Chuck Williams: Buddy Nelms' Bibb City investment good sign for downtown

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comJune 9, 2014 

You want evidence that downtown Columbus has turned the corner? You want evidence that tens of millions of dollars in public and private investment have done the trick? All you need to do is revisit the Sunday headline on the front page of the Ledger-Enquirer:

“Transforming The Rivermill: Entertainment and real estate veterans have big plans after buying Bibb Mill property.”

That entertainment veteran is Buddy Nelms, the man who started the private-investment gamble on downtown Columbus in the mid-1980s when others were fleeing.

Nelms saw opportunity where others saw decay.

And, with the help of his bankers and a few partners along the way, he was willing to sign the loan papers and take the risks.

Nelms’ perseverance and willingness to roll the dice have paid off handsomely.

He owns The Loft, a unique live-music venue in the 1000 block of Broadway. He owns restaurants, a bike shop, a recording studio and stuff most people don’t know about.

Nelms has built his brand in what he calls “the village.” His role as the village visionary is secure, as are his investments. But it took decades of taking chances and placing bets.

On Tuesday evenings, about 150 cyclists roll out of downtown, many of them on bikes they bought or rented from his shop. They will roll back into downtown about dark, put the bike on a car rack, then walk to a restaurant and eat dinner or drink a beer.

All of this on a Tuesday night.

Nelms saw the possibilities more than a decade ago, predicted it, then helped make it happen.

A lot of people deserve credit for what downtown is today, but a bulk of that credit goes to Nelms, an Army brat who marches to his own beat.

Now, Nelms is looking at the next big thing, a fertile ground a couple of miles upriver. And he said as much in the story Sunday.

“I’m thinking within 24 months, two years, this is going to become the new frontier,” he told the Ledger-Enquirer.

If Nelms is looking north for the next big thing, that should be a clue to others that downtown is good and the economy is operating on market rate. Most of the bargains are gone.

So, you look elsewhere.

And elsewhere is the old Bibb Mill site. Thanks to an October 2008 fire, the site is ripe for someone to come in and dream a little.

Few dream better than Nelms. And Nelms marries those dreams with opportunity.

He and his partner, Harris County developer Mike McMillen, are talking about a boutique hotel and a music venue.

For years, people have been saying Bibb City was at a tipping point. And parts of the old mill village have tipped economically. But parts of Bibb City are challenged.

The key to the redevelopment of Bibb City has always been hidden in the prospects for the mill site.

Well, you now have someone who has a track record of finding the key, putting it in the door and turning it.

Nelms helped unlock the possibilities downtown. It will be interesting to see what he makes happen at The Bibb.

Chuck Williams, senior editor for content, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com.

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