Back in 2011, a month before the planned opening of an urgent care center in their first downtown Columbia investment property, Don and Becky Murphy hit a roadblock.
Actually, at the time, it seemed more like a dead end.
After spending $1 million to buy and renovate the former Columbia National Bank property at 369 Locust St., their tenant backed out.
Without an urgent care provider in a building outfitted for an urgent care practice, there was suddenly an urgent need for a backup plan.
“It’s just, how do you solve this problem? Who else could use space like this?” Don Murphy recalls thinking.
Eventually, the equipment was sold and a new health care tenant was found for the building that’s now the home of York-based Family First Health.
Despite that inauspicious beginning, the Murphys have gone on to assemble an impressive portfolio of investment properties in Columbia, including the Hinkle’s building they bought last year just before the longtime restaurant was going to close.
And now they have their sights set on developing a new hotel in a former potato chip factory near the Susquehanna River in the borough.
“We’re doing it because the opportunities are here, and we’ve been able to seize on them and help create what’s happening, ” Don Murphy said. “We see the town definitely on the rise and we hope we’re a big part of that, and we want to be part of that.”
A lifelong ambition
Through their Cimarron Investments, the Murphys now own 10 properties in downtown Columbia, including 301 Locust St., where a new cafe opened last month.
One property they had bought at 401 Locust St. and outfitted for CHI St. Joseph Health has since been sold to that health service ministry, which has its owns plans to expand the building.
“We’re happy to see that passing of the torch on to somebody like that that has the wherewithal to do something great there,” Don Murphy said.
For the Murphys, who both grew up in Columbia, doing something great for their hometown is the driving force behind their investments that focus on prominent, historic buildings the renovate with care.
“We love nostalgia, and we’re committed to preserving the historical integrity of the buildings,” Don Murphy said. “It’s a challenge, and that’s what we like. If it wasn’t a challenge, it wouldn’t be that fun.”
Murphy, who operated a wholesale lawn and garden business for 20 years out of a Columbia warehouse, said he was always interested in getting involved in real estate.
“I’ve been priming myself my whole life for this,” said Don Murphy, age 45, who now works on redevelopment projects full time. “I’ve always had an interest in the back of my mind and that was the one opportunity that presented itself, and it started off a chain of events to where we’re sitting now.”
The September 2017 sale of the lawn and garden business, DMC Products, helped bankroll Cimarron Investments, though it relies on traditional bank loans for most of its funding.
The Murphys say their niche is to find tenants that would be a good fit for the downtown, then help them get started by redoing properties and assisting with marketing.
Besides Hinkle’s and the recently opened Cafe 301, their properties include a health center, brewpub-in-the-making, antiques warehouse and a community nonprofit.
And then there’s the hotel.
“That’s a huge project compared to these other projects,” Don Murphy said.
Rooms with a view
In April, the Murphys unveiled plans for the 60-room Clarion Hotel at The Chip Factory at 12 N. Second St., a a circa-1876 building that was once the potato chip division of Becker Pretzel Bakeries.
“We’re trying to do the right thing with economic development for the downtown. So we’re trying to put these pieces in place as these opportunities came up, and the hotel was the next piece,” he said.
The Murphys say they plan to begin work on the hotel sometime next year, as they have involved more people in its planning and design.
“The team is a lot bigger now,” said Becky Murphy, who has a full-time telecommunications job while helping with various redevelopment projects.
“We’re going to build it. It’s going to happen. It’s just how, and how the final product will look when it’s done,” Don Murphy said.
A feasibility study as well as seeing the activity at Hinkle’s restaurant over the last year confirmed to the Murphys that a hotel was needed — and would be viable — in Columbia.
“That audience is there, and we have to capture it,” Don Murphy said. “We have the riverfront, we have the antiques, we have Turkey Hill (Experience), we have the clock museum and we have our historic downtown.”
While the Murphys are bullish on the opportunities in Columbia because of its location next to the river and a major highway, he says there’s still some skepticism, even among some locals, about Columbia’s potential.
“Change is necessary, and change is happening,” Don Murphy said, adding: “You really have to prove to a lot of people that it’s happening.”
“And I think us doing a lot of this has started to spur change,” Becky Murphy said.