by Robert Lopez

Downtown, Andy Zimmerman states, has some “cool bones.”

“There’s a lot of neat history here,” he says . “A lot of beautiful buildings. And I think I’m a little bit addicted to old buildings and opportunities and turning something into treasure.”

Zimmerman has many titles – board member of Downtown Greensboro, Inc., co-founder of HQ Greensboro, guest lecturer at UNCG’s Bryan School of Business and Economics, one of the city’s more innovative players in the development game.

He has been at the helm of multiple watersport companies. He’s a kayaker, climber, skier and stand-up boarder.

And in his latest endeavor, he is transforming what was once a downtown nightclub into a new home for The Forge, of which he is also a board member.

“He always has a lot of energy and excitement for just doing something,” business partner Ken Causey said. “Whether it’s going on a bike ride or a hike or designing some new product. He’s willing to jump in and get his hands dirty. It doesn’t matter. Whatever needs doing, Andy wants to do. He’s never going to think twice about it.”

In a very creative space

Zimmerman begins his workday by checking his emails at HQ Greensboro – the “shared workspace” which opened over the summer and leases suites and offices to start-ups. For as little as $125 a month, budding entrepreneurs can obtain access to the space – along with wifi, scanning, printing and coffee and craft beer.

The Lewis Street building, constructed in 1898, once housed a wagon company and stables. Zimmerman began renovating it in September 2014. The scent of fresh paint and sawdust still linger.

The building is currently about 80 percent leased out.

“You get to be in a very creative space, have access to other creative people, technology, conference rooms,” he said. “We’ve really turned it into a community space.”

Zimmerman, 59, maintains a corner cubicle with a sliding glass door at HQ. As he walks through the building, people stop him to mention building materials or color schemes. He grabs a bottle of water from a cooler, and tells the receptionist that if anyone is looking for him, he’ll be down the street. But he doesn’t get very far outside before other people see him and start chatting him up.

Sporting a tuft of gray hair and thickrimmed glasses, he bears a passing resemblance to comedian Fred Armisen and is more likely to be seen in a faded T-shirt than a suit jacket.

Zimmerman contends he has three employees.

“Me, myself and I,” he says. “I’ve never been in an argument. I’m always right. I’ve been mistaken a few times, but never wrong.”

He doesn’t have a spouse, but he mentions that he is married to his work and his adventure. Again, not much discord in those relationships.

Those who’ve worked with him or seen him in action describe him as energetic but affable.

“He kind of rolls with things, he’s easy to work with, not high pressure,” Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan said. “He’s really kind of laid back.”

You want something, you earn it

Zimmerman, a New Jersey native, said people often ask where he went to school.

“And my answer is I didn’t,” he said.

“I left high school just after I turned 17. So I never graduated. My mom gave me some money for my GED and I skipped that class as well.”

On the day he decided to drop out, he went to work for his father, who had a business importing furniture from Italy and Spain.

“I found myself right at home working there,” he said. “It just suited me well…My father taught me if you want something, you earn it.”

Around that time, his father also began doing some work with furniture manufacturers in the Tar Heel State and “quickly realized that the best opportunity for growth and success of his business was to move it down here to North Carolina.”

“He asked me to move first and work in the factory down here and I did so,” he said. “And so I moved to Thomasville first, lived in a trailer sharing it with some other factory workers.”

He found the adjustment difficult and a year later returned to New Jersey.

“But after a year back in New Jersey, I realized I was moving nowhere fast,” he said. “Dad asked me to come back down and give it another chance, and move to Greensboro where he thought I’d have a better opportunity for a social life than a trailer living in Thomasville.”

He wound up loving the Gate City, and continued working for his father’s local operations through the late 1970s and early 1980s.

One morning after a night of partying a friend asked if he wanted to go climbing. What ensued was a lifelong love for outdoor adventure.

Among the hobbies he took up was kayaking, and soon he and a friend were making their own watercraft in his father’s factory.

“Friends would see us in our custommade boats, and say ‘Can you make me one?,'” Zimmerman said. “And that kind of precipitated us to say, ‘Yeah,

maybe we can make a go at it.'” He and his friend John Sheppard founded Wilderness Systems in 1986, producing vacuum bagged epoxy and Kevlar craft – “handmade, cutting edge kind of stuff,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman sold his interest in the company in 1998, but remained at the helm until 2001. By that point, the company had 240 employees and was producing about 60,000 kayaks a year, he said.

He stayed on the board of the company, by then known as Confluence Watersports, until 2005, when it announced that it was moving to South Carolina.

After his non-compete agreement ran out, he was approached by a company in Rhode Island called Heritage Kayaks, and struck a deal for the firm to move its operations to North Carolina.

“Because of the employees here and their knowledge and experience, I had no interest in going to Rhode Island,” Zimmerman said.

By the following year, the company had 175 employees. It continued growing until late 2007, when the Great Recession hit.

