(Talk of the Town file photo by Jennifer Zartman Romano) The closure of a business in downtown Columbia City has some concerned, yet local leaders see hopeful signs in future downtown development.
By Jennifer Zartman Romano
The recent announcement that a long-standing business in downtown Columbia City was planning to close elicited a public dialog about the fate of the city's historic downtown corridors, leading many to ask whether this was a downward trend or whether the space can be as vibrant and bustling as it once was decades ago.
After 13 and a half years in the downtown area, Memory Lane owners announced last week that they planned to close their shop by the end of May.
"It is with great sadness that Memory Lane announces its plan to close the shop by the end of May. We have enjoyed being a part of downtown Columbia City business for 13.5 years and appreciate every single customer we have had the opportunity to provide service to," they stated on their Facebook page, eliciting many comments from customers sad to hear the news.
The owners of Memory Lane plan to open two booths at the Countryside Antique Mall on US 30 near Larwill in mid-April. Plans to being liquidating inventory at the downtown store are now underway, with 15% off antiques and 30% off other store inventory.
The closure of Memory Lane falls on the heals of the recent closure of the Watering Can on the Square, a floral business formerly located in the Central Block building on the north side of the courthouse square and Bugsy's Pizza and Ice Cream Parlor. Julie's New Sensation, Keyser's This & That, Mosher's Barber Shop and The CC Deli closed last year. A used clothing store in the former CC Deli location appears to be closed as well.
There has been some good news, however. Bugsy's Pizza and Ice Cream Parlor closed in February, but the space has since reopened with a new restaurant business. The long-vacant restaurant space two doors east of Line Street on Van Buren reopened several months ago with the launch of The Vault, a bar and eatery. Nearby, another vacant space has been converted into a bright, busy salon called Karma.
Closures mean there is a surplus of vacant retail space in downtown Columbia City -- which is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on who you talk to.
Mayor Ryan Daniel's perspective
Columbia City Mayor Ryan Daniel says he's disappointed to hear of the closures, but often doesn't know of a business owner's plans until he reads about it.
"I’m saddened by these closures but also understand that small business is a tough business to be in. The downtown is our history and a vital part of our future," Daniel said. "The closures happen without City Hall being notified. I find out as soon as I read Talk of the Town. Unfortunately, by the time the closure is announced not much can be done to save it."
Daniel believes there is positive news for downtown, though -- noting recent developments and others yet in the works.
" There are other projects coming, but none I can speak of in detail at this time. So, while we do have businesses closing, we also need to see that new businesses are opening or locating to downtown," adds Daniel. "Ultimately, we would like to see all storefronts at capacity."
Daniel believes city government is a partner in filling that downtown space.
"We have tried to get the message out to business owners through the redevelopment commission regarding our revolving loan funds or façade grants," said Daniel. "Typically, however, it is more of an operational issue of not getting enough customers through the door. Our redevelopment commission can’t help much with the operations side of the ledger."
Daniel is optimistic that the newly formed Columbia City Main Street group has the potential to help existing business owners gain strong footing and to help new businesses develop, initiating complicated conversations and helping make plans.
"I’ve had some discussions in the past with business owners and many times we see that the property owner doesn’t live in or around Columbia City," Daniel said. Having a vested local interest is sometimes key to making good things happen downtown. "This can make it quite difficult to get repairs completed and make the space more affordable. The upkeep of a historic downtown building can become quite pricey and many 'vacant landlords' choose not to put in energy saving improvements. While this isn’t the only way to save on the operations side of the business, it is a way to reduce utility consumption."
Daniel said his office is actively working to track all vacant space.
"We are working on a downtown building inventory which will give us a better, more clear picture of what challenges our downtown buildings face financially and structurally," Daniel said.
"I know our redevelopment commission has continued to work with building owners with their funding options," said Daniel, citing recent projects such as the Hockemeyer & McNagny law office and The Van Buren Building. " We are looking for additional ways to assist small business owners who have an interest in locating downtown."
Tax abatements, Daniel adds, are another option that might entice businesses to locate in the historic downtown area. "The Council and I have discussed potentially giving some type of abatements for downtown improvements, but the logistics of such a program have not been worked out," he said.
"Finally," concludes Daniel, "the new Comprehensive Community Development Plan that will be undertaken this year will put a focus on our downtown and give ideas and suggestions of ways to make the environment better in downtown Columbia City."
