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Posted January 24, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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OakCrest to invest in future of downtown

Firm to consolidate operations, restore properties

By James Heffernan -- Daily Staff Writer

WINCHESTER -- OakCrest Cos. wants to build on the success of recent efforts to revitalize the city's downtown, beginning with combining all of its own operations under one roof in the former Lewis Jones Knitting Mill at 126 N. Kent St.

The building, which has served as the firm's headquarters since March 2007, was the site of a press conference Friday in which OakCrest also announced plans to invest $5 million in restoring and developing various city properties over the next five years.

Chairman and CEO Jim Vickers said the list of projects includes renovating the Lovett Building on North Loudoun Street -- which OakCrest acquired in 2005 -- to create apartments on the upper floors above existing commercial space, as well as restoring eight to 10 houses on South Kent Street.

Vickers said the company is looking to do the same with a handful of other properties, all of them either on or within walking distance of the Loudoun Street Pedestrian Mall. Possible uses include condominiums and upscale townhouses, he said.

Vickers declined to say whether one of the projects involves the former Taylor Hotel on the mall.

The investment fits in with city leaders' desire to create walkable communities downtown -- what many are calling the "new urbanism."

"It's a new way of thinking," Vickers said, one that involves "going back to the core communities that our grandparents and parents experienced."

Vickers said there is "huge demand" for housing downtown, especially among young professionals, empty-nesters and college students. And new residences in the heart of the city would go a long way toward helping strengthen the bond between Winchester and Shenandoah University, he said.

OakCrest is looking beyond the current downturn in the economy to a time when the retail and housing sectors are expected to pick up again, Vickers said.

"We've been on the sidelines for about three years now," he said. By investing long-term, "we'll be the first back into the market."

The firm plans to relocate its realty and mortgage divisions, which account for about 75 people, from Valley Avenue to the old knitting mill by the end of February. The building is currently home to OakCrest Builders, OakCrest Land Development and OakCrest Properties LLC, plus commercial broker Sperry Van Ness.

"We decided to move the companies to the newly renovated, larger offices to better accommodate our plans for expansion and the needs of our customers," said Suzette Neff, president and broker of OakCrest Cos.

With only 55 parking spaces available at the firm's North Kent Street location, Vickers said the city's new parking garage on Kent Street was pivotal in the decision to bring all OakCrest employees under one roof.

It also will have an impact on commerce downtown, he said, as OakCrest's operations involve the use of local real estate attorneys, engineers, banks and municipal offices.

Contact James Heffernan at jheffernan@nvdaily.com

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