By Regan Foster
Editor’s note: This is an extended version of the story that appeared in the Oct. 18 print edition.
The building at 303 S. Santa Fe Ave. 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 is both history made and history being rewritten.
The facility was built in 1916-17, in a 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 said.
Howell is the creative consultant spearheading the Watertower Place revitalization effort, but like the building whose renovation he is piloting, he is much more. He is also an artist, entrepreneur, educator, innovator and advocate for Pueblo’s burgeoning cultural renaissance. His aim is to consolidate the growing entrepreneurial, artistic, innovative and creative talents in the community into one environmentally friendly and inclusive professional, lifestyle, shopping and dining community — smack dab in the heart of the city.
Deep past, vibrant future
For more than half of its life, the building was home to one of Pueblo’s largest employers. 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.
After several iterations, the meat-processing plant closed for good in the early 1980s, and the building sat, with shifting 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.
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 said, had a different plan.
Enter Howell. He was in the process of relocating his nonprofit art gallery, Kadoya Gallery, and he 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 said. 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 works are micro-apartments, condominiums, terrace-top eateries, massive meeting rooms, a coworking 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 within the building and Pueblo Community College has incorporated Watertower Place into its groundbreaking Southern Colorado Innovation Link grant. At least one large real estate agency plans to move in around the turn of the year, Howell said, and hope is high that local health and wellness entrepreneur Rachel Kutskill will bring a Wholistic Health Alliance clinic to the facility, which could include as many as 40 providers.
In a nod to owner McWilliams’ career, the existing railyard 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 said, before riffing on the holistic approach to the redevelopment. “We love the word ‘W.H.O.L.E.’”
The goal, both Howell and McWilliams said, is to turn the one-time slaughterhouse — an icon of the city’s industrial history — into a self-contained community that showcases the region’s next generation of cultural, business and creative 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 said. “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.”
Catalyst for change
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 said.
A former community development director in Freeport, Ill., and community development specialist in Rockford, Ill., Dunham had experience with 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 said, 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,” said 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.”
From an economic development perspective, she said, 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 said. “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 said. “Having something like Watertower Place is going to be an important part” of that.
Part of the challenge for the Steel City has been its perception outside of its own physical boundaries. For years, Pueblo has been overlooked or disregarded by larger communities on the Front Range, often only garnering superficial state- or nationwide 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 said. “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.”
Remaking 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 the Southern Colorado Economic Development District 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 prevent them from following their art full time; and working with talented artists, makers and creatives who are differently abled, Dunham said. But, Howell points out, it also means an incalculable boost to the community’s image.
“It’s huge,” he said.
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 said. “It’s more or less three times … booked out.”
Which means the management has the luxury of being selective about their tenants. Part of the rental application, Howell said, requires the would-be occupant to explain how they would be 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 said. “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 grew pensive.
“I think I’ve learned an amazing amount about what is really important here, to really get everyone on board,” McWilliams said. “It’s the building that’s doing it, though. It’s not me.”
Watertower Place awash in Pueblo history
The Nuckolls Packing Co. and the 250,000-square-foot tribute to its cutting-edge founder, traces its roots to the late 1880s and Emmet Nuckolls, who started the company as a butcher shop in Leadville.
Orphaned at the age of 6, Nuckolls grew up riding horses and working with cattle, sheep and pigs, Watertower Place Creative Consultant and Pueblo historian Gregory Howell said, so their humane treatment was important to him.
Nuckolls had a dream of creating “the world’s largest and most-modern meat packing and cold storage facility,” and by 1891, Nuckolls established the Nuckolls Packing Co. at the Pueblo Union Stockyards. But an accident cut short his life before he was able to fully realize his vision, Howell said.
A dream realized
Following his father’s death, Emmet Nuckoll’s son, George Harvey (G.H.) Nuckolls, took up the vision. He arranged for the plant to take shape on six acres of land a half-mile west of the Union Stockyards, in a micro-neighborhood known as The Grove. (The Grove is generally bounded by the Arkansas River and Santa Fe Avenue and is characterized by historic buildings, single-family homes, old-growth trees and the confluence of the Arkansas and Fountain Creek.)
For that, G.H. Nuckolls tapped the talents of Norwegian-born architect Hans Peter Henschien. In 1915, at a critical time for sanitation and safety in the meat-packing industry (this was less than a decade after Upton Sinclair published shockingly accurate, albeit fictional, revelations of diseased, rotting meat and unsanitary and unsafe working conditions of meat-packing facilities in his pivotal novel, “The Jungle”) Henschien wrote what Howell dubbed the industry’s “Bible”: “Packing House and Cold Storage Construction: A General Reference Work on the Planning, Construction and Equipment of Modern American Meat Packing Plants.”
