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Sunday, April 14, 2024

He Rebuilds This City

Ben Schmidt’s plastics company was barely six months old when he stepped into the former Whirlpool plant. The space was vast and empty. The 1.7 million square feet once housed 1,100 employees, from engineers to assemblers, until the refrigeration company took all but a handful of jobs to Mexico last June. Now, Schmidt heard nothing. The rumble and whiz from the conveyor belts hoisting shiny, new refrigerators through the air left with the employees. The space where Whirlpool spent 54 years writing paychecks to Evansvillians for services rendered was empty.

Schmidt wants to pay Evansvillians. He launched a company, CrossPoint Polymer Technologies, with Todd Bitter in August 2010. The former QTR plastics managers spent six months securing final financing and reaching out to potential customers. By spring 2011, they were ready for a place to create their product: a durable, reliable plastic primarily made from recycled materials. The duo needed a facility loaded with power capacity, sky-high ceilings, and lab space. The estimated cost for a new building such as that runs well into tens of millions. For most startup companies, that kind of price tag is a dream, so Schmidt and Bitter toured the former Whirlpool plant hoping the remains could make for a major operation befitting their plans.

On the north side, the Whirlpool facility — less than a mile from where Schmidt grew up — stood mostly vacant until a design-build company snatched the property up for $2.9 million in late 2010. The move intrigued Schmidt. “What would you do with 1.7 million square feet? That’s a huge space,” he says. “I think most people would be intimidated or overwhelmed by just the question. Even if the owner had the idea of subleasing, who’s got the resources, know-how, and relationships to make that happen?” The answer was Ben Kunkel.

In the 1950s, J.C. Penney opened at 508 Main St. It joined a Downtown shopping district loaded with clothing retailers, including the Evansville Store, the Sears Downtown Store, and deJongs. The latest fashions — most likely Mad Men-esque duds — shined in storefront window displays. Passersby lingered, patrons shopped, and owners sold clothes.

Then, in the 1970s, a great exodus began. Year after year, retailers left the spacious Downtown digs for cramped quarters at a new concept sprouting up on the East Side — the mall. Some Downtown businesses had four times less space in Washington Square and Eastland Malls, yet the malls offered what Downtown could not: proximity to customers. Residents were migrating outward, leaving Downtown buildings empty. One of the last retailers to head to the mall was J.C. Penney in 1981. For the next 24 years, the building was vacant.

Ben Kunkel stepped inside the former J.C. Penney in 2005. Magazine ads touting 1970s fashion littered the floors. Bricks crumbled. Pigeons fluttered about. Their feces marked their territory. Kunkel saw potential.

Kunkel had launched his business, The Kunkel Group, one year earlier. The Ball State University alumnus had graduated with an architecture degree in 1998, but Kunkel was a hands-on architect. He’s worked as an electrical contractor, a carpenter, and in other roles on construction sites. “I got into architecture because I liked construction,” Kunkel says.

After college, he worked at an architecture firm, but after some time, he wanted to break away from his desk. Kunkel’s childhood best friend, Chuck Harper, was the key to that freedom.

Harper is a psychotherapist by trade. He spent years heading a juvenile detention and residential facility in Downtown Evansville. He helped children with serious issues: homelessness, drug abuse, violence, depression, phobias, suicide. It was a 24-hour-a-day job, and if Harper’s cell phone rang at 3 a.m., he couldn’t miss the call.

Harper had a passion for it, but by the early 2000s, he was a married man with young children. Those late-night calls put a lot on his plate. Harper spoke with Kunkel, and the two friends realized they could make a team. Harper would be the sales force; Kunkel would be the know-how. They launched The Kunkel Group, a design-build company in 2004. [pagebreak]

If psychotherapy seems like an un-useful resume boost for a position at a company based around construction, Kunkel never saw it that way. Harper “started and didn’t know anything about it,” Kunkel says, but he’s “a smart guy who picked up on (the construction business).” What he lacked in a formal building background, Harper made up for with people skills. He had spent years understanding the emotional and behavioral conditions of children and their parents. The experience made him an expert in people.

They rented office space underneath the Executive Inn parking garage. It was an unenviable spot. They had no neighbors or much visibility, but they landed projects: a community stage in Owensboro, Ky.; a Social Security Administration building in Bloomington, Ind.; and the 2005 Evansville Living Idea Home, a residence for builders, designers, and developers to showcase the latest home trends.

It was the J.C. Penney building that got The Kunkel Group the most attention. In 2005, Kunkel walked into a place no one had touched for decades and transformed it into a 24-unit condo complex. Known as the Renaissance on Main, their efforts removed 100 tons of bricks from the exterior walls to create 50 new windows — plenty of views for residents.

In February 2007, Kunkel began a $5 million renovation of deJong’s on Main Street. The building, renamed the Meridian Plaza, includes 15,500 square feet of commercial space on the first floor, including a drycleaner and photography studio, and 31 condos that top the next four floors.

