Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
The future of an American roadside attraction is up in the air now that the Longaberger company is vacating the oversized replica of its most popular product.
Newark, Ohio, about 40 miles east of Columbus, has produced some fine additions to American culture: The first woman to fly solo around the world, one of Las Vegas’s most famous entertainers, the voice of Brak, the list goes on. But it also has a fine piece of postmodern American architecture with a future that’s now uncertain.
CVSL, Longaberger’s parent company, announced late last month that it will move out of the giant basket it has called home since December 1997, consolidating its workers into Longaberger’s more modest campus about 20 miles away in Frazeysburg. Shaped like the Longaberger “medium market” basket (one of its bestsellers), the seven-story building was seen to completion by company founder Dave Longaberger just before his death in 1999. The giant basket belongs on any list of “world’s largest” attractions to stop for on a U.S. road trip.
But inside its doors is a fading star of Newark’s economy. Longaberger employed around 500 workers inside the basket it when it first opened. That number has since dropped to 68. Built during their salad days, the company has seen its revenues plummet since reaching $1 billion in 2000. CVSL (now known as JRJR Networks, as of this month) does not report revenues of the companies under its umbrella, but as reported by the Newark Advocate, the holding company has seen home decor revenues drop to $9.3 million as of last spring. The company’s overall workforce has dropped from 8,200 at its peak to 230 today.
The Advocate’s editorial board chimed in on “Longaberger's slow fall from a pioneering business to this embarrassing state,” earlier this week, calling the city’s agreement to fund infrastructure improvements for the building’s construction through tax-increment financing “anything but a good deal.” Mike Smith, the Licking County auditor, told the Columbus Dispatch that Longaberger owes approximately $570,000 in back taxes. The Advocate also reports that the company's TIF payments to the city “are $2 million shy of projections made in 1999.”
JRJR is eager to shed itself of the big basket, but that may not be easy. What non-basket-related company will want a giant basket to be the face of their company? Are there enough well-off eccentrics in or visiting Newark to convert it into market-rate apartments or a boutique hotel?
The late Dave Longaberger deserves praise for his wisdom to build a giant basket, but he failed to provide much more to visitors than a photo-op. Basket fans have always been better off driving to Longaberger Marketplace, where they can buy a usable one or watch them get assembled on a factory tour. They can also pose in front of a giant basket on site—filled with fake apples as opposed to real people.
Like the company, the big basket isn’t in great shape these days. Visitors report peeling paint on the facade, and the Advocate’s editors described its giant handles as “looking downright awful already.”
A deal to donate the building to the city no longer appears to be in the works, and foreclosure is a possibility. “At this point, the minimum bid would be $570,000 plus court costs," Smith told the Dispatch. If a foreclosure action doesn’t attract the minimum bid, according to the paper, the property would go to the county's land bank established last summer.