Council favors purchase of mall: Vote expected in October

Columbus City Council is reacting favorably to a proposed purchase and renovation by the city of FairOaks Mall into a year-round recreational and sports tourism complex.

A recurring comment Friday among council members — who are expected to vote in October on the matter — was the possibility of having a big, vacant, deteriorating building in the center of Columbus, without any control about how the 35.36-acre property might be redeveloped.

“I think it’s a great move,” said Councilman Dascal Bunch, who represents constituents on the city’s east side. “That property is right in the middle of the city and it’s important that we can control what goes in there. I’m excited about what could be there.”

The city of Columbus, in partnership with Columbus Regional Hospital and the Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County on Friday announced a proposal to purchase the mall property at Central Avenue and 25th Street for $5.9 million to transform it.

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Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop said the city’s move to acquire the property now is taking an opportunity when it became available, as mall owners were willing to sell, rather than waiting for the largely vacant facility to decline further. The mall, which opened in 1990, has lost three of four anchor stores with 17 renters remaining, one of those being office space for Cummins, Inc.

Saying there are a lot of moving parts in the project, Councilman Tim Shuffett said the property already has a close connection to Lincoln Park and its softball fields across 25th Street, along with Hamilton Center and its ice rink nearby.

When city officials looked at the tremendous need and extensive cost of redoing a crumbling Donner Center, it makes sense to combine the needed infrastructure on the mall site,

Shuffett said.

“Malls in general are facing a period of major downturns,” Shuffett said. “I have read that a third of the malls across the nation will close in the next 10 years.”

Another worry is that research shows the United States has double the retail space than any other industrialized country in the world, something Shuffett said alarms him when thinking about FairOaks’ future.

Shuffett praised the creativity of the city’s proposal and bringing the indoor sports recreational idea into one location, while helping clarify Donner Center’s future.

“It solves a lot of these problems,” he said.

Councilman Tom Dell said the city needs to look at the mall property strategically and make sure development is done in the most economically viable way, he said.

“We’ve done it before in downtown areas and this is one of the same situations,” he said.

A Columbus Parks master plan released in late 2017 mentioned the mall property as a possible location for an indoor recreational and sports tourism facility, Dell said. And having a building already in place means building out would be a possibility, with the renovation close to one of Columbus’ larger parks.

“When you look at this strategically, we need to go in and protect these areas,” Dell said. “That’s being prudent.”

He also praised the collaboration of the city partnering with Columbus Regional Health and the Heritage Fund as the proposal is a fit for the future of all three.

Looking at the condition of Donner Center, Dell said he didn’t know whether putting some sort of indoor recreational and sports facility there was feasible, particularly in close proximity to the city’s aquatic center.

“If we build something next to the aquatic center, it limits what we can do to expand the pool in the future,” he said.

One advantage the city has is that the current mall leases will be honored, giving the city some time to bring together a wide variety of great minds to come up with the best option for the mall site, Dell said.

“This could be one of the garden sports of the whole city, with the work of a public/private partnership,” he said.

Councilwoman Elaine Wagner said she is completely supportive of the proposal.

“There’s a lot of land in the middle of the city there. There’s opportunity,” she said. “It’s near schools, restaurants and parks.”

Wagner hoped to preserve some type of accommodations for the mall walkers who use the FairOaks space for exercise.

“I think it’s important for those residents in that demographic to have a safe and clean place to walk,” she said.

Wagner also said the current FairOaks Mall model is not sustainable, and she is open to see what the space could be.

“Anything that brings people together in that space would be good,” Wagner said. “I’m happy with the direction this is going.”

Councilman Frank Jerome said the mall renovation effort might someday be considered a bellwether project for the city with Columbus looking back and saying, “Wow, what a great thing this is.”

Jerome said the proximity of Lincoln Park and the already approved entrance to the mall property on Hawcreek Avenue provides a link to current recreation and sports activities.

“I’m not that worried about sports tourism, as long as there are things for our own residents to use,” Jerome said.

While the city, with its partners, is offering $5.9 million, which is more than a $5.4 million appraisal, Jerome said getting the 35 acres for that price is actually a bargain.

A local bank acquired a 1-acre site near Kroger Marketplace for $1 million, he said.

Jerome did caution that the city doesn’t want to be renting property within the facility. Past experience with downtown properties has at times proven difficult, he said.

Councilwoman Laurie Booher echoed Jerome’s opinion about local residents’ use of the facility, saying she would need reassurances that community residents would have access to new facilities on mall property.

“I do not disagree at all with sports tourism,” she said, “But it’s a really tough sell to the majority of the community if their kids aren’t in travel teams, that they don’t have access. We need to make an effort to make it a community center,” she said.

Booher advocated having new community programming considered, such as opportunities for special-needs children, something she said is close to her heart.

“I just want to make sure the community in general will be able to utilize the facility at decent times and not have sports tourism get all the good spots,” she said. “There is a tendency to allow the sports teams to book up everything but our community residents must be able to utilize the facilities.”

Council President Frank Miller said Columbus already has a strong downtown with a lot of people visiting there, but now redevelopment needs to expand beyond the downtown area.

Lienhoop said he met with council members individually prior to the announcement to talk about the idea and gauge their reaction to the mall project, and found them to be receptive.

He noted that Miller, who retired after a successful business career in Columbus, is a good observer of what the community needs. Lienhoop said he listens carefully to the council president’s counsel, along with the other council members. Before becoming mayor, Lienhoop was a councilmen with many who are serving today.

“I got some sense that we were going in the right direction,” Lienhoop said of the council’s feedback.

“Of course, they’d like to hear more,” the mayor said, referring to next steps in the project, which include hiring a site plan consultant to create a master plan for the site.

None of that can begin before the city council and Columbus Regional Health trustees provide approval and the council authorizes the purchase.

While the property has been FairOaks Mall for 28 years, Lienhoop mused that he remembers walking past the area when he was a kid growing up in Columbus — back when it was the Bartholomew County Fairgrounds, and thinking it would be a great place for something athletic-related.

“Of course, we were interested in basketball back then,” he said. “And the only court was in Donner Park — one hoop on each end of the court.”

He acknowledges that an indoor air-dome sports facility, with a soccer field, softball diamonds, tennis and volleyball courts and a track for walkers and runners is far beyond what he imagined all those years ago.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces here,” he said, noting that the city is on step one of a hundreds-of-steps process that will continue for some time.

[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”FairOaks Mall development approval steps” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

  • Letter of intent, completed
  • Formal offer to owner which meets Indiana Code legal requirements, subject to Columbus City Council and Columbus Regional Health Board of Trustees approval
  • Resolution by Columbus City Council authorizing purchase, pursuant to terms of the purchase agreement.
  • Purchase agreement approval by Columbus Board of Public Works and Safety
  • Resolution by Columbus Parks Board for any funds appropriated from the Parks Reserve Fund
  • Approval of city ordinances appropriating city funds for purchase, in readings from two consecutive City Council meetings.
  • Joint Venture/Partnership agreement approved by the Board of Public Works and Safety
  • Other governmental body approval as determined to be necessary