Monday, February 18, 2002

Pisgah leaders hope for new lease on retail life

Reviving a place the boom forgot

By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        WEST CHESTER TWP. — As this southeastern Butler County community bustles with growth, its oldest business strip is struggling to survive.

        Vacancy signs dot U.S. 42, the main artery along Pisgah where businesses used to thrive. But many storefronts now sit vacant among a mix of old and new shops. Traffic often backs up along the two-lane road, which has scant turn lanes and signals.

        “We're sort of the bastard son now,” said Dr. Eric J. Koren, a dentist who owns two Pisgah buildings, including one which has had two vacancies for a year. "This used to be "It,' but now it's a shame.”

        Leaders of prospering West Chester Township are trying again to revitalize the community the boom bypassed.

        A study is under way of U.S. 42, which stretches from the Hamilton County line in Sharonville northeast to the Warren County line in Mason. West Chester Township officials are paying about $40,000 for a consultant to do the study, and the Southeastern Butler County Chamber of Commerce has formed a committee to lend support and give input.

        The goal is to revamp the historic highway's business district, which lost its luster in West Chester as development cropped up around Interstate 75 on the west side of the township.

        In different efforts, leaders in Mason and Sharonville also hope to revitalize the corridor.

        U.S. 42 was the first major gateway into this Butler County community. Pisgah's vibrancy peaked in the 1970s but began waning about 15 years ago as the boom accelerated along I-75.

        The aging row of small businesses lost its appeal as shoppers began flocking to stores sprouting along Tylersville Road and Union Centre Boulevard off the highway. Many of its buildings also became too small for several merchants, who either moved into bigger facilities nearby or abandoned the area.

        “Pisgah is obviously showing its age and the worry is that if something wasn't done, it would continue to deteriorate and expand to other territories,” West Chester Township Trustee Jose Alvarez said.

Union Centre has been focus

               In recent years, Union Centre Boulevard, with its cluster of shiny new office buildings, restaurants and a major hotel, has been the center of attention.

        Meanwhile, two previous Pisgah revitalization efforts in the 1990s stalled after an agreement on projects could not be reached.

        The strip remains a hodgepodge of old and newer businesses, some in pristine condition, others in older homes and a few in run-down buildings.

        One building cited by many Pisgah merchants is an old tavern, Tag's Tap Room. Workers there recently declined to comment but some business owners said they want it cleaned up.

        “It's sad to say, but in the Pisgah area now, if I was a stranger going through town, I would probably pass on through it,” said Carlos Todd, a developer with 30 buildings in Pisgah.

        He has been running his business, the Todd Group, since 1964.

        “It looks run-down and doesn't look like an area you'd feel safe in, even though it is,” Mr. Todd said.

        High hopes are pinned on this study. Participants, mostly business owners, township leaders and residents, contend it's the best effort so far because they are working together, along with the Southeastern Butler County Chamber of Commerce.

        The chamber originated in Pisgah as the Pisgah Businessmen's Association 26 years ago before moving its offices to Cincinnati-Dayton Road in the early 1990s and then into its current quarters in Olde West Chester in 1999.

        Joe Hinson, chamber president and chief executive officer, said working with the township will give the chamber and its members a larger voice.

        Businesses are excited and hope the rebirth will pull customers off U.S. 42 from neighboring Sharonville and Mason. Meanwhile, merchants in those cities could feed off Pisgah customers in return, he said.

        “We're talking about opportunities to look at creating a new Pisgah, if you will,” Mr. Hinson said.

        The study's recommendations could include changes to guidelines for signs, road improvements and different entrances for businesses. However, since many of the businesses sit close to the road, it isn't likely U.S. 42 can be widened to four lanes.

        Many of the businesses have land that backs up into subdivisions, so expansion beyond their current small lots also is not likely.

        McGill, Smith and Pushon, a Sharonville architectural firm on U.S. 42, is conducting the study. Jose Castrejon, director of planning for the firm and a West Chester resident, began meeting in November with more than 65 Pisgah landowners for input.

        Their issues will be used to design a plan expected this summer for the business district, he said.

Old turns new again

               In the past two years, a trend has emerged as more businesses have relocated within Pisgah to larger storefronts or refurbished older structures.

        The former Hoot Owl Saloon has been transformed into the Solutions Hair & Nail Salon. Another hair salon in Pisgah, Image Makers, moved up the block this month into the former Fifth Third Bank branch building, which had been vacant for several years.

        “This was the right place at the right time,” said Bonnie Luce, an owner of Solutions. “It's very busy with all the traffic, so there's a lot of clients. I've grown up here my whole life. This is all I know. But I'd like to see it cleaned up a little bit.”

        Traffic congestion and dangerous intersections on U.S. 42 are sore points with merchants and nearby residents who say they want more turn lanes and signals installed.

        “Pulling out onto the road is a pain and really dangerous,” said Claire Eschmeyer, a hairdresser at Solutions.

Rebuilding districts a trend

               West Chester is not alone in trying to resurrect its oldest business corridor. Similar efforts are under way across the nation and in Ohio through the Main Street Program.

        Developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1977, Main Street programs promote revitalizing areas through public and private partnerships.

        The township may use a Main Street program, tax increment financing or other sources to rejuvenate Pisgah, Mr. Alvarez said.

        In Fairfield, leaders plan to revamp Route 4, the most traveled road and one of the oldest in Fairfield.

        They also want to improve traffic conditions and form districts along the artery for entertainment, shopping, offices and homes, said Council member Mark Scharringhausen.

        “You now have so much traffic on that corridor, if we don't do something it's going to inhibit growth and we certainly don't want to do that,” Mr. Scharringhausen said. “If you do nothing, you start to inhibit and detract from everything else we've done.”


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