Competitor recruitment?: Debate surfaces whether NexusPark offerings will add more customers, or more challenges to Columbus’ restaurant mix

Photo provided An artist’s rendition of the 25th Street entrance to NexusPark.

As more and more parts of the NexusPark campus open, city officials are working to fill retail and restaurant spaces at the facility, seeing interest grow as the project progresses. But some established businesses are wondering whether the new competition coming with the facility will help their bottom line, as the city says it will, or make the competitive restaurant environment more challenging.

NexusPark, 2380 25th St., is a joint effort between the city of Columbus and Columbus Regional Health to transform the former FairOaks Mall into a health, wellness and recreation center. The campus will include parks department and community spaces, CRH facilities, restaurant and retail areas and a sports fieldhouse, which recently had a soft opening.

City officials are using variety of channels in an effort to attract tenants to a facility that the city has placed front and center in its efforts to boost economic development. The efforts have included, in some cases, contacting regional and national franchisees and circling back to companies that initially said, “We may be interested, but come back and see us when (the project) is more real,” said Tom Brosey, who is leading the NexusPark Community Development Corp.’s efforts to find tenants.

Brosey said he anticipates that NexusPark will have about 12 to 15 retail spaces once construction is complete. As of Thursday, five of those spaces were on the market.

“Now that it’s getting real … more and more people are getting interested,” Brosey said. “We didn’t really plan it exactly that way, but the way it has played out is some some people took a wait-and-see attitude, and now we’re making the rounds back with those other people.”

NexusPark has been in the spotlight in recent weeks as parts of the campus have started opening and businesses announce plans to set up shop.

Columbus Regional Health recently held a ribbon-cutting for its part of the campus and plans to locate several practices there this spring. The 150,000-square-foot Circle K Fieldhouse is in the midst of a “soft launch” and is expected to hold a couple of tournaments as early as next month.

On the retail side, Bloomington-based Mother Bear’s Pizza has announced plans to open a 9,015-square-foot location next to Riviera Maya Mexican Restaurant inside the facility. Officials said Columbus-based Sojourn Coffee Company also plans to open a location at NexusPark and is “working on a renovation right now.”

Strategy and criteria

Much of the effort to locate tenants for the facility has involved the NexusPark Community Development Corp. and Veritas Realty, which has been hired to help find tenants, officials said.

The NexusPark Community Development Corp. is a non-profit organization that the city and CRH set up after finalizing the purchase the former FairOaks Mall property in 2018 with the help of the Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation. Columbus Mayor Mary Ferdon is listed as the non-profit’s “governing person,” according to the Indiana Secretary of State’s Office.

The organization has described itself in IRS filings as a “public-benefit corporation organized and operated exclusively to benefit, perform and carry out the charitable, educational and other public purposes of the city of Columbus, Indiana and Columbus Regional Hospital.”

Most inquiries about renting a storefront at NexusPark come through the facility’s website or Veritas Realty, which Brosey described as “the regular process.”

Once a company expresses interest in renting space at NexusPark, Brosey said he works closely with Ferdon and a couple other members of the NexusPark Community Development Corp. to “make sure it’s the right fit.”

Ferdon said the city and CRH’s criteria for tenants is rooted in what she described as their vision for NexusPark as a “health, wellness and recreation facility” with opportunities for sports tourism.

“Our strategy has been from the beginning that we want to bring in services, restaurants, retail outlets that are complementary to this concept,” Ferdon said.

Officials said they have already turned down several requests from businesses looking to set up shop at NexusPark but were not deemed a good fit for the facility.

“We’ve had many inquires about things like vape shops,” Brosey said. “(But) that doesn’t fit the theme at NexusPark. We don’t want that.”

If officials determine that a prospective tenant fits the NexusPark “theme,” they then start taking a look at the business’ financials to make sure “somebody doesn’t move in and then move out in a year.”

Brosey said the NexusPark Community Development Corp. has target lease rates for the retail spaces. If officials determine that a prospective tenant can meet those rates, negotiations start.

“If everything goes well, then the tenant is approved for the lease,” Brosey said. “Typically, we’re looking for long-term leases. I would say minimum of five years. Several are 10 years.”

The approval process, however, does not involve the full NexusPark Community Development Corp. board, which includes Ferdon and CRH President and CEO Jim Bickel.

