Long before he reimagined what downtowns could be, Chris Chain was a swimmer.
In fact, he was an elite swimmer, competing for top amateur clubs in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and in his native Columbus, where he swam for Carl Butler’s Swim Columbus, the dominant club in the state.
Butler’s influence helped Chain, the state record-holder in his best stroke — the butterfly — to a swimming scholarship at Florida State, but it wasn’t in the pool where his influence foreshadowed Chain’s ultimate career as a developer and contractor.
“Carl was a coach, but he was also a history teacher,” said Chain, a 1980 graduate of Caldwell High School. “I got interested in the history of Columbus, doing a lot of bus tours when I was in high school for Pilgrimage and other tours. That’s what got me interested in downtown and all the old buildings.”
In 1986, after graduating from Florida State with a degree in marketing and business and after two years as a regional sales manager for a contracting supply company, Chain came home to Columbus.
“I got tired of sales,” said Chain, who began thinking about what he wanted to do after he returned.
At the time, downtown Columbus was confined to retail, but with the growth of the retail corridor along Highway 45 and Leigh Mall, Chain began to think about what could revitalize downtown.
At just 26 years old, with no real experience in contracting or development to speak of, Chain began renovating the old Booth Diamond Shop building at 411 Main St., based on what was then a novel idea — converting the second floor to apartments.
“I think there was only one apartment downtown at the time,” Chain said. “I put in three apartments on the second floor, which was something nobody had done until then.”
Chain’s first project
The appeal of converting the second floors to downtown buildings seemed obvious, Chain said.
“Not all downtowns have these livable spaces, and those are the downtowns that die after 5 p.m.,” he said. “But here, everywhere you looked, there were second floors that were vacant or used for storage. It was never going to be used for retail, so what’s the best use of these spaces?”
In 1988, Chain completed the renovation at 411 Main St., which included three upstairs apartments. He was just getting started.
Early on, Chain found himself constantly going before the city’s planning commission and city council to acquire permitted-use waivers because downtown wasn’t zoned for residential use.
“So every time I wanted to renovate a building and add apartments, I had to apply for a permit,” he said. “Once I took a bite of the apple, here came everybody else. It wasn’t just me anymore. I told the city, these apartments are coming and downtown should be zoned for it.”
Chain had a vision of transforming downtown.
“I remember Mayor (Jeffrey Rupp) asking me how many downtown buildings I thought would wind up with apartments on the second floor. I told him all of them,” Chain said. “He said, ‘Wow. That’s a lot of stuff.’”
The benefits went beyond making use of all the second-floor spaces.
“When you start converting them into apartments, you’re installing fire alarms, sprinklers, bringing those old buildings back into code,” Chain said. “You also grow the tax base and you bring people back downtown, not just during business hours, but 24/7.”
The city finally changed the zoning and downtown apartments are now a fixture in Columbus.
“Chris is really the one who is responsible for that,” said Barbara Bigelow of Main Street Columbus. “When he started, it was hard. No one wanted to approve it. Chris had to fight to get them to see the value the apartments would add to downtown. Retailers were moving out of downtown and we have to do something to bring people back. That’s what the apartments did. If there’s a list of the most influential people in our downtown’s history, Chris is very high on the list.”
The Stone Hotel
Thirty-three years ago, Chain was just a kid with an idea. Today, as a longtime Main Street Columbus board member and, as of this year, the president for the Mississippi Main Street Association, Chain is someone from whom other downtown property owners throughout the state seek counsel.
“He’s always been so generous with his time,” Bigelow said. “He’s a great resource for people who are looking for advice or having questions. He’s been a great advocate for downtown Columbus and, really, all parts of the state.”
Chain said he’s never bothered to keep a list of just how many apartments he’s built or buildings he’s renovated in downtown Columbus.
“Probably 30 buildings and 50 to 60 apartments, if I had to guess,” he said.
His latest project is the renovation of the old Stone Hotel on the 200 block of Fifth Street South. Chain is working on the project with New Orleans developer Bill Legier, who has partnered with Chain on several projects, including renovations of buildings in French Quarter.
“Chris has really been great to work with,” Legier said. “He’s really good at getting the tax credits that are available for historic properties. So when Chris found out I was looking for something with tax credits I could finish this year he told me about this property. I think it’s going to do very, very well.”
Chain also is building nine apartments in downtown Pascagoula, one of dozens of such projects he’s either built himself or served as contractor on.
“Not every downtown has these livable spaces,” Chain said. “But for those who do, apartments are a great use. We’ve proved that time and time again.”
When the Stone Hotel project is completed by the end of the year, it will feature 8,000 square feet of retail space and 18 apartments, bringing the total number of downtown Columbus apartments to 202.
But there is one feature at the Stone project that may again prove to be evidence of Chain’s visionary approach.
“I think the next big thing will be the senior citizen market,” Chain said. “Up until now, the loft apartments were mainly occupied by young people, college students, and young couples without children. But I think what you’re going to see, what you’re beginning to see already, is senior citizens who are downsizing and looking for a certain lifestyle.”
The Stone will feature patios, courtyards and atrium – outdoor spaces that seniors find appealing.
‘We have an awful lot of things going for us
If, in fact, Chain is again on the leading edge of a new market for downtown Columbus, his contributions may serve another important function.
The Stone Hotel project is significant in a symbolic sense, proof that Chain is still betting on Columbus even at a time when there are those who lament a Columbus in decline.
Chain certainly doesn’t see his hometown that way. He never has.
“Everybody who comes here says it feels like being a part of a family,” he said. “That’s our namesake — The Friendly City. But it goes beyond that. Columbus is centrally located, with a great regional airport and transportation hubs that can come through here from all over the world. It’s a historic town with lots of character. We’ve still got a lot of old money here and big-time players. We have a beautiful downtown. Sure, we’ve got problems. Every city does. But we have an awful lot of things going for us.”
Chain said he’s convinced that the city has a bright future because the economics and timing are right for business — and business is good.
“Look, when I started the interest rate was at 14.5 percent,” he said. “Today it’s 3-to-4 percent. I love my hometown, but what I’m doing isn’t just sentimental. Ever since I started building apartments, they’ve been filled. They are paying their way. The economics of this are good.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]