Cleaning it up: Business owner transforms condemned property into new small engine shop

A business owner has transformed a once-condemned property on Columbus’ east side into a small engine repair shop.

Eric Neal opened the doors of “Small Engines Unlimited” at 312 S. Mapleton St. on Feb. 20, after receiving approval from the city to have the property removed from the condemned property list, where it was placed in January.

After countless hours of work in the project, Neal, 48, received thanks from the Columbus Board of Works for taking a property that was headed toward demolition. Board members said they were thrilled to see all the junk removed from the exterior of the property and the upgrades Neal made to the building in setting up his business.

City code enforcement officer Fred Barnett was also effusive in his praise of Neal and his work to bring the property not only up to code, but to improve it to its current condition.

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The 79-year-old commercial garage was reopened after Neal and others spent hundreds of hours cleaning the 8,128-square-foot building and the surrounding 31,610 square foot lot, Barnett said.

“They had all types of trash from cars all around the outside of the property,” Barnett said. “Another big problem was possible ground contamination.”

An entire layer of dirt had to be removed and covered with four loads of gravel due to possible contamination stemming largely from several oil barrels found inside and outside the building, Neal said.

“The whole lot was a disaster,” Neal said. “There were remnants of 27 cars outside, with car parts piled 3- or 4-feet high throughout the building’s interior.

Barnett said he first attempted to work with the previous tenants to get the property cleaned up, but “they just weren’t interested in anything like that,” the code enforcement officer said. That prompted Barnett to begin communicating with property owner Tom Wetherald, and eventually, eviction notices were issued.

However, that process was interrupted on Jan. 9 when multiple law enforcement agencies showed up at the property with a search warrant for the previous tenants. The search turned up a pound-and-a-half of methamphetamine, as well as three guns, inside the building, said Lt. Matt Harris, Columbus Police Department spokesman.

Six people were arrested on major drug-related felonies, including dealing in methamphetamine and maintaining a common nuisance.

Board of Works members approved the emergency condemnation order on the property after the arrests, but Wetherald was told he would be allowed to rent out the building if deficiencies were corrected and the property was determined to be safe, Barnett said.

Neal had owned small engine repair businesses for 14 years in both Columbus and Edinburgh before joining a company that offered steady pay and insurance, he said. But after realizing he could advance no further in that company, he decided to go back into business for himself.

Through his contacts, he met with Wetherald about the commercial garage property. When Neal agreed to take on the challenge of cleaning up the property to set up his small engine shop, Wetherald promised to provide him with substantial help, Neal said.

The landlord kept his word. As many as four men were recruited to assist Neal in ripping out all the carpeting and linoleum flooring after animal waste was discovered throughout the building, Neal said.

The property was essentially gutted on the interior. Nearly 60 gallons of paint and a spray painter, as well as lumber and steel, were donated to Neal from a variety of sources to improve the building, cover broken windows and fix damaged doors, Neal said.

In addition, the city of Columbus was extremely cooperative in restoring water and sewage service, as well as hauling off several loads of debris and trash, Neal said.

When asked why he thought so many people were being so generous to him, Neal said most donors understood it was in their own best interest to improve these type of properties.

“This was such a big eyesore for the neighborhood,” Neal said.

“But it looks nothing like it did earlier,” Barnett said of the improvements Neal has made. “They’ve done a very good job.”

This type of property improvement with private investment is exactly the type of grassroots efforts local officials have always wanted to generate with the publicly-funded State Street Corridor project, city redevelopment director Heather Pope said.

“Many are seeing the value in (southeast) Columbus,” said Pope, who said Neal’s renovation of the commercial garage fits in with the 2014 comprehensive plan for the city. “To have entrepreneurs step forward to make their own investments — that is exactly what we’ve always wanted.”

Other recent examples of private investment include the extensive renovation of a former State Street pawn shop into a beauty shop, the renovation of a used car lot into a restaurant at State and Hinman streets, the opening of a grocery store and restaurant in the former Marsh supermarket, and the construction of new apartments all along South Marr Road, Pope said.

While Neal said he’s put in nearly 40 hours a week for the past five weeks to fix up the building, there’s still plenty of work that needs to be done, he said.

That includes an extensive amount of painting, electrical and plumbing improvements, new wall installations, window replacement, erecting business signage and installing updated security, he said.

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To contact Eric Neal at Small Engines Unlimited, call 812-344-1968 or email [email protected].