Tom Carter is not your typical Small Business Person of the Year.
In fact, not much is typical about the middle-age businessman who moved to Worthington 15 years ago to raise a family and ended up turning the town's failing mall into a thriving center of community shopping and activity.
The owner of the Shops at Worthington Place (formerly Worthington Square, then Worthington Mall, then Worthington Square) accepted the annual award from the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce during a luncheon Tuesday, May 13, at the Worthington Inn.
Speaking to a crowded room, the self-effacing businessman and developer opened with a joke about being chosen for the award and being informed of it by chamber president and CEO Kathryn Paugh.
"When Kathryn told me about this, I thought this must be a slow year in Worthington," he said.
Carter rarely speaks at length about his life and the venture that saved the local mall, but he told the crowd a little about how he came to Worthington and decided to invest in the skeleton of a mall that was about a mile from his home.
As Paugh pointed out in her introduction, Carter was not always as polished and sophisticated as he seems now.
He grew up in rural Knox County, where he raised cows for the fair, and graduated from Fredericktown High School.
He went to Ohio State University, where he received a degree in architecture.
Architecture was not quite the right fit, though, so he pursued a career in business development, a career that has taken him to various parts of the country as a partner or senior executive with top-tier real estate development companies and retailers over the past 25 years.
He has developed real estate projects totaling more than 6 million square feet and exceeding $950 million in value. One of the many malls he developed was phase 2 of Easton Town Center.
In 1999, he decided to move to Ohio to raise his son, Colin, who is now a senior at OSU.
He intended to move to Upper Arlington, he said, but then looked at Granville before his mother suggested Worthington. He has never regretted taking her advice, he said.
"I can't tell you how good it is to live in this community," he said.
Shortly after moving to Worthington, he visited the Worthington Mall and was concerned to learn that Chili's was moving out of the shopping center, which seemed to be thriving at the time.
Over the next 10 years, he watched it decline until he decided he wanted to get involved.
He called the out-of-state owners and asked if he could help, and they declined.
He then met with City Manager Matt Greeson to see how they could work together to get something done. The city was in the process of trying, with little success, to work with the owners and try to save the mall.
Carter joked about the outcome of his meeting with Greeson.
"A lot of code violations started happening," he said.
In 2008, Carter formed a development company, Real Estate Development Advisors, and in 2010 formed a limited partnership to purchase the mall.
Since then, he has led the mall's rebirth, renovation and renewal. It has a new look, additions and lots of new stores and restaurants.
It also is a hub of community activity, where organizations hold their fundraisers and mothers bring their children to play at the indoor playground.
"His vision was distinctly Worthingtonian," Paugh said.
Rebuilding the mall is and will continue to be hard work, Carter said, calling it a "work in progress."
He said he is fortunate that the twists and turns his life has taken have led him to Worthington, with a successful business, family and good health that he does not take for granted.
"I was fortunate enough to figure out what was in my heart and follow it," he said.
Carter is the 28th recipient of the Small Business Person of the Year award. It is one of the ways the chamber demonstrates its support for small businesses and recognizes those who are succeeding, have shown growth and are involved in the betterment of the Worthington community, Paugh said.
Honorees are selected by a committee of past award winners.