Entertainment, real-estate veterans buy Bibb Mill property

A Columbus nightlife and entertainment entrepreneur and a Pine Mountain, Ga., real-estate developer have teamed up to purchase the Rivermill Events Centre and adjacent property where the Bibb Mill once stood.

Buddy Nelms, owner of The Loft, Downstairs at The Loft and a partner in Ride on Bikes, all on downtown's Broadway, is one of the buyers. Mike McMillen, who developed the Piedmont residential neighborhood in Pine Mountain and has worked with other retail projects across the state for three decades, is the other.

The duo said they will keep Jamie Keating Culinary as a long-term tenant at the event center. But there are plans to build a boutique hotel on the adjacent land and use the center and a landscaped gardens area for concerts and possible film and music video production.

"Our biggest shining star on all of this, for me, is that we already have talked to three different boutique brand hotels about putting a hotel on this property," said Nelms during a walk through the event center and gardens.

Hotel Indigo, a brand with InterContinental Hotels Group, is among those who have talked with the new ownership, he said. The Bohemian Hotel in Savannah, Ga., is another example of the kind of lodging the partners hope to attract just south of the event center.

"We want a unique special environment with a ground floor nice restaurant and a rooftop," he said, the latter which would provide a sweeping view of the Chattahoochee River to the south and the starting point of the whitewater course that runs nearly two miles to downtown.

Nelms declined to say how much he and McMillen paid for the property, which was financed through Kinetic, the credit union formerly known as TIC.

The Muscogee County Clerk of Superior Court's real estate records division said River Mill LLC closed its sale of the 3715 First Ave. property to River Mill Studios LLC on May 23. The price tag was $2.5 million.

The seller is Brent Buck and his Buck Investment Co., which bought the 1.3 million-square-foot Bibb Mill and surrounding buildings on 38 acres in 1999. He and his brother, Perry Buck, planned to turn the property into a mix of residential, commercial and office space over a decade or more. It was to have included a 140-room hotel.

Those plans suffered a devastating blow on Oct. 30, 2008, when the former cotton mill caught fire and burned, its brick skeleton -- except the front facade -- being torn down after the raging overnight blaze that was believed to have been started by a homeless person.

Buck could not be reached Friday for comment about the sale, which does not include RiverMill Storage, a brick complex just to the south of the property purchased by Nelms and McMillen.

The new partners, who began considering acquiring the event center and land less than six months ago, said its potential was just too good to pass up.

"It's a unique piece of property, and I don't care if you go from California to New York to South Beach (Miami), you won't find anything any prettier," said McMillen, who said he's a big fan of Chef Jamie Keating and his event operation, catering and Epic restaurant at the Eagle & Phenix complex downtown. He also had applause for Buck and his maintenance of the property.

"Brent Buck, he's done a great job with all of that landscaping and trying to turn something that was a huge negative into a huge positive," he said, referring to the 2008 fire.

Nelms said the property already has a solid foundation with the 58,000-square-foot Rivermill Events Centre, which has expansive areas for weddings, receptions, dinners, military balls and corporate gatherings.

The facility's back door overlooks the river and gardens, with the city already planning to run the Chattahoochee RiverWalk past the venue and down to an already completed portion of the trail at the spot where whitewater enthusiasts now start their trips downstream in rubber rafts and kayaks.

City planning director Rick Jones said about $8 million will be spent on that section of the RiverWalk, with the work being funded by money from the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax passed by residents a couple of years ago.

"You're talking about having to reach the top of the dam itself. The last drawings we had on it, we're looking at having to construct three bridges that would go up to the top of that site," he said. "The biggest challenge is you've got an elevation drop there of about 300 feet."

That stretch of RiverWalk, as well as a $2 million piece at City Mills closer to downtown, are both on similar tracks that should see them finished within about two years, Jones said.

"I'm hopeful that the final design will be completed by fall and that we will be able to go out to bid by the end of the year or first of next and get this project underway," he said. "I want to say it's probably going to take at least 12 months, maybe 18 months to complete."

That investment by city residents, along with the resurgence of downtown, particularly with Columbus State University's growing presence, is part of what excites Nelms and McMillen.

"Downtown just feels revitalized. To me, it's only going to get better," said McMillen, who also pegged the timeline for a hotel on the Bibb site to about two years from the planning phase to finish.

"The good news is we own the land, so we don't have to speculate on that," he said. "A fast track: If you got plans done in six months, it could probably take a year and a half or so."

Nelms, an acknowledged dreamer, said essentially the sky is the limit as the partners get their "arms around" the property's potential and future projects.

But entertainment is a critical component for the man who opened The Loft 22 years ago, becoming one of the leaders in pumping life back into downtown's nightlife, retail and restaurant scene. He eventually added a recording studio.

Nelms' journey included 60 "Backyard Boogie" events in a courtyard behind his building that brought the likes of Susan Tedeschi, Zac Brown and Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles to town.

He envisions the Rivermill complex and lush gardens, carved from the western brick end of what once was Bibb Mill, as having even more potential to bring in top-notch acts that often bypass the city on their way to New Orleans, Miami or Tallahassee.

"All of those bands that have signed major contracts and they're up-and-coming, there's no place for them to stop here in Columbus and play," he said of the venue, which should be able to handle between 750 and 1,500 concert-goers, depending upon the setup.

"This is the niche. That's why I'm in the picture. That's how I got the call," said Nelms, who expects to schedule a musical event on site later this year. "So I think just with us showcasing music, we're going to showcase the gardens and we're going to bring more business to this place, for the catering, for the use of the facility."

Somewhat like a kid in a candy shop, Nelms also sees Rivermill being connected to downtown via the RiverWalk and rubber-tire trams. That way if someone wants to stay at either end, there will be transportation without having to drive or use a bicycle. It could include corporate guests at the hotel or convention-goers looking for something fun to do.

"I'm thinking within 24 months, two years, this is going to become the new frontier," he said while standing on the lawn outside Rivermill, a warning siren going off nearby to let rafters know the water is rising and they can now take off on their adventure.

"I'm telling you dreaming stuff here," said Nelms, smiling.