“The larger board did not want to hear every request for a vendor in the facility,” Ferdon said. “In one of the earlier meetings, they gave permission, so to speak, to the representatives from (their) entities.”

Those representatives include Veritas Realty, Brosey, and Brad Davis, the facility’s finance director, though CRH and the Columbus mayor’s office have always been kept in the loop, officials said.

Mother Bear’s

However, Mother Bear’s did not contact Veritas or the city to express interest in NexusPark. Instead, it was Ferdon who contacted one of the Bloomington pizzeria’s owners.

Ferdon said the owners of Mother Bear’s had considered expanding into Columbus a few years ago but “he hadn’t really found any location in Columbus that he liked.”

As a result, they had started to look elsewhere to expand, she said.

“On some Saturday evening at 5 o’clock, I just did a cold call to (co-owner) Ray (McConn) and said, ‘Hey, we’d love to have you come see NexusPark,’” Ferdon said.

Mother Bear’s co-owner Mark Hajduk said he and McConn were interested in expanding into Indianapolis or Greenwood before Ferdon approached them “looking for a flagship restaurant.”

The co-owners toured NexusPark and “were just blown away by the fieldhouse and what the scope of that project was” to the point that he and McConn had made up their minds to expand into the facility on the drive back to Bloomington.

“Pizza, luckily, is kind of demographic neutral. Everybody likes pizza,” Hajduk said. “But from my perspective, you can just tell that Columbus is well-organized community, the art installations you guys have installed around town, then, obviously, the public-private partnership that is NexusPark.”

“It seems like we are already generating a little bit of buzz and now we just have to fulfill the promise,” he added.

Mother Bear’s, which has two locations in Bloomington, is planning to open a 9,015-square-foot location in NexusPark. Officials said the location takes up three entire retail spaces from the former mall, meaning that “the walls will be moving around.”

The Columbus location is expected to have seating for 275 people, making it the largest Mother Bear’s location, and will have the same menu as the two Bloomington locations and offer carry-out and possibly delivery at some point, Hajduk said.

Though initial plans were to open the Columbus location next month, Hajduk said “it’s probably looking more like, if we’re lucky, mid-April, but beginning of May seems more realistic.”

Mother Bear’s is hoping to hire about 120 people, Hajduk said.

Differing views

Local business owners, for their part, have differing views on potential competition for customers and employees from restaurants and other retailers at NexusPark. Some have expressed concern about the limited number of employees they have been able to find to work at local fast food locations, with some restaurants closing or limiting services at various times due to lack of staffing.

And Mother Bear’s, for instance, will not be the only restaurant serving pizza at NexusPark.

Carlos Pizza, which has been located at NexusPark, formerly FairOaks Mall, for 23 years, has no plans to close, said owner Carlos Lanoire.

In fact, Lanoire said he recently signed a five-year lease at NexusPark — even after learning that Mother Bear’s was planning to open a location inside the former mall property.

He said he does not necessarily view the Bloomington-based restaurant as competition even though both businesses serve pizza.

“The way I understand it, (Mother Bear’s) is not a pizza place,” Lanoire said. “It’s more like an Olive Garden, a restaurant that sells beer and wine. It’s kind of different. …I’m more like fast food, more like you order your pizza and you get (it) right away. I don’t know — maybe I’m wrong — but (Mother Bear’s) is more like a sit-down place where you order beer and wine.”

Lanoire said he has “a lot of hopes” for growing his business at NexusPark due to the number of people that the sporting and other events are expected to draw, as well as the 250 CRH and 25 parks department employees who will be working at the facility.

However, Lanoire said a significant part of his customer base are high school students who swing by during their lunch period on weekdays.

“It’s like a tradition for all the high schoolers from (Columbus) North and (Columbus) Signature (Academy),” Lanoire said.

Lanoire said NexusPark management was transparent with him about Mother Bear’s plans to open a location at the facility.

“Management told me that Mother Bear’s was coming and what they were planning to do,” Lanoire said. “…I can’t say that they have been sneaky or anything. They’ve been honest.”

“The way I see it is that we’re two different things,” he added. “They might sell pizza, but it’s a restaurant, and we’re fast food.

Other local entrepreneurs, however, have raised questions about whether the city should be a commercial landlord and use tax dollars to pay people to recruit their competitors.

