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Lancaster County architect aims to create meaningful spaces

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Architect D. Hunter Johnson is owner and managing principal of the Lancaster-based Tono Group. The firm's business divisions encompass architecture, construction, development, interior design and real estate.
Architect D. Hunter Johnson is owner and managing principal of the Lancaster-based Tono Group. The firm's business divisions encompass architecture, construction, development, interior design and real estate. - (Photo / )

This isn't the first time D. Hunter Johnson has crossed industry lines, and it likely won't be his last.

The owner of Tono Group, a brand that originally started as an architecture firm called Tono Architects, has expanded over the years to also do construction under Proto Construction and interior design through Interiors by Deco.

When the architecture firm first branched out into construction, it felt like a natural progression. Yet, “at the time, we thought that was forward-thinking,” Johnson said. Even adding an interior design firm wasn’t too far-fetched.

The latest boundary crossing for Tono is bolder. In 2016 it added Retro Development and Relo Real Estate to its fold.

Retro is a development firm that aims to revitalize decaying properties. Relo is the entity that will buy, sell and lease those properties.

The goal is to connect people with the best spaces.

“We bring capital and the wherewithal to put it all together,” Johnson explained.

The first project that represents the mission of the Relo-Retro partnership is Tono’s headquarters.

The property, at 436 W. James St., is owned by Johnson and a silent equity partner.

Tono invested $2 million to renovate the 12,000-square-foot building, erected in 1944 as a grocery store and eventually converted to a warehouse.

Not much was happening on the property, Johnson said. But now the building is operating almost 24 hours a day, with Tono businesses operating there during work hours and an Italian restaurant, Luca, serving food at night. The restaurant is run by Taylor Mason, who leases space in front of the building.

The showroom for Tono’s interior design company, meanwhile, opens to the public on First Fridays, and in December served as an art gallery for a local nonprofit called Friendship Community that helps people with developmental disabilities.

Tono donated unused materials from its building projects to Friendship Community and let the nonprofit’s members create artwork with the materials. The art was sold out of Tono’s showroom to raise money for the nonprofit.

Revamping existing spaces to offer multiple uses that impact the community is what Johnson envisions doing with Retro and Relo.

Where it began

Johnson and Mason, who also owns a downtown restaurant called Ma(i)son, often bounced ideas back and forth on how to expand their businesses, and that got Johnson thinking about real estate.

Then, in summer 2014, Mason was walking down James Street and noticed the building at 436 W. James. It wasn’t for sale, but he knocked on the door and spoke to the owners. After some discussion, they agreed to sell. Mason called Johnson for advice, because the building was a lot bigger than what he needed for his restaurant.

Johnson, who was leasing space for Tono at the time, connected the rest of the dots.

His next thought was, “if we’re going to own real estate, I want to broker it myself,” Johnson said.

Johnson decided to create an entity to do it, and he and a partner bought the building in fall 2016.

Johnson also called in Kurt A. Schenck, who is a real estate broker and now a partner with Relo, because he needed someone with expertise.

And so Retro and Relo were born.

The two companies are a way to present real estate not as a transaction, but as continuation of a series of relationships. For example, Retro and Relo won’t buy and retrofit a decaying property without an end user already established, as was the case with the West James Street project. Mason wanted to open a restaurant, and Johnson wanted a bigger headquarters. They became the end users of the development project, which led to a stronger relationship between the two businesses, Johnson explained.

Relo and Retro have no agenda as far as what they’ll work on next — a project could be commercial or residential, or maybe a mix of uses.

A second project, similar to Tono’s headquarters, is already lined up, but Johnson declined to say anything more than that it’s somewhere in Lancaster City.

“We’re trying to acquire the property as we speak,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s plan over the next 10 years is to do one project per year similar to Tono’s headquarters. Relo and Retro could do more — based on phone calls from interested parties — but limited capital is what’s holding them back.

Another challenge as Tono delves into a new market is that it turned some collaborators into competitors, such as real estate agents it may have worked with previously. But, at some point, you have to rip off the Band-Aid, Johnson says.

In other words, you have to be direct and upfront with other businesses about what you’re going to do, and eventually you’ll find new ways to collaborate.

“You have to know you’re going to upset the apple cart, and be able to live with that,” Johnson said.

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