This recent piece in Governing is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. The original post can be read here. This post is shared in support of efforts to revitalize Mansfield, Shelby, and other Richland County communities.
By David Kidd, Governing
Not long ago, a time capsule was removed from the Home Guards Building, one of the more prominent structures in downtown Van Wert, Ohio. A dozen residents of the small city gathered on a warm summer morning to witness its unveiling. The top of the discolored and dented copper box came off and its contents were placed on a black cloth stretched across a folding table. There were three newspapers dated Aug. 8, 1905. One of them has a story with Oyster Bay, N.Y., as its dateline. “President Roosevelt had a number of distinguished callers at his home,” it begins.
The time capsule, its existence previously unknown, had been discovered just a week earlier, when the four-story structure was demolished. The fate of the biggest commercial building on Van Wert’s Main Street was sealed when it partially collapsed last fall, after years of neglect.
Ownership of the now-empty lot will transfer to the nonprofit Van Wert County Foundation, headed by Seth Baker. “If we bought it 15 years ago for $150,000 and put a new roof on, we would have had this amazing building still sitting there, in great condition,” Baker says. A number of other buildings nearby will not survive another winter without intervention. But plans are underway not only to stabilize the town’s historic structures, but to restore and modernize the entire downtown area. “No one is out there to save us as a community,” Baker says, “other than us.”
Well, actually, someone might be. Over the last decade, another Ohio small town, 70 miles southeast of Van Wert, has managed to reverse its downward slide. Local developer Jason Duff seized the initiative in his struggling community of Bellefontaine, and turned a drab backwater into a tourist attraction. Now he has created an enterprise called Small Nation that is working with more than a dozen similar towns scattered over Ohio and Indiana. “It’s another community that’s doing awesome things that we can look to as a resource,” says Seth Baker. “Jason has done what we’re getting ready to do.”
Most of the buildings along Van Wert’s Main Street are from an earlier period of prosperity.
As word of Bellefontaine’s success spread across the Midwest, Small Nation created a formal tour service aimed at potential clients and interested individuals. Once or twice a week, Jason Duff can be seen leading groups through town, stopping to visit with business owners and hearing their stories. “Jason loves to take people through his community and show what he’s doing,” says Baker. “Most of us in Northwest Ohio have been on a tour there and have heard his story.” A tour can be simple and straightforward or expanded to include speakers and a cooking demonstration. “I think a town is a collection of stories,” says Jason. “When you take the tour, you see ideas.”
From Ruins to Revival
Not very long ago, the most significant attraction in Bellefontaine (pronounced bell-fountain) was a block-long section of Court Avenue, billed as “the oldest concrete street in America.” A statue, plaque and picnic table stand at one end of the street, celebrating hometown hero George Bartholomew and his 130-year-old concrete creation. But in the past decade, Bellefontaine has created many more reasons to visit this town of 13,500, an hour northwest of Columbus. “We took an underrated town that was really struggling,” Jason Duff says, “and then actually made it cool again.”
Seemingly everywhere at once, Jason is armed with boundless enthusiasm and oft-repeated catchphrases. “Money and energy are the same thing” is one of his favorites. “No is just a delayed version of yes,” he says, referring to the time it can take for a new idea to be embraced by government officials, bankers and businesspeople.
Bellefontaine’s historic Court Avenue is adjacent to Small Nation’s newest and biggest acquisition, the Opera Block.
Jason came home from Ohio Northern University in 2005, armed with degrees in music and business management, and anxious to make his mark in the community. He tried selling real estate and was not very good at it. “But I learned the important aspects of real estate are knowing the licensing law, knowing the marketing, and how to access capital,” he says. “That’s one of the things most entrepreneurs struggle with. How do you get money to fund and support your ideas?” And that’s what Duff is teaching his counterparts in other small cities.
Duff started out by purchasing a derelict property on Main Street with a loan from a sympathetic bank. “We’d done all these studies. We’d done all these needs assessments. We knew we needed a restaurant downtown,” he says. “That’s the first thing that we needed.”
After several tries, Jason convinced a successful restaurateur from another town to move into his first building, purchased for $67,000 at a sheriff’s sale for unpaid taxes. He borrowed another $100,000 to renovate the building and his tenant borrowed $200,000 for kitchen equipment and improvements. Six Hundred Downtown opened for business in 2011. The restaurant’s current owner has been featured on the Food Network, won multiple prizes, and most importantly, brought people back to downtown Bellefontaine. Now there are several other restaurants, strategically spread around the downtown area, each with its own personality and all working in partnership with Jason’s Small Nation team.
