and is very accommodating for businesses starting out,” Lommers said. She also mentioned Hugh stops by the studio occasionally and brings her candy.
Another recent tenant, Steve Anderson, co-owner of the new Emmons Specialty Meats, is equally impressed with his landlords.
“They’ve been nothing but great for me,” Anderson said. “He’s been an advocate of my business and totally professional. He’s a man of his word and his word means something, and I like that.”
When they are not improving their properties or chatting with tenants, the couple can be found at Goss Stadium. They are season ticket holders for both OSU baseball and the Corvallis Knights. The Knights office, not surprisingly, is located in Madison Plaza.
In addition to helping with the properties, Elizabeth currently serves as an elementary double degree lead at the College of Education. An apparent school junkie, she is utilizing her PhD in education to help make better educators. As of July, she had gone from working half time to full.
Hugh seems content to keep working with small businesses. One of the rewards is kind words, like those from a vendor who was unable to obtain a booth in the downtown Red, White, and Blue festival. Hugh allowed her to set up on their lot, instead. “You’re really awesome!” the vendor exclaimed. “You and Liz are awesome!”
No argument here.