NEWARK, Ohio (AP) — Mind-boggling, beloved, 160 times bigger than life— and soon to be empty.
That’s the “Big Basket,” the headquarters of the Longaberger Co.
In February, Longaberger parent JRJR Networks announced that it was moving the remaining workers from the Newark building to office space at the company’s manufacturing plant in Frazeysburg in the next few months.
Since then, residents of Licking County as well as past and current Longaberger employees and sales consultants have been holding their collective breath about the fate of the iconic structure. They know it’s up for sale, but who will buy it— and what they will do with it —is anyone’s guess.
“The Big Basket is like the St. Louis Arch,” said Jim Klein, a former Longaberger president who hopes to get the building on the National Register of Historic Places. “It’s a really important part of southeastern Ohio history.”
“It’s safe to say it’s one of a kind,” said Newark Mayor Jeff Hall. “It’s truly unique. I’ve had a couple teams of architects and engineers in, and the architects are always wide-eyed. Dave really thought outside the box.”
No one would have predicted more than 20 years ago, when company founder Dave Longaberger broke ground for the building, that it would come to this. After months of wrangling with architects who had created designs that were merely suggestive of a basket, the colorful, quotable Longaberger stormed out of a meeting, grabbed one of the company’s medium-sized baskets, came back in, put it on the conference room table and said, “Make it look exactly like that,” said Brenton Baker, director of communications and special initiatives and a longtime employee.
So they did.
The seven-story building, an exact replica of the basket that Dave Longaberger put forward, is topped by two handles that weigh 75 tons apiece. Heating elements within the handles keep them from freezing, protecting the glass atrium below from damage by falling ice. Two 25-by-7-foot, 725-pound gold-leaf-painted “Longaberger” tags are affixed to the basket, one on each side near the “lid,” just as they would be on a basket meant for a normal-size human.
The Big Basket cost $30 million to build.
When the 180,000-square-foot building opened in 1997, the Newark basketmaker was approaching its glory days, and 500 employees enjoyed the homey feel of their new digs.
“Obviously as a home business, it has kind of a residential feel,” Baker said. Part of that is due to the warm cherry woodwork, most of which was harvested from the Longaberger Golf Club property and dried, milled, sawed and shaped in the company’s workshops.
A seven-story atrium in the middle of the building was part of that cozy, employee-friendly feel because, “in our old Dresden offices, many people were without natural light,” Baker said. “So everybody has access to natural light here.”
A 142-seat auditorium directly off the atrium also contributed to the feeling of community, providing space for meetings with sales consultants and employees and other events.
“We had family movie nights in here,” Baker said, smiling as he looked at the empty rows of seats in the now-quiet room.
They were good times, said Shannon Wilson of Zanesville, who has posted on the Facebook page started by Klein: “Preserving the Longaberger ‘Big Basket’ as a National Treasure.”
“I loved working” at the Big Basket, Wilson said.
“My youngest attended the Longaberger Family Center while I worked in guest relations, and I could visit when I had a free moment,” Wilson said. “I worked in so many departments throughout my career at Longaberger and made many lifelong friends.”
But times changed.
The company has struggled since the death of Dave Longaberger in 1999. A combination of bad economic times and changing tastes in home decor sent sales from a peak of $1 billion in 2000 to about $100 million in 2014. Several rounds of layoffs have occurred, leaving the company with several hundred employees, no more than 60 of them in the Big Basket.
Longaberger Co. seemed to be on the path to recovery after CVSL (now called JRJR), a holding company of direct-sales firms, bought a 51.7 percent stake in Longaberger in 2013. But financial problems persisted: Longaberger Co. owes $577,660.05 to various local taxing entities; that’s part of the cost of roadwork, lighting and other improvements made when the Big Basket was built.
“We’ve had talks with JRJR, and I get it,” said Hall, the Newark mayor. “They’re trying to get the company down to a size that works now, and I know it was not an easy decision to get rid of the building.”
If delinquent taxes aren’t paid, the county has the power to foreclose on the property and offer it at a sheriff’s sale, Licking County Auditor Mike Smith said, but that isn’t likely.
“What’s that do?” Hall said. “It’s one of a kind, and you don’t just board it up and it goes away. We see lots of potential for the building. The handles need a little bit of paint, but that’s not something you can do on a weekend. The outside itself is a wow factor. We’d like it lit up at night again.”
So what do you do with a seven-story basket?
The question has been a challenge for the past few years to real estate agent Michael Guagenti, who was at Colliers International for several years and now is with Cushman & Wakefield.
Although Guagenti doesn’t list a price for the building publicly, there have been several hundred inquiries about it.
“Dave Longaberger did a great job out there,” Guagenti said. “It’s a Class A office building. The construction was first-class. It’s got a glass ceiling in the atrium. It’s just a neat building.”
The most obvious challenge for a real estate agent, of course, is the building’s unusual architecture, said Jim Garrett, executive vice president and managing director of Colliers.
“We did a Google search one day of ‘unique buildings in the U.S.’ because there’s a market out there for just about anything,” Garrett said. “Our thought was, someone who owns two or three different-shaped buildings might be interested. But that didn’t bear a lot of fruit.”
The simple answer— remove the basket handles and put a new facade on the building —is unlikely.
“It’s pretty expensive to do that,” Garrett said. “Some of the numbers are just shy of seven figures.
If you’re a real estate investor, it would be hard to justify that return on investment.”
The look of the building probably is not even be the biggest obstacle to selling it. The real issues are far more mundane, such as the location, several miles east of downtown Newark.
“Newark is a tertiary marketplace, and the building is in excess of 100,000 square feet,” Garrett said. “We’d see a better chance if it were in downtown Newark, but it’s not.”
Ideas for the building have included converting it to a hotel, a multi-family residence, senior housing or a college or university building. But Hall and others in the area think its best use is the one for which it was built.
“There are a lot of things you could do, but the best use is as an office building,” Hall said. “Anything else, and you’re treating it with disrespect. But to find a company that needs a building for 500 employees is pretty tough.”
Whoever gets the building will face a community eager to preserve the Big Basket and the story behind it.
“This building tells a story of more than just baskets,” said Hall, a fourth-generation Newark native. “My wife sold their baskets. It’s a great piece of history of Newark, of Licking County.”
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com
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