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In 20 years, Buddy Nelms grows The Loft into multidimensional business

There was a party downtown last night -- the 20th anniversary of The Loft, a music venue Buddy Nelms birthed against tall odds and government resistance.

Some of the 5,000 acts who have performed on The Loft stage came back to Columbus for a celebration that spilled out onto the 1000 block of Broadway.

"This isn't about me," Nelms, 54, insisted in the days leading up to the reunion performance. "It has always been a collective."

He would rather it be about performers such as Shawn Mullins and Precious Bryant, both of whom took the stage Saturday night.

But without Nelms' vision, there may not have been any music.

In many ways, this is about Nelms, a T-shirt and flip-flop wearing businessman who ran counter to the culture when he and a partner bought a Broadway building in 1985 for $40,000. When others feared investing in buildings and entertainment ventures downtown, Nelms was buying and planning.

He wasn't the first with a restaurant -- Chris Losonsky had the Tavern on the Square, and Jim Morpeth and Scott Ressmeyer had Country's on Broad -- but he was the first to venture into live original music.

Today, downtown is a very different place than it was two decades ago. There are more than 25 restaurants -- ranging from the Cannon Brew Pub to Picasso's Pizza; from the Black Cow to Fountain City Coffee. There are nearly a dozen bars, many of them a stone's throw from The Loft in the 1000 and 1100 blocks of Broadway.

About 200 loft apartments and condos are within walking distance of the The Loft -- with more units on the way.

Columbus State University's downtown RiverPark campus and the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts were nowhere near reality when Nelms rolled the dice.

"When you look at all of Buddy's challenges, that is why he is a trailblazer," said Uptown Columbus Inc. President Richard Bishop. "He took on a lot of issues and was able to overcome them. And in doing that, he has given others the incentive to get it done."

His one nightclub has grown into a multidimensional business that occupies three downtown buildings with a purchase option on a fourth, and his companies employ about 75 people working in the downtown hospitality and retail industry.

International artists like Willie Nelson come to his third-floor studio to record, and so do local musicians such as the Fourth Street Baptist Church choir.

But the journey to success has been long and sometimes frustrating.

As Nelms was getting ready to open The Loft on June 2, 1992, he was hearing all of the naysayers. Even before the first musician played, some said Nelms was doomed for failure.

"I had some people tell me I should just go jump off the building, I would be better off," he said. "First, I was opening a bar downtown -- strike one. Then, it is on the second floor -- strike two. And, finally, it was going to be original music -- strike three. And we had not even opened the doors."

The obstacles

Today, Nelms admits he didn't know The Loft would succeed, but he knew to give it a fighting chance he had to own the building. He originally bought it because he loved its look and thought it was a good investment.

It took nearly seven years to get it ready for live music.

"The banks banked the building," Nelms said. "But they didn't bank my ideas. But owning the building made it doable."

What Nelms, who owned the Colony Inn motel, didn't bank on was resistance from city government.

One of the black marks against Nelms was his ownership of the Victory Drive motel. At the time, Victory Drive was perceived as a seedy, strip-club populated section of town.

"There is no doubt it hurt me," Nelms said. "When I applied for a building permit, the address was 4300 Victory Drive. I know the powers that be saw that Victory Drive address."

He says it took him six months to get a building permit.

"Everything I applied for, I couldn't get," he said. "The fire marshal told me there would never be a business on the second floor of this building."

As The Loft was opening, Nelms got a visit from then-Mayor Frank Martin. The two men had a beer and quickly reached an understanding.

"Frank Martin sat right here and asked me if I was going to do the right thing," Nelms said.

Martin's concern was Nelms -- though he had no history in the adult entertainment business -- might bring nude dancing off Victory Drive onto Broadway. Adult entertainment had to be cleared out of downtown to make way for the revitalization that was on the verge of taking place.

Martin was blunt, asking Nelms directly if he planned to open a strip club.

"I assured him I wasn't. Then we shook on it," Nelms said.

Martin backs up Nelms' account.

"That's pretty accurate," the former mayor said. "Everything I had heard about Buddy from the people I knew and trusted was good. In that short conversation, I felt he was worthy of belief and trust. And, over time, I think that decision has been proven correct."

