There were bullet holes in the roof.
In case Denny Sponsel needed proof of how far the Massachusetts Avenue industrial corridor had declined since he grew up on Indianapolis’ east side, the bullet holes in his new building provided it. But they didn’t discourage him.
Sponsel, the president of RJE Business Interiors, has started patching the bullet holes, fixing windows and bringing life to a long-vacant industrial site at 2101 Ludlow Ave. RJE in November paid $625,000 for the building, becoming the latest company to invest in the nearly 500-acre area known as the Mass Ave./Brookside Industrial Corridor.
RJE, one of the area’s largest office furniture sellers, will move its service division and warehousing operations from its Downtown headquarters to the 71,000-square-foot building. Sponsel grew up within walking distance of the neighborhood and understands how it deteriorated as manufacturers closed and moved away. Now, he wants to be a leader in its rebirth along with other companies such as McNamara Florist.
“It’s going to be fun to be part of the revitalization and be part of bringing business back to that area,” Sponsel said.
The move comes at a time when the city is beefing up efforts to attract more businesses to the Mass Ave./Brookside Industrial Corridor. The area is sandwiched between I-70 and a CSX train line, a little more than a mile northeast from the popular Downtown nightlife spots on Mass Ave. Indianapolis recently received a $400,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency that it will distribute to businesses that want to assess contamination at area sites before making investments.
RJE is an early adopter — and not for the first time. RJE in 2003 moved into its headquarters at 621 E. Ohio St. on the eastern end of Downtown when there were few other businesses there.
But after RJE moved in, Sponsel said he noticed nearby property owners cleaning up their sites. Then long-vacant buildings began getting makeovers and new occupants. The Nature Conservancy, for instance, bought a run-down industrial site across the street from RJE in 2008 and moved in.
“Buying an older building in an area that is in the midst, or beginning, of some rejuvenation is not news to us,” Sponsel said. “That’s very much what I see in (the Mass Ave./Brookside Corridor), is investment going in. It’s a domino effect and we saw that happen here. We were probably the first one on this Eastside area to come in and make an investment. Little by little, a lot of improvements were made in the area. This was all before Cummins was coming to the Market Square site, it was all before apartments and condos.”
Already, there are signs of momentum in the Mass Ave./Brookside Industrial Corridor. RJE acquired its building from McNamara Florist, which is moving its headquarters from Fishers to a site next door. McNamara split up what had been a 176,000-square-foot building and sold part of it to RJE. Both buildings, which are being renovated, will be occupied by mid-summer.
“An Indianapolis address means something different than a suburban address,” McNamara Florist CEO Toomie Farris said. “Being back in the city implies we serve the entire metropolitan area whereas being in the’burbs is just not as committed.”
McNamara is spending $2 million to overhaul its building and will move 50 workers to the city. RJE will relocate 18 workers to its new building.
Having RJE as a next-door neighbor immediately improves the image of the area, Farris said. The combination of the two companies could help attract businesses to other vacant buildings, he added.
“Denny Sponsel is an east-side Indianapolis boy,” Farris said. “He’s committed personally to that neighborhood. You couldn’t have a better partnership. He’s image-conscious, his business is image-conscious. We had some higher offers on the building and we passed because we wanted that kind of partnership.”
The two companies are about a mile northeast of the Circle City Industrial Complex, which is becoming a makerspace for small businesses. A little further down the street is the former Coca-Cola bottling plant, an 11-acre site owned by Indianapolis Public Schools. The school system has solicited proposals for the site, but has yet to select a developer.
With a handful of large industrial buildings being overhauled, Farris said it’s only a matter of time before companies begin looking at smaller buildings and filling in gaps between businesses.
“If you have those big anchors, connecting the dots becomes much easier,” Farris said.
Emily Scott, a program manager for the Riley Area Development Corp., which promotes the industrial corridor, said she’s not aware of any more pending deals. To spur redevelopment, her organization wants to connect companies with incentives that are available, such as the EPA grant money.
“When these comparatively larger companies make the first investment, that’s a good sign for the neighborhood that surrounds it and some of the other small businesses in the area,” Scott said.
When the buildings occupied by RJE and McNamara Florist are fully operational later this year, Sponsel said that will become a great advertisement for the area.
“When you keep things cleaned up and you keep them tidy and you keep them orderly, you’re telling people your business is alive,” Sponsel said. “That’s what’s going to happen over there.”
Call IndyStar reporter James Briggs at (317) 444-6307. Follow him on Twitter:@JamesEBriggs.