Over the years, the automotive industry has supplied a large number of its citizens a means for creating a happy living. Unfortunately, this economic driver wasn’t enough for the long term. Not long ago, Bellefontaine became one of many small towns across the country that succumbed to struggle. The town was existing on life support, and no one was sure what to do about it.
Bellefontaine’s story is the story of so many small towns in our nation. As larger communities across the country continue to grow and expand economically, culturally and technologically, small towns have found themselves in a state of crisis, and the reasons why are numerous, complicated and intertwined.
Industry, the historical economic driver in small towns, is becoming more difficult to attract and retain. While small towns were once a sound decision for industrial and manufacturing companies because of low costs and a plentiful workforce, today that isn’t always the case. Young people have been choosing to leave small towns en masse. A large portion of the population that is of working age have left their home towns for opportunities that they perceive to be elsewhere. Others have reached retirement age, and although they stay in their small towns to age in place, the increase in fixed incomes within the communities begin to lead buying decisions as well as what is offered for purchase by local businesses. The shift in local demographics and offerings plants the perception that new opportunities are minimal. More people leave. Population reduces. More businesses close. The rate of commerce begins to decline.
The tax base declines, followed by a lapse in infrastructure upkeep. Schools decline, so young families don’t want to relocate there. New businesses don’t move in because the of the lack of traffic and no plans for growth.
City leadership in small towns have been working hard to try to stop the bleeding and remedy the situation by zeroing in on economic development through industry. Their plan is to attract the businesses that will bring new jobs to town and the people will come where employment is plentiful. Today however, existing industry is having a difficult time filling their current leadership and workforce positions with qualified candidates. Their recruitment and retention issues are real, from executive leadership through general laborers. The pool of qualified workers has dwindled and those who are available don’t always have the right skills.
Why is all of this happening? Because a large part of the rural brain drain epidemic isn’t “just” about available jobs. It’s also about lifestyle choices. It’s about the experience of living interesting and flavorful lives in a particular place day after day. Those who have the capacity and passion to help small communities grow are simply choosing different towns in which to live, work and reinvest.
Small towns are now in a position where they’re competing for market share. To survive, and eventually to win the interest and loyalty of a young and energized citizenry, they simply have to reposition themselves and create new opportunities and experiences. Even if it is from the ground up.
Small Town Vision
The Small Town Story is the same again and again, in town after town across the country. Fortunately, it’s a cycle of decline that doesn’t have to happen. There is a solution… one that requires grit, vision and the willingness to break a few traditional rules.
Jason Duff, Small Nation Founder and CEO, watched Bellefontaine’s decline for years. Downtown, as people and businesses left the area, storefront after storefront eventually closed, shuttered their windows and left the historic building structure of the city empty. There were very few small business entrepreneurs left to open new stores and little to no traffic to support the businesses that were fighting to survive. At one point, more than 70 percent of the first-floor spaces were vacant. Many of the town’s historic buildings fell into decline and with no upkeep, some literally began to crumble.
The energy had left downtown Bellefontaine and no one was doing anything about it.
Jason and his team knew that shifting Bellefontaine’s direction was possible… but it had to happen from within the community. Like in many small towns, Bellefontaine was full of fiercely smart people with finely honed skills, talents, knowledge and most importantly, the hunger for success. They just weren’t sure where to start. When the town was in its worst state, it made recovery seem overwhelming and the potential for individual entrepreneurial success nearly impossible. In order for anyone to take the leap into new ideas or building renovation, most needed evidence that it was indeed possible. Someone had to be first to push ideas and opinions about the area into reality; to show evidence of potential. The Small Nation team got tired of waiting around for someone else to “fix it,” so they decided to roll up their sleeves and do it themselves.
The first step was to create a strong, multi-faceted strategy for recovery and growth. It would require smart investments, strategic business placement and the right people to carry the plan forward.
The next step was to identify the first anchor; a structure that would serve as a beacon of possibility for all.
Starting Small… with Big Intentions
Right in the middle of town was the perfect solution. Once known as C.G. Murphy’s, there was a historic downtown property that had fallen into decline. The Small Nation team was looking for an idea that would allow them to not only bring a multiplied return on their investment, but bring a solution to the town that would be a catalyst for the development of multiple small businesses.
