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Citon Computer Corp. brings good neighbors to renovated space in downtown Duluth

The narrow, closed-in front staircase in Citon Computer Corp.’s downtown Duluth offices was rebuilt and opened up to continue the first floor’s open layout. The original brick wall was sandblasted clean, and the original tall tin ceilings were restored. (Steve Kuchera / / 8
Ian Clancey (right) of St. Germain’s Glass Co., brings a hammer to co-worker Jeff Carlson outside of 201 W. First St., which is undergoing renovations. The corner storefront, one of four in the circa 1901 brick building, soon will be home to a dance studio. The metal trim being added to the new, taller storefront windows echoes the metal trim on Citon Computer Corp.’s offices down the street, whose owners own both buildings. (Steve Kuchera / / 8
Citon service manager Betsy Carr tends to business in her cubicle alongside a green accent wall. It’s Citon’s signature color.(Steve Kuchera / 3 / 8
Steven Dastoor and Sean Dean, owners of Citon Computer Corp., transformed the 92-year-old building at 209 W. First St. in Duluth into sleek, modern offices while retaining original architectural features. Then they bought the 113-year-old four-storefront building next door and have been renovating it for new tenants. (Steve Kuchera / / 8
The Art of Hair on First co-owner Dannae Olson cuts Mike Meyer’s hair on Thursday, the new business’ second day of operations at 203 W. First St. in downtown Duluth. (Steve Kuchera / / 8
To soften the open layout of Citon’s offices under the 14-foot tall ceiling, a canopy was added in a section of the first floor. This month, holiday decorations also add a festive touch. (Steve Kuchera / / 8
Staff work in Citon’s network operations center in space flanked by the building’s original bluestone foundation. Tuckpointing restored its crumbling mortar during renovations. (Steve Kuchera / / 8
Steven Dastoor and Sean Dean now own half of the upper side of the 200 block of West First Street, from the two-story building that houses their business, Citon Computer Corp. (at left), to the one-story multi-storefront building stretching to the corner to its right. (Steve Kuchera / / 8

You’d think buying a 1920s downtown Duluth building and transforming it into a hip, modern workplace worthy of their growing technology business would be enough for Steven Dastoor and Sean Dean.

Instead, the two owners of Citon Computer Corp. bought the multi-storefront building next door. Now they own a half-block on the upper side of the 200 block of West First Street.

Being able to pick their own neighbors was one reason to buy the neighboring building at 201-207 W. First St. Space for possible future company expansion was another. They also felt they were up to the task of fixing up the 113-year-old one-story brick structure.

After a couple of years of  screening prospective tenants — and rejecting some — work got underway in August to ready two vacant storefronts for new tenants.

It turned out to be more work than anticipated, with delays along the way. Crews gutted and refinished the two storefronts at the northwest corner of West First Street and Second Avenue West formerly occupied by Leone’s Tailor Shop. New plumbing, heating and electrical systems were installed, as well as larger storefront windows. But both are now nearing completion.

A dance studio is set to move into the corner space around Jan. 1. A salon — the Art of Hair on First — opened last week in the other space.

“It’s not done yet, but it definitely feels like home,” Brittney Nevins, the salon’s co-owner, said. “It’s a good place to work. We’re excited to grow as a business and be part of downtown.”

 It’s Nevins’ and co-owner Dannae Olson’s first business. Both were stylists at the Art of Hair on London (Road) when its owner retired and closed the salon last month. They’re carrying on the name and will continue its organic approach.

“We chose downtown because we both like downtown and the opportunity came up,” Nevins said. “It’s great. We have a lot of good businesses nearby, including Angela’s Bella Flora, the Holiday Inn and the YMCA. It’s a good area.”

Duluth Ruling & Binding Co. has operated in one of the other storefronts for six years. That leaves one of the four storefronts unleased. There’s been interest in putting a cellular store or a coffee shop in there. But Dean said until they have a letter of intent to lease the space, it will be used by Citon’s sister company, TLX Communications, which sells business communications and phone systems.

That 4,000-square-foot building and Citon’s headquarters are across the street from the Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites and the entrance to the Holiday Center’s parking ramp.

“Especially aesthetically, anytime you have new storefronts, it’s adding new beauty to the area,” said Gerry Goldfarb, the Holiday Inn’s general manager. “As guests are pulling in and out, they say, ‘Oh, there are things that we can do down here.’ My feeling is, progress brings more progress. As they’re buying buildings and adding storefronts, people will be looking at other places downtown. I hope that trend continues.”

