Columbus, Ohio USA
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Nuts about the Short North
by Jeff Bell
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"I'm a bit of a curmudgeon. My days of patience and tolerance are long gone."
John Allen seems a contradiction of sorts. Raised in the country near New Concord in eastern Ohio, he likes to make self-deprecating references as to how things work in his "Guernsey County mind." Then he comes up with this earthy quote about life's up and downs: "As they say back home, the sun don't shine on the same dog's butt every day."
The next minute, however, Allen is carefully explaining what it takes to transform a downtrodden urban neighborhood into a sparkling example of redevelopment such as the Short North.
He knows what he is talking about. Allen, 52, has a master's degree in city and regional planning from The Ohio State University and, as owner of the Short North Tavern since 1980, he has helped lead a renaissance in the neighborhood he loves.
"John has more history, knowledge, business expertise and usable information about this neighborhood in his little finger than most of us have in our heads," says P. Susan Sharrock, executive director of the Short North Business Association. "None of us would be here today if not in great part for what John Allen has done for the Short North."
Allen is likely to find irony in such lofty praise. He admits he had no idea what he was getting into when he bought the old Star Cafe at 660 N. High Street in December, 1980.
"I had never even been behind a bar," he recalls. "I had no clue what to do. I would have been better off buying a bookstore, but it looked more profitable to have a bar."
Up to that point in life, Allen had been busy playing sports and sprinting down various career paths. A four-sport athlete at John Glenn High School in New Concord, he went on to play a little football at nearby Muskingum College in the late-1960s before picking up a bachelor's degree from the liberal-arts school.
After graduation, he worked as a social worker at the Fairfield School for Boys in Lancaster and TICO in Columbus. Then it was on to graduate school at The Ohio State University and a position at the Academy for Contemporary Problems, a social research effort between Battelle and OSU.
Later, there would be director's jobs at the Epilepsy Association of Central Ohio and the Ohio Developmental Disabilities Planning Council. Allen also built a healthy consulting practice, helping struggling human services organizations get on track. And he branched into market research, crunching statistics, conducting surveys, and holding focus groups for insurance companies and other clients.
In 1974, Allen and his first wife, Sue, started fixing up a home at 90 W. Hubbard Ave. in the Harrison West/Victorian Village area. He didn't see himself as an urban pioneer; he was just a young guy with dreams of rehabbing an old house and using the profit from its sale to buy something nicer in Worthington.
"Then I was struck by what I call the 'Sesame Street syndrome,'" Allen says with a laugh. "I was fascinated by the mix of people in this area. Some are damn near fantasy people, kind of like 'Oscar the Grouch.' Now it's 25 years later and I'm still around."
He thought it might be fun – and profitable – to run an old-fashioned neighborhood tavern where locals could drink beer and swap stories. He got what he thought was a good buy on the Star Cafe, although one writer described it at the time as a "smoke-filled wino pit with a clientele comprised primarily of hookers and ex-cons." A man had been murdered in the bar's bathroom six months before Allen bought the place.
Back then, that section of High Street was cluttered with boarded-up buildings, used furniture stores and what Allen calls "marginal" businesses. The area wasn't even known as the "Short North" yet to anyone except the Columbus cops who had the dangerous duty of patrolling the district.
"We were running an inner-city bar at that point," Allen points out. "If you were not here back then, it's real hard to imagine what it was like."
He began fixing up the place – renamed the Short North Tavern – and trying to improve the patron mix. It was tough sledding as Allen, the novice bar owner, realized his only hope for survival was to stanch the bar's bleeding bottom line with swabs of cash from his consulting business.
The consulting work involved plenty of travel, so Allen hired a friend, Greg Carr, to manage the bar in return for an ownership stake in the business. The tavern gradually evolved from being an easy place to get your butt kicked to one that attracts a mix of college students, professors, politicos, business owners, sports fans and just plain working stiffs. It appeals to bar types looking for a friendly place to quaff brew, enjoy live music, play darts, wolf down bar burgers (or catfish sandwiches) and share some laughs.
"We have more characters than 'Cheers' ever had," jokes Allen, referring to the popular television show that centers around life at a neighborhood pub.
The Short North Tavern became prosperous enough by the late 1980s that Allen could scale back his consulting business and focus most of his attention on the bar. That was also when the tavern was moved to its present location at 674 N. High St. in a building owned by Allen and local attorney Beverly Farlow.
Carr remains a minority partner in the business, devoting most of his time to his work as a city and regional planning consultant.
"There have been some rough times," Carr admits, "but an element of trust has pervaded our partnership. We have a mutual commitment to the neighborhood and similar beliefs and interests in a lot of areas."
Both are past presidents of the Short North Business Association. They also realized in the early days that the neighborhood needed to position itself as an arts, culture, and entertainment district to set it apart from other sections of the city. So they worked with other like-minded people on such a "branding" strategy.
Local politics is another area of shared interest between Allen and Carr. They have been active in lobbying the powers-that-be at City Hall for numerous capital improvement projects in the Short North. They must do their arm-twisting in a friendly sort of way because many of the city's top politicos have been known to talk shop over drinks at the Short North Tavern.
"We've certainly been blessed over the years with good leadership from our residents, business owners and city government," Allen says. "There is no other area in Columbus that has been able to provide the quality of our leadership with new people stepping up to bat."
The bar sponsors the aptly named Wheeze Bowl for over-the-hill touch football players. Allen is pictured far right.
Carr and Allen also like sports (the bar sponsors the aptly named Wheeze Bowl for over-the-hill touch football players) and share a conviction that their tavern will continue to be a friendly place regardless of a patron's sex, race, sexual preference, cut of clothes or size of bank account. "As long as your demeanor is appropriate, everyone is welcome," Carr says. "We're not a snooty place."
Deb Roberts, a Short North Tavern regular and queen of the Doh-Dah Parade, says Allen will not tolerate an atmosphere in which male lounge lizards hit on women customers. "He'll throw them out in a heartbeat," she says. "He's a sweet, sweet guy. Everybody likes to tease him about everything."
And Allen (his second wife, Dawn, calls him "BOB" for big old bear) can give as good as he gets in bar conversations.
"As a small-business person, you get to be an opinionated S.O.B. over the passage of time," he says, stroking a goatee that has gone to gray. "I'm a bit of a curmudgeon. My days of patience and tolerance are long gone."
He also describes himself as "an excellent bullshitter who can talk about anything with anybody." That could be vintage radios, which Allen has collected for years and which line the shelves of his bar. Or maybe he wants to discuss his more recent interests - collecting piggy banks and Civil War maps, or playing golf. Then there are the six cats sharing his and Dawn's home in Grandview Heights.
Allen might also reflect on how life looks to a 52-year-old who has chased his fair share of business ventures. Some were profitable, some were not, he notes with a rueful smile. "I've been up and down financially," he admits. "I've made every dumb mistake there is to make."
With age comes wisdom, so Allen seems content with the more settled life of husband, bar owner, history buff and piggy bank collector.
"I still look out there and see opportunities," he says. "It used to be that I couldn't bear not to go after them. Now I say I'm interested but I'm not going to do that right now. I'm going to play golf."
For Allen, the one-time country boy, the Short North Tavern has become a place where everybody knows his name, as the "Cheers" jingle goes. He likes it that way.
"As they say back home, even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every once in awhile," he says. "A couple of years ago, I decided I'm a blind squirrel and this was my acorn. So I had better hold onto this place."
Jeff Bell is a freelance writer who lives in Bexley.
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