How William Ow transformed a colossal chewing gum factory into a promising center for local business
One day, about nine years ago, William Ow stood at the entrance to the former Wrigley’s chewing gum factory on Santa Cruz’s Westside, waiting for his father, George Ow, Jr.
The younger Ow had a big idea that he needed to sell his dad on. He wanted the family real estate business, Ow Family Properties, to buy into a majority of the 385,000-square-foot property and convert it into a bustling, multi-tenant beehive for business. This was a daunting prospect even for the Ows, a prominent local family that, under George’s leadership, has achieved notable success in real estate, but one Ow was hell bent on making happen. He arranged for his father to scope out the building for the first time, and waited for him near the lobby with a small group of other brokers and building owners.
“I can see his car coming down the street,” Ow remembers. “I watch him take a right on Mission Street, and I see him go by, and he’s looking out his window, and he keeps driving, keeps driving, and I’m waving at him, but I don’t think he can quite see me. He keeps driving … and then he just drives off.”
George remembers it quite the same way. “I kept on driving,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘You know what, I don’t want to do this. I don’t even want to meet.’” The building was larger (by a long shot) than any in the army of properties the family had dealt with, and, with the exception of a few tenants, was mostly empty.
But his son persisted (“If I have a vision for something that can work, it’s hard for me to shake it,” he says), and George eventually returned to tour the behemoth.
“The first many times I looked at it, I couldn’t even figure out where I was in the building,” George says. “If they had let me wander by myself, I would’ve gotten lost. It took me a long time to warm up to the idea of buying that building and participating in the renovation, [and] the plan for giving it new life. But William was willing to do this, and I wanted to support him.” In 2004, the Ow family bought 75 percent of the property, which, despite the ubiquitous Wrigley moniker, is actually University Business Park, LLC. The other 25 percent is owned by a San Francisco partner.
The purchase was more than just a real estate deal or a way to turn a profit—when the Ows go for something, it’s usually for the long haul. “We like to build and hold or buy and hold, and if we sell, we exchange for something better,” explains George. They currently own 16 major commercial properties and several dozen others in the area. “In general, our philosophy is that we like to be invested in local real estate for the long term.” When the Wrigley’s deal went through, William Ow became the landlord of the largest building in the city and, by most accounts, the county, with the unique challenge of not only refurbishing it but also convincing businesses to move in.
“To me, now, the scale seems completely normal,” Ow says. “But when people first come in, they can’t absorb it all. You have to come multiple times to digest it and be comfortable with it. Especially when we first got here, it was this big, empty, creepy building. It was kinda weird. And the more we humanize it, soften it, change it, people can see the scale and the vision of where it’s going. I clearly have a certain vision of what I want this building to be.”
Wrigley’s: Take Two
William Ow, now 43, wasn’t always attracted to the Wrigley project. He returned from a short stint away to his hometown of Santa Cruz in 1996, the same year that Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. began to shut down its Santa Cruz plant. As an up-and-coming commercial real estate figure, Ow heard news of the Wrigley building surface from time to time as its ownership fluctuated, but didn’t think twice about going after such a gigantic project. His attitude changed, however, after he led the charge in relocating the company Fox Racing Shox to an 86,000-square-foot location in Watsonville.
“About the time that was concluding [in the early 2000s], this property had come and gone with various groups,” Ow says. “A broker friend of mine said ‘I’m working with the ownership at Wrigley’s, do you guys want to take a shot at it?’ Usually, I would’ve never considered it. It’s such a big beast. But working with [Fox] gave me a certain level of confidence.”
Even though Wrigley’s had single rooms bigger than Fox Racing Shox’s entire building (the largest was 90,000 square feet), Ow developed a dogged vision for reimagining the space.
“I thought William was probably a little crazy, like his dad did,” laughs his wife, Erica Ow, who assists with property management and does bookkeeping for the business. “Maybe ‘crazy’ isn’t the right word. Really ambitious.”
It was a momentous and fruitful time for the couple, which, in addition to tackling the family’s biggest business venture yet, was also pregnant with twins, had just moved to the Westside, and was embarking on a home remodel. The Ow twins are now almost 9 years old, and have spent their entire lives going to “The Building,” as it’s known in their family.