“A board member once told me some great insight as to what I’m good at,” Zimmerman said. “He said, ‘Andy you’re great at building, but you stink at maintaining, especially pulling back.’ During the recession we had to layoff a bunch of people who were like family. I’m not good at that process.”

Around that time a financial partner died in a kayaking accident.

“That was kind of the straw that broke my back to say I need to pass this along to others and get out on the other side of the recession,” Zimmerman said. “So I ended up selling my shares to the widow of my partner and some of the employees.”

Downtown development

Heritage wound up moving to Asheville, and Zimmerman sold its former manufacturing facility to GTCC.

He continues to work as a consultant for the outdoor industry. But about a week after selling the former Heritage facility he received a call from a friend.

“He told me, ‘I would love your opinion on a building that I’m looking at downtown,'” Zimmerman said.

“That building is where Gibb’s Hundred (Brewing Company) and The Forge is now.”

At the time, Zimmerman recalled, the parking lot at the end of the street, now surrounded by establishments such as Spice Cantina and The Worx, was unpaved and had weeds growing up. The building itself was “falling apart.”

“I looked at the building and told my buddy, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’,” Zimmerman said. “And he said, ‘I don’t know. It’s for sale and I’ve always been intrigued by real estate.’ And I said, ‘If you buy it, what are you going to do with it?’ And he said he was just looking, learning.”

Ultimately the friend decided he wasn’t in a position to buy the structure, but Zimmerman expressed interest.

Before joining Heritage, Zimmerman had begun dabbling in real estate and worked on a small development in Boone.

But he described looking at the Lewis Street building as “the beginning of the domino effect of happy collisions of building and development that I’ve done downtown.”

Zimmerman called a friend who did some graphic artwork to make a “For Lease” sign. Not long after, a representative from Gibb’s Hundred called and said he was looking for a space to put brewery downtown.

A friend of a friend then called up and said he was wanted to talk about “a makerspace.”

What resulted was The Forge. “It was a concept comparable to a gym,” Zimmerman said. “In a gym you pay a monthly membership fee to use the weights and cardio equipment. At The Forge, you pay a membership fee to use woodworking, metalworking, 3D printing, laser engraving equipment.”

The Forge had its grand opening in July 2014.

For $45 a month or $495 a year, members have access 24 hours a day, seven days a week to the 3,400 squarefoot workshop.

Zimmerman said The Forge now has 170 members and “more equipment than we have space for.”

Setting up new digs

Around the corner, a new home awaits.

Zimmerman plans to soon close on what was once The Flying Anvil nightclub. He will pay about $600,000 for it.

The building will allow The Forge to double its space, and also includes an additional 2,500 square feet for the UNCG art department.

The Flying Anvil shuttered in 2006.

VYBZ Nation, a reggae club, set up shop afterward, but has also since closed.

The former music venue sits at the end of Lewis Street, separated from South Eugene Street by a chain-link fence and strip of grass.

Presently, the interior looks like something that might once have been used as a set for a 1980s hair metal video.

The brick walls are painted purple and chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Dusty zebra print chairs are stacked all around, and torn up booths are in various states of disassembly. Speakers still hang over a stage.

In an office, a window is busted and ceiling tiles droop down.

The Greensboro City Council voted 6-2 in mid-November to give Zimmerman a $150,000 Urban Development Investment Grant to refurbish the building and the former Lotus Lounge, which he is also developing.

On a recent Wednesday, contractor David Norman was taking laser scans to create a 3D image of the inside. He showed Zimmerman a screen with a rendering.

“It shows the location of every beam, joist, light, every physical feature. It’s like an MRI,” Norman said. “It speeds up the design process.”

Zimmerman walks over to a door in the corner and pushes it open to discover a patch of grass littered with dead leaves and beer cans. With some covering it might make good storage space, he said.

He peers into the bathrooms, each of which have long rows of stalls. The Forge won’t need that many toilets.

“That’s valuable extra space,” Zimmerman said.

The coolers left over behind the bar, he might take to HQ.

Zimmerman said The Forge will move into the space Jan. 1.

A distillery will be moving into The Forge’s current space at 115 W. Lewis St.

City Councilwoman Sharon Hightower, on the edge of whose district the Forge will be moving to, said she feels positive about the potential impact the development is having on the area.

“Years ago it was kind of desolate over there (on Lewis Street),” she said. “There was nothing much going on back there, it was kind of blighted looking. But it’s come a long way.”

Zimmerman said he doesn’t know quite how much he’s invested in downtown, only that it’s in the millions.

“I feel very good about downtown,” he said. “I’ve got one, two, three, four, five buildings here. As a person of adventure, if I was concerned I wasn’t coming out on the other side of that adventure alive I wouldn’t do it. If I had concerns I wasn’t making good investments or good deals I wouldn’t do them.

“In a year Union Square Campus will be open. In a year-and-a-half, the (Steven Tanger) Center for the Performing Arts will be open. These are major game changers, cool opportunities to attract more people.”