A local historic downtown needs some help, and this new group is making plans

A new committee formed in Urbana will work with investors and small businesses in an effort to redevelop vacant spaces in the city’s historic downtown.

The group, Moving Downtown Forward, hosted its first meeting downtown in the Mike Major Studio on Miami Street. Using Bellefontaine as a partner and model, the organization’s goal is to streamline the process to redevelop vacant properties downtown and draw more apartments, restaurants and other businesses to the city.

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Several of the first-floor office spaces in downtown Urbana are occupied with businesses and restaurants, said Marcia Bailey, economic development director for the Champaign Economic Partnership. But like many cities, it’s been a challenge finding investors willing to take risks and rehab other spaces on the second and third floors of many of the city’s historic buildings.

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“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.

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