“The way it’s evolved has been interesting to watch,” says Erica, recalling Ow’s early plans to bring a Lowe’s Home Improvement store to the site and the eventual “change in direction” to the current mix of diverse, mostly local businesses. “And I love it because it’s more of a community.”
The pair shares a sleek office on the building’s second floor, where their Shiba Inu, Senji, can often be found dozing on a blanket on the concrete floor. Two classic British motorcycles stand out against the white walls, hinting at Ow’s passion for all things bikes (the latest tenant to join the Wrigley’s family is Santa Cruz Bicycles; other tenants include Kuberg electric motorcycles and il Motorino). Geometric, white lanterns drop from the impossibly high ceiling, and can also be spotted throughout the building’s stark, industrial hallways. The lanterns hail from Santa Cruz’s own Om Gallery, which is headquartered in the Wrigley building, just a short walk from Ow’s office.
“I tend to gravitate toward drawing tenants in that I like—in the sense that I either like what the product is, or what the company is about, or the people who work for them and what they do for the community,” he says. “I think those are important things. It makes it more interesting to me; I’m not just filling the space for the sake of renting the space and collecting rent—that’s important, but I definitely see this becoming a community.”
Eight years in the making, the building is about 75 percent full, he says.
The first, and largest, tenant Ow secured was the U.S. Geological Survey. The government organization already had a 5,000-square-foot presence in the building, but Ow was able to woo the agency into relocating its other operations from Menlo Park to Santa Cruz, where they now have 100,000 square feet of space in the Wrigley building.
The first floor is dark but easily accessible, and filled up the fastest with tenants including Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, Bay Photo Lab and the Santa Cruz County Elections Department. The second floor, which is airier and has sporadic skylights that douse it in natural light, has a more collective atmosphere—or at least it will, once it is filled. Ow recently received the permits to move ahead with “phase two” of the second floor, which he says will include the arrival of several new local businesses, artist studios, and more. The amenities are bare bones, as it is industrial space, not technically office space.
The floor is already abuzz with activity and operation of various levels. To the right of Ow’s office, showcased by glass storefronts that line an enormous concrete hallway, are the colorful worlds of Santa Cruz Performing Arts, Tao San kickboxing, and Santa Cruz Aerial Playground.
To the left is the lobby, a cathedral-sized space with two modern couches that look miniscule by scale. Past Duke Empirical, which deals in medical devices, there is a corridor with a series of vacant rooms bustling with contractors and inspectors. Nearby, the Digital Media Factory offices are in full swing, and Sessions has a mammoth hallway stacked ceiling-high with cardboard boxes of snowboarding gear as they hurry to settle in. The doors to Om Gallery’s warehouse are open, revealing owner Max Halterman painting a wall black. The company has been in its 5,500-square-foot Wrigley building space for around eight years.
“They all of a sudden decided to paint. They see the change is about to happen,” says Ow, gesturing to the surrounding, wide-open rooms in varying states of completion.
“Pretty soon all of these will have storefronts or doors, and this [hallway] will be a cleaned-up area,” he says as he skirts around a pallet stacked high with merchandise and heads for a room that is particularly special to him: the vault for his impressive motorcycle collection.
His love of motorcycles began when he rode a Harley Davidson around while attending Soquel High, and intensified when he worked at a shop that restored classic Moto Guzzis (his favorites) through college. Eventually, he got into racing, sporting the number 412. His favorites are British and Italian varieties, and he’s traveled to many of the overseas factories (and even got engaged to his wife on the shores just outside of a Moto Guzzi factory in Italy). Fixations with dirt bikes and mountain bikes followed, and he remains an all-around bike enthusiast today—although, he laments the irony is that “now that I can finally afford some of these things, I can never ride ’em or work on ’em. I’m too busy.”
After a quick rev of the engine of a black-and-yellow Ducati Superbike that fills the warehouse with a resounding vrooooooom!, it’s back to the halls, where he elicits familiar hellos or quick questions from everyone he passes.
When the building reaches the 40 to 45 tenants Ow aims for, he predicts it will be a hub not only for successful companies like Santa Cruz Bicycles and manufacturing or warehouse operations, but also for start-ups (“I jokingly refer to this as the Next NextSpace,” he says. “When companies get off of the ground [at Nextspace], unless they get bought up and go over the hill, they can come here when they need to expand their employment and make a real product.”), and creative professionals.
