Conversion Winner: Morningstar, Charlotte, N.C.

Posted by Poppy Behrens on Dec 1, 2018 12:00:00 AM

2018 Facility Of The Year

The evolution of architecture is responsible for some amazing additions to our nation’s cities and towns. When a building emerges as extra special, it often considered an art object.

Praise of this magnitude isn’t too far off the mark for this year’s winner of Mini-Storage Messenger’s Facility of the Year in the conversion category. The recipient of the coveted title goes to Morningstar Properties, LLC of Matthews, N.C., for their sleek retrofit of an existing structure in neighboring Charlotte.

Located at 8100 South Boulevard, the innovative 105,000-square-foot facility was crafted from a former textile factory originally built in 1962. Intended to be both aesthetically pleasing and eminently functional, the project encapsulates Morningstar’s company philosophy. Billy Stephens, vice president for marketing, summarizes it by saying, “Everything we do comes down to pleasing the client.”

“We believe that an optimal customer experience is the most effective way to be competitive in an industry such as storage, which is a commodity driven business,” says Stephens.

A regional player in the industry, Morningstar is known mostly as a developer of new facilities, not conversions. In fact, “South Boulevard,” as it’s informally known in house, is the company’s first such undertaking in over a decade. The decision to break recent tradition and go ahead was based on a fortunate confluence of circumstances.

“This building presented a real unique opportunity. Its solid construction made it a good candidate for a renovation,” says Johnson. The location, right along a north/south thoroughfare, makes it accessible from the area’s major freeways and close to several high-income neighborhoods. Minimal site work was required, since the new use was consistent with existing zoning regulations, which kept red tape to a minimum.

For customer convenience, interior units were laid out to take advantage of existing overhead doors, which were originally located on three sides of the building. Other existing features reused included load leveling docks and an overhead canopy that wraps around two sides of the structure, providing customers with protection from the elements. They’re also wide enough to accommodate a car or small truck.

“The structure also made it possible to include some exciting features, such as an interior that lent itself to including art storage units—complete with a fire suppression system,” says Stephens. “One of the things we pride ourselves on lies in our philosophy that we’re not really building a storage facility, we’re really building a structure that fits in seamlessly with the surrounding community and makes a positive contribution.”

Charlotte-based Overcash Demmitt, a firm with a long-standing relationship with Morningstar, was the lead designer on the project. “We’ve worked with Morningstar throughout Texas, Florida, the Carolinas, Virginia, and on up the East Coast,” explains architect Tim Moore, principal on the South Boulevard project.

Artistic Retrofit
As a renovation, developing South Boulevard took much less time than new construction, with the whole project completed in just six months. And within that six months, an amazing number of amenities were shoehorned into spaces that once housed skilled weavers and fabric cutters. In addition to climate-controlled rentals, South Boulevard offers the free use of a move-in truck, acceptance of third-party deliveries, specialty units for fine art storage, and a JAMBOX music facility—unusual to say the least.

“The area has a growing market for art storage,” says Moore. “Instead of a traditional set up of several individual units, we designed one 8,400-square-foot common area capable of storing works owned by various clients. It’s equipped with museum-grade equipment to assure the necessary temperature and humidity levels. It also includes oversize doors to bring in larger pieces, plus a higher fire rating.”

Adjacent to the art storage space is the JAMBOX project, a 4,500-square-foot space which local bands can rent to practice and store their instruments and equipment.

“Over the years, bands would simply rent a plain 10-by-10 unit to store their instruments and equipment. Without air conditioning, the situation was less than ideal. The new space we created is larger and climate controlled, which allows it to serve almost as an office,” says Moore. The architect points out that features like these bring in people and make the building a livelier place. These visible signs of activity fulfill a marketing function, piquing the curiosity of passers-by.

