Eastern Market entrepreneur Sanford Nelson insists he’s not villain



Show thumbnails

Show subtitles

Detroit – Sanford Nelson has a dog that he is very fond of. That helps?

The chile is a mixture of Australian shepherds one year old, sandy hair and adorable. She and the new candidate for the most unpleasant man in Detroit like to take walks together Oriental market.

Nelson and Chili will pass through the Russell Street Deli, where the most visible young tenant of the land baron has publicly called him a bully and a sneak. He passes 16 more buildings than he and his father have already bought and some others could still. Pass the empty facades where the companies have left or are leaving and the lofts where the rents increased.

"The people out there are saying that I want to demolish everything and build shopping centers," says Nelson, 30, a few days after an online columnist asked him to stop being so stupid. Not so, he insists: "I want to build in Eastern Market and support what is here."

Besides, he always cleans Chili's mess. Does that make him less a villain?

The truth is that if Nelson and his father, Linden, had never done anything in Eastern Market in addition to buying vegetables, it would still be changing.

The butcher who supposedly ceased to exist, Adams Meats, closed six months before he took over his building, and the owner of the defunct Mootown Ice Cream & Dessert Shoppe says he did her a big favor when he let her out of her contract lease.

One of the properties that it plans to renovate has been so carelessly studied over the decades that the smoke detectors were fake.

Oh, and he says he has already flatly rejected offers from national restaurant chains.

That is fear: a rich son born and a father who spends freely from Bloomfield Hills will invite Starbucks and P.F. Chang has become a haven for entrepreneurs, artists and hard-working companies that sell or process food.

Other developers have also bought in the market, including the former director of Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, George Jackson, and ASH NYC, the New York group that created the Mermaid hotel. But the Nelsons control enough real estate to potentially control the composition of one of Detroit's most beloved destinations: Sanford without a track record and Linden with a sometimes problematic one.

Sanford lost the public relations war with Russell Street Deli before he knew he was in it. The problem was who would pay a $ 50,000 floor repair. The owner of Deli, Ben Hall, announced that he would close the doors on September 28 and that the owner was in the soup.

"I said, 'We have a tremendous amount of goodwill, we are willing to give it to you because you already have a problem,'" says Hall. "He does not know how to have an effective business relationship."

Nelson suggests that Hall, who also owns a growing packaged food company, wanted an excuse to leave. More publicly, he blamed the Hall leaky team for the problem.

Ultimately, Nelson seemed like a guy who spent $ 30 million on buildings and envied about $ 50,000.

"Ben Hall is an angel sent by God," says Nelson, "and I am the demon incarnate."

But Antiques of the oriental market it will be closed almost at the same time as the store, and one of the vendors there greeted Nelson as a favorite nephew last week. Nelson says he caught a group of actors who lived in a theatrical space that was not meant for it, and allowed them to stay without paying the rent until they found a place to land but stopped paying for public services. He says that his FIRM Real Estate is backed by a minority in more than 50 percent.

"I take responsibility for not communicating properly in some cases," says Nelson, as he walks through the market in a light rain. That is a kind of apology, or at least an acknowledgment that people want more than vague guarantees. When new faces begin to haggle checks..

"Have I made mistakes? Absolutely," he says later with a Diet Coke at Vivio's, in a building that is not his property. That's more an apology and an acknowledgment that maybe he could have avoided some of the hostility that put him in memes and in a banner and in the Detroit column deadline which uses the colloquial term for a part of the male body.

The column at least found it "funny". The most recent meme, where he stands proudly in front of the awnings of Pizza Hut, Baskin-Robbins, Panera and Subway, can fire him. The banner in the water tower of Mercado del Este that said "Something is rotten in Nelonville" wrote badly to Linden.

Some of the other blows landed. "I'm a human being," he says. "The things that are said about me are hurtful."

But then it's time to go back to business.

"I can not occupy capacity in my brain speculating why people feel the way they do," he says. "I have work to do."

Which is what some people distrust. If you are not resentful of what you have done, it is because of what you could do.


Via Interstate 75 in Central Market Gratiot, Tom Bedway has been working on The meats of Ronnie since 1967.

Ronnie was his father. The Bedways began with 24 feet of counter space, were maintained through two devastating fires that closed the market and continued to expand. Six years ago, Tom Bedway bought the building.

