Cigan a powerhouse of preservation
|Patti Cigan stands on a balcony overlooking part of Banbury Place, the former Uniroyal plant in Eau Claire. Cigan Properties took on the huge project of turning the factory into useful business space. Patti Cigan supplied much of the vision. Photo by Mark Gunderman.
By Katie McKy
Patti Cigan is as neat and trim as a hankie folded by a gentleman's gentleman. And she's easy to overlook, for like a gentleman's hankie, she is mostly tucked away . . . and she prefers it that way.
Ask her to assess her contributions to Cigan Properties, which oversees the gargantuan Banbury Place and other properties in Eau Claire, and she praises Bill Cigan, her husband, and Jack Kaiser, her son.
"Bill is the innovator," she says, "and Jack follows through."
To best assess Patti's contributions to Eau Claire, one must ask others. This asking uncovers the descriptor, "behind the scenes."
"She's so behind the scenes," says Kaiser. "She makes Bill and I look good."
"We'd have trouble with Banbury without Patti behind the scenes," says Bill. "It would be nowhere near the class act that it is now."
Banbury Place, with 1.9 million square feet of floor space, was once the Uniroyal-Goodrich factory. It employed 1,400 people at one time before closing in June 1992.
Shut down and locked up, it rapidly became a rusting reminder of better days.
But not for long. Cigan Properties purchased the plant that very month.
Eleanor Jones, a retired teacher of writing, toured the closed plant with Patti shortly after its purchase.
"It was a total mess," says Jones, "filled with black, massive machinery. I was overwhelmed that anyone would even think of making something of it, to clear away the monstrous mess and make stores and shops. But Patti's vision is enormous. It's remarkable."
Visit Banbury Place today and you will find a city within the city of Eau Claire, a cornucopia of 130 businesses that in all employ 1,100 to 1,200 people. The range of enterprises dazzles. American Phoenix, like Uniroyal, is in the business of rubber, and its massive machines clank and hum 24 hours a day. The sounds coming from a studio are subtler: the squeak and thump of dancers turning and leaping.
The sounds range, too. Happy squeals stream from Hand in Hand Daycare. There's huffing and puffing from an exercise center.
There are the tantalizing smells from Sherwood Inn Express Restaurant and the sharp smells of solder joining stained glass at Bieze Art Studio.
And where is Patti's hand in all this? It's nearly everywhere, from commerce to architecture.
One of the businesses housed at Banbury Place is Westgate Used Office Furniture, a firm owned by the Cigan triumvirate.
"We buy furniture from all over the country," says Bill. "For example, we bought 51 semi-loads of used steel case furniture from Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Patti orchestrated that whole thing. She's a great negotiator, skillful and tactful. And she even oversaw the off-loading of the furniture and graded it. She's adaptable, flexible and whatever the demands of the day, she remains on her feet."
Patti placed the bushes that edge Banbury Place and planted the ivy that softened its walls, but she also decorated the exterior with massive gears.
"We've tried to not make Banbury into something that it isn't. It was industry. It would look wrong to erect a faŤade."
That sensibility permeates the apartment complex at Banbury. It was Patti who saw the potential for cosmopolitan loft apartments.
"A couple of the buildings shouted to me, 'This is what we should be!' "
But not everyone saw the same potential.
"When Banbury was first started, some wondered if they were crazy," said Jones. "But it's become a remarkable place."
Steve Shilts is a contractor who works with Patti.
"I've learned a lot from her," Shilts said. "She has foresight that I don't have. When she tells us what something will be, I often don't see it. But then it turns out the way she foresaw it. I used to second-guess her. I've learned not to do that anymore. Frankly, it's thrilling to work with her, to be able to stand back at the end of a project and say, 'Wow!' "
The apartments at Banbury do wow one.
"Those apartments look like something you'd find in New York," said Jones. "And Patti did the planning and the sketching and the talking."
Although Patti is not a trained architect, she sketched the transformation from an abandoned brick building to hip, high-ceiling lofts.
"As a little girl," says Patti, "I sat with paper and made building plans."
Those plans were passed to an architect, but the vision was Patti's, as were the layouts.
"She has the ability to visualize," said Kaiser. "She sees potential. She's a visionary."
"She's good with the big picture and the details," said Bill. "For example, she knows where to hang windows and doors."
As Patti draws upon her childhood drawings, she also applies skills she acquired as a mother and homemaker.
"As a wife and mother, you learn how to budget and multi-task. I was in Junior League, the Jaycettes, and on Luther Hospital committees. Women learn real organizational skills when they're in these groups. These skills are portable," she said.
Patti believes that many women possess undiscovered skill sets, directly applicable to business.
"Women have more skills than they realize," she said. "In business, you need to be fluid and wear many hats. Women do this well."
Patti's vision is not limited to Banbury Place.
"We bought the Walker Lumber Yard," said Bill. "It's a whole city block that had been neglected for years. Patti said, 'We can do something with that.' Almost overnight, it became rentable property."
Preservation is important to Patti: she is a powerhouse of preservation. You can see the power of preservation in her office, which is a former banana cooler, and in an abandoned shoe factory on the Eau Claire River, which Cigan Properties is restoring.
"I see a restaurant on the first floor, offices on the second and apartments on the third," she said.
Why is Patti willing to multi-task year after year, purchasing semi-loads of furniture one month and sketching chic lofts another?
"Eau Claire is our home," she said. "We're all trying to better our community."
And Patti emphasizes "we."
"Everything I've ever accomplished," she said, "has been with the help of others."
Katie McKy is a freelance writer from Eau Claire. Contact the Chippewa Valley Business Report at (715) 723-5515 or through www.chippewavalleybusinessreport.com.
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