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How Sandy Wood Helped Change His World
Cover Story October 2002
by Cindy Bent
Photo © Gus Brunsman III
Sandy Wood and his son Mark with American Gothic on High Street.
The Short North Neighborhood Foundation, which Wood founded,
financed the public artwork done by Steve Galgas and Mike Altman.
Photo © Gus Brunsman III
Sandy Wood's office is on the third story of a 1920s-era row of shops on High Street. The building's red brick walls probably have never seen kinder days. A carriage house once stood on the spot, in the times when the Short North was a prosperous commercial hub of activity, with horses and carriages jostling the walls, and hay, mud (and worse) strewn about the floor in its earliest days.
With the advent of the automobile, the carriage house was demolished and the three-story brick storefront built. Then came the Great Depression, followed by years of busy prosperity, and city residents' flight to the suburbs that led to years of vacancy and neglect as the Short North turned to the kind of neighborhood where the police turned double duty.
The brick structure weathered years of abuse: cheap plywood nailed up over its once-friendly entryways and windows, drug deals on its doorstep, drop ceilings drowning out the sunlight and ultimately abandonment.
"It was completely deserted," says Wood. "There was only one store open on the whole block. There were holes in the floors, which slanted at 30 degree angles, the roof leaked – it was in terrible shape."
Fifteen years ago, the Wood Companies gave what's now dubbed the Carriage House new life – new light through airy halls, new honey-colored wood floors, new enticing shop fronts tempting pedestrians into its bustling galleries, shops, and cozy apartments. Sandy Wood, founder, owner and president of the Wood Companies, changed this little corner of the world for the brighter, and that makes him happy. Changing the world is something he's always set out to do.
Sanborn D. Wood is a well-known figure throughout the Short North. It almost goes without saying that those who live and work in the now-vital arts corridor consider him one of the founders of their reborn neighborhood. Wood was in on the ground floor of the redevelopment that started back in the early 1980s, an effort that could easily have run off the tracks at any time and floundered.
In fact, Wood Cos. nearly fell flat itself in the rough market of the early 1990s, just as Wood's real estate projects were beginning to mature. But Wood's refusal to swerve from his focus led eventually to the Wood Cos.' revival of fortunes. It's this tenacity of purpose that has not only served the Wood Companies, but the Short North as well.
Sandy Wood's driven character followed a few swerves from the beaten path. Wood was born in St. Louis, Mo., but grew up mainly in the little town of Kewanee, Ill.
"It's the Hog Capital of the World," says Wood with a wry grin. Kewanee is a town of about 15,000 people far to the south. Apart from the annual Kewanee Hog Day festival, he says, it was a quiet place to grow up. His father was the principal of the local high school, his mother a kindergarten teacher – in fact, his own kindergarten teacher.
By example, Wood's parents inspired him with a sense of mission. "I believe they gave me the basics of honesty, integrity, hard work, and a desire to make the world a better place," he says now.
The solid home life and the quiet atmosphere of Kewanee also seems to have given him some of the most appealing traits of middle America. In conversation, Wood is understated about his accomplishments but enthusiastic about his ambitions.
Rarely does Wood say "I" built something or started a mission, but always "we." He never brags, just offers information. He still works 50 hour weeks. One son, Mark, works by his side in the business – not a relationship many families may enjoy as much as they do. Another son, John, is in training to become a missionary. Wood's wife is a teacher. Do all Woods want to change the world, one could ask?
He laughs. "I guess we do!"
Kewanee also instilled in Wood a desire to go somewhere a little more active and a little less hog-oriented. He left to attend college at the University of Kansas, he says, "to get away from Kewanee." Wood earned his Bachelor of Science in Industrial Management in 1960, but on graduation he suddenly shifted his direction from finance to (somewhat mysteriously) flowers!
"I wanted to do something hands-on," he says simply. Wood sought out a job with a floral arrangement firm in Wichita, Kansas, and remained for two years, decorating houses and beach parties until, he said, he felt it was time to move on.
Wood's next stop was Kansas City, where in an about face, he accepted a position with Western Electric in data processing in the infant years of information technology.
"They were pretty opposite choices," he admits. "I went from something that was very hands-on to the largest company in the world at the time." He helped develop Western Electric's purchasing systems from the ground up, but once again, Wood felt unfulfilled.
He enrolled in night school at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and then full-time at Northwestern University, earning an MBA in marketing and finance in 1964.