Whitley County Chamber director Doug Brown's perspective
On a daily basis, Whitley County Chamber director Doug Brown hears the concerns of local business owners and he shares the community's concerns about downtown Columbia City -- both when a new business emerges and when an established business closes it's doors.
"I’ve been concerned about downtown business in general," Brown said. "In Columbia City, we’ve seen a gradual shift of business moving from the downtown area that is troublesome especially in the retail segment. At the same time, there’s been a substantial investment in downtown from businesses like STAR Bank, Smith & Son’s Funeral Home and Downtown on the Square that is very encouraging. Longtime retailers like Murphy Jewelers and Ball Furniture prove that you can be successful downtown."
Brown believes his office is uniquely suited to help business owners celebrate their successes and seek alternatives when things aren't looking so rosy.
"The Chamber has worked with quite a few businesses on marketing and business strategies," he said of the comprehensive meetings he has with business owners where he helps identify problems and find creative solutions. "A lot of the time, we are reinforcing concepts they already know but may not be practicing anymore. We have seen issues with things like utilizing social media that we have been able to help with."
"For quite some time, we’ve been a resource for the community for business referrals and have seen good success with our networking and marketing programs to help get new business off the ground and strengthen existing businesses," he said. Often, involvement with the Chamber has helped a business get through tough times.
Brown doesn't believe it is the Chamber, alone, that can help a struggling business -- but a concerted effort between many entities.
"There is good work being done by quite a few entities," he said. "The city and county government, Columbia City Main Street, the Whitley County Economic Development Corporation and the Chamber to breathe new life into our community, including downtown."
Working with business owners and representatives across the county, Brown is quick to point out that redevelopment in the historic downtown sectors of all communities is a hot topic.
"We have been working on downtown issues in Churubusco and South Whitley as well, so it’s not like Columbia City is alone in their struggles," he said. "In other counties they are seeing the same issues."
He's terribly optimistic about Whitley County, however. "County-wide there’s an energy right now that’s infectious. I’m very optimistic that the future will be much brighter for downtown," he said. " Change doesn’t happen overnight, but I’m very encouraged by the efforts that are underway.
Whitley County Economic Development president Alan Tio's perspective
As hard as Alan Tio works to bring new business into Whitley County through is position at the Whitley County Economic Development Corporation, it is crushing to see businesses close their doors.
"Our entire team at the EDC is always sad to see businesses close their doors, but we are equally hopeful that those business owners (and others) will consider new business ventures, as well. If they do so, we are here to help," Tio said. Often an entrepreneurial streak doesn't leave an business owner and just because one venture is unsuccesssful, it doesn't mean that individual or group of individuals shouldn't build a solid plan and try again.
The decision to close a business, for the owner, however can be especially troubling.
"In my personal opinion, what is unique to small communities is that business closures are more difficult for two reasons: first, the businesses (and the owners) are going to be 'known' in the communities; and second, because in small communities we are generally conservative and therefore risk-averse," he said. These reasons often keep an individual from trying again.
"We need to support people who have the vision and courage to start their own businesses, and if they fail once we need to be ready to provide support and encourage them to try again," he said. Tio believes his office has tools and personnel available to assist in launching a new venture, perhaps with a new outcome.
"The EDC has taken a number of steps in the last 6-7 years to work with small businesses and entrepreneurs. For example, the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Initiative offers a wide range of programs to meet the needs of startup and growing businesses. Our support of downtown Columbia City includes sponsoring the effort to establish an Indiana Main Street effort that focuses attention on downtown programs and initiatives," said Tio.
Tio's office has several programs aimed and developing certain sectors of business in Whitley County.
"We currently offer SBEI GreenLight, SBEI Growth Ventures business accelerator, SBEI MarketMaker, SBEI TrailMaker, and access to multiple Revolving Loan Funds," he said. The best way to explain those programs, he believes, is on a one-on-one basis. "Rather than point prospective clients to our website or marketing materials, I instead invite them to call or stop by our office in downtown Columbia City so that we can talk about what programs will be the most helpful."
When asked whether he has ideas or initiatives in place to help fill vacant space in downtown Columbia City, Tio adds, "Yes, we are working on initiatives with the Indiana Main Street group and the Columbia City Redevelopment Commission, but our team is always looking for new ideas and for more people to get involved!"