A food court and moderately upscale restaurant are part of a $6 million project to renovate the former Exide Corp. headquarters at 645 Penn St., Reading developer Alan Shuman and Lancaster-based Community First Fund announced Tuesday.

If everything goes as planned, the new businesses could open as early as spring 2016, Shuman said.The project benefits from New Markets Tax Credits, a federal program created by Congress to spur development in low-income communities. It amounts to about $1.5 million cash to fund the renovations.

The Exide building project is a natural extension of other development going on in downtown Reading, including the DoubleTree Hotel, said Daniel Betancourt, president and chief executive officer of Community First.

“We want to see all of Penn Street developed,” said Betancourt. “All the way to the GoggleWorks.”

Chuck Broad, executive director of the Downtown Improvement District, said he welcomed any program that helps developers entice new tenants downtown. DID is a tenant of the building.

Shuman’s project will create commercial and retail spaces on the first floor. The aim is to fill the 140,000-square-foot, five-floor building, which has a vacancy rate of 36 percent.

An audio production company is eyeing the vacant lower level, according to Shuman. He said a food court will be located in the former Albright College gallery space and a restaurant will move into the area formerly occupied by BCTV.

Shuman declined to say which businesses he is courting for the building until agreements are finalized. The restaurant considering the space is located in a suburban area, he said, and its owners have not decided whether to relocate or expand to a second location in the city.

Shuman said the project will also bring the failing mechanical systems – particularly the sewer, HVAC and fire suppression systems – back to top-notch condition. He said he has secured commitments from most tenants to stay.

Shuman owned the building from 2001 to 2005, according to the Berks County Recorder of Deeds. He bought it from Exide for $2 million and sold it in 2005 for $6.4 million. Shuman said he sold it after Exide moved out and his mortgage ballooned. Shuman repurchased it in June for $1.7 million.

The building’s mounting physical issues were threatening to drive tenants away, according to Shuman and at least one tenant.

“Had he not bought it we would have moved when the lease was up,” said Tom Sheehan, of Tom Sheehan Worldwide, a marketing communications firm that has been in the building for 11 years. “I was really happy to hear that he got it back. No, I was pretty thrilled. He’s a guy who cares about Reading.”

Sheehan said he likes that Shuman is there to talk to tenants and does what he says he will do.

The building was built in 1977 as the headquarters for General Battery, a company that was purchased by Exide 10 years later. Exide maintained offices in Reading until 2000.

It’s modern facade stands out on Penn Street. Shuman said people think it is made of concrete but it’s actually made of limestone.

Sheehan said it was designed for cubicles of a corporate office. Being divided into separate business spaces requires a different approach to heating, ventilation and air-conditioning, Sheehan said.

“There’s been some very, very hot days in the building,” said Broad of DID.

The project was one of five that will receive $30 million in federal New Markets Tax Credits through Community First Fund. Other projects are a supermarket in Lancaster, a charter school in Bethlehem and a commercial project each in Harrisburg and York.

Shuman also received the New Markets Tax Credits support in April 2014 for The Big Mill development at 702 N. Eighth St. Originally a $14 million project, The Big Mill development cost has increased to $20 million after a devastating fire last year.

Jonathan Encarnacion, a Community First board member, said the nonprofit looks for projects that are economically sustainable. Betancourt noted Shuman’s track record with other projects, including the Sav-A-Lot shopping center at Eighth and Oley streets and the Abraham Lincoln hotel and parking garage at Fifth and Chestnut streets. Shuman also owns the M&T Bank building at 50 N. Fifth St.

Congress created the New Markets Tax Credit in 2000 as a way to increase the flow of capital to businesses and low income communities by providing a tax incentive to private investors. The program offers a tax credit of 39 percent of the investment cost, and it is spread over seven years.

Community First Fund is a nonprofit economic development organization serving the low-income communities of central and eastern Pennsylvania, It provides loan capital to real estate developers and businesses in the region.

Article originally appeared on readingeagle.com

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