At the time, Downtown was awash in developers renovating buildings into condos, thanks in part to a city-backed program providing nearly $2.5 million in grants and loans. Those incentives didn’t mean sinking money into old buildings was a sure bet. “I told my dad we bought this building (J.C. Penney),” Kunkel says, “and he said, ‘You did what?! What did you do?!’ He didn’t have the same vision that I had.” A few other developers had similar thoughts: They spent $21 million to create more than 200 condos and lofts Downtown. The condos were sold. Apartments were rented. People were paying attention.

Harper drew press to their buildings, and bi-annual condo tours featuring efforts from all developers piqued the public’s interest. The nature of the project resonated with the public, Kunkel contends. “You can go to a lot of communities and see strip malls and fast food restaurants,” he says, “but they’re just not memorable. I think the memorable places are places where there is character to it, and I think the downtown is the heart of a city. When you have a memorable downtown, I think that’s where people want to be.”

Kunkel and Harper built off the momentum, and their list of ongoing projects is lengthy: the revamping of a building on the former Welborn Hospital campus into the Walker Building, an office and assisted living complex; the transformation of the former Hilliard Lyons office building into a 44-unit apartment complex; and the rebirth of the Whirlpool into Park41, a manufacturing hub.

In early May 2011, Ben Schmidt sat at a makeshift desk near a tiny garage door in the northeast corner of Park41. It was a Whirlpool maintenance room at one point, Schmidt guesses, and now the room is the launching pad for his new plastics business, CrossPoint Polymer Technologies. All around him, noise from heavy construction equipment sounds off as Kunkel workers shape 112,000 square feet of space into Schmidt’s headquarters.

For a month, this dusty maintenance room has been Schmidt’s office, and it should continue that way until August 4 when he expects plastic production to begin. Down the hall is a former oil collection facility that will be transformed into a lobby. Behind it will be labs to test the plastic Schmidt will make. It’s a product used for a variety of moldings. “When we are dealing with automotives,” Schmidt says, “our plastic is going under the hood. When it’s driven in Alaska in minus 30 degrees, how strong will it stay?”

To figure that out, Schmidt needs labs like Whirlpool engineers used to test refrigerators. Also in the building is a system of color-coded pipes: Red denotes the sprinklers, green is for water, and orange indicates power. Schmidt will incorporate these into the manufacturing portion of his business. And so begins a long list of similarities between what Whirlpool left behind and what Schmidt needs. “What gets me excited,” says Schmidt, “is knowing that if I were to build this space from scratch, there’s not a lot different I would do.”

Kunkel specializes in finding buildings requiring major overhauls but fulfilling a need in the community. The Walker Building, a piece of the former Welborn hospital campus, is a prime example. Kunkel bought the property ready to sink millions into the seven-story tower. The top floors became rooms for the residents of Riverwalk Communities, an assisted living facility, while the first through third floors offer office space, including a watch repair shop, a salon, an adoption center, and the offices of the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra.

In 2010, when Glenn Roberts learned the lease of EPO’s offices would not be renewed, the executive director called The Kunkel Group. He had read Kunkel had bought the Walker Building for $10. When Roberts toured the property with Harper, he noticed the former hospital space had wide halls, large enough for nurses and doctors to roll patients on gurneys. Industrial-sized bolts that once held powerful surgical lights remained. A smell — a troubling odor from a medical facility left vacant for a decade — lingered like 50 sick vagabonds.

Harper helped Roberts see the possibility. The Walker Building was only a few blocks from the Victory Theatre where the orchestra plays, the space already was handicapped accessible, and a parking lot was available. Plus, the EPO administration loved how spacious the new digs are.

In the old office, Vicki Burchell, the EPO’s director of finance, kept her records in cardboard boxes in the hall, and her desk was so tiny that only her keyboard fit. She often calculated numbers on a notepad on her lap. Now, she has 10 black metal cabinets — a few donated by The Kunkel Group — lining the back wall of her office for storage, and her desk is a wraparound.

Kunkel has had setbacks: He has Air Commerce Park, 92 acres of commercial property across from the former Whirlpool spot. The idea is to build new facilities for budding businesses, but Kunkel opened the park in 2007 before the Great Recession had companies searching for cheaper alternatives. Only one of the seven lots has been sold — Berry Plastics has a facility there — but Kunkel isn’t worried. “When the economy took a turn for the worse,” he says, “that’s when we started to say, ‘We’re not going to do this anymore.’” Renovation was where Kunkel could offer properties under market rates.

Kunkel doesn’t have a formula for what buildings can be saved. As of press time, the former Executive Inn on Walnut Street was under the wrecking ball to make room for the planned 220-room hotel near the new Downtown arena. The Kunkel Group heads construction of this project.

Earlier this year, Kunkel earned praise from historic preservationists by saving a Market Street building Downtown from demolition. The $6.9 million renovation on the 1911 building means the structure — which originally housed a German male singing group, followed by the Knights of Columbus and the Republican Party headquarters — will become an assisted living facility by the end of 2011.

For more than 20 years, the vacant building has been roofless. Only four walls were useable. “It was rotten with a big pile of debris at the bottom,” Kunkel says. “I’ve heard it a hundred times: ‘Why didn’t you just tear it down?’” His answer: “There is piece of history there I’d hate to knock down, but at the end of the day, it’s more economical not to tear it down just to build it back up.”

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