“We don’t market what we have,” Bailey said. “We’re slow appreciating what we have and telling people about it.”
The new committee includes representatives from local government, small business owners, an architect and property owners, Bailey said.
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The group’s first meeting included a panel discussion with Jamon Sellman, a local business owner who talked about his experiences rehabbing a loft apartment downtown. Sarah Mackert, a Champaign County native who works in Columbus, discussed some of Urbana’s advantages, including affordable property and the reasonable driving distance to Columbus and Dayton.
“We have a lot of the fundamental elements already in place,” Mackert said about Urbana’s potential to attract new businesses.
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Jason Duff, CEO and founder of Community Storage and Properties, Ltd., clicked through a slideshow of once-vacant properties throughout downtown Bellefontaine, in Logan County, that have been redeveloped in recent years for new restaurants, retail stores and apartments. He said restaurants like 600 Downtown and businesses like Brewfontaine, a local brewery, quickly developed a base of loyal customers in properties that had long been vacant.
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He said smaller cities like Urbana and Bellefontaine can’t compete directly with the state’s metro areas, so they need to be creative and make it easier for small businesses to move in. It’s hard to attract popular chain restaurants to smaller cities like Bellefontaine, so that often means finding a small business owner who’s willing to take a risk instead, he said.
“There aren’t people standing in line to buy our buildings here in town,” Duff said.
Bellefontaine has made big strides in finding new uses for vacant properties and the communities will likely begin working together more closely to learn what strategies work best to spur investment downtown, Bailey said. That can also include some simple improvements, like installing signs downtown that point out the location of existing local businesses.
Bringing new business to both cities will benefit both counties and make the region more attractive, Duff said.
“We’re far enough we’re not going to compete with each other,” he said. “We need to work together and learn from each other.”
The challenge, he said, is finding the right investors and business owners and working with them to remove barriers to starting a new business.
“If we sit back and do the status quo, we’re going to die a slow death,” Duff said.
The Springfield News-Sun will continue to provide unmatched coverage of jobs anf the economy in Clark and Champaign Counties. The paper has produced several stories this year highlighting efforts by business and government entities in both Clark and Champaign Counties to attract new business and residents to Springfield and Urbana.