He wanted, he says, to become a commercial loan officer. "I wanted to change the world," he says with a wry, self-effacing grin, "and I thought banking was the way to do it. Working to help companies expand – it might sound like a simplistic understanding of the world, but it's a very real one. Plus, I just love banking. I still do." And so, Wood landed in Columbus with a position at Huntington Bank.
Huntington needed Wood in an area where he already had expertise, in information technology. He helped develop the bank's IT systems and eventually moved on to investment portfolio management and then into marketing, helping develop the bank which was helping to develop the community.
After subsequent moves to American Bancorporation, Citizens Savings & Loan, and Park Federal Savings & Loan, Wood became restless again.
For a few years on his own, as a hobby, Wood had been dabbling in real estate, buying dilapidated buildings around the OSU campus area, renovating them into pleasant, affordable housing and managing them.
Then in 1981, Robert Murtha, a friend who knew that Wood wished to move on asked him for some help with a company developing retirement housing and nursing homes, giving Wood his first professional taste of the world of real estate.
Meanwhile, Wood continued to work on his side projects: a house in Victorian Village, and then another. "It was getting time consuming," says Wood. Then came the news that Murtha was moving on and selling the company.
"I went to breakfast with the boss, and he asked what I was going to do. I said, 'I don't know,' and he suggested I stick with real estate. To make a long story short, he became one of my first investors."
In the early 1980s, times of rocketing interest rates and, to vastly understate, rough conditions in what was then known as the "Near Northside," the founding of the Wood Companies was a real leap of faith – not only on Wood's part, but on his whole family's. His wife, Barbara, played a large role by supporting family finances with her teaching job for some time as Wood's salary took a cut in half.
"That's why I say my wife is a saint," he says. "She kept on teaching and helping to support the family while I tried to build this business all these years."
The Wood Companies' initial project was the First Avenue School. The company converted the vacant, run-down city school building into the First Avenue Office Building. The project was a success, and it finally offered him a sense that because of his work, a tiny corner of the world seemed a little brighter. It also whet Wood's appetite for more.
By 1984, Wood moved on to High Street. He was among a small group of developers he calls "urban pioneers" taking on some of the most blighted property in the city and trying to turn it around.
Rebecca Ibel moved into the neighborhood nine years ago and now owns her own gallery at 1055 N. High. She remembers a time when the Short North wasn't nearly as charming.
"It was definitely a neighborhood with character," she says. "Well, it had a little more than character! There was a Short North posse. There were prostitutes on the front stoop every day.
"Sandy Wood was one of early investors buying crime-ridden properties, and old Victorian homes and making them safe, clean, and affordable. The Carriage House is a prime example. They kept the character of the early storefront and turned it into one of great restaurants in town [Rigsby's], office space and apartments, really first class. It's not hokey, it's a first-class space. They really anchored a lot of buildings that were the birth of the neighborhood."
Like Ibel, those who work with Wood in various missions to benefit their community almost unanimously refer to Wood as "one of the fathers of the Short North," and credit Wood for having a vision of a unified community with the arts occupying a central place, and with supplying the leadership and focus to drive that vision home.
There aren't a whole lot of entrepreneurs who are willing work in old decaying buildings, to right tilting floors and cover them with hardwood. There are a very finite number of developers who are willing to spend a little extra here, a lot extra there, to rehabilitate an old building the hard way – to concentrate as much on the fit and feel of the building's relation to the neighborhood as on maximizing the building's return on investment.
Wood develops organic buildings, a natural mix of commercial office, retail and living space that maintains the look and feel of the neighborhood's historic nature. He goes to lengths to restore and add to the ambiance, rather than stick to inexpensive function. Spaces have a solid, warm feel to them, well-suited to their tenant's needs. Restaurants, galleries, cookware shops, handmade clothing boutiques, all fit right into the buildings as if nesting rather than forced into utilitarian spaces that mark so many strip malls.
There are even fewer developers who are willing to go further and become involved in the direction of the entire neighborhood rather than impose undesirable development in the area. Early on, Wood began to volunteer and participate in community planning. The Short North Business Association was in the process of being born, founded by a group of local community activists like John Allen, owner of the Short North Tavern, who had settled in the neighborhood before it was dubbed the Short North, since the 1970s.
Allen and other property owners had begun to push neighborhood reforms and to seek funding for the changes they wanted to see. They also began the early stages of creating a new identity for the Short North, one that celebrated the artistic culture that gradually took hold as crime slowed and cheap, clean, renovated rentable space trickled onto the market.
