By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — Of 32 small and growing businesses that have set up shop in The Burgess Professional Center since 2011, The Black Tank is the newest and one of the hippest.
Black and purple lights usher visitors through a ground-floor entrance to the company’s 4,200-square-foot show room and research and development area. The entryway was custom built by the owners of the eight-story building at 43 Essex St., within easy walking distance of the downtown train station.
“They built what I needed, an unconventional space,” said Michael Johnson, owner of the engineering design company that specializes in making LED lighting for entertainment, theatrical and architectural markets.
“We love being close to the train station because it lets me recruit workers from Boston,” Johnson said, adding that he moved his company to Haverhill four months ago after outgrowing his previous space in Amesbury.
Before that, like many tenants in the building, Johnson ran his fledgling business out of his home. He lives in Groveland.
The Black Tank is one of more than 40 small companies in the building, most of which moved in after building owner William Nofker and property manager Lisa Fitzpatrick began marketing the site as a “small business incubator” two years ago.
Nofsker moved his manufacturing company from Cambridge to downtown Haverhill in 1982, buying the Burgess Building at 143 Essex St. and the neighboring Lang Building, which he sold in 2006.
Two years ago, Fitzpatrick said they decided to upgrade the Burgess Building and start marketing it to a mix of tenants, specializing in small and new businesses. That includes light manufacturing, professional offices, research and development, and distribution and storage.
“With the downturn in the economy and specifically the downturn in manufacturing, we decided to try something different,” Fitzpatrick said. “The idea is to be ‘turnkey’ for our tenants or we can customize to need.”
City Councilor John Michitson worked with Nofsker and Fitzgerald to get the business incubator idea going. He began talking about the concept in the lead-up to his unsuccessful mayoral candidacy three years ago.
“This is proof of concept for our innovation-based economic development strategy,” Michitson said of the Burgess Professional Center’s growing list of tenants. “In the two years since Lisa started innovation-based marketing, she has attracted 32 small business start-ups occupying over 30,000 square feet. This is amazing when you consider that Massachusetts unemployment has actually risen over this time.”
Michitson said businesses in the building are having a ripple effect on the downtown’s restaurants and other retail businesses. Eventually, he hopes to see some of the start-ups move from the incubator site to Haverhill’s industrial parks, where larger businesses thrive.
Typical one-room offices in the Essex Street building start at $250 a month, including utility costs, Fitzgerald said. Also included in the lease is access to several common amenities, such as small and large conference rooms, storage areas, kitchens and even a lounge with a pool table.
“We provide premium common amenities without the premium cost,” Fitzpatrick said. “And we give entrepreneurs with small business owners the ability to get out of their homes and to be around other small business owners in similar situations with similar challenges.”
That possibility was particularly appealing to Cecilia Buckles, who runs her Advertising That Works business out of one of the building’s smallest spaces — a 150-square-foot office that came partially furnished.
“I used to run my business out of my home, but now I have a professional space to meet people,” said Buckles, who’s been in the building for two years. “I love the camaraderie among the tenants and the shared spaces.”
Eric LaFleur and Jonathan Baron run NorthEast Computer Services on the building’s seventh floor. The company provides information technology and computer management services to customers in the building and in cities throughout the state and country.
“It’s a convenient location, being close to Boston, and an indestructible building,” said Baron, noting the reinforced concrete building, built in 1912, once was a bomb shelter. “There’s space here for us to grow as we need it, and potential customers are moving in all the time. We’re like an in-house IT department or help desk for tenants in the building.”
That company also works with Dave Spaulding’s USAi.net business on the sixth floor.
“Haverhill works for us because it’s close enough to Boston without paying Boston rates,” said Spaulding, adding that his company’s “disaster recovery” clients include many large companies located in Boston skyscrapers.
Another technology company in the building is Exultium, an Internet security firm.
“The set up is very economical for me,” owner John Huston said. “It’s inspiring to have an owner who invested in something like this rather than converting his building to residential apartments like so many buildings around us.”
There are also lawyers and nonprofit agencies such as Community Action and The Greater Haverhill Foundation in the building.
“Here I get luxury space at the cost of one small office,” attorney Michael Cormier said. “And I enjoy the camaraderie.”