Editorial: City purchase of old Sears store is wise

The former Sears building in downtown Columbus is being purchased by the city from Cummins Inc.

Columbus’ City Council — or at least a majority of its members — took a commonsense vote to approve the city’s purchase of the former Sears store from Cummins, Inc. last week, but the vote wasn’t without some controversy.

The council voted 5-2 to spend $4.2 million to acquire the 91,380-square-foot property at 323 Brown St., including the adjoining parking lot, from Cummins. The region’s largest employer no longer had need for the property — one of several Cummins is selling downtown as its in-office headquarters staffing is less than it was before the COVID shutdown.

Councilmen Chris Bartels and Jay Foyst voted against the purchase, Councilwoman Elaine Hilber recused herself because she’s a Cummins employee, and Councilman Jerone Wood was absent, The Republic’s Brad Davis reported.

Nevertheless, a council majority had the vision to realize that this property — smack-dab in the middle of many other downtown public buildings from The Commons to the Courthouse to City Hall and more — has high-value potential use as a conference center or other amenity.

Given the opportunity to direct future development of this property, we believe the city council had an obligation to act as stewards and preserve that option by making this purchase, especially when visions of downtown development are evolving.

Bartles and Foyst opposed the purchase, Davis reported, “after community member John Fairbanks came forward during public comment to say that he had assembled a plan for the building to fill 65,000 square feet of it and that he had submitted a $6 million offer to buy the building from Cummins.

“Fairbanks said his plan for the building would house sports entertainment, including bowling and simulated golf, plus sports therapy and a restaurant. He said he has been in contact with potential tenants about it and brought to the meeting a representative from Franklin-based 10 Pins bowling who signed onto the plan,” Davis wrote.

Fairbanks told the council, “The big question is why, if we have developers like our team, like our group who want to take this building on, are willing to take it on, why don’t we get it under contract? We want to start developing this and I think we could be operational in nine months.”

This led to some talk at the council meeting about the free market and the city “speculating” in real estate, all of which is a fine discussion to have, but it somewhat misses the point. Cummins had the right to sell to whomever it chose. And it chose to sell to the city.

As an institution woven into the DNA of Columbus, whose legacy of corporate citizenship is imbued with the ideals of its late legendary leader J. Irwin Miller, Cummins made the decision it thinks best — and that includes for its shareholders.

If you ask us, our takeaway is that our city appears to have gotten a good deal.

We applaud the majority of our city council members who have the vision to see a potential public good in investing in a prime piece of downtown real estate.