“In industrial parks, you may have a lot of tenants in the building but there isn’t necessarily interaction between them,” he says. “There’s no sense of place where people want to come; usually it is just people coming for a single tenant. In this case, sometimes, you almost get that downtown, shopping center effect where they might come for one but they are made aware of another and might come back for another reason.”
The Wrigley property already hosts the Westside Farmers’ Market, and has provided space for events from Santa Cruz Next’s Nextie Awards to a 300-person Ow family wedding, as well as a recent benefit for the local nonprofit The Clean Oceans Project. On the horizon, in 2013, the site will host the Santa Cruz Mountain Bike Festival and the New Belgium Clips of Faith film festival.
“What I see as part of the long-range plan is that this will be a great environment for people to come and see art, see other businesses, or see activities happening,” says Ow. “At the same time, [in our parking lot] across the street, there will be events like the farmers’ market and, at some point, I’d love to generate something where we have food trucks.”
The low inventory of food trucks currently cruising Santa Cruz streets doesn’t deter Ow’s plans—the “if I build it, they will come” motto has worked out pretty well for him so far.
Similarly, artists are lining up to get into the building, just as Ow had hoped.
They’ll follow in the footsteps of Robert Blitzer, the celebrated artist behind R. Blitzer Gallery, who moved into the building several years ago but relocated to a spacious warehouse on the second floor two and a half months ago. The idea of artists reclaiming former industrial space is nothing new, says Blitzer (“It’s almost as old as art itself!”), because large, inexpensive spaces are conducive to creating large art pieces and hosting well-attended events—both things Blitzer is known to do. His new location, which has expanses of pink insulation protruding where two of the walls will be, needs more work before he can make it his own, but he sees a lot of potential.
“Right now we’re looking at the insulation on the walls, and you have to peer into the future a little bit—try and see William’s vision for it,” says Blitzer, who hopes to be up and running in time for the Dec. 7 First Friday event. “William has a vision for this space, and I’m buying into that vision.”
Not unlike how Ow looked at an old, mostly empty 385,000-square-foot former factory and imagined greatness, Blitzer looks at his “bitchin’” warehouse as a promising yet-to-be-realized gallery. He points to a wall that already has its layer of sheet rock. To most, it may look like a boring, if not exceptionally large, gray-ish wall studded with nails. To Blitzer, it’s gallery perfection.
“I look at that wall over there and think ‘that’s the most beautiful wall I’ve ever seen,’” he says. “That is just a gorgeous wall to show art on.”
Over time, as tenants like Blitzer have slowly and steadily breathed life into to the structure, Ow’s father’s skepticism has been replaced with pride. “William does 99.9 percent of all the work,” he says, “and he’s really done a great job of bringing in new tenants, new people.”
Soon, bicycle parts, medical instruments, snowboard clothes and more will be funneling out of that one building and to customers around the world, George says, putting Santa Cruz—and the fruitful Wrigley building—on the map. He sees it as a place where businesses can set down roots and grow.
“We have a lot of very successful real estate projects and I think that William is shaping up the Wrigley building to become our most successful project,” he says. “Beyond financially, [it will be] one that produces a fertile or receptive ground for new businesses. … It’ll be great as far as rents go, but more than that, it will be an exciting place for Santa Cruz.”
A Whiff Of The Westside
Santa Cruz residents who lived in town during the Wrigley plant’s 40-year operation will remember how the scents of Juicy Fruit would waft over the Westside. Blitzer, who has lived on the Westside since 1982, recalls olfactory currents of fruitiness often drifting over the neighborhood.
To this day, Santa Cruz City Councilmember Lynn Robinson remembers picking up on Wrigley’s pervasive scents while on a sixth grade field trip to the Natural Bridges State Park tide pools. “I can remember a stinky tide pool smell, and I remember the Juicy Fruit in the air,” she says.
When the plant wrapped up its operation in 1997, the smells left the neighborhood, along with hundreds of jobs and quite a bit of revenue income for the city.
