Some years ago, a sign on a deteriorating downtown Springfield building invited visitors to Catch the Springfield and Clark County Spirit.
But, at the time, doing so seemed inadvisable without a tetanus shot.
Springfield lost a fourth of its population between 1970 and 2020, shrinking from 80,000 people to 60,000, meaning fewer people were supporting the same community.
In that period, the city grew poorer. A Pew Center study said the average income of a Springfield household of three declined by 27% between 1999 and 2014, compared with 8% in urban areas nationwide.
The promise of a good job for life in a factory had disappeared as International Harvester Co. faded to a shadow of its former self and a good deal of heavy manufacturing once done in Springfield moved overseas.
In the past 15 years, things have begun to turn around. The community has knocked some of the rust off its rust belt reputation. It has worked to diversify its economy and improve its work force. New market-rate housing developments have begun to attract new residents to the downtown and its outskirts with the hopes that the community might regenerate its population. Plus, the downtown is now home to an infectious spirit people of a more uplifting sort.
The story of how the city got from there to here is a complex one, involving not only the downtown, but the city economy, culture, education system and other institutions. For the next two Sundays, the News-Sun will take a glimpse at that and consider what might be coming next.
Our first installment will focus on the recent past, an era that built the foundation for a better present and perhaps future.
The egg and the chicken
The 2008 opening of Springfield Regional Medical Center brought together Mercy Medical Center and Community Hospital, institutions that had been rivals for half a century.
Because it also involved a $300 million total investment that secured 1,800 jobs while clearing 50 acres of aged housing stock, it would seem the place the start the story of Downtown Springfield’s recent rejuvenation.
Springfield City Director of Development Tom Franzen does call the work on the hospital and its environs “once in a lifetime investment. But he insists that the much smaller Springfield Regional Cancer Center — built four years earlier — is the place to start.
For the same reason so many Dollar Stores are built on grassy lots at the edges of small town.
“It’s more costly to develop in an urban setting,” particularly when compared to building in an open field, Franzen said.
“The cancer treatment center showed the community — and certainly the hospitals — that downtown development was feasible in Springfield. We had to show that it could be done.”
“Yes, it’s going to take stronger partnerships, some government participation and financing to make it happen,” he said, but it could be done.
In building first, the Cancer Center, then the Medical Center, the community established the formula going forward, Franzen said.
“Pretty much every project thereafter has been some mix of that private-public partnership, as well as some government funding.”
The intense work and focus on the Medical Center did help to assemble many of the people who would cooperate on future projects, and subsequent work has made them more effective as a team.
“I think it comes down to trust and alignment,” said Mike McDorman, president and CEO of the Greater Springfield Partnership, formerly the Chamber of Commerce. " You know, you have to sit around a table long enough to get to know each other, trust one another, and then you have to have alignment on what you’re trying to achieve.”
The intense work and focus on the Medical Center did help to assemble many of the people who would cooperate on future projects, something Franzen sees as critical because of two limitations involving money and time.
Money: “We don’t have resources to waste,” so it’s only by combining them and coordinating efforts that significant improvements can be made.
Time: Because, “we’re always kind of at the tail end” in reaping the benefits of a strong economy, “we’ve got a shorter window” in which to act.
As a result, the community has to have its act together when the window of opportunity cracks open.
Meds and Eds
In 2009, when the Ohio Valley Surgical Center joined the Cancer and Medical centers downtown, it solidified what City Manager Bryan Heck calls the “Meds and Eds” phase of development.
The Meds, of course, are those medical facilities.
The “Eds” are Wittenberg University and Clark State Community College, which bookend the city center on the downtown’s north and south sides. The Kuss Auditorium of the Clark State Performing Arts Center and the Hollenbeck-Bayley Creative Arts Center identify the private partners involved with the public Clark State Community College. Those same names also are found on buildings at Wittenberg.
Both meds and eds were and will continue to be anchors of downtown development because and will have “a long lasting impact on the community,” Franzen said, because " they’re likely not going anywhere.”
While the Meds sit on the west edge of the immediate downtown, the eds in a way define the north-south spine of development along Fountain Avenue.
In March 2002, the American Institute of Architects did a Regional/Urban Development (RUDAT) Study of Springfield that identified the importance of Wittenberg and Clark State as anchors. Among the other downtown strengths it identified were the Performing Arts Center, The Heritage Center Museum, and the Springfield Museum of Art, all cultural institutions.
The Clark County Public Library and Springfield YMCA flank the Performing Arts Center site and also are likely long timers.
The RUDAT study imagined the shaft of a dumbbell extending up Fountain Avenue with the Clark State complex on the south end and the Wittenberg community on the north. And it suggested Springfield use that image in building toward a better future..
That longer, larger perspective on downtown development helped the community think of bolstering its strengths as the opportunities presented themselves. An example is when the time came to replace the Fountain Avenue Bridge over Buck Creek, the city built a bridge that aimed to be as welcoming as it was structurally sound — all with $2.4 million of state and federal money, not local funds.
Decorative lights and a streetscape project connected the bridge to the downtown.
Springfield’s Turner Foundation, which has been active in the city’s restoration efforts, raised some eyebrows when it bore the expense of installing granite curbs around the core block section the unifying streetscape development.
When the curb project was announced, Foundation Executive Director John Landess said it was time for Springfield to raise its opinion of itself. The solidity of the granite also amounted to a statement that the development effort was in it for the long run.
However, that private investment in granite curbs played within the city limits, that and other infrastructure improvements that went unnoticed had another audience in mind.
