Written by Don Ratzlaff Wednesday, 26 September 2007 06:25
Not every real-estate development is motivated primarily by prospect of short-term financial gain.
James and Gayle Voth say family history and a better economic future for their hometown were the two key factors that prompted them to transform an old family-owned structure into Goessel’s first downtown office building.
The Voths are planning an open house from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. this Sunday for the recently completed Ratzlaff Building at 209 E. Main St.
“We like to hope it helps Goessel in general,” James said of the project. “Between this and the new (Harvest Meadows housing) development, it seems to have created some excitement in town.”
Part of that excitement stems from the fact that the building has opened with full occupancy.
Three locally owned businesses have found a home there: an insurance agency operated by Joe Wuest, a church-consulting enterprise directed by Eddy Hall and a new flower and gift shop called “Petal Pushers” owned and operated by Angela Boese and Eileen Schrag.
“A lot of (Goessel residents) didn’t think we’d be able to get it filled,” James said. “Goessel’s never had an office building.”
The Voths had decided to proceed with a smaller version of the project when Wuest contacted them about creating some office space in the building for his business.
The back part of the structure has served as the home for the Kinder Haus preschool that Gayle has operated for some 29 years. But the storefront was unoccupied at the time.
“We had sort of been teetering, wondering what to do with the building anyway because it had been kind of a pain in the neck,” Gayle said. “It was getting more and more rundown and needed lots of upkeep.
“We thought OK, let’s do that. At least we could make a little money off the building.”
Soon after, Hall asked the Voths if they could remodel some office space for his Living Stones Associates.
“So we thought, OK, let’s do the whole building and turn it into an office building,” Gayle said.
Originally, the Voths drew plans for six offices, but went with three spaces when the Petal Pushers owners joined the conversation. The 1,800 square feet of renovated space also includes a kitchenette and reading area that all the occupants, including Kinder Haus, share.
“I wanted a space for parents when they’re waiting to pick up their children,” Gayle said. “The little sitting area is primarily for them so they can sit and look at any literature I may have, or just sit and visit with each other and spy on their kids through this door (window).”
The Voths designed the floor plan themselves. Marlin Janzen, a local contractor who recently had branched out on his own, did the work.
“It was pretty good advertising for him, but it was pretty good advertising for us, too,” Gayle said.
“There was a lot of interest,” she added. “A lot of people from here in town remembered (the building) from what it used to be, so they were interested in seeing the renovations.”
A major challenge to the project was to solve a long-standing drainage problem.
“This building used to flood every time there would be a big rain, and that was a huge concern,” Gayle said.
The Voths credit Goessel city government for its assistance in resolving the issue, which included redoing the ditches and culverts in the area.
For most of its history, the Ratzlaff Building was used for automotive and tractor repair and sales.
John J. Ratzlaff, Gayle’s grandfather, built the structure next to his house for the purpose of repairing cars and operating a machine shop. He and his first mechanic, Abe Enns, began selling cars there for the Willis-Overland Co.
In 1927, Ratzlaff started a dealership that sold Chevrolet cars and Allis-Chalmers tractors. He also added a pump to sell gasoline.
The business originally was called Ratzlaff Motor Co. and eventually involved all five of the sons born to J.J. and Mary Ratzlaff. When Gayle’s father John (Johnny) took over, the business was renamed “Ratzlaff Automotive.”
“I grew up coming here to see Grandpa at work, and I remember riding my trike in here when I was little and my dad used it as a repair shop,” Gayle said. “It’s just been very much a family thing.”
In 1965, Johnny decided to join the business his wife, Hilda, had started 10 years earlier called Ratzlaff Draperies. The couple conducted business in the building for five years before moving to a new and larger structure on the edge of town.
“After that it was a bunch of different things,” Gayle said. “It was a youth center for a while, and then it housed the big quilting machine that Draperies used for a number of years.”
Operating Ratzlaff Draperies is James’s full-time job today.
In their renovation of the old repair shop, the Voths were careful to preserve the look of its time-worn exterior.
“We’ve always enjoyed old, historical buildings,” Gayle said. “We live in a house that’s over 100 years old. We’ve always appreciated it when people can restore old buildings and reuse them. We pretty much knew we wanted to do that from the start.”
The Voths declined to say how much money they’ve invested in the project. But Gayle said with a smile, “It’s probably pretty common knowledge that you can wrap up a lot of money renovating an old building.”
Obviously, having the building at full occupancy is a financial advantage. But even so, James said, “The payoff is very long term, like 20 years. It’s an investment in the community. We believe in Goessel and want Goessel to stay here.”
For multiple reasons, the Voths say the project has been well received by the townsfolk.
“It generated quite a bit of excitement,” Gayle said. “Actually, people would often stop by and look at the progress, or talk to us when they’d see us and tell us how glad they were we were doing something with it.”
But some frankly were surprised that the Voths were able to fill the structure with occupants.
“When we say it’s full, they say, ‘Really? Never in a million years would I have thought that,’” Gayle said.
Added James: “When I told some people what we were doing, they figured that was sort of par for the course—for us, anyway. We don’t always play by the book or do what everybody else does.
“I like to take calculated risks,” he said, then added with a smile: “This didn’t calculate very well, but as long as we keep it full....”