So far, Dastoor and Dean have invested $100,000 in the building next door, beyond the $325,000 purchase price recorded with St. Louis County. But that pales compared to the $560,000 they paid for Citon’s new headquarters and another $500,000 to transform it into their cutting-edge base of operations.

On the move

For the two entrepreneurs in computer hardware and systems, their latest property investment comes as Citon enters its 20th year of business.

In 1994, Dastoor and Dean were in their early 20s when they launched Citon Computer Corp., building custom computers and working out of a small office in Canal Park. Seven years later, the business had grown to include designing and maintaining information technology  systems with gross sales of more than $1 million.

In 2000, they moved the company offices to the Duluth Technology Village. Since then, they have increased gross sales “many times over,” and their staff has grown to 42, said Dastoor, who serves as the company’s CEO.

Today, Citon serves hundreds of customers in the Twin Ports, Minneapolis and on the Iron Range, including companies, schools, financial institutions, health care providers, municipalities and nonprofits, they said.

Citon’s move in 2012 from its 3,500-square-foot space at the Technology Village to its own 14,000-square-foot building positioned it for future growth and allowed the owners to control their own destiny.

Their search for a site didn’t take long.

The two-story building at 209 W. First St. formerly housed CP Internet and already had the fiber-optic cable the company needed.

“We didn’t actually look anywhere else,” said Dean, Citon’s chief financial officer.

Moreover, they liked that it was centrally located downtown, where they had always been based.

“We’re pretty loyal to the downtown area, and our employees like it, too, with access to food, coffee, the Y, even a dry cleaners,” Dastoor said.

That it was an old building with architectural features including brick and bluestone walls and the original tin ceiling was a plus.

“We like the character that you can get out of old buildings,” Dean said. “New can be sterile.”  

Fusion of old and new

The renovations in 2011 of Citon’s new headquarters led by RJS Construction took more than six months. The design — by Scalzo Architects in Duluth — is a fusion of old and new.

The 7,000-square-foot first floor was gutted. Layers of walls were removed. Several feet of dropped ceilings were dismantled to reveal the original 14-foot-tall tin ceilings. Floors were leveled. The brick walls were sandblasted clean, the bluestone foundation tuckpointed. Recycled rubber flooring was used to help deaden sound in offices, while polished exposed aggregate concrete floors were installed elsewhere.

An open layout was created for flexibility and to encourage staff collaboration. The closed-in front staircase was rebuilt, widened and opened up. The storefront was redone, with the windows restored to their original height to bring in more natural light. Douglas fir was used to build the staircase, reception desk, cabinets and sliding barn-like doors, while reclaimed wood was used to fashion the large U-shaped conference room table.

Utilities also were upgraded. Over time, the secure facility’s fiber- optic infrastructure and support systems were upgraded and expanded.

“We designed the space for what we had then and for future growth,” Dean said.

The second floor has yet to get a makeover. But plans call for an open kitchen, video game room, shower room, a lab system for the engineers to play with new technology before they install it, as well as some work stations.

“We’re trying to provide our staff with the creature comforts of home in the office, similar to what Google does,” Dastoor said. “It’s designed to retain and attract top talent.”

Citon’s move to First Street also allowed for its expansion into cloud computing. With cloud, a remote server, instead of a local server, is used to store and manage customer data that’s accessible over the Internet. The customer leases the technology instead of buying it.

Many of Citon’s customers have converted to Citon’s cloud system, which Citon built from the ground up. They include HTK Marketing, whose offices in the historic Redstone mansion at 1511 E. Superior St. in Duluth were damaged by an arson fire in August. Because HTK had switched its files to the cloud-based system, they were able to access their data from other computers immediately after the fire.

Dastoor’s and Dean’s efforts to improve their properties are bringing new life to that stretch of First Street, Goldfarb said. He noted progress happening elsewhere in downtown. To the west, the new 11-story Maurices headquarters is going up. To the east, Old Downtown is being revitalized. And to the south, the new Duluth Multimodal Transportation Center is being built.

“So any progress happening on First Street is a good thing,” Goldfarb said. “Hopefully, the new businesses will bring more people downtown. Anytime you have new progress going on, it benefits everyone, including our hotel.”