The team decided to convert the old C.G. Murphy’s store into a marketplace concept, bringing “Main Street” inside the property at a smaller scale. In order to succeed, the “Main Street Marketplace” would need to not only have tenants, but an entertaining, welcoming experience.
The single storefront was converted into multiple suites, each with its own unique façade, storefront windows, commercial grade doors, and character. At the entrance, visitors pass under a beautifully hand crafted metal archway designed locally by metal craftsmen at Main Metals in West Liberty, Ohio. Intriguing locally inspired murals by Marilyn Reed of Marilyn’s Artistry lining the hallway. “Postcard images” of historic downtown Bellefontaine inspire newfound opportunities and excitement.
By reducing “Main Street” to a smaller scale, the Small Nation team has been able to offer retail spaces with smaller square footage and reduced rental rates to entrepreneurs who were just starting up. For the vendor, expenses that might have once seemed prohibitive to opening a business like utility costs or storefront signage are no longer an issue.
Main Street Marketplace functions as a small business incubator of sorts, allowing businesses to start small and hone their skills and an entrepreneur while keeping startup costs low. The Marketplace has placed a beauty salon and a specially retail store as the anchors to the property with windowed frontage along Main Street. Further within the doors, you’ll find a mix of tenants similar to a normal downtown area, ranging from professional services to massage therapy, clothing boutiques, self-defense training services, a mortgage bank, a hypnotherapist and even a gun shop. Jazzercise classes are held on the second floor of the property and the back entrance is anchored by an amazing artisan bakery offering hand made breads, bagels and sandwiches for local patrons to enjoy. The basement of the property is also used for office rental space, allowing every inch of the property to be utilized.
In total, Small Nation invested $350,000 into the renovation of the property. It houses 27 rental spaces in total and estimates 150 people move through the space daily.
Renovation of a historic structure can quite literally shift the opinions and energy of a community. Buzz began to build in Bellefontaine, and plans for their next projects began.
A Different Kind of Development
Bringing a symbol of prosperity back to life in Bellefontaine was first step toward energizing the town as a whole. As the Small Nation team worked to make the building better, they also began a plan to make the area better as a whole. If they were to be developers, they would “develop” in every sense of the word.
The Small Nation Team wouldn’t just develop individual buildings. Improving one building that doesn’t have a positive and cumulative affect on the others in the area doesn’t make much sense. As buildings were selected, so were business types. The team, in cooperation with the community via social media discussions, strategized about what kind of businesses would best support the growth and needs of the community, the desires of visitors, as well as what kinds of businesses would best support one another.
Renovating one building might re energize people, but it doesn’t have much of an effect on the well being of all. Instead, the team decided they would develop community.
Their efforts would include not only the individual places, but the people, the energy and experience, and the overall capacity for commerce and spirit.
Main Street Marketplace became the catalyst for a series of smart purchases, historic renovations, strategic plans for business and tenant types, recruitment of entrepreneurs, mentoring sessions and marketing initiatives. Over the years, Small Nation’s approach to development and revitalization in Bellefontaine became holistic and all encompassing, mainly because the needs of small towns are simply different than that of their more urban neighbors. In small towns, it’s not just a matter of dollars and cents. It’s about verbalizing the bigger vision, creating an authentic experience, offering attraction and financial incentives that are above the norm, and providing guidance every step of the way. Providing the places isn’t enough for a quick turnaround. It takes offering other methods of support to gain traction and begin to see results.
Over the years, the Small Nation team worked with their tenant partners (who they call Small Business Heroes) doing just about anything they needed to do to see change happen in Bellefontaine. Yes, they renovated the buildings, but they also rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty. The slung beer, dropped fries and tossed pizzas. When a great idea presented itself from a small business entrepreneur, they opened up their coffers to help it grow. They crunched numbers, pushed forward restrictive codes and even started new businesses themselves to help fund forward progress. To get the job done, they “Hustled Hard,” and it worked so well that this became the name of their unique development approach.
