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November 20, 2019 News » Cover Story

How a historic building, a creative, a landowner and a big idea could change the face of Pueblo 

CLEANSING WATERS

click to enlarge To learn more about Watertower Place, or to register for a tour starting in March 2020, visit pueblowatertowerplace.com. - GREGORY HOWELL
  • Gregory Howell
  • To learn more about Watertower Place, or to register for a tour starting in March 2020, visit pueblowatertowerplace.com.

The building at 303 S. Santa Fe Ave. in Pueblo is a behemoth. From the outside, the red brick-and-clay façade seems little more than a stately monolith from a bygone era.

But as with so many other things, it’s what’s inside that counts. Within the walls of the 250,000-square-foot, brick-concrete-and-cork building now known as Watertower Place, history is being made. 

The facility was built in 1916-17, in tribute to an entrepreneurial butcher and his vision to create the world’s safest, most modern and largest meat-rendering and -processing facility. More than a century later, the historic Nuckolls Alpha Beta building is on its way to becoming what Gregory Howell calls a “vertical urban village.” 

“You come here because it is a destination for ideas,” he says. 

Howell is the creative consultant spearheading the Watertower Place revitalization effort, but like the building whose renovation he is piloting, he is much more than meets the eye. He is also an artist, entrepreneur, educator, innovator and advocate for Pueblo’s burgeoning cultural renaissance. He aims to consolidate the growing entrepreneurial and creative talents in the community into one environmentally friendly and inclusive community for dining, shopping, doing business and more — smack dab in the heart of the city. 

For more than half of its life, the 112-year-old building was home to one of Pueblo’s largest employers, Nuckolls Packing Co. Built at a time when the nation was rocked by and responding to revelations of unsanitary and unsafe handling practices at America’s meat packing plants, the Nuckolls Packing Co. headquarters was designed to maximize humane productivity while reducing the risk of contamination and injury.

The meat-processing plant closed for good in the early 1980s, and the building sat, with sporadic purposes and tenants, for more than three decades until 2015. That’s when a Pueblo-raised railroad technology consultant-turned-entrepreneur named Ryan McWilliams picked it up for $451,000, Pueblo County assessor records show. 

click to enlarge Gregory Howell sees more than concrete and history when he looks at Watertower Place. - REGAN FOSTER
  • Regan Foster
  • Gregory Howell sees more than concrete and history when he looks at Watertower Place.

McWilliams, a quiet man who generally avoids the limelight and who calls the purchase price of his building “100 percent, totally irrelevant,” planned on repurposing the campus to provide logistical, mechanical and technical services for the railroad industry around which he built a 20-plus-year career. 

The community, he says, had a different plan. 

Enter Gregory Howell, who was in the process of relocating his nonprofit art gallery, Kadoya Gallery, and approached McWilliams about using space in the former packing plant. The rail-centric plan got derailed. 

“We said, ‘Yeah, we could talk about bringing in an art gallery,’” McWilliams says. But then, “so many wonderful people have knocked on our door and we haven’t really gone out to anyone, so maybe there’s a better use. Maybe there’s a higher use for this location.” 

When fully renovated, the facility will serve as a home to educators, entrepreneurs, nonprofits, health care and wellness providers, artists, restaurateurs, makers and other leaders of the city’s creative community. Among the projects currently in the work are microapartments, condominiums, terrace-top eateries, massive meeting rooms, a co-working space for nonprofits, art studios, roof-top gardens, an Olympic-sized pool, a nearly seven-story climbing wall, an organic farmers market and a multi-hive rooftop apiary.

Colorado State University-Pueblo has established office space in the building, and at least one large real estate agency plans to move in around the turn of the year, Howell says. Watertower Place is also partnering with Pueblo health and wellness entrepreneur Rachel Kutskill to bring a Wholistic Health Alliance clinic to the facility, which could include as many as 40 providers, Howell says. 

In a nod to owner McWilliams’ career, the existing rail yard on the campus is scheduled to house a maintenance and repair facility for the hundreds of thousands of cars that pass through the Steel City each year.

“You can start to see how the village is evolving,” Howell says, before riffing on the holistic approach to the redevelopment. “We love the word ‘W.H.O.L.E.’” 

