SCHENECTADY — Sometimes the road to revitalization begins in unlikely places.
For Thomas and Alexandra Bland, who are opening a new downtown retail design studio and woodworking shop, it all started with a changing table.
Alexandra’s interest was piqued when she saw furniture made with wood pallets on Pinterest.
She asked her husband to make a table for their daughter. After purchasing basic tools, Thomas managed to transform several pallets into an item with a herringbone top.
The couple agreed it looked good.
“That’s when the woodworking thing took off,” said Thomas, who had already developed serious carpentry skills during a previous home renovation project.
Fueled by social media, Thomas’ creations — which range from candle holders to charcuterie boards — garnered attention and commissions began trickling in, including a pair of bathroom vanities for Mangino’s Gourmet Market, the newly-opened Eastern Avenue eatery.
At the same time, Alexandra was carving out a freelance landscape design career.
“Once the woodworking took off, we decided to join the woodworking and design into one business,” she said.
Enter Anything But Bland Designs, the name of their new studio.
Now, fueled by an assistance provided by a downtown business incubator, they’re poised to transform a warehouse at 10 North Center St. into a retail design studio and woodworking shop.
The 8,700-square-foot space is currently utilized as a warehouse for Schenectady Home Furnishings, a nondescript building perched on a quiet side street skirting Little Italy and hemmed in by train tracks.
Beginning this fall, the Blands, both 31, will renovate the building.
The ground floor will contain studio space and the woodworking workshop, retaining the original wood floors and freight elevator in the process. Three residential apartments will be created upstairs, including one the couple has reserved for themselves and their two young daughters.
The pair has road-tested experience after restoring their 1920s-era home on Parkwood Boulevard, which found a buyer a week after it was placed on the market.
“It was shocking,” Thomas said. “It was like, ‘people like what we do’ and it was affirming.”
The city Planning Commission granted site plan approval for the project last week, and the Blands expect to close on the property within a month and complete construction on the retail and wood shop sections by late-spring or early-summer.
They aim to complete the apartments shortly thereafter, which will include bathroom vanities and kitchen islands constructed by Thomas.
The Blands hailed development officials who helped further their dream, including David Hogenkamp, the Capital Region Land Bank director whose interest in a custom-made bathroom vanity morphed into helping them scout sites; Jamie Doriguzzi, program director for Schenectady Home Furnishings and Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen.
Jeff Buell, principal of Redburn Development, has also been instrumental after Thomas chased him down at a networking event in Albany.
“Ever since then, he’s become our mentor to the project,” Thomas said.
The Blands will also continue to utilize space at the Clinton Street Mercantile, which gave them a platform to display their wares after Alexandra popped into the artisan incubator to go shopping last November.
She quickly called her husband.
“'I don’t know how we’re going doing to do this, but we need to be here',” she told him.
The shared artisan space provided tips and encouragement on the business side of operating a retail space.
“Being there has also given us the ability to get our furniture and home goods into the community before we were ready to run our own store,” Alexandra said.
And in a symbolic nod to the city’s ongoing rebirth, Thomas often uses wood repurposed from demolished blighted structures whenever available.
“It’s old wood and it’s solid,” he said.
The couple are from the Capital Region — Thomas from Schoharie, and Alexandra grew up in Duanesburg — but didn’t move to Schenectady until 2011.
They were drawn to the city, in part, by its historical architecture. They said they’re pleased to be a part of the ongoing revitalization, citing seismic changes since their arrival.
“As we watch how the city has grown and all of the updates that have happened, we were drawn and wanted to jump on board with the revitalization,” Thomas said.
Alexandria enjoys the sense of a tight-knit neighborhood.
“You feel like a community, saying ‘hi’ to everybody,” she said.
“And you feel like you have a future,” Thomas said.
At times, North Center Street can be “sad and quiet,” said Alexandra.
Three buildings adjacent to the upcoming studio are vacant, including the former Garofalo’s sausage shop, which closed one year ago this week.
But the city’s economic development strategy has succeeded at boosting downtown, said the couple, who now want to see that progress trickle down to the side streets — a sentiment echoed by Buell and Gillen.
“I’m hoping us doing this renovation can help bring life into this street,” Alexandra said.
Once the first floor renovations are complete, Anything But Bland Designs also aims to organize events, including wood shop classes that Alexandra likens to “a paint and sip combined with high school shop class.”
For the young family, the project isn’t only about launching a new endeavor and revitalizing a block, but also providing growth opportunities for people who often feel shut out of the city’s resurgence.
In a city full of stakeholders that pride themselves on the ability to forge new relationships to aid in renewal efforts, the couple hopes to lean on that culture by partnering with SEAT Center and the Electric City Barn, where Thomas developed and now leads the woodworking program, to provide opportunities for students.
“This will be home base for the start of that,” Thomas said.