Several small, locally-owned businesses and restaurants have popped up again in downtown Bellefontaine over the past seven years filling vacant buildings that had in some cases been empty for decades.
While several storefronts in the Logan County city remain empty, business owners there said they’re beginning to see shoppers lining the streets on weekends again and optimism that didn’t exist just a few years ago. And economic development and business leaders in Champaign County are looking to Bellefontaine as one model to attract more retail and eventually draw residential development to downtown Urbana.
Small cities like Bellefontaine and Urbana typically don’t have the resources and private funding to rehab buildings that have been shuttered over the past several decades, said Jason Duff, founder and CEO of Small Nation, a development firm based in Bellefontaine. Instead, he said small cities have to be creative to compete at a time when skilled workers and business owners are first looking at cities like Columbus and Cincinnati.
Like many other cities, several longtime businesses in Bellefontaine slowly faded and closed as development focused outside the city’s downtown. The downtown was mostly empty a decade ago, leaving properties that were untouched for years.
“When I grew up here I barely ever went down this road because there was nothing down here,” said Braydon Campbell, who runs the city’s Native Coffee. That business is one of several that opened in downtown Bellefontaine in the past few years.
Over the past seven years, Duff estimated more than two dozen vacant storefronts have been restored in Bellefontaine and several other projects are currently underway. Those spots have been filled with coffee shops, a new locally-owned sports bar, a brew pub and several locally-owned small retail stores. In many of those cases, Duff said he purchased the buildings for $50,000 or less and in some cases for one dollar.
Now, many of those buildings have tenants who are paying rent which is being used as seed money for new projects.
“No one was standing in line to buy these empty and vacant buildings,” Duff said. “Now we’re seeing other companies take interest in some of the spaces we have downtown.”
Springfield and Urbana are making their own efforts to attract new businesses. Bellefontaine is one example of a city that’s had some success, said Michael McDorman, president and CEO of the Chamber of Greater Springfield.
“For their size they have good bones to work with in their downtown and they’re doing it,” McDorman said.
Springfield and Urbana
Business owners and economic development officials in Urbana formed a new committee last month to streamline the process to redevelop vacant properties downtown. There, antique shops, small retailers and restaurants already occupy the first floor of many of the city’s historic buildings. But several vacancies remain and the second and third floors of those buildings often have gone untouched for decades, said Marcia Bailey, economic development coordinator for the Champaign Economic Partnership.
The new committee, Moving Downtown Forward, is tasked with making it easier for investors to restore downtown buildings, start new businesses and create more downtown housing options. Some of those structures date back to the 1800s. The new committee includes representatives from local government, small business owners, an architect and property owners.
“Our committee is most interested in the development of the upper floors for residential living,” Bailey said. “Our hope is then to attract more retail to the downtown to accommodate the residents.”
Urbana has been able to retain many of its local businesses in recent years even as other cities have seen local shops close down, Duff said. Just a few years ago, he said he used Urbana as a model for retaining small businesses downtown when he began investing in his hometown. Now, he said both cities are working more closely together to see what strategies work best to make it easier to start new businesses.
“Urbana has lots of potential,” Duff said. “What they need is to align that group of people with a vision and find a way to eliminate barriers and regulation.”
The cities are also far enough that instead of competing for the same businesses, they can work together to provide more opportunities for investors, he said. Both cities need amenities like breweries and other locally-owned businesses to attract younger residents, he said.
In Springfield, business leaders are looking to cities like Hamilton for examples of how to boost investment downtown. A nonprofit entity called SpringForward was developed last year to target redevelopment of existing properties downtown.
More than $320 million has been invested in downtown Springfield since 2009, the bulk of which came with the new $275 million Springfield Regional Medical Center. But millions have also been put into projects like the NTPRD Chiller Ice Arena, Veteran’s Bridge Streetscape and historic Bushnell Building renovations.
SpringForward formed through a partnership that includes the Springfield Foundation, the Turner Foundation, Speedway, the Chamber of Greater Springfield and the Springfield Regional Medical Center. Most recently, the nonprofit is working with the city on a plan to develop a year-round marketplace at the former Myer’s Market downtown. The goal is to build on some of the successes downtown Springfield has made in recent years and focus new investment in bigger projects to make the city more attractive to residents.
“SpringForward is really going to be a catalyst to redevelop our downtown again,” McDorman said.
In Bellefontaine, Duff’s first project was the purchase of a block of three storefronts that once housed a JC Penney and Stage Department stores. They were eventually able to attract Six Hundred Downtown, a locally-owned pizza restaurant whose previous owner had been featured on the Food Network. That restaurant at 108 S Main St. has a new owner and recently added an outdoor patio. The restaurant, which has now been open for seven years, also expanded to build a wine room and added space to host parties and other community events.
Another major project, the Main Street Marketplace, took about 18,000 square feet of vacant space at 130 S. Main St. in Bellefontaine once known as C.G. Murphy’s department store. A renovation project started in 2012, and the property now serves as an incubator for about a dozen small businesses including a salon, a locksmith, a cafe and a gift shop.
The Hanger Boutique opened in a standalone location at 120 N. Main St. in Bellefontaine about a month ago after outgrowing its space at the Main Street Marketplace.
Most of the new stores and restaurants downtown are operated by young, first-time business owners, said Amanda Uncapher, who started the Hanger boutique as an online business before opening a small store at the Marketplace. Having several businesses in close proximity allows local owners to share resources and ideas and to direct visitors to other businesses, she said.
“As a group we work together constantly to spread the word,” she said. “The more people that are downtown the more it benefits all of us.”
Native Coffee opened in a building Duff purchased for $17,000. Duff said he was looking for potential tenants and met Braydon Campbell working at a business called the Uptown Market and Cafe in Leipsic, Ohio. Campbell is a Bellefontaine native and moved back to the city to run the coffee shop.
One of the challenges is finding businesses that don’t exist in the city already and encouraging business owners to take a look at smaller cities, where it’s typically much cheaper to start a new business, Duff said. When he’s renovating a building, he said he often gets ideas from using social media to ask residents what kinds of businesses they want in town.
“There are people standing on the sidelines ready to invest,” Duff said. “Often they need help and support navigating regulations.”
Cities like Bellefontaine and Urbana don’t many of the resources larger cities have but they do have some advantages for small businesses, Duff said. Business owners looking to get started can purchase or rent property that likely wouldn’t be affordable in a larger city for example.
At the same time, it’s hard to attract national chains because the demographics often don’t work, Duff said. That means small cities need to find local business owners to provide those same services. Bellefontaine had trouble attracting a sports bar, but Duff said the city was able to encourage a local business owner to start the Iron City Sports Bar to fill that gap.
For towns like Bellefontaine to stand out and draw new visitors, the city needs restaurants and businesses that aren’t available elsewhere.
“We are not going to see new chains or franchises come here,” Duff said. “Frankly, I don’t want to see chains or franchises come here.”
The biggest challenge in Urbana is working with potential owners to make them aware of what it takes to work through building regulations to make the available properties work for a new business or apartment, said Jamon Sellman, owner of the Sellman Insurance Group downtown.
Many of Urbana’s buildings date back as far as the 1840s so navigating a maze of building regulations can be a problem, Sellman said. Often, business owners take on a project without knowing the challenges, then get frustrated as costs escalate.
The new committee formed in Urbana includes real estate agents, local government officials and other experts to work more closely with banks and potential investors.
“It’s doable,” Sellman said of drawing business back to the city’s historic downtown. “It’s relatively affordable but we are stressing a higher level of homework.”