Andy Zimmerman transforming downtown Greensboro

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GREENSBORO, N.C. -- He’s very quickly emerged as one of the “movers and shakers” in downtown Greensboro. He’s already spent millions buying buildings and transforming them into destination spots. And he’s by no means finished.

Andy Zimmerman dropped out of school when he was 17. “School was not for me,” he said. “I was not a traditional learner.” He then moved to High Point from New Jersey to work for his father’s furniture manufacturing company. A short while later, friends introduced him to rock climbing and watersports. He became addicted.

“I like getting out of my comfort zone. I like pushing the limits so I understand that I’ve got new limits,” he said. “You learn a lot through adventure. And I think a lot applies to the business world. No risk. No reward.”

His passion for watersports became so strong, he left his father’s company and started making watercraft. In the late 1980s, he helped start Wilderness Systems, now the world’s largest manufacturer of kayaks. A few years back, he sold his interest in that and other similar businesses and began his own development company with a focus on downtown Greensboro.

Today he owns several buildings along East Lewis Street that were part of a dilapidated alley. His most recent purchase was the old Lotus Club (the site of two deadly shootings). He plans to turn that into a possible retail/restaurant/music venue.

“The (Lotus) business model didn’t fit in downtown anymore,” he told me. “And I wanted to be able to affect what went in there in a positive way. So I’m going to be real picky about what goes in there. But it just feels good now that they’re shut down.”

Across the street are two other Zimmerman developments. HQ Greensboro is a for-profit collaborative office space. Companies can lease small offices in part of the building. The other part consists of an area where members, for a monthly fee, can have access to an open, quiet area with free beverages and Internet access to conduct business.

He describes it as “a kind of a country club or coffee shop for business people who want a place to hang and gather.”

Next door is the nonprofit, The Forge. It’s a makerspace Zimmerman helped establish. For a monthly fee, Forge members have access to expensive equipment ranging from saws to 3-D printers. Basically, it’s a place for people who have ideas and want to start their own businesses but don’t have the money or other resources to do so.

“We’ve started many businesses through The Forge,” Zimmerman says. “Patents have been created. People have been hired. It’s a very powerful concept.”

Soon, The Forge will move into another Zimmerman-owned building several hundred yards diagonally behind its current home. It used to house the Flying Anvil Club years ago. In The Forge’s current home will go downtown Greensboro’s first distillery. That will compliment Gibbs Hundred Brewing next door which sits in another building, you guessed it, Zimmerman owns.

It’s all part of Zimmerman’s strategy to have a positive impact on the downtown area.

“We won’t recognize this city in a year-and-a-half,” he told me. “I can’t even imagine what it’s going to look like beyond that.”