Local businesses see possible silver lining as Cummins sells downtown spaces

A sign inside the Cummins Irwin Conference Center, 500 Washington Street, says “This space is closed.” Cummins has offered the downtown landmark and several other downtown office spaces for sale.

Dave Stafford | The Republic

The prospect of something is better than nothing.

That was the general consensus of several local downtown Columbus business people Friday who offered views about how Cummins Inc.’s sale of several downtown office buildings, including the landmark Irwin Conference Center, might impact their establishments.

“Honestly, we don’t expect it to have any effect because those businesses have been vacant since COVID,” said Rachelle Cole, bakery manager at Gramz Bakery, 409 Washington St.

On Friday morning, a steady stream of customers lined up to order coffee, pastries or other items as about a dozen or so customers lingered over breakfast in the bakery.

“We’re kind of actually looking forward to (Cummins) having (the buildings) up for sale,” Cole said. “That means somebody else potentially is going to move in there and bring more people back to the downtown area.”

Like other businesses, Gramz has felt the impact of a reduced Cummins workforce downtown. More than 3,000 Cummins employees worked in the downtown offices before the pandemic, but far fewer do now, and many who do have the option to work remotely may be in downtown offices just a few days a week.

Cole estimated about 70% of Gramz’s business is from regulars — people who work downtown or drop in to pick up refreshments for events. But the bakery also gets lots of visits from tourists and people who just stop in for a treat.

She’s excited about news that the city is exploring a conference center in the former Cummins Sears building.

“There are a lot of people in Columbus that don’t come downtown unless they have a reason to,” Cole said. “So having the conference center where they could hold different meetings or events might bring a more diverse group down here and bring in some new people.”

Tyler Hodge, owner of Lucabe Coffee, 310 Fourth St., said the downtown location has never gotten back to its pre-pandemic level of business. He estimates business is about 70% of what it was before the COVID-19 shutdown that began in March 2020.

Part of that decline in business, but not all of it, can be attributed to the addition of a second Lucabe location at 2531 Eastbrook Plaza.

“Those buildings have been unpopulated for four years,” Hodge said of the downtown real estate Cummins is selling. “It would be a positive sign if somebody comes in” to occupy them.

Despite the decline in the downtown Cummins workforce, Hodge said, “Now we’re seeing more Cummins people than we have in the past four years.”

Indeed, business was brisk Friday morning as a mix of workers and parents with children filled the eatery.

Hodge also sees the city’s possible transformation of the former Sears space into a conference center as a positive development.

“You want to give people a reason to come downtown,” Hodge said. The conference center “could be a great use of it, but it’s got to be programmed properly.” He said there also needs to be demonstrated demand for a conference center.

Hodge also said he believes any conference center development should help existing nearby businesses rather than bring in additional competitors.

Kelly Schwarze, owner of Fresh Take Kitchen, 424 Washington St., as well as 4th Street Bar and Grille, 433 Fourth St., took a realistic view of Cummins’ sale of property it hasn’t used in years.

“I don’t want to see them sell those buildings, however, since the pandemic … Cummins employees aren’t as prevalent as they were,” Schwarze said.

“… Ideally, I would love to see the Cummins employees back there. Absolutely. But if that’s not going to happen, then hopefully another company can move in and bring more business to downtown,” she said.

Cummins’ announcement came as Schwarze and the family-owned business has been in a period of transition. Her husband, Kurt, with whom she had operated 4th Street for 26 years and Fresh Take for almost six, died in November. Schwarze’s son Tucker has taken on additional duties in the operation of both establishments, as has his fiancee, Veronica, who manages Fresh Take.

“I’m very blessed with staff,” Schwarze said. “… A lot of staff at 4th Street has been there a long time — eight, 14, 17 years. So I’m blessed with that.”

Still, Schwarze said the businesses have never gotten back to where they were before COVID.

“Seeing Cummins come back little by little by little and then in the last year having more so, we’re very grateful for that, would like to see more of it, but we’ll take the few days a week, three days a week, we know we can count on really good business, and that’s usually from Cummins employees,” she said.

Jeff Baker, owner of Baker’s Fine Gifts & Accessories, 433 Washington St., said the announcement of the sale of the buildings didn’t come as a surprise.

“It makes perfect sense to me that if they’re not going to need them, that they sell them. Nothing is worse than empty buildings, and the potential is that we could end up with something better than we currently have, whether that means increased employees or increased facilities, which will benefit everybody.”

He said his business is a destination because it offers more unique merchandise, though he noted, “We can always stand to have more business.”

When foot traffic downtown decreases, as it has since fewer people work downtown, “that has some effect on my business, but what it does is it discourages new and different businesses from opening,” Baker said.

Though he said he’d prefer a performing arts center, Baker said believes a conference center in the former Sears building would drive more foot traffic downtown. The Sears building location makes sense, too, he said, because its proximity to YES Cinemas and The Commons could create a “campuslike” atmosphere for conferences.

“I don’t think people understand the value of a conference center and how we’re missing out on opportunities,” he said. “With increased traffic downtown, foot traffic that are visitors,” the potential for new restaurants and entertainment venues increases.

Beth Stroh, owner of Viewpoint Books, said the establishment “has been grateful for its Cummins neighbors throughout our 50-year life in downtown Columbus.

“We’ve adjusted to seeing fewer employees stopping by the store at lunchtime or after work for the past several years, so this decision isn’t a big surprise. Any vacant spaces downtown are a concern, so we’re hopeful new neighbors will bring vitality and energy and more people,” Stroh said.

“We’ll do our best to remain a welcoming place for them all.”