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Couple to renovate onetime camera factory on 4th St. SW

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Hunter and Traci Downs, of Rochester, are buying the Conley-Maass building — formerly Words Players — and plan to convert the 115-year-old former factory into a space that includes a restaurant and offices.
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A local couple is planning to buy and restore a 115-year-old downtown Rochester building to help inspire creativity and preserve local history.

Hunter and Traci Downs, who moved to Rochester from Hawaii in 2012, are buying the Conley-Maass building at 14 Fourth St. SW from AC Acquisitions LLC of Rochester, a Titan Development & Investments company. The building now houses two tenants, Words Players Theatre and the Just For Kix dance studio.

The sale is expected to be completed June 1. Once the deal is done, construction crews will get to work on restoring the brick building, which served many uses during its long life in Rochester.

"It has always been an innovative place. It has so much character. But it needs a lot of love to bring it back to a living and breathing environment," Traci Downs said.

Working with Rochester architect Adam Ferrari of 9.square, they plan to transform it into a center for creative businesses and technology firms. The design calls for open office spaces throughout, with restored wood floors and exposed brickwork.

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"When you see a project like this as an architect, you start salivating," said Ferrari. "It will be a challenge."

However, many area history buffs, such as auctioneer John Kruesel, are offering encouragement. And Erin Dorbin of the nonprofit group Preservation Alliance of Minnesota is working with the couple to try to get the building listed on The National Register of Historic Places. If it is accepted, the project will be eligible for a 20 percent tax credit from the Minnesota Historic Structure Rehabilitation Tax Credit, plus an additional 20 percent credit from a parallel federal program. If accepted, Dorbin believes this will be the first Rochester project to claim that historic preservation credit.

Restoration is a major part of this project, but the Downses make it clear the ultimate goal is to create a useful commercial center that will fit with the coming Destination Medical Center transformation of the neighborhood.

"We want to create a community of people doing things, innovative things, here," said Hunter Downs as he walked through the building Thursday. "This is a big project for us. We've never done anything like this before."

No final decision on a name for the project has been reached, but they are using "14 on 4" as a working name for now.

The couple is prepared to make a significant investment in the 15,000-square-foot building to realize their dream of a creative, technology-focused center. When they moved here from Hawaii for a liver transplant for Traci, they brought their medical technology engineering firm called Area 10 Labs (formerly known as Archinoetics) to Rochester. The pair have a long history of creating cutting-edge technology for the government and the medical industry. In Rochester, they later became part owners of Recon Signs and Café Steam on South Broadway.

As they started becoming involved in the community, they decided they wanted to restore an historic building. Their work on Café Steam particularly inspired them. They first looked at the Paine Furniture building on South Broadway, but that 129-year-old building was purchased by Rochester developers Hal Henderson and Grant Michelitz. After missing out on that building, Hunter toured through the Conley-Maass building.

"Once I went in and looked at it, it was over. After sleeping on it, I woke up and said, 'We have to do it,'" he said.

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The plan is restore much of the original look of the building, including such features as skylights and transom windows. Over the years, the Conley-Maass has served as a factory, a plumbing shop, a Salvation Army site, plus a couple of recent incarnations as children's theaters. However, most of the occupants basically created the space they needed over the existing features. That means features like the skylights and transom windows are still there, hidden by ceiling tiles and wood.

The Downses have found they haven't needed to dig very deep to find the building's history. During a casual exploration of the rambling three story structure, they found newspapers from 1909 and 1928, plus a new 1950s washing machine never taken out of its crate.

For the 51-year-old Hunter, this project represents a maturing of his opinion of historic buildings.

"As an 18-year-old college student, I had the mantra that you can't learn anything new in an old building. Now, I've kind of come to believe the reverse of that philosophy," he said. "A lot of what I do is creative. I find it a lot more inspiring to do that in a place with some history instead of staring at a white cubicle wall."

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