Creating Community: By Design
From 2012 to the present, the Small Nation team has been continuously working to identify new business types and small business entrepreneurs that will further support Bellefontaine’s growth. One of the first and most important businesses they pushed forward was an anchor restaurant. Restaurants — especially those with outside seating areas — are crucial to the success of downtown areas. They bring a community together, provide enjoyable life experiences, and animate downtown areas at all hours of the day, bringing the potential for commerce and multiple purchases at neighboring stores.
The Small Nation team actively recruited a world-renowned pizza champion to open Six Hundred Downtown, and since that time, it has grown into a hot-spot for residents and visitors alike. On weekends, Six Hundred’s unique pizza recipes draw people from over an hour away to Bellefontaine. They come early, shop for antiques at Nest or Olde Mint, shop for clothes at Peachtree Boutique, eat an award winning dinner, then stay for dessert at neighboring Whit’s Frozen Custard or City Sweets and Creamery. Before heading home, Native Coffee or Sweet Aromas fuels them for their drive.
Locals start their mornings at Anytime Fitness, LoCo Depot or Ragnar Fitness. They have a cut or highlight at The Poppy Seed then meet with their accountant on investment advisor in the Marketplace. After work, they stop by for one of many rotating craft beers at Brewfontaine. Special work related meetings, events or family celebrations are enjoyed at Bella Vino Events & Wine Room. Then some go home to their open, airy luxury apartments overlooking the courthouse at Lofts 110.
Small Nation’s newest project, The Syndicate, will open in the spring of 2020. The 225 seat special events venue will specialize in weddings, corporate events and private parties, and will feature an outdoor patio for seasonal entertainment.
Development of The Syndicate has been made possible through Bellefontaine’s recent classification as an Opportunity Zone. Small Town Properties LLC, a Small Nation Company, established the community’s first Opportunity Zone fund and has invested in filling a need that was identified by the community itself.
It’s About More Than Aesthetics
The development and revitalization of small towns across the country are not just a cosmetic fix. The effort, even if it is a bit of a hustle, is a strategic investment in the economic vibrancy of the town itself and a vital one at that. Downtown areas are the beating heart of a community. When they wither, the rest of the town follows.
With this in mind, the Small Nation team has been able to push forward numerous additions to the downtown streetscape. These additions were strategically designed to not only accent the environment visually, but to improve downtown animation, increase pedestrian traffic and make it easier for visitors to find merchants and navigate through the area.
Working in partnership with the city, the Small Nation team has introduced streetscape improvements that encourage residents and visitors to spend time and dollars while enjoying the outdoors. The city of Bellefontaine was receptive to shifting parking areas to accommodate the addition of outdoor restaurant patios, reversing the direction of alley traffic to allow the addition of drive through windows and changing the sign ordinance to allow new pedestrian wayfinding signage to be added. This public private partnership and the willingness of the city to think differently was crucial in not only achieving these improvements, but the speed at which they were accomplished.
Smart small town building owners, developers and municipalities should think of redevelopment of their downtown areas as an investment not only in individual properties, but in the sustainability of their town as a whole.
If done right, this kind of development approach can quite literally reposition a small town in the minds of its citizens as well as visitors. It is an investment in competitiveness, bolstering a community’s appeal factor for industry as well as families who are looking to relocate. It has the potential to affect the tax base significantly and gives job seekers a reason to choose your town over the possibilities next door. Designing your community is about so much more than aesthetics. It affects everything.
Today Small Nation’s initial purchase and renovation of Main Street Marketplace has grown into $17M in investment, 31 renovated buildings, 50 new businesses including retail, residential, restaurant, health and wellness, lifestyle and professional services that provide upwards of 120 new jobs for the area. These businesses were designed to support one another other rather than operating an island in the way industry might, and as a cohesive unit, they function as a tourism draw as well. The advantages of investment in your downtown area are very competitive with traditional economic development practices and support a side of growth that industry simply can not. When combined as a balanced approach to economic growth, the approach is unstoppable.
What began as a single building renovation has turned into a complete overhaul of Bellefontaine’s city center. Small Nation’s efforts, paired with the close partnership and open minded cooperation of city leadership has allowed the town to transition from a shuttered small town on life support to a vibrant, bustling, state-wide draw in just a few short years. Bellefontaine has officially been resuscitated.