ZwanzigZ owner Kurt Zwanzig, for instance, expressed concern that tax dollars from local businesses have been “contributing to the development of (their) own competitors.”

ZwanzigZ, which started in Columbus in 2002, operates its well-known brewpub and pizzeria on Lafayette Avenue. With his wife Lisa, Zwanzig invested millions to upgrade a decaying building just blocks away into a state-of-the-art brewing facility where its trademark craft beers and sodas are produced. ZwanzigZ won Small Brewpub of The Year in 2016 at the Great American Beer Festival.

“Your tax dollars are actually establishing new competition for your business in the community, and these people don’t have to come in and spend millions of dollars like I did to get started. The city gets them going,” Zwanzig said.

“It dilutes my investment,” he said.

Zwanzig, who said he was not interested in opening a location in NexusPark, also expressed concerns about what he views as a lack of “protection for the established taxpayers, business owners” and “unfair competition” being supported by the city in its development of NexusPark.

“I don’t have a problem with competition. What I have a problem with is unfair competition,” Zwanzig said.

Restaurant types

The Bartholomew County Health Department, in a check of its restaurant inspection list, shows that Mexican restaurants outnumber any single type of eatery in Columbus, with 33 restaurants, or roughly 19% of restaurants in the county, followed closely by fast food establishments with 32 locations.

There are 18 pizza locations in Bartholomew County, though that does not include Mother Bear’s or Upland Brewing, which plans to bring a new concept pizza restaurant to The Commons after Bucceto’s exit in 2023. Upland officials declined to comment about NexusPark.

Experts say a city like Columbus can struggle to attract a wide variety of restaurants due to the size of its population and its proximity to Indianapolis, Greenwood and Bloomington.

In particular, Mexican restaurants and pizza places may be more common because they are broadly appealing across multiple demographics and tend to be less costly to start than other niche restaurants, said John Talbott, a senior lecturer at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business who studies the retail industry.

“The reality is (Mexican food and pizza) are broadly appealing types of food,” Talbott said “…American people of any ethnicity seem to enjoy soft, crispy stuff, cheese and meat, and those restaurants serve a lot of that. …I think that’s why you see so many of the them.”

Ultimately, a restaurant has to have enough customers to make it financially viable, which can be harder with restaurants that appeal to fewer people, Talbott said.

“Let’s say they’re a good Italian restaurant in Indianapolis that has two locations in the Indianapolis area. …I think there’s a better chance they would say, ‘Let’s look at Evansville as opposed to Columbus’ because Evansville would be a regional draw,” Talbott said. “…(Columbus) wouldn’t serve a broad regional area. You would kind of serve just Columbus, because you’ve got Bloomington over here. You’re not going to draw from Indianapolis. But Evansville gets everybody from across the river, and probably everything in a 50-mile radius, because there’s nothing else around Evansville.”

Economic driver

City officials said they expect NexusPark to be a significant economic driver for businesses across the community, not just for the businesses located at the facility.

Veritas Realty claims on its website that NexusPark is expected to draw over 1,200 people every weekday and 10,000 visitors on weekends.

Ferdon said CRH is expecting to employ about 250 people at its various practices at NexusPark, seeing a combined 1,000 patients per day. The parks department also expects to have about 25 employees at the facility.

Additionally, the Circle K Fieldhouse is expected to boost sports tourism in Columbus, particularly during the winter months when local sports tourism generally hits a lull, officials said.

“We strongly believe that NexusPark will be a catalyst for that whole area,” Ferdon said. “…(People) don’t have to eat inside the facility if they’ve got an hour or two between games or something. There are a lot of choices immediately in the facility or outside the facility.”

“It’s anecdotal at this point, but (there are) a number of business owners in the area who are already looking at expansion they could do or how they could improve their business because they recognize that not only will locals be using it, but obviously we’ll have a lot of out-of-town guests,” she said.

And what about Olive Garden? 

For those who continue the questioning as to why Columbus doesn’t have an Olive Garden, The Republic went to the source.

Brittany Baron, manager of communications for the company, said it was great to hear that there were so many Olive Garden fans in the Columbus area.

“Our real estate teams are constantly looking for sites around the country, but there are currently no plans to open a location in Columbus. I’ll certainly let you know if that ever changes,” she said.

Where to learn more 

To learn more about NexusPark, visit