Goin’ with Cohen: A Blessing in Disguise (Part 1)

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Eric Swanson found a new home for his coin laundry in a former house of prayer as part of a relocation brought on by an eminent domain taking. (Photo by Laurance Cohen)

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Before it was iWash Express, the building was home to a Chabad-Lubavitch center where Judaic lectures, religious study and community events were conducted. (Photo courtesy of Hayden Helsey, RE/MAX Results Commercial Group)

Laurance Cohen |

Displaced operator places faith in house of prayer

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The day Eric Swanson sought a permit to build out his first Minnesota coin-op, officials hinted the property might get caught up in a future redevelopment project. When a condemnation letter arrived five years later, the action didn’t exactly come as a complete surprise. But what was totally unexpected was the faith he placed in a former house of prayer to rebuild.

“It was good news and bad news,” the 51-year-old operator recalls of his mix of emotions as the hammer dropped in 2010 with notice that his 1,500-square-foot store would be bulldozed by local government to make way for a large-scale improvement project in suburban Brooklyn Park, just north of Minneapolis. “It enabled me to get out of a small property and expand, but on the other hand, I went almost two years without revenue.”

Swanson had acquired the building in 2005 and turned a vacant barber shop and insurance office into a well-oiled machine. Five years in, the 20-washer/23-dryer coin-op was humming along nicely, enjoying its prime exposure on an arterial roadway carrying 30,000 vehicles daily. That all changed as the taking of the land by eminent domain sealed the laundry’s fate and started the clock ticking on an 18-month timeframe to relocate.

Finding a new home in the Twin Cities metroplex—a market the veteran owner describes as “pretty well built-out”—wasn’t as easy as throwing a dart at a map. With a drop-dead date looming to utilize a quarter-million dollars in compensation funds, the stakes grew each passing day.

“I wanted to be in an area where there weren’t a lot of laundries around,” Swanson says. “I wanted to find a niche spot where I could incorporate an office with the laundry.”

The seasoned general contractor was also a real estate licensee and relied on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) for leads. After a couple of potential sites fell through, he found himself drawn to an unorthodox St. Paul property with an Orthodox history.

“I saw it, but never paid attention to it,” he admits. “Then I started noticing that they dropped the price. It kind of piqued my interest.”

SITE DEFIES TRADITIONAL COIN-OP NORMS

The building had most recently served as a Chabad-Lubavitch center, where faithful followers assembled for Judaic lectures, religious study and community events. A place of Torah service was being eyed for self-service.

At first glance, the site defies traditional coin laundry norms: a two-story structure with vehicle access off a side street. And if that wasn’t enough to give it a pass, the interior ceiling was not much higher than the doorways.

Swanson found himself drawn to the challenge: “I could just tell from the outside that the building was solid — there was not one crack anywhere. It was built like a bomb shelter.”

After an initial visit, he scheduled another showing with the listing broker.

“I went back again and thought I could make it work, so I made an offer.”

With two decades under his belt building and renovating properties, the entrepreneurial businessman didn’t have to rely on divine intervention to transform a place of worship into a place of wash. No yarmulke required, just a thinking cap.

The structure, set into a slope on the north side of a busy stretch of 7th Street between St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood and the banks of the Mississippi River, boasted similar traffic counts as the Brooklyn Park laundry, but that’s where the similarities ended.

Check back Tuesday for Part 2!

About the author

Laurance Cohen

Laundry Marketing Concepts

Freelance Writer

As a freelance writer, Laurance Cohen crisscrosses the country seeking out the most unique vended laundries. He served as American Coin-Op editor in the early 1990s and currently operates Laundry Marketing Concepts based in Hallandale Beach, Fla. Readers are welcome to contact him at goinwithcohen@outlook.com.

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