The goal, both Howell and McWilliams say, is to turn the one-time slaughterhouse — an icon of the city’s industrial history — into a self-contained community that showcases the next generation of leaders. McWilliams anticipates the $30 million project to be built out over the next three to four years. 

“We started over and said, ‘We’re going to do a project that is committed to quality of life,’” McWilliams says. “Watertower Place is the launch pad and the engine of the start of all of this. … Yeah, it’s a real estate development and yeah, it’s really big and yeah, it has all of these components that we’re pulling together. 

“We’re trying to be the glue in the community and really trying to increase the knowledge [that] southern Colorado has the wherewithal to do this.” 

When Shelly Dunham moved to Pueblo in 2017, she was struck by the massive, decommissioned packing plant as soon as she spotted it.

“I thought ‘I have got to get into that building,’” Dunham says with a laugh. 

A former community development director in Freeport, Illinois, and community development specialist in Rockford, Illinois, Dunham had long worked on redevelopment projects within historic walls. She was working at the time on a grant for Pueblo Community College’s Southern Colorado Innovation Link — a collaboration of more than 20 organizations that help entrepreneurs with all aspects of business development, according to a press release from the college. 

It made sense, Dunham says, to fold Watertower Place into that coalition. 

“[Howell] gave me a tour of the building and I was so excited because I’ve been involved in other adaptive reuse projects and I know how wonderful they can be for a community,” says Dunham, now the executive director of the Southern Colorado Economic Development District. “Ryan McWilliams and Gregory [Howell] and a number of other people with whom we are working have found lots of ways to collaborate.” 

click to enlarge A variety of tennants have already shown interest in taking up space in the mixed-use location. - REGAN FOSTER
  • Regan Foster
  • A variety of tennants have already shown interest in taking up space in the mixed-use location.

From an economic development perspective, she says, such reuse projects stand “as a tangible example of possibility of what can be done here.” 

“It inspires and serves as a model for other people to do new things,” Dunham says. “It is gathering a critical mass of talent and creativity that other people will want to be involved in.” 

In other words, talent begets talent.

“Pueblo wants to attract young people and retain young people,” she says, adding having something like Watertower Place is going to be an important part of that.

Part of the challenge for the Steel City has been perception from outside its own boundaries. For years, Pueblo has been overlooked or disregarded by larger communities on the Front Range, often only garnering superficial state or national media attention related to crime, educational woes, public health issues or its embrace of the marijuana industry. 

“That absolutely is not what Pueblo is,” Dunham says. “People come here and they see things. We had the [inaugural] Food and Ag Summit [at Watertower Place] and there were people who came from Denver who were like, ‘I had no idea Pueblo was like this.’ They never realized there are so many positive, good things happening.

“Watertower Place is one of those catalytic developments that is helping move us forward, for sure. When you have something like that … it really kind of injects the spirit of optimism and possibility into the city.” 

Case in point: On Wednesday, Oct. 9, the digital DIY giant Etsy officially named Pueblo one of five communities to join its Maker Cities Class of 2019.

The recognition comes with a $40,000 grant for Watertower Place to pursue its innovator and entrepreneurial programming — including training makers to turn their endeavors into viable businesses; raising the profiles and visibility of makers in the community; identifying and elevating creatives whose economic circumstances may preclude them from following their art full time; and working with talented artists, makers and creatives who are differently abled, Dunham says — but it also means an incalculable boost to the community’s image, Howell adds. 

“It’s huge,” he says. 

And clearly, so is the vision. But will it come to fruition? 

If the numbers are any indication, no problem. 

“We have three possible tenants for every square foot” of floor space, McWilliams says. “It’s more or less, three-times-over booked out.” 

Which means the management has the luxury of being selective about their tenants. Part of a rental contract, Howell says, is to explain what makes a would-be occupant a benefit not just to the vertical urban village, but to the city of Pueblo as a whole. 

“How do we improve our community? How do we improve our location and this facility? How do we reach out to help?” McWilliams says. “Anyone who’s coming in right now is aware that part of our lease is that you have something that adds to the community. If you’re a really big company and can handle a day a month of talking to the education system with us … letting people come in and tour, whatever the case may be, we’re writing that into your lease.” 

He grows pensive. 

“I think I’ve learned an amazing amount about what is really important here, to really get everyone on board,” McWilliams concludes. “It’s the building that’s doing it, though. It’s not me.” 

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