NexusPark: City, hospital resume FairOaks project planning

Columbus and Columbus Regional Health are resuming planning and work on reconfiguring FairOaks Mall into a wellness and recreation center — or rather, a nexus — where people will connect with a variety of services and recreational opportunities.

The mall project, newly-named NexusPark, was largely put on hold amid the COVID-19 pandemic. On Tuesday, city officials said there are plans to move forward and approve contracts for the architect and construction manager for the project at next week’s Columbus Board of Works meeting.

The Columbus City Council is also scheduled to vote on appropriations for the contracts at meetings next Tuesday and June 15.

NexusPark is described as a "multi-use health, wellness and recreation campus," by the city and hospital.

"’Nexus’ means center, critical point, or connection," said Executive Director of Administration and Community Development Mary Ferdon. "… This is a critical point for us. It’s also the center of a lot of what will be happening in the community."

The city stated in a release that the NexusPark campus will include:

  • An indoor sports fieldhouse
  • Columbus Parks administrative, activity and community spaces
  • Retail
  • Restaurants
  • CRH medical and wellness offices

"From the public’s perspective, there’s really three projects that will be happening concurrently," Ferdon said.

These include the hospital’s initial phase at the building’s west end, the city’s renovations for parks administrative, support and programming space, and the planned fieldhouse. All three components are tentatively set for completion in 2023.

CRH and the city partnered in 2018 to purchase the FairOaks Mall facility and property at a 25% to 75% split, with the city retaining majority ownership for parks and recreation and sports tourism development.

A strategic location

City officials plan to use NexusPark for multiple purposes as it is "strategically located" for housing the Columbus Parks and Recreation headquarters, supporting "economic reinvestment in the area," creating a place for complementary community organizations and businesses to thrive and locating an indoor sports fieldhouse in proximity to other parks amenities. 

The city’s side of the project is divided into two current phases. Phase 1A involves the indoor sports fieldhouse. 1A’s funding will utilize a Local Income Tax Lease-Purchase bond, which will have no effect on property taxes. The project will also be submitted under the American Rescue Plan for an economic development grant.

Phase 1B involves the parks department’s administrative, programmable and support spaces. This includes offices, fitness areas, locker rooms and activity spaces. 1B’s funding will use park bonds backed by property taxes. Part of this will go to the parks administration space and part will go toward renovations of Donner Center at a later date. 

The tentative project schedule for the fieldhouse and parks administrative space (running concurrently) is as follows:

  • Design development: June-October of 2021
  • Construction bidding: Spring 2022
  • Groundbreaking: Early summer 2022
  • Project completion: Summer-fall 2023

Columbus Parks Director Mark Jones said that part of the overall project will include changes to Donner Center and Donner Park. However, the initial phases do not include renovations to Donner Center, as work at the FairOaks mall site needs to be complete prior to those renovations.

Donner Center is an aging facility and is difficult to program, Jones said. NexusPark, in addition to providing the department’s new headquarters, will also be able to accommodate programs that the department has wanted to offer but hasn’t been able to due to not having the right facility.

It’s likely that the majority of Donner Center will be torn down and it will turn into "more of an aquatics destination," Jones said.

The city also wants to make some improvements to Donner Park, he said.

First phase

Earlier this year, Columbus Regional Health trustees approved the first phase — a $13 million project — to launch CRH’s portion of the larger partnership project. CRH’s Phase 1 will renovate about 50,000-square-feet of the health system’s total 125,000-square-feet allotment.

"The work on the healthcare organization portion will involve mostly interior construction to convert space to accommodate both existing services and growth opportunities in the areas of primary care, physical medicine and rehabilitative therapies and programs," hospital officials said.

The majority of services and programs in the facility will be based around preventative care or wellness. CRH hopes to relocate some related services or practices into the space by mid-2022, with Phase 1 being completed by the end of 2023. They also plan to transition and group sites of care in order to streamline operations, share resources and enhance the experience for both patients and staff.

CRH President and CEO Jim Bickel said that the project will help meet the health system’s needs for appropriate growth and positioning. 