“We’re not selling reports that sit on a shelf,” says Small Nation’s Jason Duff. “We’re actually bringing people in, having them meet with entrepreneurs, having them hear the ups, the downs, and then giving them a model.”
“This is what we do,” he says. “We buy and renovate historic buildings in small towns. Recruit tenants. Finance their business or become an equity partner. Help them brand, market, promote … and train for success.” To date, Small Nation has bought and renovated more than 50 buildings in Bellefontaine alone, with nearly $30 million in private investment.
A Tour of Bellefontaine
Walking through Bellefontaine on a Friday in July, Jason frequently stops to tell a story, point out something of interest or visit with a shopkeeper. Head tilted upward, he gestures toward the ceiling of a mini-mall, painted to resemble puffy white clouds scattered across an azure sky, an idea he brought back from a Las Vegas casino.
The tour stops at a succession of restaurants and shops, each with its own origin story. Across the street, a brew pub was started by a group of guys who competed together in beard-growing contests. Opened in 2016, Brewfontaine has three times been declared the “best beer bar in Ohio ,” according to Craftbeer.com. Soon, Jason is inside the nearby City Sweets and Creamery. “We helped her with her name, her paint colors, her logo,” he says. Small Nation worked with the city to reverse the alley next door and punch out a drive-through window, all to help City Sweets compete with the chain doughnut shops.
Recruited by Jason Duff, the Flying Pepper Cantina began life as a food truck. The owners worked in partnership with Small Nation on everything from menus to interior design.
Jason’s tour continues with a visit to a just-opened coworking space, and then on to a combination salon/boutique. “As people are waiting for their color to set, they buy,” he says. “They shop.” A fitness center recently relocated down the street, from its former suburban location. Since it opened, two new yoga studios have opened downtown. And another fitness studio. “So now,” Jason says, “we’re known for health and wellness.”
A Town on the Brink
The Lincoln Highway was the first road to traverse the entire width of the United States. Completed in 1913, it passed right through the middle of Van Wert, bringing people and prosperity to town. Fifty years later, another highway was built, but this one bypassed the city entirely. Though the population has held steady at around 11,000 since that time, evidence of Van Wert’s decades-long decline as a business center is everywhere. The recent collapse of the Home Guards Building is the most recent reminder that time is running out for a revival.
In order to consolidate efforts with other community partners, in 2019 the Van Wert Foundation launched Van Wert Forward, a $90 million public-private initiative focused on revitalizing the moribund downtown. Plans call for the mixed-use redevelopment of several downtown buildings into first-floor commercial space with apartments on the second and third floors. Work on the first phase of reconstruction is on track to begin before the end of summer. If all goes according to schedule, the first batch of newly refurbished properties will be move-in ready within 12 to 18 months.
Many of Van Wert’s historic buildings are in danger of collapse.
To date, Van Wert Forward has taken ownership of 52 downtown buildings, many of them in need of immediate attention. At first glance, the commercial corridor along Main Street seems largely intact, thanks to ongoing efforts to spruce up the empty storefronts. But the work so far has been largely cosmetic, not addressing the serious structural problems that threaten many of the properties. Baker points to a map of downtown buildings and rattles off a long list of problems. “This unit right here is where the first floor is laying in the basement,” he says. “The back is collapsing on this one. The roof is collapsing on this one. This building has the ballroom with a broken truss in it. This wall here was collapsing into the alley.”
Unlike Bellefontaine, which is rebuilding itself largely with private funds, Van Wert is taking advantage of tax credits and grants to offset the cost of revitalizing the city. Several blocks downtown were recently added to the National Register of Historic Places, including more than 90 buildings. For the first phase of construction, “We’ll have $4.3 million in federal historic tax credits,” says Baker. Another $2.5 million in state historic tax credits has also been announced.
Keeping with historic preservation standards, the look and feel of building interiors will remain, especially corridors and stairwells. Doors and windows must meet stringent standards. Many of Van Wert’s old commercial buildings were altered over the years. Intricate brickwork was covered up with metal panels, screens and siding. A number of Main Street storefronts have already been stripped of these architectural additions, exposing long-forgotten original and ornamental facades. But not every alteration is destined to be demolished.
“Most historic districts like to cut their significance off in the ’30s or the ’40s,” says Baker. “For us, this would be really unfair.” He and his team fought to protect some architecture of the 1960s and beyond, in order to present a more complete picture of the town’s history.
