A Good Fit for Entrepreneurs: Tru Fit Trouser owner adds third building

When Eric Gerstner decided he wanted to rehabilitate the Tru Fit Trouser building on Woodmere Avenue, neither it nor the surrounding area were especially desirable locations.

Today the corridor includes several businesses which have injected new life into the area. That includes Gerstner’s property, which is now more accurately called a campus with the addition of a third building that faces Barlow Street.

Though trained originally as an architect, Gerstner opted for the construction side of the business. And rather than start from the ground up, he found his niche in repurposing older buildings. “I’ve always liked renovating old buildings. I started with a partner in Chicago, and [then] did the Briny Building in Manistee,” he said.

He had been looking around Traverse City for a project when he spied the Tru Fit Trouser building, which had been empty since closing in the early 1990s. “It was a great shell of a building and needed to be repurposed,” he said.

The building’s past was another positive for Gerstner. “Tru Fit Trouser company employed a lot of people in the ’50s through the ’70s. A lot of people in Traverse City have come connection with it,” he said. “It’s fun when a building has some history.”

Though it’s just opening, the new building is already completely leased. One of the new tenants is actually an old tenant, Floral Underground. Owner Derek Woodruff was one of the original tenants of the Tru Fit Trouser building. “He committed before we broke ground,” said Gerstner.

Woodruff said his original plan included living space and work space. When he entered into a partnership with another business, he moved out, but he never forgot the positive experience at Tru Fit.

“When I started I was single and young and looking for a live/work space. That was how I was able to be successful,” he said.

Now, after several moves – he said he’s had eight studios in 10 years – he’s back, and says he hopes it’s for good. “I hope so,” he said. “It’s a really sweet space, great light, and a great landlord.”

Many of the other tenants heard of the openings by word of mouth. “We filled the building up from referrals,” said Gerstner.

Among them are a personal trainer, hair and skin salon, and Pilates studio. They join the likes of photographer Michael Poehlman, artist and musician Glenn Wolff, fine art reproduction printer Vada Color, Ledbetter Gallery, the Habitat Restore, and the Jenkins Group, a book publisher and marketer. “It just kind of developed itself,” said Gerstner. “There was no specific plan. So it’s a real mix of services.”

Jerry Jenkins, chairman and CEO of Jenkins Group, Inc., was the first to jump onboard when Gerstner opened his original building in 2006. Jenkins says he saw the potential for the property for his company.
“We’ve been here 13 years,” said Jenkins, who was the first and thus far only tenant to buy his space. “I saw it as a good investment.”

Jenkins had previously been located above North Peak on Front Street. As the business doesn’t require a showy storefront or rely on walk-in customers, he didn’t need to be downtown, and he saw both the building and the location on Woodmere Avenue to be a good fit. “Parking is good compared to downtown. It’s easy to get everywhere – north, south. The Kitchen [restaurant] is always busy, there’s a coffee shop, the library – the growth has been a pleasant surprise,” he said.

No doubt it all would be a huge surprise to the original owner. Abe Neiman moved Tru Fit Trouser to Traverse City in 1939 with his wife Doris and his father, who had opened the company in southern Illinois. Originally located on the west side of Woodmere, it moved across the street in the early 1950s. The company first manufactured boys’ and men’s pants before expanding to include women’s slacks and shorts; during World War II it made army uniforms, and eventually expanded into uniforms for police and postal workers.

Those days are long gone, as the current tenants are an eclectic mix, none of which are in manufacturing.
“They’re complementary businesses, a lot of artsy things,” said Jenkins.

So is Gerstner finished with his campus? “I believe so,” said Gerstner, though he’s not definitive. “There’s another space available but I’ve got to assess everything before I think of any more buildings.”