Release Date: March 24, 2017

Apartments spring from former cannery

Longmont – A self-proclaimed ghost hunter once searched for spirits in the main building of the Cannery Apartments in Longmont.

“Maybe she was picking up on the friendly spirits of people who worked here a hundred years ago,” said Bob Lockridge.

He and his wife have rented a two-bedroom apartment in the Warehouse, as it is known, since 2004. It is one of three buildings that make up the Cannery complex, and for nearly 70 years it was part of perhaps the world’s largest pea-canning operation.

On this day, the spirits seem friendly. Prospective tenants are sampling cookies in the leasing office while children dash up and down the industrial-size corridors. They are celebrating the Cannery’s preservation as a home to Longmont’s working people for years to come.

On Feb. 23, the 94-unit apartment site was acquired by Thistle Community Housing, a nonprofit, with the purpose of making affordable residences available in Boulder County. The $5.74 million purchase culminated years of negotiation between Thistle and the previous owner, a partnership led by developer Roger Pomainville.

Under the new ownership, rental rates at the Cannery will be reduced modestly. A one-bedroom loft currently priced at $561 a month, for example, will drop to $525. A larger-sized two-bedroom will go from $721 to $700. Rents won’t rise along with market rates in the future, Thistle officials say. With that comes the promise that the building will remain in use as a high- quality residential rental location.

Avoiding the A-word

“When we talk about affordable housing, it freaks people out,” said Tracy Walters, who manages several Thistle properties in Longmont. The term evokes fears associated with the federal government’s Housing Choice Voucher Program, long known as Section 8.

The program subsidizes rent payments by qualified low-income individuals. Too many Section 8 apartments in any area can lead to crime, drugs and disrepair.

The Cannery won’t offer Section 8 units, but renters will need to qualify to live there. Maximum incomes will be set in proportion to the federal government’s Area Media Income figures for Boulder County. A family of four, for example, can earn up to $52,200, 60 percent of the AMI of $87,000 for a family of that size.

“The thing is, AMI for Boulder County is pretty high,” said Walters, so most current residents of the Cannery will qualify without difficulty. Those who don’t will have a one-year grace period before leaving, and they may qualify for a subsidized home purchase at another Longmont location now under development by Thistle. Unlike Section 8 requirements, Thistle rules won’t make residents requalify each year.

“In Section 8, as soon as you make more money, you’re out,” she said. Thistle aims to avoid penalizing upward mobility and to stabilize the area with incentives for self-improvement.

A broader objective is to make decent housing in Longmont available to its workforce, said Kathy Fedler, the city’s affordable-housing programs coordinator. Current residents of the Cannery include teachers, delivery drivers, a bus driver and a dairy worker.

“It’s important to the entire community that people have a place to live so they don’t have to spend all their time commuting,” she says.

Fedler coordinates financing from federal grants, including one from the Department of Housing and Urban Development that helped make Thistle’s recent purchase possible.

Working-class roots

Across the lawn from the Warehouse, past a swimming-pool area that’s padlocked for winter, are two red-brick buildings similar in appearance to their older sibling. They went up in the early 1980s. The expanded and renovated three-building Cannery complex first opened its doors to renters in 1984.

“There was a tremendous amount of interest in the building,” says Pomainville, whose development partnership included about 35 people. In creating one of the area’s best big apartment sites, he said, Pomainville and his partners were proud to reconnect the canning site with its working-class roots.

In design, it was ahead of its time. Exposed brick and stout beams give the historic Warehouse building the character of a luxury LoDo loft. Stationed in hallways are artifacts of the past, such as a bronze pea-crushing caldron. (With the change of owners, those items will go to the Longmont Museum and Cultural Center.)

Elizabeth Schneider moved from Florida to Longmont in 1993 to be near her daughter. She took a job as a bank secretary and got an apartment in the Cannery. “I was divorced and starting a new life, and I was able to make friends my own age,” she said.

The Cannery site is located at East Third Avenue and Martin Street on an industrial peninsula nearly bordered by a recycling plant, a turkey processor and a motorcycle shop.

Lockridge is pleased about Thistle’s acquisition and optimistic about the Cannery. “If it wasn’t here, we wouldn’t be here either,” says Lockridge, who settled in Longmont with his wife after running a ranch in southern Colorado. “We would have kept right on moving.”

Century-old building

The Empson Cannery was long claimed to be the world’s largest pea-canning operation.

“I have no reason to dispute that,” says Roger Pomainville, one of the previous owners. Except that the builder and original owner, John Howard Empson, was a marketing wizard given to hyperbole.

When Empson sold his company to investors in 1920, he called it “the largest deal ever made in northern Colorado.”

The site operated for seven decades, first as Empson Cannery and later as the Kuner Empson Cannery, after the company joined forces with the Kuner Pickle Co. It employed hundreds of Longmont residents and bought the produce of farms from miles around. Empson also built canning factories in Greeley, Loveland and Fort Lupton.

The 60,000-square-foot Warehouse Building, now part of the Cannery Apartments, was built in three stages beginning in 1900. It contains 59 of the 94 apartments in the complex, with “no two alike,” according to Pomainville.

The building was named a National Historic Landmark in 1983.

– Tom LaRocque

Click here for link to this Denver Post article