Said Heck: “If a community’s not investing it itself, it’s not a community (others) want to put their money in.”
Public and private
A chronology of selected downtown projects since the days of the “meds” picks up the story from there.
In 2011, Clark State opened the $5.65 million Hollenbeck-Bayley Creative Arts and Conference Center. Later that year, $2.5 million was spent to develop the National Road Commons, a one-block greenspace west of Fountain Avenue opened as a community events grounds. In 2013, the National Trail Parks and Recreation Department opened its $8.5 million Chiller Ice Rink on Main Street using its levy money, and the city improved the Veterans Bridge. And in October of 2016, United Senior Services spent $7.6 million renovating the former Elks Aerie on West Main Street across from the Ohio Valley Complex.
During those years, most of it was public investment,” said Horton Hobbs IV, vice president of economic development for the Greater Springfield Partnership, formerly the Chamber of Commerce.
“That really set the stage” Hobbs said, “(but) it wasn’t until the past five or six years when we’ve seen the private investment really start to balance (that). It’s just taken a lot longer than anybody hoped.”
Perhaps that’s because the city had so far to come.
Raise a glass
If the Medical Center or Cancer Hospital represent the beginning of institutional investment, the opening of Mother Stewart’s Brewery in July 2016 after $2.5 million of renovations on the former Metallic Casket Company Complex represented an uptick in private investment and a boost to community spirits.
Operated by John and Kevin Loftis, and planned with the help of their property developer father — Tom Loftis — it quickly became a site for people to mix in a family friendly atmosphere in an old building with character. A mix of beer, music, a winter farmer’s and a host of community activities has drawn people, along with the Hatch Artists’ Lofts that opened next door a year later.
The subsequent opening of the CoHatch business center and food court next door to the Heritage Center with its Un Mundo Café has created a second node of activity, particularly in summers when the Farmer’s Market occupies the alley between them.
Both seem on the way to becoming the place Springfielders can “Find Your Unwind,” to echo the theme of the Greater Springfield Partnership’s long running campaign.
Before the addition of Mother Stewart’s and CoHatch, activity had been focused largely on Fountain Avenue between Columbia and Main streets in shops that have created interest, but likely never would have been undertaken by private investors with the underwriting of the Turner Foundation.
Before that point, retail outlets had slowly been focused largely on Fountain Avenue between Columbia and Main streets, many through projects that never would have been undertaken with the underwriting of the Turner Foundation.
Said John Landess, the Foundations executive director: “At least for us, everything has taken a little longer and been a little more expensive than we anticipated. But the payoff is when you see people enjoying themselves and when you see activity and hubbub downtown, and you know that it’s going to pay off.”
Two of the four shops that completed the block this summer are in retail space built into another downtown addition: the $6.8 million city parking garage opened in 2020 on the southwest corner of Fountain Avenue and Main Street.
Live, work and play
In describing the goals for downtown Springfield, City Manager Heck has called it becoming " a place to “live, work and play.”
Of those three words, “live” seemed the least likely to occur — and to some, unthinkable. But in 2020, developer Charles Sims opened a model of the Center Street Townes cater corner from Mother Stewart’s.
Informed by studies indicating that Springfield needs apartments and other forms of housing, the Turner Foundation is eyeing a $20 million project to renovate and build on to the McAdams building at Limestone and High streets. The goal is to create 80 apartments and street level retail space.
There’s also talk of converting the Tecumseh Building on West High Street along similar lines.
Whether the current inflation and rising interest rates will interrupt these projects is yet to be seen. But dramatic hikes in the cost of housing in larger cities such as Columbus may well have people looking for affordable housing alternatives within a reasonable commute. There also is hope that once people live here, they may be more amenable to working here and strengthening the economy by spending more of their time and money here.
Developer Tom Loftis, who often can be found in various city coffee shops discussing possible projects with a wide range of people, said he expects that community development will soon enter a more incremental stage — one that still involves the major partners but of individuals.
Examples might be what individual business owners have added to the downtown with the pretzel shop, women’s boutique, yarn store and combined eatery and convenience store. The food and drinks shops in the Co-Hatch business center and food represent “incremental” improvements through the development of businesses.
Others might be in the variety of community interests and resources being developed at botanical gardens at the former Snyder Park Golf Course and the climbing and hiking trails in Mad River Gorge west of Springfield. In the same way, the restoration of the historic Springfield Burying Grounds on Columbia Street reflects another aspect of community development: The continuing and perhaps deepening interest the community has in its own history.
“Does any one of those make a difference?” Loftis asked. “Maybe not by themselves, but they add up.”
And after enduring times “when you take three steps forward and two steps back … suddenly you look around and things are heading in the right direction and you say, ‘This is cool.’”
And more people want to be part of it.
About this series
News-Sun reporters spent the past two months talking with investors, government officials and local experts and digging through records to bring you exclusive details and analysis about an initiative to revitalize the city of Springfield and surrounding communities. The plan, which kicked off nearly 20 years ago with the construction of the Springfield Regional Cancer Center, includes investing millions of dollars to educate the workforce, attract hi-tech companies and develop housing while also creating a vibrant downtown.
This Springfield Resurgence series — consisting of multiple stories that will run over the next two weeks — looks at what has been done in the past 15 years to draw new investments and stabilize a population in decline. Our reporters looked at how housing will play a role in future economic development, what is being done to diversify the county’s employer base and how the business community has partnered with local educational institutions to meet workforce demands. Monday’s stories will look at the status of the city’s economic and housing developments. In the coming days, our digital subscribers will get exclusive content surrounding the project and be the first to read some stories.
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