A building that once employed a max of 300 people and churned out 20 million sticks of chewing gum per day became a severely under-utilized shell of former industry. In the years that followed, the neighboring Lipton Tea and Texas Instruments factories packed up and shipped out, in 2002 and 2001, respectively. At their peaks, the Lipton plant had employed 550 people and Texas Instruments employed 600, according to a 2003 City of Santa Cruz Economic Development Background Report.
This left the city, and the Westside, in particular, with some big holes to fill.
“When you see some of that light industrial leaving Santa Cruz, it’s hard on the place,” says Bonnie Lipscomb, executive director of the city’s Economic Development Department. “It’s a long process to fill those. Lipton is [now] full. But manufacturing—this level of manufacturing, on this scale—isn’t going to come back to Santa Cruz.”
It remains to be seen if a wide array of smaller businesses can take the place, economically speaking, of one Herculean tenant like Wrigley’s, Lipscomb says. The task at hand, she adds, is to strike a balance. “It’s important to maintain a certain amount of light industrial in Santa Cruz,” she says, adding that she is also encouraged by the clusters of synergistic businesses cropping up in places like the former Wrigley plant.
“Traditionally, when you think Wrigley building, you think manufacturing. Giant warehouse,” she says. “And I think what William has been able to do with the space shows just how flexible and creative you can be with reuse of existing structures … and still be successful. It embodies the Santa Cruz spirit. It’s a good example of success in Santa Cruz.”
In a recent email to GT, newly re-elected city councilmember Cynthia Mathews called the Wrigley building “a case history of old economy/new economy in Santa Cruz.”
Robinson sees Wrigley’s evolution from singular to plural as an auspicious equation for the Westside. “You had buildings that were centric to one particular industry, like Wrigley’s with gum,” she says. “Now you have that same building but it’s multi-faceted in terms of who is getting employed, how it fits into the Westside neighborhood, [and] who it’s servicing. It’s really working on a multi-faceted level. That’s the visionary part of what William is doing.”
The Westside is ripe with other ambitious projects that are redefining the neighborhood—the 20-acres of live/work space at the Delaware Addition, for instance, which Lipscomb calls “an overlay of what’s possible on the Westside,” and the Habitat for Humanity nonprofit retail shop on Swift Street.
But the neighborhood’s revival from a stagnant industrial slump to a bustling destination for commerce, wine tasting, dining, art, and more, can, in large part, be traced to the transformation of the Swift Street Courtyard into a community epicenter that is now home to Kelly’s French Bakery, the Surf City Vintners, Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, et al.
“[The courtyard development] just thrived,” Robinson says. “It was like the Westside was ready and waiting for this. They needed someone with the vision and the willingness to invest, and it’s been happening repeatedly now. It tells you that the market is there and people are supporting it.”
She sees simultaneous regenerations in other parts of the city, especially Midtown and Seabright. “I see this incredible, new entrepreneurial spirit happening throughout the city,” she says.
Ow, along with his younger brother Ben Ow and several cousins, has another Westside project that is emerging as a neighborhood hotspot: Mission Center, located between the Swift Street Courtyard and Wrigley’s on Mission Street. The shopping center was once home to New Leaf Community Market, before its grand re-opening in a bigger location on Fair Avenue (another Westside success story), and now boasts an Odonata Wines tasting room, Studio 831, and Companion Bakeshop, among other businesses.
“It’s becoming a cool little lifestyle center,” says Ow. “It’s different than the [neighboring] Safeway center—that’s a big, glitzy power center—but it’s a neat place where you go for Tuesday pizza night or Thursday taco night. It almost feels a little European—you can sit outside on the patios, eat some food, drink some wine. You’ll see kids running around as well as elderly [people]—all hanging out comfortably together.”
The Wrigley building may not be service- and retail-oriented, but Ow hopes that it, too, will become integral to the surrounding community. The third-generation Cruzan’s overarching goal for the project is to improve the quality of life in Santa Cruz by nurturing the opportunity to both live and work locally—something he’s seen become increasingly difficult over the years, as people trek en masse over the hill for work.
He saw this problem and recognized his ability to make a dent it in. “The best way to change your environment if you want to make it better is to change what’s inside of it,” he says. “The whole point of it, in the big picture, hopefully, is this full sustainability: that you can live in your community, work in your community, go to school in your community, and you don’t necessarily have to leave. You don’t have to go over the hill for a sustainable job. The idea here is that people can have a space that is a good environment to create their business and, hopefully, thrive.”
