A stagnant city gains momentum by becoming a new home of business HQs.

A stagnant city gains momentum by becoming a new home of business HQs.

Columbus banker Scott McComb did not lack options when he decided in late 2015 that his Heartland Bank could not successfully renovate the original, historic passenger terminal at Port Columbus International Airport-now John Glenn Columbus International Airport-into offices for its new headquarters.

"When (the airport site) didn't work, all of the (central Ohio) communities knew we had to do something and wanted to talk to us about development ground or (vacant) buildings they had available," the Heartland CEO recalls. "We were going down the road a little bit with one municipality when we started talking to Whitehall about an affordable housing initiative. But Whitehall was not really in the mix for the headquarters."

Whitehall, though, had already made significant progress promoting the redevelopment of stagnant commercial and industrial properties and vacant development ground. Those efforts included Columbus-based Wallick Communities' recently completed $18 million transformation of the shuttered Ramada Inn at E. Broad Street and S. Hamilton Road into 131 affordable assisted living units for seniors. It also lured carpet retailer Rite Rug, which moved its distribution headquarters from Wilson Road and Interstate 70 two years ago into 150,000 square feet of warehouse and office space at 4450 Poth Rd., a facility that Cincinnati-based grocer Kroger Co. had vacated a decade before.

Byers Imports auto dealership also expanded its Whitehall operation after the city's community improvement corporation sold off five acres that had once been part of water cooler and water fountain manufacturer Oasis Corp.'s shuttered production facility at Hamilton and Poth roads.

"We're completely landlocked and have been for decades," says Zachary Woodruff, the city's director of economic development and public service. He acknowledges that what had been a well-located city that attracted Defense Supply Center Columbus during World War I and other logistics and manufacturing operations has in recent decades developed a reputation as a rundown and stagnant urban community. "We were no longer among people's first choices for locating a business," Woodruff says. "Whitehall had never looked to reinvent itself."

The change in attitude slipped into second gear in early 2012 with the swearing in of Mayor Kim Maggard and her promotion of Whitehall native Woodruff, former community affairs coordinator under Mayor John Wolfe, to the economic development role. "We envisioned a strategy that was more robust, more aggressive and more focused on relationships and partnerships with the private sector," Woodruff says. To that end, the city sought to improve its roads and utilities and put an emphasis on its park system and became one of the first suburbs to get a new and larger public library. "We've opened up the tool bag for economic development," Woodruff says, "and it has paid off."

Repositioning of existing properties became tantamount, says Woodruff. To that end, the city's nonprofit community improvement corporation affiliate already bought the vacant Bill Swad Chevrolet dealership for $1 million in a 10-year deal. By late 2013, the Gahanna-based product design and engineering firm Priority Designs became interested in the 5.5-acre auto maintenance, body repair and showroom property at 100 S. Hamilton Rd.-just south of Wallick's Ashford on Broad senior housing redevelopment-for its expanded operations.

Woodruff says the city eschewed the possibility of another used-car lot opening in the community within the 49,000-square-foot facility. Priority Designs-which designs and produces prototypes for the development of new products-paid a discounted $475,000 for the property, but company CFO and co-owner Lois Kolada says the company invested another $2.5 million into the creation of studios, conference rooms and a prototype production shop for its 60 employees.

The firm moved its workforceinto the revamped buildings in 2015. "The leaders of the city were committed to their vision and were willing to take some risks in revitalizing Whitehall. They just needed that first domino, and we were that first domino," Kolada says.

For Heartland Bank, discussions with Woodruff regarding the housing finance program drifted into what the city had done to improve the economic fortunes for its residents, including the new jobs the administration brought to Whitehall and road and streetscape improvements to key corridors. The bank executive quickly caught the can-do enthusiasm that had attracted Priority Designs. By this time, the city had carved out five acres for commercial redevelopment from its Whitehall Community Park that had once served as a private park for employees of military aircraft components manufacturer Rockwell International.

The offer of the parkland on N. Hamilton Road between the airport and E. Broad Street "was kind of a game-changer," McComb says of the decision to consolidate 95 far-flung core administrative workers into a new 60,000-square-foot headquarters. "It was intriguing being in such a serene environment." It also became another high-watermark for Whitehall. "Becoming the home of the region's largest community bank," Woodruff says, "legitimizes everything we've been doing for five years."

The momentum continued into late August when restaurant equipment and supplies distributor Wasserstrom Company announced it would move its 225 workers out of its historic home of 50 years at 477 S. Front St. in Downtown Columbus to a 50,000-square-foot Whitehall building, currently occupied by the credit counseling nonprofit Apprisen Financial Services.

Wasserstrom Company President Brad Wasserstrom says Wasserstrom's current home, a former Hoster Brewing Co. property, had become increasingly inefficient. The Bexley resident says the redevelopment caught his attention as he drove to an orthopedic rehab center in Whitehall.

McComb, in fact, helped the city pitch Wasserstrom on the city before Heartland made formal announcement of its intentions. "I saw what was happening there," Wasserstrom says. "If there wasn't that sort of momentum, we probably wouldn't be going there."

That rush to Whitehall for office operations comes as the city rebuilds its reputation as a strategic distribution center and prepares for its next round of commercial and residential redevelopment.

Columbus industrial developer Mark Taggart and partner Fed One Dublin completed the shell of a 140,000-square-foot, speculative warehouse and distribution center in early July. It has filled all but 40,000 square feet of the property with New Jersey-based Continental Auto Parts and California-based Takeya USA, the latter which now distributes beverage and food containers from Taggart's Air South Commerce and Tech Park project.

Even though the city has attracted 700 new jobs since 2012, representing a combined $1 million in annual income tax revenue, Woodruff has promised more to come.

To drive that, the city acquired the crime-ridden Commons at Royal Landing near Hamilton and Broad earlier this year, where the city hopes to attract a developer interested in building a mix of commercial and residential projects on 13 acres.

Whitehall also has moved to regain control of 37 acres of city land it has leased to the domed Four Seasons Golf Center at 5000 E. Broad St. since 2001 to clear the way for the development of three, 40,000-square-foot buildings on 13 acres. (That project remains in litigation with the tenant, which has sought to extend its lease until March 2021.)

"There's no real secret to our success," Woodruff says. "We've been making our own opportunities that Whitehall hadn't done in the past."

Brian Ball is a freelance writer.