"Sandy had a clarity of vision, of being able to have a concept of where we were headed, and also understand the terms of implementation. Not all of it is fixing up buildings," Allen says. "He in particular as a developer was adept at understanding what needed to be done."
A tremendous amount of effort went into pushing through reforms such as code enforcement to force deadbeat owners to fix up or get out, into pushing the city for new streetlights, repaving, sponsorship of façade renovation incentives, and more.
As if those missions weren't hard enough to accomplish, the SNBA decided that simply plowing money into their neighborhood was not the end goal. They wanted to preserve and nurture the artistic character of the young neighborhood. Allen and others say that Wood was instrumental in being able to pull different players together from all around the city and communicate the new direction, and then to make deals happen.
"It all kind of evolved from week to week, there was no grand plan in the beginning," says Wood. "We were just putting one foot in front of the other and trying to survive."
"Short North development has bubbled from the bottom up," he says, "not on decisions made from the top down. It was birthed in the neighborhoods. In my mind, that makes it better. It's real; because it's part of the people, it operates as the people need to operate, it's not imposed on them."
The group of early "pioneers," as Wood dubs them, began to work together to institutionalize the arts theme as a hallmark of the neighborhood. Along with putting together neighborhood improvement packages, a conscious decision was made to back three components to the theme: one, art and culture related businesses, two, antiques/home décor/furniture/gift shops, and three, entertainment and restaurants.
"That theme," says Allen, "was the mix that ... gave us an identity, made us something different. And Sandy got it. You can't do that unless you have property owners and developers that have that vision, and not rent to the first person to walk through the door and give you a check."
Wood had that big picture in mind, says Allen, and he was willing to put his money where his ideals were, not only for the long-term good of the Wood Companies, but also for the good of the neighborhood.
Sebastian Ibel, Rebecca Ibel's husband, owns the Ibel Agency, a Short North advertising firm, and also has worked with Wood on development issues for years.
"Sandy thinks very laterally. He has a really good overview of it all. I also believe that apart from personal interests, he made many decisions not necessarily beneficial to his business, but always saw the bigger picture." Ibel says Wood is particularly good at bringing the right people to the table, communicating the neighborhood's goals, and getting the deals struck.
"There were others buying property around who could have cared less about what we wanted the area to be about, and they weren't involved," says Allen. "Sandy was not your typical developer, 'I'm just in here to buy cheap, get a low interest loan, fix it, and rent it, I could really give a shit what it is.' He was one who was willing to go out and recruit businesses that fit with our mission, to understand that we were competing with other shopping areas and malls out there, and that we had to have something to get a handle on and promote as an area."
Wood says designation of the Short North as a historic district made much of what he has developed possible. Historic designation once qualified properties for 25 percent tax credits to investors, which catalyzed many investors' interest in helping the community redevelop.
However, the enterprise can be just as rickety and risky as the old buildings Wood wished to restore. It wasn't always a smooth, upward journey.
"I think in the short term we'd be better off economically if we simply rebuilt and then sold," Wood says. "Long term, quality of life is what people seek out, and in the end, we win. But the tradeoffs are not always easy."
In 1989-1990, Wood Cos. almost had to declare bankruptcy. In the recession, tenants began downsizing or even going out of business and moving out. One project in progress, the Battleship Building at 444 N. Front St., bit deeply into Wood's resources and eventually had to be sold off before financing arrangements could be completed.
Wood's friends, he said, all urged him to declare bankruptcy. "It was terribly stressful," he confides. He even suffered a stress-induced illness. "Renovation can be very tough, it always costs at least as much as new construction."
Wood's son Mark came into the business at about that time. Sandy Wood says his son's hard work helped to turn the company around. Mark Wood, though, credits his father's energy and refusal to call it quits.
"He definitely took the approach of wanting to work through the problems. I think he takes a lot of pride in the fact that we never had to declare bankruptcy," Mark Wood says. Simply put, they plugged away, both at leasing their own properties and at continuing to support the neighborhood. As the economy improved, so did their occupancy, and so too did the Short North in general.
One project in particular that Woods put fanatical energy into even during the lean years was the Short North Special Improvement District (SID). Establishing SIDs can be like knitting together the Balkans. These special taxing districts require approval of 60 percent of an area's property owners to agree to a special tax assessment – and agree to increased taxes to pay for a slate of improvements like street cleaning, graffiti removal, and more. That finally happened in 1997. Then the city was persuaded to partially match those funds. Allen and others credit Wood with raising the concept of the SID and seeing it through.
