Chris Lewis remembers his love for Springfield starting from a young age.
“When I was a kid, I walked around downtown with my dad, and you might as well have felt like you were in downtown Chicago. You were in the shadows of all these tall buildings – it was fantastic,” says Lewis, who has spent even more time walking the streets of Springfield over the years while deciding where his investments might have the most impact.
Born at the former Community Hospital, Lewis established a commitment to the community that’s been life-long.
“I’ve always gone by the phrase ‘You should bloom where you’re planted,’” he says. “I feel like if you’re going to benefit from a community, you need to contribute to that community also.”
And contribute he has.
After spending the younger part of his childhood living on Catherine Street, his father’s sales job led the family to move near Donnelsville. By the time Lewis was a freshman at Techumseh High School, his father was working as a contractor.
Lewis helped his dad on jobs doing rehab work on low-income housing in Springfield.
“I cut my teeth in the construction industry doing that rehab work,” says Lewis, whose other passion during his late teens and early 20s was competitive power lifting and body building.
“I was always interested in the health and fitness industry,” he says. “I knew I wanted to own a gym. I wanted to train people and help others achieve their goals.
To work toward his goal of owning a gym, Lewis learned about the housing market in Springfield all while continuing to help his father and doing some of his own remodeling projects.
After a short stint at Anderson College, Lewis returned to Springfield and made plans to buy a house under foreclosure.
Lewis borrowed $5,000 from his grandparents to buy the first home he remodeled. After the sale, he paid them back, and used the proceeds to buy the next property.
“My philosophy behind buying houses and getting paid every month was that to be able to leverage myself so I could build a gym,” Lewis says.
Between 1986 and 1990, Lewis says he bought about 50 properties in Springfield, targeting homes along the city's corridors along South Limestone and North streets.
“I had this idea in my mind that I’d be more impactful and change the way people thought of Springfield when they drove into town,” he remembers.
Eventually, Lewis fulfilled his dream of owning a gym, which he built at the corner of North and Plum streets. Power Plus Gym served customers there from the mid- to late-90s.
Even while running the gym, Lewis never stopped buying properties throughout Springfield. Following his gym ownership, Lewis developed Phoenix Properties group, which was soon followed by Phoenix Builders and Renovators.
“By just blind luck, by the time they were getting ready to build the new hospital (in the mid-2000s), I owned 26 properties in the footprint where they were looking to build,” Lewis says. “With the city wanting to buy those 26 parcels, it was really a catapult that took me to the next level.”
Always looking for what his next move to benefit his city, Lewis decided he would invest almost all of his proceeds from the hospital property purchases back into the city.
Among his acquisitions, Lewis says he bought properties in the Derby Glen subdivision, purchased the Buckeye Lodge, renovated and opened the former Dream Cup Coffee, bought the building that now houses Sip & Dipity Paint Bar, and more.
He also decided to buy Ridgewood Café, which he says was a little rough at first.
“It had been a cool neighborhood spot for years, but the old owner was done at the time,” Lewis says. “I felt it needed an upgrade to fit the quality of the neighborhood better, but you wouldn’t believe the number of people who hated that I took away their dive bar and made it into an upscale dining restaurant that fit into the neighborhood.
“I took my lumps for it, but then it came around.”
And Lewis owns this kind of unapologetic investment. It’s part of who he is.
“I’ve never had a clear-cut plan when it comes to investing. I travel the streets a lot looking for opportunities and looking for places I can lend my skill set to,” he says. “When a particular building or area calls out to me, I go after it aggressively. I don’t have huge funds behind me. I just have the money I’ve earned.”
While the plan might not always be clear-cut, there is definitely a plan. Lewis says he recently purchased six open lots on which to build houses – the first of which is under construction now.
“I have a projected profit for all six. The only reason I did those is to take the profits and reinvest downtown. That’s how I operate,” he says. “I’m not going to make money off the builds to buy a house on the lake or a boat. I’m going to bring it back downtown and reinvest.”
Through the stay-at-home orders caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Lewis chose to temporarily close Ridgewood Café, but he and his wife Rebecca have kept their other restaurant – the Buckeye Lodge – open for carryout.
He says it’s been a good time to slow down and reflect on the business, which he first purchased because he wanted to save the building. He says they’ve looked at changing the Buckeye from a membership-based club to non-membership restaurant.
“This shut down has helped me make the decision to go public with the restaurant and be woven more into the fabric of what’s going on downtown,” Lewis says. “At times you have to adapt and reinvent what you’re doing. Downtown Springfield is the place to be, and we want to be an active part of it.”
And though Lewis would say he's not one of the major players investing in Springfield - downtown and around town - he has definitely had a hand in a variety of renovations and remodels , including the Johnson flats, Deitzel lofts, The Stables restaurant, Winan's Chocolates and Coffees downtown location, and much more.
As for what's next, Lewis says he has a few ideas, but the only one he's ready to share is plans for new apartments on the floors above Sip & Dipity. His investment goals might be leading him there next, but that certainly won't be where he stops.
“You can’t overstate the importance of investing in anything,” Lewis says. “And there are different levels of investment in a city. Homeownership – just buying a home in a city is investing in the city. Shopping here, working in the city, you can invest your time – they’re all investments.
It’s exceedingly important that, to the best of your abilities and capabilities, you invest back into your community.”