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Interview: Rockbridge CEO Jim Merkel on Planning for a North Market Hotel

Brent Warren Brent Warren Interview: Rockbridge CEO Jim Merkel on Planning for a North Market HotelThe latest proposal for the North Market parking lot, rendering by NBBJ.
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The unveiling last week of a new plan to redevelop the North Market parking lot was greeted with great interest by those who wondered if the project — first proposed in 2016 — was ever going to move forward.

The new design features a tower that is both shorter and wider than the one that was unveiled in 2017 as the winning proposal for the site.

The primary change in the programming of the building, though, is the addition of a hotel, something that representatives of the city, the North Market, and the development team behind the project have all said is key to its viability.

Columbus Underground recently spoke to Jim Merkel, CEO of Rockbridge, the Columbus-based company that was brought on to develop the hotel portion of the project.

Although Rockbridge is a major player nationally in the hotel development world, a lack of high-profile projects in Columbus has meant that the company often flies below the radar locally. Merkel knows that that is about to change, and is looking forward to the challenge of developing a new, independent hotel “from scratch” for his hometown.

Read on for excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Columbus Underground: How and when did Rockbridge come to be involved with the North Market project?

Jim Merkel: We’ve been involved for probably about 18 months now. Columbus is a small town, the business community is a small place, so I have a friendship with Michael Schiff [of Schiff Capital Group, a member of the development team, along with Wood Companies]. I have always been a fan of the North Market and when they won the RFP, I was congratulating him and we continued to talk about it, and as it evolved and they needed a partner to help pull the deal together, it was a natural fit.

I really felt – whether we did it or not – that a hotel needed to be in included in the project. Hotels are a front door to your town, your community, and [this is] an opportunity to share the story of the North Market and further the narrative of what we all love about the North Market. And so that dialogue is what led us into the project. 

CU: What will the hotel be like? Will it be associated with an existing hotel brand?

JM: It’s important to clarify, that this is not just any hotel, we’re talking about an independent hotel that’s designed to tell the story of the community. We invest and develop and create hotel properties and brands around the country, and until now have not had the right opportunity in Columbus to develop a hotel like this. We’ll develop the brand from scratch, specific for this location. It’s going to be an elevated experience but very approachable — a place that people want to be.

The North Market parking lot, photo by Brent Warren.

CU: Is there another Rockbridge project you could point to that might be similar to what you will be going for with this?

JM: The one that is most comparable recently is our Noelle property in Nashville. We wanted to develop a hotel that is reflective of Nashville and the way that the locals think of it, not the way the outside world thinks of Nashville…and we took a very ambitious approach and tried to find the right local partners there. We had over 60 local partners involved in that project, who continue to be involved in the project…and take great pride in it.

We’re already on first or second base here [with the North Market]. We have such a special destination…it’s been a public market for over 100 years. It resonates with the community and with me; I grew up in Columbus and went to North Market as a kid.

It’s real, and it’s something that is natural to be extended into a destination that enhances and celebrates what the North Market already is.

CU: What do you think of the hotel market in Columbus overall, and specifically right around the North Market, where there are already a lot of new hotels planned and under construction?

JM: One of the things I like to say is, you can’t sell what you don’t have. One of the challenges, always, is to look forward and have a longer term vision, and that’s how we’re looking at this project. Columbus is a great community with great leadership and great entrepreneurship, a lot of diversity, and we have the opportunity to shape what that looks like over the long term. I think that Columbus will absolutely absorb everything, but the question is always, will there be a hiccup in the economy along the way? 

And there might be, but I think that…if you are looking to the horizon instead of in a microscope, Columbus has everything going for it [and] there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t do what other towns have already done. That’s the benefit to having a multi-market lens – we’ve been in 38 states and over 248 investments around country – we get to understand how people behave and it takes a little bit of foresight, a little bit of risk, but I think that there’s no reason why guests won’t be attracted to a higher end property or a more tailored experience in Columbus, as they are in markets all over the country.

Also…we want the entire hospitality community to be successful, we want to help elevate the game for everybody, and I think that if we all work together and all are serving different segments of the market, it makes the whole much better.

CU: The hotel is only one part of the proposal (the plan calls for residential, office, a parking garage, and an expanded North Market). Is that something that adds to the project for you?

JM: Certainly there’s a desire by the North Market and by the city to have density in the urban core, and that serves a couple purposes. The main one — and our primary goal here — is to financially put the North Market in a position to be self-sustainable in perpetuity. And so, by having the expansion of the market and by having a dynamic development that brings a lot of different types of users to the market…[that] is very important to driving performance for the merchants at the market. All the original elements of the winning proposal are 100 percent there – the hotel was added to it [and is] incremental to the opportunity and the traffic that is going to come through the market.

CU: Are you looking to do more projects in Columbus, or just focusing on this one for the time being?

JM: There are several projects we’re working on locally. We never had a bias against Columbus by any means, but sometimes the deals in your backyard are the hardest ones to do. When you go into another market, there’s less emotion and more objectivity, and that’s why we’ve been really patient in Columbus. And this project — and the others we’re looking at — just fit for us and are great opportunities that are right under our nose.

CU: Anything else you’d like to add about the North Market project?

I think that it’s rare that you can work on a project that has a built-in community and, really, a philanthropic purpose. This is one of those special opportunities — for the community, the city, for us, for the North Market — we want to be enhancing it for generations to come.

I know there are lots of opinions out there, and I’d just say that we are going to work really hard to make this project as great as we can and make sure that we’re thinking about every decision that gets made to preserve the authenticity and all the things that are great about the North Market and Columbus. Change is hard, but we think we’re the right stewards for this project — to achieve that balance [of] doing something big in our backyard while also thinking small about every individual experience people have walking through the North Market, and making sure that that pride and passion for the market never changes.

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