Some of the town’s questionable architecture will survive Van Wert’s Main Street makeover. “We don’t want to be living in a museum,” says Seth baker.
While Van Wert Forward has taken a different approach to funding than Small Nation’s private model, it is following the Bellefontaine blueprint when it comes to recruiting and assisting businesses to occupy their renovated spaces. “We want to go beyond just owning the buildings,” says Baker. “We want our businesses to thrive and succeed.” Although there is no formal arrangement between Van Wert and Small Nation, the two groups have had ongoing discussions. “They wrote a portion of our plan that was specifically tailored around business recruitment,” Baker says. “Jason is great at recruiting and tenant cultivation,”
Jenna Daily owns a bridal shop on Main Street in a storefront she leases from the foundation. Sometime next year, Van Wert Forward will pay to move her collection of dresses and accessories to a newly renovated location around the corner. A year later, when construction is finished, she will have the option of staying where she is or moving back into her original location. In addition to 37 residential units, her bridal shop is one of 14 commercial spaces included in the first phase of Van Wert’s downtown reconstruction.
Another Town in Search of a Solution
Fifty years ago, the city of Albion, Mich., was home to 15,000 people, many of them employed by nearby foundries. The town lays claim as home to the first Mother’s Day celebration and the children’s sport of tee ball. Detroit-based gangsters were known to frequent the balcony at the local theater. The factories began to close in the late ’60s, and within 50 years the last foundry had shut down. Then the hospital closed, and the schools were absorbed by a neighboring district. Today the population is just half of what it once was. As in Van Wert, many of the building facades that line Albion’s red-brick main street have been superficially spruced up, but are in need of interior updates and structural repair.
The best hope for Albion may be its co-dependent relationship with Albion College, a small liberal arts school with financial problems of its own. The college needs a town with things to do if it hopes to compete for students. And the town needs students and their parents to support local business.
‘You’ve got to take the long view,” says Albion’s Caroline Hurteau. “Because the cost of getting started is still really high.”
Six years ago, the college and members of the community joined forces and formed the Albion Reinvestment Corporation (ACR), a nonprofit focused on the revitalization of the commercial corridor, and now the largest downtown property owner. Local businessman and ACR President Bill Dobbins graduated from the college in 1974 and practiced medicine in the community until 2003. He and his family own property in town that they recently renovated and restored to its 1852 appearance. A bakery, store, coworking space and marketing arm of the family business occupy the ground floor with loft apartments upstairs. “That building was our first project,” says Caroline Hurteau, who is Bill Dobbins’ daughter and the company’s special projects manager. “We’re investing in a place that we love.”
Interested parties in Albion have had conversations with Jason Duff of Small Nation. “Albion has no unique problems,” says Hurteau. “There’s nothing here that you wouldn’t see in Bellefontaine or in any other small town. It’s all about population. Who’s investing in the community? Bringing back Main Street.”
More Than Just Buildings
Albion, Van Wert and countless other midwestern towns have good reason to look closely at Bellefontaine. Ten years ago, 80 percent of Bellefontaine’s downtown storefronts were boarded up and abandoned. Small Nation team member Bo Alexander remembers what it was like. “When I was a child, I used to hear stories about people being scared to come here.” No longer. It has become a destination. “People come from Columbus or Springfield or Lima or Dayton to enjoy restaurants and shopping, says chamber of commerce President Ben Vollrath. “I’d say close to 50 percent of sales that happen in our downtown are from non-Logan County residents.”
Built in 1913, Bellefontaine’s old post office was last used as a restaurant in the early 90s.
But even Bellefontaine is a work in progress. Small Nation has recently taken ownership of the Opera Block, a historic building that fronts the entire length of George Bartholomew’s concrete street. Long neglected but still salvageable, the elegant three-story structure has the potential to be Small Nation’s biggest project to date, with a dozen storefronts and 40,000 square feet of space. The Canby Building stands nearby, purchased by Duff in 2012. Its historic brick façade features terra cotta columns and limestone detailing. He hopes to attract a boutique hotel to the site. Two blocks west, a massive old stone post office has been empty for decades, but was recently re-roofed in anticipation of a new tenant.
“You can have the coolest buildings in the world. But you need to find a way to unlock people’s creative talent, their unique ideas, and get them paired with resources, coaching and support,” Jason Duff says. “That’s how we start rebuilding a town.”