The building sits only a few yards away from Broadway’s busiest block, but you would be forgiven for never noticing it.
The outer wall is a flat slab of ruddy brick, the upper windows blocked off years ago, and a single blue awning marks the entrance to the offices inside.
Now, local developer Buddy Nelms, whom Uptown Columbus CEO Ross Horner has called “The Godfather of Uptown,” says he wants to return the 9,000-square-foot building to its former glory, transforming the ho-hum space into a “magnet” for businesses looking to locate downtown.
“What I’m trying to do is get this back to a working building, to making this a really cool space and giving it some flavor,” Nelms said.
To do that, he asked the Uptown Facade Board if he could do a little “exploratory demolition” to the brick shell at the front of the building, which is not original. They gave the OK.
“The facade board seemed so ready for something to move forward with this property, that I can’t really do any wrong. I’m not tearing a historic facade off a building,” he said.
His first goal is to get back the the windows and brighten the interior with natural light. After that, he wants to explore behind the brick facade to see what kind of original structure might be behind it.
“We don’t know what’s back there,” he said. “Somewhere in the process our game plan will change. You can’t really plan too much, you just have to start.”
Nelms bought the building from NeighborWorks Columbus last year. NeighborWorks sold the building to Nelms to fund their new headquarters on Veterans Parkway. While the structure is being built, they will continue to share the space with Holistic Columbus, a local organization that promotes wellness.
“(NeighborWorks is) a building machine, that’s what they do. Cathy Williams is a driver behind that, so there’s no doubt she’s cracking the whip on that. It’ s in their best interest to quit paying me rent, so that’s the motivator.”
He estimates it will be at least six months before NeighborWorks is ready to move into its new building.
Before NeighborWorks bought the building, it served as a Morrison’s Cafeteria, a nightclub, a Census office and more. Nelms remembers it as the Nicohl’s Alley bar back in the ’70s.
“It was just sprawling big, with some big columns every once in a while,” he said. “You could come in and get 5-cent beers.”
Old photos show the original facade with multiple columns and a curved ticket counter. Inside, the complex has now been broken down into offices, conference rooms and large meeting spaces.
“It’s got 17 offices, and conferences rooms and bathrooms,” Nelms said. “In the middle of what’s going on down here, this is just sitting here, hidden. People walk by it, they have for years, and never even noticed it.”
The interior could be transformed to fit the needs of the tenants.
“The space is all chopped up, but none of it is permanent,” he said. “It’s really unlimited.”
So what does Nelms imagine might go into the space once NeighborWorks moves out and a new facade goes up?
“There’s such limited property downtown that everything starts to matter. That is the really exciting part,” he says.
With the success of Holistic Columbus, he is gravitating toward the idea of an alternative health center that offers space to different organizations.
“It would be something other than doc-in-a-box, cookie cutter kind of stuff,” he said. “It’s not an either/or, it’s another option. We feel like once we offer a brick and mortar place for people to physically come, it will just sprout from there.”
He acknowledged that it might not be what other developers would have done with the space.
“It challenges some things. I believe in it enough to let the facility grow in that direction. It’s not the most economical path. The best thing economically for me to do would be to just find a company that needed this kind of office space and just rent it to them, and not be there. This is planting real seeds, helping real people. I see it every day.”
Nelms said he has already gotten calls from potential tenants, and plans to move a marketing company into the space soon. The next step is to begin “knocking some bricks out” on Aug. 1. After that, he say’s they’ll see what they uncover.
Scott Berson: 706-571-8578, @ScottBersonLE