Columbus Commerce Center looking to tap into growth

Mike Herl’s plans for the Columbus Commerce Center are ambitious enough, but he wants you to know that he’s not trying to compete with the Prairie Lakes Shopping Center, his neighbor to the south along Hwy. 151.

Prairie Lakes hooked a big fish late in October when Cabela’s announced a tentative plan to open a new retail store there — potentially bringing 200 new jobs to town by 2015.

Meanwhile, the Columbus Commerce Center recently announced it will soon add a new Sentry grocery store and an Ace Hardware store to its shopping complex, which is currently anchored by a Shopko Hometown Store.

Those are two big announcements that will greatly enhance their respective communities — but for different reasons.

“You couldn’t move fast enough from ’04 to ’07,” said Herl. “Back then, all I had to do was show a layout like this and I would have had 10 buyers lined up. But now it’s not like that.” — Mike Herl, lead broker, Columbus Commerce Center

“Let’s put it this way. I’ve been working on this project for a little more than five years, and the number one thing that I have been hammered on by the residents of Columbus is they want a new, real grocery store,” said Herl, a partner-vice president of Brokerage Services for Colliers International and the lead broker for the Columbus Commerce Center, which is owned by local businessman Michael Eisenga. “And so when we have our open meetings with the city and things of that nature, just simply going around talking to businesses, it was always grocery, grocery, grocery. They wanted a new grocery store.”

Done and done.

To Herl, the new grocery and hardware stores will be a cornerstone of the shopping center’s central mission — providing Columbus residents with the staples of life.

“One of the things we clearly showed on our leakage study that we put together was that for the most part, people were going to Beaver Dam and to Sun Prairie in order to do their major shopping on the weekends, and basically using the Pick ’n Save as more of a convenience type of thing,” said Herl. “Now, I understand the Pick ’n Save numbers are very, very good there, but for the most part, a good portion of the population was going elsewhere.”

But while modern hunter-gatherers generally show a willingness to roam far afield for many of their essentials, according to Herl, his numbers show that people are eager to stay closer to home.

“There’s a phenomenal amount of grocery in [the Sun Prairie] area,” said Herl. “But what you’re looking at now, with the new Cabela’s going in down there, to me it’s going to be a big development down there, it’s going to draw a lot of people. But what we’re trying to put together in the Columbus area is a newer, fresher business park that caters directly to the needs of what the people of the Columbus area, the Fall River area, need. Cabela’s is a big, touristy type thing, too. It draws a lot of people. So if people want to go down there and make a day of it, that’s great. But as far as people getting the staples of everyday life together, the Columbus Commerce Center will be there for them.”



The Great Recession, and a change of plans

Herl said that he originally envisioned a retail “power center,” similar to a shopping center in the Plover area that houses several big boxes near County HH and I-39.

But that was before 2008, when the bottom fell out of the commercial real estate market. Things have improved since then, but according to Herl, the climate is still nothing like it was in the mid-2000s.

Still, given the center’s location, Herl remains sanguine about its prospects.“You couldn’t move fast enough from ’04 to ’07,” said Herl. “Back then, all I had to do was show a layout like this and I would have had 10 buyers lined up. But now it’s not like that.”

“What sets us apart here is this is strictly a business area that’s surrounded by three highways — a U.S. highway and two state highways — so visibility is huge at a very big intersection,” said Herl. “We have two 10,000-sq.-ft. strip centers that we’re going to be building over next to Shopko up against the onramp to 151. … So that being said, we’ll be looking for a little bit more retail, possibly pizza and sandwiches, things of that nature.

“Right at the entry of state Hwy. 60 … we’re going to try to have some kind of quick drive-through restaurant of some sort.”

Of course, Herl has learned plenty of life — and business — lessons through his experience in commercial retail during the lean times. For one thing, he notes that people have to understand that when times change for the worse, everyone feels the pressure.

“Prior to 2008, we had individuals who used one, two, three banks consistently for years and years and years, and they had this one-on-one relationship with their banker,” said Herl. “Well, after Dodd-Frank was enacted and after this recession, that personal relationship was gone, and probably the number one complaint I heard from the landlords and the developers I worked with was they were stunned that the personal relationships that they had built over the years were just basically gone. And it took a long time for these developers to not take it personally and to understand that with the regulations on the banks, they were under a lot more scrutiny.”

In time, however, many of those relationships were reestablished.

“I had to sit down and counsel a lot of these developers and landlords and say, ‘Listen, you have to understand their side of it, and go in there and talk to them,” said Herl. “Talk to them off the record, go out to dinner or something like that, and listen to their side of things, how things have changed on their end. Don’t take it personally. And a lot of them took me up on that, and now we’re seeing the banks starting to loosen up a little bit finally. And now they’re actively stopping in my office again and asking me if I have folks that are looking for lending.”

Meanwhile, as some of the lending logjams start to break up, Herl sees bright prospects for Columbus’ latest big commercial venture.

“I’d just want to say we’re open for business here and we’re looking for ideas, and if people are interested, I’d love to come and sit down and talk to them and see if their business would fit here.”

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