A feature from the building’s years as a textile mill was a series of sliding exterior doors that, when opened, moved upward at a 45-degree angle. In a nod to the building’s heritage, Moore and his team removed the portals and reused them as decorative elements on the exterior. Moore and Morningstar decided on this feature even though the building does not enjoy special status as a historical landmark. Another touch of nostalgia can be seen in the sales office, where a vintage textile scale relocated from a receiving dock is on display. Most younger visitors have little clue as to its function, making it a real conversation piece.

Other aesthetic elements include repainting the exterior in bold colors and a vibrant mural on one side by local artists Matt Hooker and Matt Moore. The dominant hues of blue and orange (Morningstar’s corporate colors) extend to the trim of the entire exterior. The company’s brochure states that the work “was inspired not only by the motion of the light rail (South Boulevard is located along the LYNX Blue Line, a local light rail service) and the street traffic that runs parallel to it, but also by the concept that his facility breaks outside the traditional storage mold.” The facility also abuts a Norfolk and Southern rail line, a necessity during its textile era.

Other important details, such as landscaping and interior cleanliness, are continuously monitored to maintain a fresh, inviting appearance.

Translating an architectural plan into physical reality is the job of the construction trades. Danforth Construction of Charlotte, another longtime Morningstar partner, approached the task with the same passion as did the owner and architect.

“From the start we could see that the architect had done a fine job,” says Gibb Heilman, owner of Danforth. “They took into consideration a lot of the extenuating circumstances, which is typical for renovations. We did have a few issues as the job went along, which required us to occasionally tweak the plans.” One unforeseen factor related to the foundation, where workers discovered a series of deep concrete pits and the absence of some structural elements, according to Heilman.

The building includes other features that are both “smart” and “green,” including LED lighting inside and out, activated by OCC sensors on the interior, security cameras throughout, and six convenient entry points, three with glass roll-up overhead doors.

Cutting Edge Technologies
Keeping a facility of over 500 units running smoothly is a complex task. Fortunately, the sophistication of almost everything in the digital world progresses at lightening speed. The cloud-based management software supplied by SiteLink of Raleigh, N.C., serves as a stellar example.

A long-time partner with Morningstar, SiteLink offers a product with amazing versatility. In a nutshell, it draws data from any source related to the business, be it accounting, security, customer inquires via a website, etc., and allows management to sift and sort the information to allow for prompt and effective decision making.

“Our web-based product runs on a browser interface called SiteLink myHub, which allows an owner/manager can access it either in the office on a PC or Mac, or remotely on a tablet or smartphone. From here, she can perform all the daily operational functions of the business, such as taking payments, moving tenants in or out, etc.,” says Chuck Vion, director of marketing for SiteLink.

A CRM module is included in the software, which allows staff to communicate with customers by email or text message. Tenant Notifications allow for quick notification of billing changes or rent increases. Prospects can also opt in and receive first word of special promotions.

SiteLink Marketplace is yet another innovative feature. “We have close to 60 other vendors that provide access to ancillary services which are all funneled through SiteLink,” says Vion. For example, the ability to interface with the provider of the store’s security hardware will inform SiteLink of a delinquent customer, which will deactivate their code and deny access to the unit. “We work with all providers of security hardware in the industry,” Vion says.

South Boulevard takes advantage of these capabilities, by offering 24/7 access with either a conventional keypad or via Bluetooth on the Morningstar smartphone app.

Integration with the facility’s website will allow prospects to view the number and location of available units and view current rates, even sign a lease virtually, which maximizes customer convenience by saving a trip to the facility. Real-time flexibility allows prices to be raised or lowered as supply dictates, maximizing profitability.

Handling such a huge amount of sensitive data over the internet poses security concerns. To address this, Vion explains that SiteLink undergoes system penetration tests each year by a third party to assure it meets standards set by the payment card industry.

“We’re PC One Level certified, which is the same as Amazon’s website,” says Vion.

