Selling a seven-storey basket is no picnic

Ohio office building and tourist attraction shaped like a basket has no buyers

NEW YORK • "You might see it three or four miles off before you come around the bend, and then you say, 'That is a basket. That is unquestionably a basket,'" said Mr Tom Rochon.

It is a basket, or rather, a seven-storey office building shaped like one - a massive facsimile of the signature picnic basket made by the company once headquartered there. 

About 65km outside Columbus, Ohio, the basket building, as it is locally known, is one of the area's grandest attractions, inviting quirky selfie-seekers, architecture nerds and, of course, basket enthusiasts.  

Despite its celebrity, its owner has had trouble off-loading the gargantuan basket, due to its size, location and - well, you have seen it, right? 

When the property - slightly larger than another Ohio landmark, Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - was listed 18 months ago, the asking price was US$7.5 million (S$10.1 million).

The former home of the Longaberger Company, which is known for its kitschy baskets. PHOTO: UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES

Now it is on the market for US$5 million, or about US$28 per sq ft, about half of what traditionally shaped office buildings in the area usually sell for, said Columbus real estate adviser Bradford Kitchen, president of real estate advisory firm Alterra.

The basket building's listing agent, Mr Michael Guagenti of Cushman & Wakefield, said commercial property in the area typically ranges from US$50 to US$80 per sq ft.

The basket was built for about US$32 million and finished in 1997, he said, as a home for the Longaberger Company. 

Known for its kitschy baskets, both decorative and functional, Longaberger has been around since the 1970s and once boasted sales of US$1 billion, largely the result of direct-sales agents who hawked baskets at Tupperware-esque parties. But its sales reportedly fell to US$100 million in 2012.

As Longaberger moved workers from the basket building to a nearby factory, its Dallas-based holding company, JRJR Networks, for which Mr Rochon works, decided to sell to "consolidate and streamline our operations", chief financial officer Chris Brooks said in a June earnings statement. 

Mr Guagenti admitted that it is the most unusual property he has tried to sell.

"It's a very challenging building," he said. "We have had a couple of offers, but nothing that materialised."

Thus far, only developers have shown interest, though he declined to specify the number or size of the bids.

At 180,000 sq ft, the basket is one of the largest buildings for kilometres around. Mr Guagenti has reached out to local businesses in an effort to convince them to move, playing up the basket's discounted price, but the space is too large for most.

"Just no one is big enough to take that kind of basket on," he said.

And it is not without other flaws.

Just no one is big enough to take that kind of basket on.

MR MICHAEL GUAGENTI of Cushman & Wakefield, the basket building's listing agent

Paint has trouble adhering to its massive handles, which are heated to prevent snow build-up and, as a result, they look chipped, said Mr Rochon.

The entire basket could use a paint job, Mr Guagenti agreed, though he said the interior is pristine and modern.

"There's nothing baskety inside," he said. "Nothing makes you feel like it's in a basket. You feel like you're in a nice, high-rise office building."  But while paint can be reapplied, the building cannot be moved.

New York-based real estate broker and author Brendon DeSimone said "It's like they say: location, location, location. It has two things against it: It's a far location and it's a unique building. The location is probably what's worse."

If the building were closer to town, Mr Guagenti thinks he would have sold it by now. That has meant rethinking how the building could be used.

To lure a buyer, he has explored marketing it as ripe for being repurposed as an educational facility, nursing home or call centre - though he thinks it would do just fine remaining an office building.

Experts agree it might fare best as a hotel or convention centre, using the building's aesthetic to attract tourists. Although the area has a population of only about 47,000, Mr Rochon said tour groups do occasionally make pit stops at the basket.

As for the fundamental basketness of it, it is not clear how much can be done. Refacing the building is not much of an option, Mr Guagenti said, because, much like a basket, it is narrower on the bottom and wider on top, which would look strange even without the woven exterior.

"But you could take the handles off," he reasoned. "I'm sure a good architect could come up with some paint scheme to make it not look like a basket."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2016, with the headline 'Selling a seven-storey basket is no picnic'. Print Edition | Subscribe