He knew that the owner was thinking about retiring, and "I did not want someone who did not share the vision I had to break," says Bedway. "I did not want someone to come and kick the kids out of here."

If that sounds like a stance against change, or the Nelsons, it's none. Bedway just needs a short walk down memory lane to remember when the sheds that house the Saturday farmers' markets were not covered and were not particularly clean. Sometimes, the change is good.

But so is touch.

"They are buying people who are ready to move on," says Bedway, "but they have become a bit aggressive, I know they have invested a lot of money, but the owner of a property is just as good." like its tenants. "

Dan Carmody, president of Eastern Market Corp., a nonprofit, says the 128-year-old market has been strangely blessed by Detroit's stagnant commercial real estate scene, but those days are history.

Throughout half a century, similar districts in New York, Washington, DC and Chicago were gradually rushed and redirected.

Here, says Carmody, from Gratiot to Mack and I-75 to St. Aubin, there was minimal turnover. In some cases, there was also minimal maintenance, a problem when new owners have to pay for repairs and upgrades.

The incomes go up. Tenants move during construction. The new owners draw new purposes or new buildings.

The Nelsons began investing in 2017. Two years before that, Carmody says, "you could see how the tide changes."

"Our strategy has to do with what we can do to maintain our soul," he says. "We need to be a place that still has food, a place where everyone is welcome, regardless of their income, and a place where people start or grow their small independent business."

A handful of empty buildings are located in the middle of 130 acres of the eastern market. A few will be built, others demolished.

A 100-acre expansion to the north and northeast will house wholesalers and processors, some new to the area and others relocated from the original market because recent food safety regulations make their old homes inadequate.

For 10 or 15 years, says Carmody, some of the plants that were left empty will become something else.

He worries about what they will be. Conversely, he worries about "a narrative that sometimes says that everything will lose its character".

Time, and the developers, will say it.

Turning element

Sanford Nelson is moving, heading northwest on Market Street.

It has been described by several traders as a man in blue jeans. Today, jeans are gray, just like your sweater. His jacket, worn, is dark gray. The building to which it points is brown.

He wants a butcher shop on the street, he says. Higher up will be the art studios at a price of $ 200 per month.

"People ask how we're going to do it," he says. "We're just going to do it, we have the portfolio to make this happen."

Of course, there is a difference between an artistic community that grows organically and one that is preserved as a museum exhibit in special spaces. But there is also a difference between studies and non-studies, and between Jose's Tacos and Taco Bell.

Jose's Tacos is a 20-seat downtown restaurant run by Mexican immigrants José and Leticia Orozco and their three adult children.

Nelson, who has lived near Grand Circus Park for five years, is a regular customer.

That's important, says Nelson. He lives in the city and votes there and pays Detroit insurance rates on the 2017 Black Chevy Tahoe that largely serves as his office.

The important thing for the Orozcos is that they were invited to open a second location in the Market building that housed a hydroponic gardening store. Two other restaurants will share the space, he says; Although it does not offer details, there are murmurs about fish and chips for one and hot dogs for the other.

"Why would I deal with Chipotle," he asks, "when I can deal with the Orozco family? It's exciting for us to help such a family realize their dream."

There is a turning element in that, of course, but also a very strong element of good tacos. And it definitely helped the Gavrill Fermanis family achieve what they wanted, which was to hang up their collective apron.

The Farmers restaurant, owned by Fermanis, and three adjacent buildings, are quoted at $ 6.5 million. Nelson finalized his purchase for a price he did not specify on March 5, on a Tuesday, and on Wednesday morning he stuck a handwritten sign in the diner's window:

"Thanks to Detroit and Eastern Market for the wonderful years of business, we've retired! May God bless you all!"

Nelson regretted seeing them go. He liked his sausage.

Business pegs, fences

The empire of the oriental market of the Nelsons rises on a base of keychains.

Linden Nelson owned an advertising specialty company in the 1980s when he sold Ford with the concept of removable valet key chains.

The idea took off, and so did his business. He made promotional items for the likes of AT & T and Harley-Davidson, and made money with the cargo of the van, enough for his 23,000-square-foot lakefront house in Bloomfield Hills to catch fire in July 2009, destroying several works of art. art and exotic objects. In the cars, Crain's Detroit Business reported that the eventual liquidation of the insurance was $ 21 million. The researchers never identified a cause for the fire.

