A Destination in the Making: The Fort on South High

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All photos by Susan Post.

Fortner Upholstering purchased the historic industrial complex at 2000-2050 S. High St. in 2017 to house its growing commercial reupholstering and manufacturing operations. With 240,000 square feet spread across the cluster of buildings, the company has room to grow, and then some.

Filling the “and then some” with additional businesses was always on the agenda, and the vision of the space’s potential as The Fort is taking shape.

“What we picture here in seven years is the building’s fully occupied, we have a great mix of makers, office, retail, we’d love to see some food, a coffee shop – so you could really spend a day here,” says Fortner Owner and President Justin McAllister.

Creating a destination doesn’t happen overnight. McAllister says the last 18 plus months have been a learning experience. The Fort has added around 20 tenants, talked to hundreds more, and honed in on what uses are best suited for the often raw, industrial space.

They’ve also expanded their footprint, adding two addresses to the lineup – 2108 S. High St., the parcel and buildings just south of the complex, and 2025 S. High St. another building across the street with nearly 13,000 square feet and ample parking.

In a space with what McAllister describes as limitless possibilities, The Fort is focusing on three avenues to bring people into the fold: leases, events and photography sessions.

The Fort is working with NAI Ohio Equities and Broker John Mally to lease the thousands of square feet that haven’t found their tenants yet. There are smaller spaces, in the 500 square foot range, to a sweeping 38,000 square feet of second floor space spread across the two buildings (B-C) of 2000 S. High St (*see map below). The largest tenant thus far has taken 4,500 square feet, with the average business occupying about 1,000 square feet.

The initial businesses have been somewhat scattered across the complex, but McAllister has realized to fulfill the long-term vision of the space, phasing is necessary. The plan is to concentrate on filling in specific areas, starting with the remainder of 2050 S. High St.*

The building is zoned manufacturing, making it ideal for makers.

“We feel like focusing on creating affordable space for young companies, makers, artists, things like that, is a great way to breathe that life back into the building,” McAllister says.

The challenge in looking at uses outside of makerspace is the associated build out costs. To turn a manufacturing space into a high-end office loses the element of affordability that makes The Fort unique. There are other parts of the complex that are more readily suited for office space.

Map image by Dylan Menges, Menges Design.

McAllister has a few ideas of his own for filling out some of the square footage. He’d love to see a Fortner-anchored retail component that also leaves room for the talents of the other makers at The Fort, creating a retail presence for businesses that might not otherwise have it. A museum showcasing the historic elements of the building would create another draw for visitors.

The Fort will have to reach a critical mass before a component like a restaurant or coffee shop makes sense, but the area will soon have an influx of visitors thanks to the adjacent properties.

Wild Ohio Brewing has staked claim on 2025, and Via Vecchia Winery and event space is trading the Brewery District for the South Side at 2108.

The Fort will look to Via Vecchia for their expertise to help define events at the complex as things get rolling. Thus far it’s been a learn as you go, where space is open affair but, “We would like to plan for additional event space in the overall long-term vision of the building,” McAllister says.

In addition to utilizing the open space for events, The Fort lends its coveted industrial design to photo shoots. A new option, “That whole program really developed out of requests,” McAllister says.

The Fort identifies four spaces for photo shoots, available by the hour, half-day and day.

It may be far from the building’s origins as a fire truck manufacturing facility, but the revitalization efforts are drawing interest. McAllister says he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of pioneers that have joined them. They knew the market was there, but didn’t know quite what to expect.

As they have began to understand how to fill in the space, McAllister says they’ve also taken the opportunity to dive into community and understand what their role could and should be in a area of town that has a lot of opportunity in front of it.

“There are a lot of people that have been doing a lot of work on the South End for many years and with great results and with great ideas,” McAllister says.

He wants to be engaged in the conversation, and is looking at a formal way to bring stakeholders like the Parsons Area Merchant Association, the Reeb Avenue Center, and even the city, together to discuss the best way to continue to develop the South Side.

The Fort is one part of the equation in an area of town McAllister wants to see reclaim its name. Once known as Steeltown, he’s vying on a comeback of moniker – to help create that destination mindset.

For more information, visit thefortcolumbus.com.

Additional Reading: See more photos of the space on Columbus Underground!