A historic 63-acre retreat east of Columbus that has served generations of business leaders, entertainers and politicians is in contract to be sold to Violet Township by Wolfe Enterprises, a business controlled by family members of late businessman and longtime Dispatch Publisher John F. Wolfe.
The property, known as the Wigwam, will be used as community space and will house the administrative offices of the township, which employs fewer than 10 people.
Amenities such as a 303-seat theater and a banquet hall will be available to rent for meetings, dance recitals, weddings and other events, said John Eisel, director of operations for Violet Township.
Although township officials plan to offer at least a portion of the site for public use, Eisel said there are no plans for the facility to become a community center, a project that is in the planning stages.
"The acquisition of the Wigwam does not replace the community center planning that is currently taking place," Eisel said.
"The only impact may be that included in the Wigwam is a theater and large meeting space that will not be required in the community center."
Eisel said the Wigwam property can't be used -- as-is -- for a community center, and the township continues to work with community leaders and members to determine if a levy or bond issue to such a project and its potential ongoing operations will be needed in November 2019.
He said because of the way the Wigwam buildings are situated and township plans to improve the area around the site -- including preserving trees, creating walking trails and building a shelter house -- it would be "very difficult" to locate a community center there.
"This acquisition has nothing to do with the community center other than the potential to reduce its footprint by already having a theater and large meeting venue," he said.
"Violet Township will sell municipal notes to finance the Wigwam project from its general fund, sell its current administrative offices and (use) future rental income the theater and large meeting space."
Eisel said the purchase price is $2.7 million, which includes most of the property's furnishings and equipment. That's substantially less than the $4.1 valuation on the Fairfield County auditor's site, and "considerably less" than Wolfe Enterprises could have gotten from developers eager to buy the property on Blacklick-Eastern Road in Pickerington, Eisel said.
"It's an absolutely beautiful, meticulously maintained property," Eisel said. "We're going to showcase and preserve the site for public enrichment and the arts.
"The (Wolfe) family is keeping anything of sentimental value, although we've offered if they are interested to create an area at the entrance that commemorates the property's history with the Wolfe family."
The township will keep most of the buildings on the site, including the theater and a lodge banquet hall that can accommodate more than 400. A few single-family homes on the property are in disrepair and probably will be demolished.
Eisel said the plan is to eventually develop 10 acres at the northern edge of the site fronting Interstate 70 for mixed use, featuring offices and some service retail businesses. He said the township also might move the Fairfield County Sheriff's Office substation to the property at some point and would consider using part of the property for a future fire station.
Township Development Director Holly Mattei said a portion of the Wigwam site will be used for future economic development opportunities.
"It is also important to note, the northern 10.8 acres will be transferred to the Violet Township Port Authority for future economic development opportunities," she said. "This will create a destination and convenient location for future office, commercial or mixed-use opportunities."
The Wolfes bought 20 acres in 1927 as a family retreat and hunting lodge, and the family bought additional property over the years. The site became known as the Wigwam for its wooded setting and the Native American theme of much of its decor. In the early decades, movie stars -- including Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart and Gene Autry -- and powerful politicians visited the Wigwam to attend events and hobnob with the Wolfes, who built a successful business empire and were powerful Republican donors.
Wolfe family member Lucy Wolfe, a local real estate agent and a co-author of a book on Columbus history, said she's pleased about the sale to Violet Township.
"I think they should try to preserve it," Wolfe said. "I was not in favor of selling it to a big developer and cutting it up for houses."
She said she hopes the township continues to display memorabilia and host "historic tours" there.
"Almost every Wolfe child had a birthday party out there at one point when they were little," Wolfe recalled. She added that Wigwam employees used to butcher and smoke meat at the one-time hunting lodge.
The Wolfe family and The Dispatch held frequent events at the property for years, until the paper was sold in 2015.
Michael Fiorile, chairman and CEO of the Dispatch Printing Company (former publisher of the Dispatch), spearheaded the sale for Wolfe Enterprises. He said it received offers from more than one developer but preferred the Violet Township bid because it would keep the property largely intact and make it available as a community asset.
Fiorile said owning the property no longer made sense for Wolfe Enterprises, and it had lost ground as a conference site to many newer properties Downtown and elsewhere.
"I think we've had six events there in the past year," Fiorile said.
Dispatch reporter Tim Feran and ThisWeek reporter Nate Ellis contributed to this report.