Pocket Parks, small public art-studded greenspaces which will begin to appear in niches all around the Short North this spring, are funded by the SID. The much-noted arches, $1.5 million lighted re-creations of 19th-century decorative spans that once studded the city, soon to arise along High Street, are a SID product as well. Wood and others who have backed the arches say the structures will be one more vital step toward defining the Short North in the eyes of the entire region.
"This SID would not exist, if not for him, as far as I'm concerned," says Allen. "All these long-term projects just don't get done in a year. It takes persistence for multiple years. We're seeing really nice results from it. It's not that he is the only force behind the SID, but it's largely due to his leadership and credit that it's occurred."
"Sandy's not always an easy man," Sebastian Ibel says. "He is not afraid to confront people with his own opinions – but ... I think he deserves a medal. I honestly think he is one of most unde-appreciated people. Many take credit for things, but he is one of the true founders."
When asked why he never simply went out to the suburbs and developed raw land with new construction – or never redeveloped in the grand scale of Lennox Town Center – Wood's answer sums up his nature as a community businessman neatly.
"It's a different job. For one thing, I never had the resources to do that scale of development. But mainly, my interest is not in building a place for Staples. It's a good job to have, but it just doesn't appeal to me."
"All of us have a bad case of Sesame Street syndrome," says Allen, "and I suspect Sandy does too. The characters can be weird, but that diversity, that mix, you have romanticized in your own head ... well, it's not the only reason you do it, but you have romantic notions of old neighborhoods, you just think they're cool as hell, and you love the idea that you're part of it."
Probably few know that even now, ten years after the recession nearly drove him under, twenty years after his real estate career began, Wood still is not making the same salary he was when he worked in the financial industry. That, to Wood, was not the point.
"I guess I didn't do it for the money. I mean, I did it to earn a living, for sure, but earn a living by doing something that was fun and worthwhile."
Make no mistake, the Short North is repaying Sandy Wood for his devotion. At the time of this writing Wood Cos.' commercial properties were almost completely filled and the residential properties had not a single vacancy. The SID and other foundations will be well on the way to their goal of raising nearly $500,000 for Pocket Parks and other improvements this fall. The arches will soon begin to rise all along High Street, fulfilling a vision Wood has shared for at least fifteen years.
"It's been phenomenal. We have a very specialized niche now.... Retail is surely overbuilt in Columbus but in the Short North, it's doing well. I think that's because of the personal nature of the salesmanship, the entrepreneurial nature of the people, this whole thing is not something you get in a mall. The Short North really is the Un-mall. It's all entrepreneurial people providing personal service to their clients, not a mass market."
At this point, Wood believes his company owns and manages enough property that he wouldn't have to develop new projects. But that, says Wood, is the fun part.
Beyond scheduling a little extra vacation time to spend with his recently retired wife, Wood shows few signs of slowing down. He plans to spend extra time visiting his new grandson in Columbia, South Carolina, and says he will at some point have to step back "a bit."
That's not how his son sees things going. "He's just very much a go-getter," Mark says. "he's never satisfied with where we're at. Every now and then I want to sit back and feel good about what we've just done, and he is still looking for things that aren't right to try to make them better."
"My current project is always my favorite one," says Wood simply. He made that same statement ten years ago to the Columbus Dispatch in a 1989 profile, and it's still true. There remains much of the world to change for Wood, and he'll continue to work at it for a long time to come.
"The Short North will extend up to the Ohio State University neighborhood, and we'll be a great dense residential neighborhood. All the little neighborhoods around are great for Columbus, and I think the Short North is among the most exciting."
Editor's Note 2010: The Wood Companies is currently located at 21 W. Hubbard St. Visit www.woodcompanies.com
COLUMBUS NEIGHBORHOODS - SHORT NORTH DOCUMENTARY
The story of one of the city’s most vibrant and exciting neighborhoods includes the tale of the arches, the rise—and abrupt fall—of the Columbus Union Station, an incredible reunion of Civil War soldiers, the circus magnate who mesmerized a town, and the emergence of local festivals and traditions that have become a part of the Short North’s character. It’s a story of how a grassroots movement transforms a run-down, forgotten neighborhood into Columbus’ center for arts and culture.
Bonus material include maps, a slideshow of remarkable buildings and a brief description of their history, a Flytown reunion feature, and a video that shows how you can contribute to the Columbus Neighborhoods website.
Purchase the DVD - click on image to transfer to WOSU website:
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