The Struggle of Doing Something Right

Challenges and Triumphs Behind Epicenter's Journey

In a candid conversation, William Johnston, the dynamic CEO behind Johnston & Co and the visionary force driving the Epicenter project in Gilbert, shares insights into the arduous yet rewarding journey of bringing the ambitious endeavor to life. "The Struggle of Doing Something Right" encapsulates the challenges faced, the setbacks endured, and the ultimate triumph in curating a thriving community hub filled with locally owned businesses and a unique, vibrant spirit.

Embarking on the creation of Epicenter, William Johnston faced a myriad of challenges that tested not only his business acumen but also his commitment to community values. From the departure of initial partners to the complexities of financing and the unexpected disruptions brought on by a global pandemic, the journey was marked by resilience and an unwavering dedication to doing what is right. In this interview, Johnston delves into the struggles, triumphs, and enduring vision that shaped Epicenter in the heart of Gilbert.

Can you share some of the key challenges and setbacks you faced during the multi-year development of Epicenter, and how did you navigate through them?

The project encountered numerous challenges, notably the departure of initial development partners in late 2017 after leasing 50% of the commercial space. Informing businesses with signed leases about the partner transition, and the resultant delay in realizing their and the project's aspirations, posed a considerable hardship.

The subsequent redesign and leasing process with our current partners, StreetLights Residential, proved gratifying and was truly enjoyable. However, securing financing from a single lender to accommodate the dual aspects of the project presented a formidable challenge. The inclusion of stacked uses (Residential over Commercial) introduced considerable complexity to the financing process, necessitating an additional layer of intricate legal documentation.

Moreover, undertaking construction and leasing amidst the pandemic proved exceptionally demanding. Unforeseen challenges included escalated construction costs, prolonged timelines, and disruptions stemming from delays, supply chain issues, and labor shortages.

Effectively navigating these challenges involved strategic reliance on trusted advisors, the concerted efforts of a robust team to reach project completion, attentive listening to community feedback regarding perceived deficiencies, exercising patience, and endeavoring to derive satisfaction from the project's progression.

"The Struggle of Doing Something Right" suggests resilience. What kept you going when funding was lost, and tenants dropped out?

Completing the community and being good stewards of the land were major goals for us. Our family's longstanding presence in Gilbert since 1960 has instilled a profound ethos of stewardship, exemplified by the admirable qualities of my grandfather—a diligent, humble, and exceptionally honest individual. The invaluable lessons he imparted underscore the principles that guide our endeavors; time, perseverance and sacrifice are integral to the realization of anything worthwhile.
Living where we develop is undeniably advantageous while simultaneously presenting challenges. While I am acutely aware of, attuned to, and personally immersed in any problems confronting our Agritopia community, I find solace in the profound love that I and many others have for this special place we call home. 

How did you curate the diverse collection of locally owned businesses at Epicenter, and what criteria did you use in selecting tenants for this community-focused space?

Our mission was clear from the start: curate the best of Arizona. The existing community businesses held a special place, and our aim was to complement their uniqueness. We set our sights on businesses that were true masters of their craft, dedicated to quality, fueled by passion, and savvy in the art of successful business operations.
Taking this mission on the road, we traveled the state, exploring countless boutiques, restaurants, studios—you name it. We engaged with hundreds of diverse businesses, initiating relationships with those who shared our vision or already had a connection with us. Rather than waiting for calls to roll in, we took the proactive route, reaching out and fostering relationships that now define the unique tapestry of Epicenter.

In what ways do you see Epicenter contributing to the local community and enhancing the overall lifestyle of Gilbert, AZ residents?
Epicenter, in my view, serves as a natural extension of Agritopia. It's a testament to how a collective of individuals and businesses, deeply invested in community values, can truly shape a place to feel refreshingly different. Agritopia has that magnetic quality—something unique that beckons people to explore and delve deeper. Epicenter, in essence, is a space where individuals can get a taste of that magic, whether by residing above the excitement or visiting as guests to our diverse establishments.
Our overarching aim was to enrich Gilbert, offering locals the opportunity to savor experiences typically reserved for a 45-minute drive to Phoenix or Scottsdale. It's about bringing that sought-after allure closer to home, making Gilbert a hub for the distinctive and the exceptional.

What role did community engagement play in the development and ongoing success of Epicenter, and how did you foster a sense of collaboration among tenants and/or neighbors?
In the initial stages, we reached out to the neighborhood through a survey to understand their preferences for businesses at Epicenter. This feedback provided valuable insights, guiding us in seeking out businesses that resonated with the community. Through multiple focus groups during design and development, we engaged with neighbors and stakeholders, addressing concerns, and sharing our vision to ease the anticipation of significant change. Open houses throughout the development stages allowed us to transparently communicate the process with the neighborhood, fostering excitement about Epicenter.
For our businesses, we fondly refer to them as the "Epicenter Family." Much like the tight-knit community at Agritopia, these businesses aren't strangers. They've connected at numerous events we've hosted, forming relationships that go beyond mere acquaintanceship. It's akin to neighbors lending each other a cup of sugar or a couple of eggs. The businesses at Epicenter collaborate, offering advice and support, and fostering an environment where each can thrive and succeed.

Can you share a success story or a notable achievement that stands out in the process of bringing Epicenter to life?

Every lease signing was a milestone for us, but the moment Buck & Rider signed on the dotted line, it carried a distinctive weight. Their decision to venture into Gilbert marked a leap of faith, and it felt like the culmination of years of hard work was finally unfolding. They had been on our wish list for years, and while the timing had never quite aligned before, everything fell into place this time. The match in demographics and growth aligned seamlessly with their criteria, making it a mutually beneficial decision.

The first move-ins of residents were huge too. Knowing that someone is bringing their family into a project that you have dreamt about is a special feeling. 

How do you envision the future growth and evolution of Epicenter.
The evolution of Epicenter will be a natural progression over time. As the landscape matures and businesses find their rhythm, we anticipate a dynamic ebb and flow. Looking ahead, the growth won't necessarily involve substantial additions to the Epicenter property itself. Instead, we're eager to witness the organic maturation of Epicenter—a process that excites me.
Drawing parallels with the businesses at Barnone, we understand that time brings both change and increased expertise. As a place becomes established and gains experience, it contributes to an elevated overall ambiance. The future of Epicenter holds the promise of not just growth, but a refined and enriched character shaped by the passage of time.

As the CEO of Johnston & Co, what values or principles do you believe contributed most to the success of Epicenter and the businesses within it?
Our faith has been a guiding force throughout this journey. Central to our approach is a deep commitment to our family and the values that anchor us. As emphasized earlier, principles of stewardship and the pursuit of doing what is right hold immense significance. And our driving dedication to making a positive impact in the community has been a cornerstone.
While it might have been simpler to sell the parcel for a conventional strip mall center or opt for generic apartments with national tenants below, our choice to take a more conscientious path was deliberate. The prospect of selling to a self-storage facility, car wash, or fast-food establishment might have promised ease and immediate profits. However, we recognized that such decisions would have been detrimental to our neighborhood, our home, and the legacy we aim to leave behind. The road less traveled, though challenging, aligns more closely with our values and vision.

Looking back, what advice would you give to others undertaking ambitious, community-driven projects, based on your experience with Epicenter?
I would say to cultivate patience and resilience. Build a brain trust: surround yourself with astute and dedicated individuals. Find joy in the journey—even during the many sleepless nights. Consider the needs and perspectives of others, striving to leave a positive impact wherever you go. And most importantly, resist the allure of mediocrity—settle only for excellence.