"We’ve been in this mid-town location for over 100 years," he said. "Yet, at the same time, we know that our footprint has grown within the community as services have changed, as we’ve acquired physician practices and other facility opportunities over the last 30 or so years."

Hospital officials have to think about where the hospital system should be positioned as the community continues to grow, and where more access to health care services is needed.

The NexusPark project provides an opportunity to meet more capacity needs, he said.

"Many of our existing sites — not necessarily the main campus but certainly part of it — but we have a number of physician practices and other outpatient settings that are at or almost exceeding capacity for either the physicians or the staff," Bickel said.

The pandemic is playing a role in how CRH and designers envision the NexusPark facilities, as they consider how spaces might possibly be modified for safety in the event of a similar crisis, without being "disruptive" to operations, he said.

Sports tourism

The project also offers an opportunity to increase sports tourism, said Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop.

While the parks department’s soccer and softball programs are "very successful" and bring in money from outside of the community to restaurants and hotels, there is a bit of a "hole in that offering" from about the middle of November to the middle of April. An indoor facility could help fill that gap, he said.

The facility would also help keep money within the community, Jones said. Currently, many local athletes travel outside of the community to use indoor facilities for practices, games or tournaments, he said. The new indoor facility would be available for local use and could also bring in weekend tournaments. 

"It’s kind of the same kind of model we’ve used in the past with Lincoln Park, our soccer complex," Jones said. "We think those two facilities are probably some of the top outdoor athletic facilities in the state. And a lot of the reason is we’re bringing outsiders to help pay for that kind of stuff, but our locals get to use it throughout the week."

The fieldhouse could also provide opportunities for partnerships with schools and other organizations in need of a large facility, Lienhoop said. He gave the example of a marching band needing an indoor practice space.

The city’s development team has talked with more than 30 stakeholders about the "usage and needs around a pre-engineered indoor sports facility." These stakeholders include local sports teams, secondary schools, higher education institutions, club teams, local businesses and organizations. Team members have also evaluated other facilities in Indiana and nearby states.

"Paradigm shift"

Lienhoop also said that it’s important to to maintain an attractive community and continue upgrading amenities that are offered to citizens. Amenities such as indoor programming could play a factor in whether retirees choose to stay in Columbus or move away, he said.

The rise of remote work may mean that workers don’t have to live in the same community as their offices or facilities.

"The pandemic has maybe sharpened a little bit of the way we look, sharpened our focus, in terms of how we look at what a community needs to offer," he said. "… I think this paradigm shift had started before the pandemic, but perhaps the pandemic sped it up, that people will begin to have a little more leeway in where they choose to live."

City Councilman Frank Miller said that there may be doubters about the NexusPark project, just as there were doubters about downtown development in the past.

"But 10 years from now, I think we’re going to look back and go, ‘Wow, that was fantastic, what was done for that property and what it has done for the city of Columbus,’ " he said. 

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In December 2018, Columbus finalized the purchase of the 35.36-acre FairOaks Mall property at 25th Street and Central Avenue for $5.9 million. The city put up approximately $4 million, or 75% of the property’s appraised value.

CRH contributed $1.3 million, or 25% of the appraised value. Additionally, the Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County committed to providing $450,000, which was the difference between the selling price and the appraised value.

The purchase was driven by the idea of turning the mall into a community wellness, recreation and sports center, while also determining new potential uses for the Donner Center and connectivity with surrounding areas.

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Tuesday, 10 a.m. – The Columbus Board of Public Works and Safety will consider contracts for the architect and construction manager to begin design and development work in June for the NexusPark project.

Tuesday, 6 p.m. – Columbus City Council will consider on first reading appropriations to pay for the architect and construction manager using general fund reserves. (Once LIT and park bonds are sold, appropriate funds will be returned to the general fund reserves.)

June 15, 6 p.m. – Columbus City Council will consider second reading of appropriations.

City meetings can be livestreamed at Guests may also attend in person.

Those watching city council meetings online can submit comments to [email protected].