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Debuting a new low-cost look

Real estate agent Sue Bott shows off her newly remodeled office in Two Harbors on Wednesday. By taking advantage of local building rehabilitation programs, Bott had nearly $60,000 of work done for less than $8,000 out-of-pocket. She said the new look makes coming to work more enjoyable. Photo by Jim Erickson.

Kyle Farris

Sue Bott is a self-described guinea pig.

Bott, who owns and operates the RE/MAX real estate office in Two Harbors, watched this summer as contractors and crews dismantled the storefront of her Seventh Street business.

"It was a little nerve-racking because I didn't really know what I was getting myself into," said Bott, who had $58,000 of work and repairs put into her building, only about $8,000 of which she was required to pay herself. "It sounded too good to be true ... completely sounded too good to be true."

The other $50,000 in renovations, which included new siding, insulation and energy-efficient appliances, came from local programs intended to help fund the rehabilitation of area homes and businesses.

"They're legitimate programs," said Scott Zahorik, director of housing services at the Arrowhead Economic Employment Agency, which oversees a host of such programs. "We want to help homeowners of all income brackets and help sustain business owners on Main Street, as well."

Bott said she considers herself among the helped.

Her building, which has housed an insurance agency, a dental practice and a branch of the Human Development Center over the years, was in dire need of a facelift, she said.

The siding was an eyesore, interior walls needed painting and utility bills were too high.

"When you run a business, you run a pretty tight budget," said Bott, who identified her shop's old siding -- cedar planks of various shapes and sizes -- as an object of ridicule and a major flaw in the outward appearance of her business.

"It was five different shapes," Bott said. "We had curvy shapes; we had straight; we had angled. It just looked horrible."

Now an eye-catching red with gray accents, the building sits behind a stretch of freshly poured sidewalk also paid for through the programs. Inside, the walls have been given a fresh paint job, LED lights bathe the space and a brand-new furnace, air conditioner and hot water heater have replaced old, clunky predecessors.

Bott said she hasn't calculated the savings she will earn from the updated appliances paired with better insulation, but she did estimate that the new hot water heater alone will spare at least $20 a month.

"I'm super excited to get my first bill to see the cut in costs," Bott said.

"Guinea pig" is an apt title for Bott because she was the first business of which she was aware to partake in the programs.

"I'm the first one that's gotten this far," Bott said. "During the process, I've had a lot of other business (owners) stop in and ask some questions on what they can do. It's not as hard as it looks."

To enter the programs, proprietors must submit an application and financial documents to the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency, which then decides whether to accept or deny the request.

Not all desired projects qualify for the programs. Improvements must address building code violations, correct health, safety and other issues or increase the building's energy efficiency.

Some of the programs are only available for buildings on certain streets. The Lake County Small Cities Development Program, for example, can only be used by businesses on various streets in downtown Two Harbors. Other programs are county- and region-wide.

The programs also have caps that customers cannot exceed, though Zahorik said there is some "overlap," which allows users to draw from multiple sources for the same projects.

Bott used money from the Business Energy Retrofit, the commercial Small Cities Development Program (which also has a program for residential properties) and the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.

Loans from the Small Cities Development program are automatically forgiven if the proprietor still owns the building at the end of 10 years.

"They're good deals for folks," Zahorik said.

The restorations have led Bott to take more pride in her office, she said, and even pay out-of-pocket for additional improvements not covered by the programs.

"I'm going to do some landscaping," Bott said. "I chose to go a little bit further and rip out a wall I didn't like the look of. There are some underlying things that are going to cost me a little extra, but it's still pretty cheap when you think about the whole process."

Bott admits she sometimes feels "disbelief" over what has been done for her business at such a small cost.

"I'm still kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop," she said. "Are you sure this is all I have to pay?"

Funding for the programs can be sporadic, according to Zahorik. Much of the money comes from the federal government and is then divvied up by the state. It can be replenished annually, Zahorik said, though the same region isn't likely to receive large allocations in consecutive years.

For Bott, going to work is "much funner" today than it was a few months ago.

The finishing touches, which include new gutters and insulation in the attic, should be completed by the end of the month, she said.

At the beginning of October, when the orange cones will be removed from her corner and the pictures and decorations returned to her freshly painted walls, Bott plans to host a grand opening to show off her transformed property and encourage other business owners to look into the programs for themselves.

Her only warning is for owners who plan on selling their property within 10 years, in which case they would need to repay a chunk of the loan to Lake County.

"I don't look at it like a loan," Bott said. "I have no intention of going anywhere."