Special Marketing
Marketing such a special facility to the greater Charlotte community called for extra special strategies. Work began well before opening, with newly hired manager Stephanie Lourmais doing a good bit of “shoe leather” work to build relationships with various local businesses, especially chambers of commerce, relators, and apartment managers. The company even set up a temporary microsite to promote the new location and offer preleases.

Partnerships were formed with other parties, including the Charlotte Agenda, a local group of business leaders. Shortly before opening the organization feature, a profile about South Boulevard was put on its website, which received 2,000 views eight months after the facility’s opening. Overall, the Charlotte Agenda’s website, combined with its Instagram page, attracts over 100,000 visitors daily.

Other initiatives were the sponsorship of the annual Queen Feast Restaurant Week and the Taco Lucha Festival in Uptown Charlotte. In addition, during the weeks immediately prior to opening, a series of billboards with changing messages appeared around town. Each week a bit more info about the new facility was revealed, teasing the curiosity of the public while building a positive buzz.

One especially bold idea took advantage of its location along the LYNX Blue Line. Morningstar partnered with the transit authority to wrap several of the cars to promote the new facility and advertise its offer of two free months.

To top everything off, Morningstar purchased ad space in the outfield at BB&T Ballpark, the local venue for the minor league Charlotte Knights. Situated at the terminus of the first base line, it catches the attention of thousands of eyes.

A warm welcome from the Charlotte community marked the opening of the South Boulevard location in August of 2017. “Since we’ve opened, everything has been quite positive. I just had a lady come in yesterday who compared us other storage facilities and remarked that ours feels so much safer,” says Lourmais.

“We’ve filled up nicely since opening. Today our occupancy stands at 68 percent, which is great considering the number of nearby competitors.”

Lourmais likes to point out one of Morningstar’s preferred methods of communication with passers-by: the reader board. Resembling a portable marquee, the reader boards at all Morningstar properties display a weekly message, emailed from corporate. Often, it’s a folksy antidote that also serves a marketing function. “We recently had one that said, ‘Stop in and get our strawberry rutabaga recipe,’ which led a lot of curiosity seekers in the door. When Aretha Franklin died, we paid tribute by spelling out ‘RESPECT’.”

All Morningstar stores involve themselves with various charities. “Recently we sponsored golf tournaments for the USO and the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association. We also support events at area senior living centers,” says Lourmais.

Generosity is encouraged at the corporate level. “We encourage every Morningstar location to support local nonprofits and community organizations through partnerships, sponsorships, and by providing five percent of our space to these organizations free of charge,” explains Stephens. Currently, South Boulevard provides 10 units to various charities.

Changing Times
Morningstar’s success with South Boulevard reveals some interesting facts about Charlotte’s—and the nation’s changing demography. “Throughout the city, we’ve seen an increase in the number of self-storage providers,” says Todd DeLong, director of economic development for the City of Charlotte.

“The construction of the light rail line has almost certainly been a factor in this, among other economic developments. It brought along an influx of multi-family residential development, so if you have a couple that lived in a 3,000-square-foot house, when their kids leave, and they downsize to an apartment or condo but don’t want to let go of all their possessions, the result is a demand for storage space. The same goes for the growing number of millennials. Both these groups like to have their items stored in fairly close proximity to where they live.”

Stephens points out that a growing number of business clients are using Morningstar spaces to archive records and secure extra supplies and equipment where they can easily be accessed.

This year’s winner truly reflects a new standard in the self-storage industry. With its abundance of design innovation, customer conveniences, high-tech accoutrements, and spirited management, Morningstar South Boulevard represents something new, exciting, and even a bit artistic.

Paul Vachon is a freelance writer and editor based in Detroit. He is the author of four books and has contributed to publications such as Pacific Standard, Preservation, HOUR Detroit, Michigan History, and Costco Connection.

Development Team

Facility Owners: Morningstar Properties, LLC
Architect: Overcash Demmitt
Construction Company: Danforth Construction Group
Doors/Interior Systems: Janus International
Structural Framing: SS/20 Building Systems
Management Software: SiteLink