Monday, July 29, 2002

Small towns making comeback
on Main Street

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Main Street Aurora director Judy Ostendorf and president Tim Weber walk along revitalized Second Street in Aurora, Ind.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
        For decades, Aurora, Ind., had a crusty reputation to uphold - hard-bitten river town. Casket company town. Flood scene. But these days, the flooding on the Ohio comes less frequently and the town's image is softer - historic Main Street, USA.

        In July, the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Main Street Center named Aurora a National Main Street Community for 2002. It came as a moral victory for a town that has worked hard to attract business and people.

        “With its location on the river, historic commercial district and proximity to the Greater Cincinnati metro area, it's clear that Aurora is on an upswing,” said Tim Weber, president of Main Street Aurora. “Due in large part to the efforts of the Main Street program, more than 15 new businesses have relocated to the city this year, and we anticipate many more opportunities for future growth. Approximately 98 percent of the downtown buildings are occupied.”

        The Ohio County community of 3,800 people has revitalized its downtown and met performance standards set by the National Trust and the preservation group Indiana Main Street.

        But Aurora isn't alone in reinventing itself. Other villages and smaller cities in the region are coming back to life by forming Main Street improvement groups and making the most of their historic downtowns.

        “I believe this is a trend, particularly for smaller communities,” said R. Kevin Harper, who saw it happen in Waynesville, Ohio, where he is the village manager. “They can't compete with big-bucks retail. When towns turn to a niche market, they blossom, and you find entrepreneurs who are ready.”

        Each year, the National Trust evaluates commercial district revival programs based on strict rules. They include meeting a historic preservation ethic, reporting economic progress and hiring a paid, professional manager for a downtown improvement group - in this case, Main Street Aurora.

        Aurora fit the criteria perfectly, right down to its registered historic district of more than 200 buildings and five preserved, 19th-century churches.

Defining a community

        The future of smaller downtowns across America has been in jeopardy for decades. Suburban growth and travel on interstate highways threatened old business districts, shoppers nearly vanished and storefronts were boarded up and forgotten.

        Some towns tried to stop the trend by erecting ugly signs and adding metal facades, but this hid their main attraction - the old architecture.

        “By stimulating economic vitality and focusing on reusing historic buildings,” said Kennedy Smith, director of the National Trust, “it creates a place that defines the community.”

        In 1998, community leaders formed Main Street Aurora as a nonprofit group to market and help with economic development in the town, 30 miles east of Cincinnati on U.S. 50. The group operates with a board of 12 people, a full-time director and more than 80 volunteers.

        “In this short time, we've accomplished a lot of things, and we hope to do much more,” said Judy Ostendorf, a group member. “This is a long-term commitment.”

        So it is for some other smaller towns.

        From Waynesville in northern Warren County to Milford in Clermont County, Ohio, communities are taking pride in their old downtowns while seeking increased tourism and business through history and old architecture.

        They want to make downtown a destination again.

        In Waynesville, at Ohio 73 and U.S. 42 in Warren County, the downtown is filled with busy storefronts and has been for years. But with the formation of Maintain Old Main Street (MOMS) in the early 1990s, additional improvements started coming to the town's Victorian business district.

        Bill Stubbs, owner of the Little Red Shed antiques shop, said MOMS has made a big difference, along with the Chamber of Commerce and the village's historic preservation committee.

        “I think being a national historic area will help us in the long run,” said Mr. Stubbs, a member of MOMS. “It means Main Street has something to offer. It's difficult to get a lot of business owners to agree on anything, so MOMS' work on coordinating signs and so forth has been an accomplishment.”

        In the 1990s, MOMS installed restrooms, landscaping and benches on Main Street. It started a feeling of hometown pride that continues.

        “In the 1970s, we were like most other smaller communities,” Mr. Harper said. “Mom and pop stores couldn't compete and we were left with a loss of tax base and vacant buildings. And that's not an unusual situation. But by focusing on selling our heritage, we were able to offer something that people were looking for.”

        Waynesville, founded in the 1790s, is the self-proclaimed Antiques Capital of the Midwest and the home of the Ohio Sauerkraut Festival, which attracts more than 100,000 tourists each fall. More than 70 antiques and specialty shops operate next to brick sidewalks and old-time street lamps.

Creating unique shops a key

        In Hamilton County, Main Street Harrison is trying to build interest in what's called Historic Downtown Harrison. Gary Richards, director since 1999, has set up a number of activities in the area this summer.

        “The membership committee views the Main Street organization as playing a vital role in the community,” he said. “The downtown of any community is the heartbeat of that community. What goes on downtown affects all of the surrounding area.”

        Among the first towns in the area to promote its downtown as a historic place is Milford, where Old Milford continues to attract visitors from outside the area. The Old Milford Merchants Association has promoted the district heavily since the 1970s.

        “The downtown has always been a viable shopping district,” said Diana Kuhnell, owner of the Village Mouse Antiques. “If somebody went out, somebody was standing in line to come in. We're lucky to have some unique shops here: Davis Trains; Madame Alexander's, the doll shop; a bear store; Natures Outfitters; and Rustic Comfort, one of the few stores to handle hickory furniture. We have people coming from Lexington and from as far away as Michigan to go to the shops.”

        On Indiana 56 on the Ohio River, Rising Sun (“Where the Past Lives Today”) hopes to follow Waynesville's lead as a tourist attraction. Founded in 1819, the town became a busy river port in the mid-1800s, but, in the mid-1900s, declined.

        Now, the 2,450 residents have turned Main Street into a working historic area, attracting people from Grand Victoria Casino and Resort.

        “It's an old Ohio River town, but we're making it better by buying property and renovating,” said Tammy Elbright, director of the Historic Downtown Business Development Center. “We're working aggressively to bring pedestrians to Main Street.”

        They're responding, too, coming to town to shop in old-fashioned storefronts that hold everything from art galleries to antiques shops.

        Thanks in part to the Rising Sun Historic Downtown Program, the town has prospered. Formed in 1996, the non-profit group, made up of public officials, business owners and residents, continues to fulfill a common goal - develop Main Street.

        Like similar programs, the downtown program offers promotion, market analysis, tips on building design, low-interest loans, business training and a business development center with a full-time director.

        “We'd like to promote the riverfront,” Mayor John Roeder said. “We're working to improve it dramatically, so the bigger excursion boats can stop and visit. We've never had the facilities to handle them before.”

        At Harps on Main, Pamela and William Rees operate a shop last year named Indiana Main Street Business of the Year.

        She said increased traffic from the gambling boat in the last two months has resulted in $20,000 in sales from people buying harps during a break at the boat.

        “Two years ago, we relocated from California,” Ms. Rees said. “We're the largest builder of custom lever harps in the country. We came here because of the town's Arts as Economics program. It impressed us.”

        Walking down Main Street, visitors see flags and flowers and hear music floating gently from speakers. They see paintings and other art in the windows of the Pendleton Art Gallery and other shops.

        “We took one look at this town and knew that it was on the verge of doing something big,” Ms. Rees said.


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