For years, the building next to the Bonham Theater in Prairie du Sac has been unused. Ben Nelms, the building’s new owner, has plans to change that.

Originally designed as a bank and opened in 1922, the building contains three old safes, an expansive grand hall, printing equipment as old as the early 1900s, and more.

Most recently, the 580 Water Street building was used as a Masonic Lodge during the 1970s, but fell into inactivity. During that period, the Freemasons made alterations to the building’s original design by lowering the ceiling and putting up walls to create extra rooms. Nelms plans to reverse most of that and restore the original space for a new purpose: a community gathering place.

“When I open it as my office and kind of community area, it’s going to be called the Think Bank,” Nelms said. “I want it to be a place for ideas, a place for innovation (Sauk Prairie) is the most incredible place and people have no idea… Someday I could see this be a whole blossoming riverfront.”

Nelms, an inventor of medical devices, will use a portion of the building as his personal office, but much of the remaining space will be open to the public during events. He is open to finding speakers for the community and coordinating with local organizations. Nelms envisions lecture series and small concerts being some of the events the building will see.

The time between Nelms first hearing about the building’s availability and his making the purchase was only about a week.

“It listed for $225,000 and it got at least one looker (and) after the first showing, the price dropped to $180,000,” Nelms said. I got it for a little bit less than that, but I bought it as is. There’s $500,000-600,000 that has to go in here… For me it’s a huge risk (but) this is what I do, I take risks.”

Nth Degree Real Estate Co-owner and Vice President of the Board of Realtors Association of South Central Wisconsin Sommer Von Behren said commercial real estate in the area is usually not difficult to sell, but financing for the buyer can be another story.

“Knowing how much money needed to go into this scared me, because I’m not a rich guy,” Nelms said. “I’m using savings to do this.” Nelms prefers not to have to borrow money to complete the project.

“I think of it in three stages: there’s resuscitation first, replacing the major things; then I’ll renovate; then I want to rejuvenate it,” Nelms said. “For decades now, all the windows have been boarded up. It’s been a little bit of an eyesore.”

Nelms said he may film parts of the process and chronicle the transformation on YouTube. The drive to restore buildings to their former glory has stuck with Nelms since his days living in St. Louis, when he converted and old storefront into a condo.

First Weber Agent Donna Martens, who told Nelms about the building, is optimistic about the project.

“Taking an old building and restoring it to its former glory will be an asset to Sauk Prairie and downtown Prairie du Sac,” Martens said. “I expect many events to take place. Not for personal profit, but for the good that will come from it.”

For the River Arts Center on Water next door, the availability of Nelms’ space may be an answer to a recent problem: Some events are too large for the River Arts on Waters space, but too small to justify using the 500 seat River Arts Theater on 9th. Occasionally, events at the smaller venue have had to turn people away.

A new community gathering space could also ease the busy schedule for existing ones. River Arts Center Managing Director Nick Dingman said usage hours at the center were up 15% last year over the previous year.

Dingman said the River Arts Center saw a total of about 270 event days last year, even with art events often requiring two or three weeks of preparation time. “We’re averaging about 11 events per week,” Dingman said.

Nelms said he would ideally have a grand opening in about a year, and see the project reach final completion in two.

You can reach Jake Ekdahl on Twitter @JakeaEkdahl or contact him at 608-697-6353

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