Meet John Burgin, the wizard of Hazelwood
From the outside, John Burgin looks like a lucky guy, a guy in the right place at the right time to cash in on the revitalization sweeping Hazelwood.
The largest property owner in this up-and-coming burg, Burgin owns nearly a whole city block, a continuous line of one dozen storefronts with a West-Asheville vibe that’s a hotspot for budding entrepreneurs.
What few realize: Burgin is the architect behind it all.
“I felt like if I could get ahold of some of this property down here it could be turned around,” said Burgin, a well-known local contractor.
When Burgin bought his first building in Hazelwood nearly 20 years ago, most storefronts were vacant and rundown. He slowly but methodically set a vision in motion to bring back Hazelwood.
Burgin quickly realized one building wouldn’t be enough to effect real change in this forgotten side of town, however.
“I could try to put tenants in these shops all day long, but as long as the buildings next door were taped up with pawn shops in them I couldn’t,” Burgin said. “If next door the gutters are falling off, the roof is leaking, it wouldn’t work. I realized I needed to control it.”
So after renovating one building, he bought the next, and then the next, and then the next — the last of his acquisitions falling into place earlier this year when he snagged the old First Citizens bank building on the corner.
Burgin was the missing ingredient Hazelwood needed. He was a contractor with a passion, willing to invest the upfront time and capital to create storefronts tenants could move into.
Burgin was able to do what a typical real estate investor couldn’t or wouldn’t. He was willing to sink his own money and labor into the building renovations, a critical factor because no bank would have lent the money.
“They would loan you money based on the property as it was at the time, not the speculative value of what you thought it could be or future leases,” Burgin said.
It also took someone with a long view, willing to wait for a payoff years down the road. Burgin was patient, and he didn’t worry about quickly recouping the cost of his investment through rent prices.
“That would have knocked out a lot of these folks who couldn’t pay what you call Main Street prices. I was able to keep the leases affordable so people could afford to be here,” Burgin said.
Burgin never saw it as a gamble.
“I was pretty sure it would work,” he said. And it did.
“It is pretty much the picture of what I had envisioned.”
But he admits the recession tested his vision.
“When the collapse came in 2008, I was wondering then,” Burgin said.
He suspended rent increases built into tenants’ leases to help them through the bad times.
“We were all in it together,” Burgin said.
Ask any of Burgin’s tenants, and he’s a benevolent landlord. Many revitalization stories like Hazelwood become a victim of their own success. The merchants who pioneer the comeback can get priced out of their own neighborhood once it takes off. But Burgin has kept his lease prices low.
Burgin has a knack for finding a building’s true essence, stripping back the layers to find the original ceilings, the old hardwood floors, and brick walls buried over the years. The First Citizens bank building, his latest renovation job, had three layers of flooring — carpet, plywood, tile, more plywood — and three different drop ceilings.
It’s the last piece of the puzzle on Burgin’s side of the street, and he’s fielding calls daily.
Rebuilding Hazelwood from the ground up has taken more than construction know-how. Burgin has worked to court tenants and build a compatible and diverse mix of shops.
“I always wanted a nice restaurant, I always wanted a coffee shop. I always wanted some retail,” Burgin said. “I’m pretty much an average Joe, so I thought ‘What would I like?’ We have this eclectic group of tenants that all sort of support each other. That was somewhat done by design also.”
Burgin has also said “no” to tenants he feared would pull Hazelwood down, even evicting one that was a bad fit for the community. Burgin had rented a storefront to a man claiming he would open a pizza joint, but in reality, he opened a private drinking club and pool hall.
“That’s not what I wanted. I didn’t want those black curtains hanging in the window. That’s not what I wanted down here at all. It was tough to get him out,” Burgin said.
Burgin, 54, is the man of the hour in Hazelwood, although few realize it given his humble nature. Those who do give him a knowing nod when they pass him on the sidewalk, and more and more he hears the line, “I am so glad you did this.”