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
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
“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
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
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.
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
“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
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
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.
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