Ten years ago, Bellefontaine, Ohio was struggling. The boom of a century ago was a very distant memory as 70 to 80% of the first floor spaces of downtown buildings stood empty.
The west-central Ohio town of 13,000 has always had a tourist economy generated by nearby Indian Lake, but beside boat and RV rentals, local businesses had decamped for greener pastures.
Starting in 2011, all that changed: 15 empty or dilapidated buildings were restored, 38 historic buildings were renovated for new business tenants, and 30 new small businesses brought upwards of 200 new jobs to the area. In the past seven years, seven new restaurants have opened, as have 17 new specialty retail stores. 70% of the new business owners are under 40 years old; 80% are women.
Jason Duff, the driver of the Bellefontaine downtown resurgence, said, “I got sick and tired of watching my hometown die, so we did something about it.”
“We” refers to Small Nation, a small team of developers that focuses on revitalizing places and spaces. Small Nation launched its efforts in Bellefontaineand is now helping small towns revive further afield.
“We’ve all been told: big cities, big business and big pocketbooks are what make big impacts,” Duff says. “However, filling in all of the nooks and crannies between our urban centers are thousands upon thousands of small towns, connected by highways and a shared sense of hope, passion and possibility.”
The Small Nation team bought their first building for $1 in 2011. Since then, they have brought together investors, businesses, real estate professionals, politicians and historic preservationists to develop, articulate and put into practice a vision for a community.
“We find out what each town has. Each small town is a little weird and entirely unique,” Duff says. “We get local people with money together with local government officials to jump-start positive change.”
To date, Small Nation has run out of buildings to buy and renovate in Bellefontaine and is now focusing on 13 other Ohio communities and the entire state of Indiana.
Ben Vollrath, CEO of the Bellefontaine Chamber of Commerce, says, “We are 60 minutes from Columbia, which has two million people and an international airport. All the city offers is accessible to us, but we don’t have to live there. Many of us prefer living in a small town, but we also want the things that cities offer.”
“There are certain kinds of businesses we expect and even take for granted in big cities, but every town needs them,” Duff says. “They include the destination coffee shop and the local boutiques.”
When the COVID epidemic shut businesses in early March, the Bellefontaine unemployment rate rose to 30%.
“Now, it is 6.2%,” says Vollrath. “We are back almost to our prior rate.”
Small Nation, working with the state of Indiana, developed a local employment post software that allows employers to post job openings and job seekers to post their resumes.
Small Nation has made other adjustments to the pandemic landscape, such as a space designed to function as an events venue that is operating as a restaurant with social distancing.
“Actually, our restaurants are doing better post-pandemic,” Vollrath says. “We have to make sure that people feel safe, so restaurants have eliminated tables and erected barriers between booths.”
Duff calls the Small Nation modus operandi “Hustle Hard.” In the case of Bellefontaine, hustling hard turned a place that was on life support into a vibrant, bustling destination.