Unlikely ally

As Nelms was running into brick walks, he found an unlikely ally -- Rozier Dedwylder, a retired architect and the founding director of Uptown Columbus Inc.

Dedwylder helped Nelms work through the government obstacles and made suggestions along the way.

"He was the perfect guy for the bricks and mortar stuff," Nelms said.

But there was a time when Dedwylder didn't approve of one of Nelms' business ventures.

The original restaurant under The Loft was OK Sun, a Korean eatery that had gained a loyal following in North Columbus. When OK Sun closed, Nelms opened in its place the Olive Branch, a white table cloth restaurant that attracted an upper-end consumer.

"Rozier got so mad at me when we went from OK Sun to Olive Branch," Nelms said. "He came in the restaurant, blew up and left. He wanted something for the middle class. And you know? He was right. Rozier was right every time."

Nelms kept the Olive Branch open for nearly 10 years before he shut it down. The way he closed it shows another side of Nelms' business savvy.

Mike Venable, Columbus and the Valley magazine publisher and an early partner with Nelms in Ride On Bikes, remembers the story.

The two men were in Las Vegas for a bike convention and Venable had been bragging about a roast beef sandwich he'd eaten at one of famous chef Wolfgang Puck's restaurants. This came at a time Nelms was struggling to decide what to do with the Olive Branch.

They went to the restaurant and ordered the sandwich, but it wasn't what Venable had experienced earlier.

"It was obvious the sandwich just wasn't that good this day," Venable said.

While eating the roast beef, Nelms was looking into space. Then, as Venable recalls, "He just said, 'If Wolfgang Puck can't do it consistently, then I know I can't.'"

Nelms returned from Las Vegas and shut down the Olive Branch the next week.

"Make no mistake, Buddy is decisive," Venable said.

Figuring it out

Nelms opened a bar, but he also set out to create an entertainment culture.

"If you want to sit home and drink a beer, you can do that for less than a dollar," Nelms said. "But if you come here, you are going to pay me two or three bucks for that beer. Why? Because you want to meet people."

It was after a friend and co-worker's tragic death that Nelms realized just what his business did. Mark Williams, a bartender at The Loft, was killed in a motorcycle accident after leaving work one night.

"Mark did not know the name of every customer, but he knew what they drank," Nelms said. "Before they sat down, he would say, 'Hey, bud, here's your beer.' And it would be on the way to them. And if two people were sitting at the bar, he would introduce them. That's what he did."

A wake was held for Williams in The Loft.

"That night, someone asked how many people there were introduced by Mark. You should have seen the hands go up," Nelms said. "Then, someone asked how many were married. A lot of hands stayed up."

At that moment, Nelms got a clear understanding of his business.

"I realized, we are a facilitator," he said. "We facilitate people meeting and enjoying life. Mark taught me how to bartend, but he taught me a lot more about people."

Calculating businessman

Over the last 20 years, The Loft has survived virtually intact, except for the addition of the balcony. When customers climb those 25 steps to the second floor bar, they get live music and a relaxed atmosphere.

The growth of Nelms' business has happened all around The Loft. On the third floor is a state-of-the art recording studio that many people walking in front of the building don't realize is there.

Downstairs, Nelms and business partner Tom Jones have opened Downstairs at the Loft, a moderately priced restaurant that draws a diverse cliental. Next door is Ride On Bikes, a downtown bike shop that Nelms said is a thriving retail business.

It all works together. On Tuesday nights, about 100 cyclists of all abilities will roll out of Ride On for a trip along the Chattahoochee RiverWalk. Many will have a meal or a beer at The Loft when the ride is over.

Morpeth jokingly calls Nelms "the mayor of the 1000 block."

It all seems to fit the laid-back persona of Nelms. But that is not the way Losonsky sees him.

"I don't see Buddy as being laid-back," Losonsky said. "He may come across that way, but I see him as intense. Now, he is a free spirt, but not laid-back. He walks to the beat of his own drummer."

At the end of the day, Nelms refuses to take credit for his business success. He nervously shifts the spotlight off himself and onto something else.

"The only reason this thing has survived," Nelms insists, "is the people have supported it. I didn't build that stage for me."