This article was originally published in the April 2018 Trenton Downtowner.
One day in 2016, a New York developer, John Salis, was browsing Facebook when he saw an intriguing bit of news: the historic Giordano Diner in Lawrence, just outside of Trenton, was being given away. A property developer wanted it out of the way to make way for a new building, and was giving it to anyone who would take it for the low price of $0. Salis, a Staten Island native who still did his business in that area, had never paid the region much attention before, but found himself checking out Mercer County.
“I looked into the area and from there I went into Trenton and looked into commercial properties,” Salis says. And while he didn’t come away with the diner, he got excited about the possibilities Trenton held compared to his hometown. “I was seeing a closure in the New York markets,” he says. “Things in the New York market were getting overpriced.”
In Trenton Salis saw low real estate prices, beautiful architecture, and a city he believes could take off in the next five or ten years. Now Salis has purchased and renovated three properties in Trenton: an office at 226 West State Street, opened last summer and recently leased, and two historic homes in Mill Hill.
Before his Trenton investments, Salis was best known for his ventures on Staten Island. His Staten Island Artists Building is a warehouse converted into live-work space for artists. A second project is a coworking space where previously home or garage-based ventures can rent affordable quarters. Salis has also bought regular homes and multifamily units on Staten Island.
The first building in Trenton that caught Salis’s eye was 226 West State Street, a red brick building with an unusual stained glass front window. Although the 4,500-square-foot building was in total disrepair, Salis saw potential. “It was just kind of one of those buildings,” he says. “It’s a time capsule, and if the walls could only speak, they would tell the history behind the building. The original stained glass windows in the front were something that was very appealing to me. As we did a walkthrough, you could see the woodwork moulding, the doors, and the hardwood floors were very nice, handmade work.”
Less than two months after finishing the $200,000 renovation, Salis leased the entire property to Nonprofit Volunteers of America. “Initially my concept was to bring an artists’ live-work space to 226 West State Street, but after spending some time in town I realized this is more of a street of professional lobbyists, offices, and attorneys,” he says. “I didn’t feel that an artists building would go well in that location. I like to marry businesses with locations, and I don’t want to be one of those outsiders who creates a project and watches it fail.”
Shortly after purchasing 226 West State Street, Salis purchased and renovated two homes in Mill Hill. One was sold to an artist and musician. The other is being rented. He also purchased 154 West State Street, a brownstone he says he couldn’t pass up. And most recently purchased an old warehouse Mill Hill. “This is a building that will allow me to express my creative side. The side that I always wanted to bring here in Trenton since the beginning,” he says.
But, he says, he is still looking for a place for an artists’ studio.
Salis grew up on Staten Island and followed his father into the construction business. After graduating from New York University with a degree in building construction management, he went to work as a contractor and has been in the real estate business ever since.
The developer has found a welcoming environment in Trenton, so much so that he says he is bringing five of his New York-area developer friends down for a tour. He says the Trenton community been very helpful, naming Greater Trenton director George Sowa, Julia Taylor of Isles, and Trenton Downtown Association director Tom Gilmour as being key to helping him find his feet in the town.
“People who are in those positions in Trenton are being very helpful to an outsider, whereas other locations are not as friendly,” he says. “They are looking for investors like myself to come in and invest in the town.”
Salis’s co-working space, Techbox, is at techbox.info.