Columbus businessman Buddy Nelms looked out over the crowd Thursday as he collected Uptown Columbus, Inc.’s highest honor and made a joke.
“Two of my biggest fears,” Nelms said to the 350 people in the Columbus Convention & Trade Center, “public speaking and three-piece suits.” Nelms, who owns a variety of downtown businesses that include The Loft, Ride On Bikes, restaurants and a music recording studio, collected the Rozier Dedwylder Leadership Award for his 28-year investment in downtown Columbus.
Nelms, a laid-back, behind-the-scenes guy, was one of the first entrepreneurs downtown, opening the The Loft in the 1000 block of Broadway in 1992, seven years after he purchased the building.
W.C. Bradley Co. Real Estate Division President Mat Swift noted the connection between Nelms and Dedwylder, the first president of Uptown Inc., 30 years ago.
“Rozier was a real mentor to Buddy,” Swift said of Dedwylder, who died in 2006. “It’s good to have the big corporations, the banks and the university making investments in downtown, but it is equally important to have the small-business entrepreneurs making investments. And that is what Buddy Nelms has done.”
Nelms credited Dedwylder with helping pave the way for his success.
“He listened and paid attention to what I wanted to do,” Nelms said. “And then I started to get yeses instead of nos.”
Nelms, who also lives downtown, often refers to the area “as this little village of ours.” He is the first small businessman to win an award that been given in the past to CB&T, TSYS and former Synovus Chairman Jim Blanchard.
The Uptown Columbus annual meeting was held amid growing excitement for the Chattahoochee River whitewater course, which is scheduled to open June. 1 Uptown Inc., a nonprofit downtown revitalization corporation, has been the organization behind the construction of the 2.5-mile whitewater course.
The chief executive officers of the two outfitters selected by Uptown Inc., to offer rafting on the Chattahoochee spoke about their excitement over the project. Nantahala Outdoor Center President and CEO Sutton Bacon and Whitewater Express President and CEO Dan Gilbert both said they will spend this year opening and establishing their businesses, but the they expect 2014 to be the breakthrough year for whitewater in Columbus.
Bacon, whose company operates on more than a dozen rivers in the U.S. and internationally, pointed to his excitement over the course and Cutbait, a rapid that has been created just below the breached Eagle & Phenix Dam.
“At high flow Cutbait is unlike anything on the East Coast. End of story. Period,” Bacon said.
Earlier this week Bacon was at the White House for a roundtable discussion with CEOs of environmental companies when he brought up the $25 million Chattahoochee project.
“There is no better tourism, economic development project in the United States than what is going on here with the Chattahoochee,” he said. “People are rethinking this natural resource.”
Gilbert urged all of those in Columbus and Phenix City to work to make the project a success.
“This first year, all of us need to make sure that every visitor has a great time,” Gilbert said. “You need to recommend your favorite restaurant to visitors. Whether they are from Milton, Fla., or Milton, Ga., you need to make sure they are going to go home and tell their next-door neighbor what a good time they had in Columbus.”