Standing among rows of colorful, sugarcoated delights, Frank Vasquez reached into a glass candy jar to extract a shark-shaped, blue raspberry gummy.
“I’ve always loved candy,” said Vasquez, owner of recently opened Sweet Ascent at 900 Main St. in Peekskill.
That love is apparent in his store, where walls lined with wooden shelves display sweet treats from across the globe, from malted milk balls and taffy to Pixy Stix and Nerds. Standalone display tables range in theme from under the sea to upcoming holidays.
Vasquez also knows the histories of each treat his storefront offers, with some candy companies dating back to the 1800s.
“My favorite part about what happens here is the sharing experience,” he said of the store, which opened in September. “People bring in their children, and they’re literally like kids in a candy store.”
Vasquez calls the decor “sort of steampunk,” an aesthetic that stems from the industrial, steam-powered machinery of the Victorian era. His shop showcases metal clockwork instruments, colorful locks and keys, toy hot air balloons and bowler hats equipped with miniature goggles.
Designed entirely by Vasquez, the theme of the shop, with its exposed brick and tin accents, was inspired by the building the store sits in, the Peekskill Central Market. Along with owning the candy store, Vasquez is also property manager of the 17,800-square-foot building and brother-in-law of its owner, Gabriel Arango.
The Main Street building was constructed in the 1830s by William H. Nelson, a Peekskill lawyer and congressman. Serving as a grocery store and later as the city’s first telegraph office, the building was also a recruitment site for Union soldiers during the Civil War.
In 1920, hardware store Kurzhals Brothers opened in the building and went on to operate for more than a half century. The building was later occupied by Capitol Glass before it sat vacant for more than two decades.
Arango bought the crumbling structure, which is across the street from Peekskill City Hall, for $450,000 in 2011.
“Peekskill was a city that did not have the best reputation,” he recalled of that time. However, he said that “when I walked inside, I could see so many opportunities, so many business opportunities” in the historic building.
“At that time, we saw a need to create something different.”
The following years saw the developer invest nearly $2 million in the structure. Though the building’s original brick remains, the remainder of its interior was gutted, resulting in the removal of more than 19 tons of debris.
“Money is not the important thing,” Arango added quickly. “It’s the love, it’s the employment and the people who work there. That’s the important thing.”
The developer, who owns dozens of other buildings in Westchester County, said that though the years-long development of the building was difficult at times, he was not discouraged by the setbacks.
“Always, you’re going to have some obstacles,” he said, “but anything you can fix with hard work and money is worth it to do.”
Those obstacles included a fire that began in a dumpster at the rear of the building and cost Arango $300,000 in damages to remedy.
“Many people would give up, but we would not give up,” he said.
The perseverance has paid off, and along with Sweet Ascent, a number of other businesses have opened their doors in the building.
“I think it’s a more successful thing because we connected to the community,” he said. “I believe in our community in Peekskill.”
Arango, who along with his wife, Maria, owns real estate company EZ Housing, said he was approached with ideas to open a chain coffee shop in the building, but decided to go in a different direction.
“Because of the history behind Peekskill, I’m going to do something different,” the Colombia native recalled.
The outcome of those plans is Kurzahls Coffee, a ground-floor cafe owned and operated by Arango’s son, Gabriel Jr., which takes its name from the building’s former longtime tenant.
Hair salon Loft accepts clients by appointment on the second floor and is adjacent to Happy Tax and a craft store, Eventually Cottage. The building is also equipped with two commercial-grade kitchens, a basement storage area for tenants and 43 security cameras.
The showpiece of the building, however, is its third-floor event space dubbed Dramatic Hall, which features a small stage constructed in 1870. The 4,500-square-foot theater and event hall hosted around two dozen events last year, including weddings, comedy nights and a small business workshop hosted by Google, and has another 64 lined up for 2018, Vasquez said.
“We want to establish an entertainment place in the theater,” Arango said, with ideas, including black-tie dinners and evening performances.
Arango and Vasquez also envision future tenants to include a grab-and-go juice and prepared foods bar, a wine store or an apparel shop.
“Anything that you open there will be a success, because we are behind our tenants to support them, to make sure they are more than just a tenant,” Arango said. “They are family.”