“He was a genius,” Howell said of Henschien.
Henschien rose to fame for designing multistory plants that utilized gravity to streamline work processes and create maximum output. He dubbed the concept the “rational factory,” and tested his vision when building the Nuckolls’ plant.
Construction began in March 1916, according to an application for a historic landmark designation filed with the City of Pueblo. The process took one year and cost $300,000. Just four years later, the Arkansas River hit historic flood levels and swept away much of the city’s central district.
The Nuckolls plant fronted the river at the time; however, because the building was constructed with a concrete frame and no load-bearing walls, it sustained almost no damage, property owner Ryan McWilliams said.
“The front half of the [administrative offices] fell off because the water tower got knocked over and into it,” McWilliams said. “It was the first building back up after the Flood of 1921 that took out most of downtown, and that hardly touched the building itself.”
The Nuckolls family immediately set to work repairing the damage, spending fewer than 90 days to resurrect the office. Today the beautifully renovated space dubbed the Alpha-Beta Room bears a curious jagged line where the brick doesn’t quite match, the only visible scar from the flood. According to the historic designation petition, the G.H. Nuckolls and family did not stop with the rebuild, instead partnering with the Red Cross and Elks Pueblo Lodge to set up offices in the Grove neighborhood and provide flood recovery.
By 1922, the company reached a capital stock of $1 million. Another expansion in 1926 led to the construction of a five-story icehouse adjacent to the processing plant. Over the next 60 years of its history, the facility would employ as many as 500 men and women, which, Howell said, made it one of Pueblo’s top two employers.
G.H. Nuckolls died in 1928, and it did not take long for the Nuckolls board of directors to tap the third generation of family members to run the company. Sisters Marion and Della Nuckolls, G.H.’s daughters, were named president and vice president/treasurer, respectively. They are widely regarded as two of the first U.S. women to assume top-management roles in a major food-production facility, according to the historic designation application.
Marion Nuckolls was also the vice president of the Southern Colorado Investment Co. and is credited with creating and sponsoring an employee salary savings plan, employee life insurance plan and credit union. Her older sister, Della Nuckolls, left a career as a professional performer in New York City to run the family business. She resurrected and saved the plant after it was shuttered in 1942 due to World War II price controls and tin rationing.
The historic designation application includes a letter to Della from Jay C. Hormel reflecting the meat magnate whose company rode out the war by creating and processing Spam offered Nuckolls assistance in navigating the rough waters of a challenging economy. His advice: Scrap beef until after the war, focus on lamb and pork, and hold on.
“It would appear that there is not much opportunity to show profits during the wartime, but there would appear to be a profit opportunity thereafter,” Hormel wrote. “It would seem if the local business is to be available later, it should be cultivated now, even though barely on a break-even basis.”
“Three generations, 60 years, this was the safest meat-packing plant to work at in North America,” Howell said.
The later years
In 1946, the Nuckolls family would quietly bow out of the meat-processing industry, selling the plant to American Stores (later Acme Markets) of Philadelphia. In 1970, it passed into the hands of Alpha Beta Acme — a name that still evokes strong reactions from many in Pueblo — which operated the facility until a worker’s strike in December 1981 again shut down production.
Pueblo Beef Products took up management, but meat production at the site came to an end for good when that company closed its doors in 1983.
The building fell into foreclosure and was repossessed by a bank, which then rented out space for a handful of years. That is until December 1989, when Frank Glenn, the owner of Santa Fe Warehouse & Storage, acquired it for cold storage and public warehouse space.
Thereafter came a plan to turn it into high-end condominiums and retail stores, The Pueblo Chieftain reported in 2012, and yet another. Douglas R. Hess bought the 6-acre lot on Dec. 21, 2012, according to Pueblo County assessor records, but nine days later a fire gutted portions of the building and again, it sat abandoned.
McWilliams, a Pueblo native who spent time overseas on the tech side of the railroad industry, bough the property in 2015 with the intention of making it a hub for rail technology and logistics companies. But the community, he said, had a different idea, and that drove its resurrection.
“I was drawn to two things, I guess: The solid structure and the integrity and the history of the building, and I just said, ‘We can do something with this,’” McWilliams said. “We can take Southern Colorado’s biggest eyesore and show Southern Colorado has the wherewithal to turn it into Colorado’s biggest gem.”