The organization charged with finding a new use for the former Sears retail store and auto center in downtown Columbus wants to identify options by early May.
To do that, the Columbus Capital Foundation plans to engage the public through an open house, two focus groups and continued talks with stakeholders about potential uses for the property at Third and Brown streets.
The open house will be from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. March 27 at the Indiana University Center for Art + Design.
Sears Holding Corp. closed its retail store and auto center March 9 because of poor financial performance.
Hutch Schumaker, chairman of Columbus Capital Foundation board, said the board’s goal is to come up with a use or uses for the property that will best serve the community.
He said that could be retail or any number of public or private uses.
“We’re hoping some developers have an interest,” Schumaker said. “We would listen to anything.”
Anyone interested in the property for retail use, however, must have a viable business plan that passes the scrutiny of the foundation board, Schumaker said.
There are possibilities beyond retail being bandied about, such as using the property for educational purposes, a performing arts center or convention space.
The foundation’s seven-member board is in the process of obtaining a new appraisal for the property, valued at $3,420,000 in 2009 when it belonged to the Miller-Sweeney-Irwin Foundation. That foundation donated the property to Columbus Capital Foundation in 2011 when it was divesting its assets.
There’s also been talk of Columbus Food Co-op using 9,000 square feet of the store as its first home, which would require a lease agreement with the foundation. Columbus Commons LLC presently manages two other tenants in the building, YES Cinema and IUCA+D, for the foundation.
The public has a role to play in the process of determining the future of the property, foundation board Secretary Tracy Souza said.
“This is a critical piece of property in downtown Columbus,” she said. “There’s lot of space and public parking across from it. We want the public to have its say.”
The property includes the former 62,800-square-foot Sears retail store and former auto center, with nearly 10,000 square feet under roof, plus 3.5 acres of paved parking.
Sears opened a store at that location in 1973 in what was then called the Courthouse Center, a mall containing a bookstore, a cinema, an ice cream store and other shops. The name was later changed to The Commons Mall. The first Sears, Roebuck & Co. store opened in 1929 in the first floor and basement of the Bassett Building. The store later moved to 629 Washington St.
The closure of Sears will mean the loss of major property tax revenue, a clerk in the County Treasurer’s office said. Regarding taxes:
Sears paid $63,358.24 in property taxes in 2013 for the retail store and the auto center.
The amount property tax due in 2014 is not yet available.
Property tax will be owed in 2015 because Sears was open through March 9 of this year.
Property is assessed and valued March 1 of each year.
Columbus Capital Foundation does not have to pay property taxes on property it holds if no profit is being made on that property, Souza said.
Schumaker, who has been on the foundation’s board since it was established in 1992, said although the property is being held by a private, nonprofit organization, the board feels the input of other stakeholders and the public is important.
Two of those stakeholders are YES Cinema and IUCA+D, located along the east side of the building facing Jackson Street.
Randy Allman, executive director of the Lincoln-Central Neighborhood Family Center, which operates YES Cinema, said from the cinema’s prospective the best use of the former Sears store would be something that brings people downtown — especially in the evenings.
“But first and foremost, that place needs folks who can pay rent,” Allman said.
YES Cinema has a conference room and the theater’s stadium-style area, but Allman said the city could use additional meeting space and breakout rooms.
“We’re pretty comfortable with the space we have,” Allman said.
He said some kind of collaboration between the private sector and a nonprofit or two wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.
YES Cinema was set up that way because the Lincoln-Central Neighborhood Family Center opened it as a for-profit business to raise money and to provide jobs and teach occupational skills to people living in that neighborhood.
“I think that’s the wave of the future,” Allman said.
IUCA+D opened Sept. 1, 2011, and specializes in teaching art and design using the city as a living laboratory for the study, evaluation and understanding of an integrated, comprehensive design.
Director Kelly Wilson said students from Indiana University in Bloomington attend classes at the center in Columbus, which was picked because of the city’s unique architectural heritage.
He said Indiana University is putting a strategy together for its art and design program and Columbus will play a key role in that strategy through more students and more professors.
That means there will be need for more classroom space and residential housing for students attracted to the program, Wilson said.
And that, in turn, means the university might be interested in some of the space vacated by Sears as it attempts to put together a degree program, he said.
Any growth of the program will require commitments from the university and the city, he said.
Wilson said Columbus generally does a great job of putting together a coalition to address an issue, talking with stakeholders and then working to identify and fix a problem.
“And they do it from the bottom up,” he said. “There’s no edict from above.”
City officials and other stakeholders also have been involved in early discussions about the property’s future.
One of those is local philanthropist Rick Johnson.
“This a core piece of property for the community,” Johnson said. “I think Columbus Capital is a great group of folks representing the community and is doing a good job of walking through the process of determining what will be the best use of the property. I think we’re in great hands.”
A viable business plan is important because the foundation does not have funds to invest and is not interested in developing the property, even with a partner.
Souza said no one saw the departure of Sears coming, but the loss should be viewed as a challenge and an opportunity.
Mayor Kristen Brown, who is a member of the foundation’s board, agreed.
“We’re still in the beginning of the conversation,” Brown said.
Brown said the board wants to get a good understanding of the community’s wishes and desires and understand what’s going to be economically feasible for the property.
The mayor said there are many ideas that have been discussed, and one she finds particularly interesting involves establishing an artisan retail center similar to what Berea, Ky., has been able to do. That community, 40 miles south of Lexington, is home to a variety of folk arts and craftspeople including furniture makers, painters, glass workers, jewelry designers, potters, sculptors and musicians. Exhibitions and festivals featuring their works are conducted throughout the year.
“We would have artisan goods available at retail,” Brown said. “I think we would need some help and support from the state for that idea.”
Brown said the city might be able to use tax-incremental financing to help with some potential brick-and-mortar projects.
Overall, Brown said she likes to see ideas considered that would drive tourism in Columbus.
Schumaker said it’s important the public realize the property is not on the tax rolls and does not belong to the city or any other public entity.
The board alone will make the final decision about the property, he said.
The foundation’s job is to find the best long-term fit for the property and ensure it adds to and complements existing downtown businesses and organizations, he said.
If a good use involving sale of the property can’t be readily identified, the foundation may become a long-term landlord, Schumaker said.
“It could be mothballed for a year,” he said, or even longer.