Former Sears site has potential to change with the times

Columbus’ Redevelopment Commission has agreed to purchase the former Sears building, now owned by Cummins Inc., in downtown Columbus.

The Republic file photo

When Cummins Inc. recently announced it was selling several pieces of property it owned in downtown Columbus, the announcement presented challenges and opportunities for the city, for downtown Columbus, and for our community.

It will take time to figure out what all the answers are, but after the pandemic, one thing is clear: Cummins’ office workforce in downtown Columbus is no longer what it once was. Given the trend toward remote work, it made business sense for the region’s largest employer to choose to sell downtown property that was idle for years.

Likewise, it makes sense that the city, through the Columbus Redevelopment Commission, chooses to invest in one of the biggest of these properties, the former Sears store in what once was the Commons Mall. The commission has entered an agreement to buy the property for an estimated $4.2 million, The Republic’s Brad Davis reported recently.

As Davis reported, “The purchase includes the 91,380-square-foot building, YES Cinema and the parking lot across the street. YES Cinema will stay at its current location, Director of Redevelopment Heather Pope said.”

There are environmental assessments and other contingencies that must be worked on, and ultimately, the buck stops with Columbus City Council on whether to buy the property. But as a central location downtown that has promise to serve as a conference center or another public use, this might be an opportunity the city can’t afford to pass up.

With its proximity to The Commons and other downtown amenities, the city should look at this space with ambition and with a purposeful mission of downtown stewardship. City involvement could revitalize this property and draw more people downtown.

Perhaps a conference center would be the ideal use of the property and support nearby businesses that depend on foot traffic. Perhaps there are other potential uses that also would be beneficial.

“Just because of the proximity of this parcel, we felt like this was definitely one that we should have control of,” Pope said. “Do we know what that final use will be? No, but it’s something that I think that … we should definitely control the future use that goes there or participate in what goes there.”

We agree. This is a unique situation for the city and the community, because the cost of doing nothing also could be considerable.

As noted earlier, the transition for this property will take time. The same can be said for other downtown properties Cummins has listed to sell, including the landmark Irwin Office Building and Conference Center a few blocks away. Unlike that architectural landmark, the Sears building was a big box store of its day, beginning about 50 years ago, when the retail giant’s slogan was, “Sears, where America shops.”

Times change.

At the same time, very few institutions have the financial wherewithal and the motivation to bring about beneficial reuses of a place like the Sears building. The city is a logical player in reactivating a property in a way that will benefit the community for years to come. And as a practical matter, we believe city ownership with redevelopment resources offers that downtown property its best opportunity for a new lease on life.