It took several years for the Ows to discover every room in the building. Two years into owning it, Ow came across a deep-set room that held eight 20,000-gallon glucose tanks, and, according to Erica, the building facilities manager found a new tiny room just a few weeks ago. But, even as each nook and cranny is unearthed and the multitudes of spaces are put to use by tenants—pushing its former life as a chewing gum factory farther into the community’s rearview mirror—the essence of it lingers.
Spend some time in the building, and you’ll stumble across a vent that smells like mint, or a room where the walls ooze aromas of Juicy Fruit. Two USGS offices were set up in old “flavor vaults,” and smelled so strongly of mint and cinnamon, respectively, that “your eyes watered,” says Ow. (They’ve since applied a seal to the walls to reduce the problem.)
Scents drift through the building like ghosts of years past, making their mark on the ideas and products that now lay claim to the space. It’s a subtle reminder of what once was that is all the more appreciated now that, thanks to Ow, there is something new cooking at Wrigley’s.
Chew On This
Wrigley’s began construction on its Santa Cruz plant in 1954. The Chicago-based gum titan announced that they would close the plant—their smallest—in 1996, and relocated operations to St. Petersburg, Russia. At the time of the closure, the factory was operating at only 60 percent capacity, according to a 1996 article in the San Jose Business Journal. The factory pumped out around 5 billion sticks of gum in 1995, in flavors including Doublemint, Spearmint, Juicy Fruit, Big Red and Extra. It once produced Hubba Bubba bubble gum, which was discontinued in the mid-1980s.
A Family Affair
The Ow’s Santa Cruz story begins with George Jr.’s father, George Ow, Sr., who emigrated from China to Santa Cruz—first in 1926 and again in 1937. After graduating from Santa Cruz High School in 1940, he served in the U.S. army, after which “he used his army savings and borrowed money from relatives to buy 50 percent of a mom-and-pop grocery store in Monterey,” recounts George Jr. He went on to buy his own store, also in Monterey, in 1949, and build King’s Market on 41st Avenue in 1962, and King’s Foods in Scotts Valley in 1966. The family still owns the shopping centers where they were located.
“Collectively we’ve gone from one meager little property to, over the course of three generations, almost two dozen really nice properties,” says William.
Today, 10 Ows comprise the family real estate business, handling everything from leasing and management to bookkeeping and accounting. William’s younger brother, Benjamin, is also a commercial real estate agent with the group.
“What makes a family business successful—and this is so important—is that everyone gets along, and treats each other like peers and with respect,” says William. “Because where the problems happen in family businesses is [when] there is a disconnect, and they fight—fight over possessions, assets, money, whatever. The family is most important. All of those things are secondary.”
George says the legacy of his parents has helped the group stay strong. “I think that we are loyal to the thought of my mother and father—the grandparents,” he says. “They always wanted the family to stay together and so we were pretty good at looking out for one another and helping each other.”
He says the family inherited its commitment to philanthropy from his father. Among other efforts, the family donates vacant spaces in their inventory for events and for charities to set up shop in, and has donated $368,000 in American Dream Scholarships for 842 Cabrillo students over 25 years.
“My father was an immigrant from China, and he always felt—until the day he died—that America was the land of opportunity and he was always grateful for all of the opportunities that America gave him,” George says. “So now that we have our heads above water and are doing fine, we’d like to make sure that these opportunities are available for the whole community.”
George, who is the oldest in the business at almost 70 years old, says that his generation is proudly passing the torch to William’s. “I feel that the next generation is really well trained and smart and motivated,” he says, adding with a laugh, “I think they are better looking and faster and smarter than we are.”
William says his 9-year-old twins claim that real estate is in their future, too, although he will be happy with whatever they choose to pursue when the time comes. But he is interested to see how the next generation will handle the business. “My and my brother’s attitude is that we are going to outdo [our parent’s generation],” he says. “Now, with the next generation, are they going to try to outdo us? I definitely hope so.”
“The next generation shouldn’t do something just because their parents or grandparents did it,” adds George. “They should really, really love what they do.” If the past is any indication, Ows will continue to love improving Santa Cruz through real estate projects for years to come. | EL
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