Since then, there have been peaks as well as valleys, some of them in the Rocky Mountains.

Nelson bought high profile properties in Aspen, Colorado, and lost several for foreclosure. He was arrested for disorderly conduct there after parking in a fire lane outside a grocery store and his car was mistreated.

It was the driving force behind a gigantic film studio in Pontiac that failed when Gov. Rick Snyder eliminated tax incentives for filmmakers. While he and his principal partner, Al Taubman, had little cash in the deal, the state employee pension funds ended up on the hook for a municipal bond of $ 18 million.

"He's a powerful personality who will push everything he's doing with all his vigor," says Ken Droz, former communications manager of the Michigan Film Bureau.

If "some might call him a braggart," says Droz, "I'd just say he's really focused on the target in question."

The objective today is the real estate sector, in particular, but not exclusively, in Eastern Market.

As Sanford explains his agreement, he is president of FIRM and his father is an investor. Also on the list of investors, along with others without names: Larry Mongo of Speakeasy from Cafe d '# Mongo, Don Foss of Acceptance of credits and developer Marvin Beatty.

The president identifies opportunities and brings them to investors. Properties are pursued or overlooked.

Sanford is the public face, the one with the cigar inside.


It is an unfortunate photo that has been taken from Twitter.

Sanford vacationed in Cuba last spring. He bought a straw hat from a vendor on the beach, put on sunglasses on his wide face, put a large unlit cigar in his mouth and took a selfie. The cigar sticks out straight like the barrel of a tank, and for anyone who wants to think he's a dilettante presumed on a spending spree, it's presented as a visual test.

Even Hall, his Russell Street Deli adversary, feels bad about that. "I regret that there is that photo," he says.

Nelson shrugs. He likes fedoras. He likes cigars, in moderation. He also likes to cook and ride a bicycle, and collects ashtrays and matches.

"He has a creative touch," says his friend Jeremy Sasson, 35, founder of the group of restaurants that has Townhouse and Prime & Proper.

Nelson enjoys being around people, says Sasson, but he's also "the guy I'll find in the most random restaurant in the most random place by himself. Meat Market Dearborn, on the back in one of the four tables ".

For the record, he did not grow up wanting to be a real estate developer. He was a serial entrepreneur, he took care of the yo-yos, the pogs or any other important thing in the school playground, but thanks to "Rocky", he wanted to be a boxer. The backup plan was the Formula One driver.

Later, he and two other students at the University of Michigan appeared in "Shark Tank" launching a phone application called Magical Moments that accelerated the photos in coffee mugs and T-shirts. They wanted an ambitious $ 500,000 for 15 percent of the company. The sharks declined, and the application's website is inactive.

The Nelsons helped produce a horror film, "Eloise," released in early 2017; its execution was limited, and the opinions They were not friendly

Now they are in Eastern Market, where Linden went to a charcuterie with his father and Rocky Peanut Co. and R. Hirt with his kids.

The retail end of R. Hirt is now called DeVries & Co. Manager Megan Lewis, 36, owned the Mootown ice cream parlor, and says Nelson has been "very nice to me, beyond."

He had three years of lease and was personally guaranteed, "and I let her out of it," says Nelson. "Find me another owner in the city who would do that."

It wanders again, pointing out certain buildings with a future and others with an expiration date. He who has an exuberant mural on his face is too damaged to keep it, but promises "an interesting turn in historical preservation" and a creative way to rescue the work of art.

Bert's warehouse will move and be reduced; the Nelsons own the entire 3.3-acre block, and a labyrinthine entertainment complex across from Russell Street does not fit the master plan.

"I think it's great," says Bert Dearing, 75. "They have a vision."

As your vision develops, he says, there will be glass in a market built on brick. If all the projects that all the developers have talked about happen, there will be 1,600 housing units, more than 10 times what is on the site now.

The oriental market will look different. Feeling different It smells different

Give it time, says Nelson. It has buildings more than a century old. Go back to 2119 and see how your new ones fit with those.

Let's see if he was smart, or even a savior. Or an imbecile.


Twitter: @nealrubin_dn

Read or share this story: https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/detroit-city/2019/05/13/eastern-market-entrepreneur-sanford-nelson/3654274002/