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Jason Duff gets stopped on the street in downtown Bellefontaine— a lot.
There’s Bronwyn Skidmore, who grabs Duff by the arm as she walks out of Hickory Medical, a membership-based primary care office that accepts no insurance, to thank him for everything he’s done for the town.
“10-15 years ago, businesses were leaving,” said the Bellefontaine native. “It was really frightening.”
A few bustling storefronts later sits Dan Wildermuth, who is retired but still “proud to be called a farmer,” as he holds court with his buddies at least three days a week outside the 24-hour fitness center, keeping tabs on the local comings and goings around them. If one didn’t know better, the downtown footprint and local townsfolk of Bellefontaine could be mistaken for paid extras in a rag-to-riches movie extolling the virtues and perseverance of a once-dying and now thriving small rural city.
They are, however, real people making a real living in a town of about 13,000 in Logan County that 20 years ago was lined with once majestic but boarded up old buildings, left for dead on the far flung outskirts of metropolitan Columbus.
“I remember going to the men’s clothing store Huber Buchenroth when I was young and the owner, Jim Greer, taught me how to tie a tie,” said Duff, who then witnessed the closure of one place after another. “Twenty years ago, 80% of downtown was empty.”
That is, until Duff and Small Nation came along. With $1 they started a renaissance that has not only taken the community by storm, but is being marketed and replicated throughout the state and beyond through their Small Town Success Formula and Small Biz Success Blueprint.
With that dollar they bought a dilapidated building, armed with the knowledge that 14,000 cars drove past that building each day. The dream the team wanted to achieve slowly started to come into focus.
Strategically, and little-by-little, the town has risen from the ashes. Today, Small Nation has renovated and helped establish businesses in 56 renovated areas of downtown Bellefontaine.
Rebirth around food
Alyssa Rice is a jack-of-all-trades procurement manager at Flying Pepper Cantina restaurant, which opened up just as the world shut down in March 2020. After establishing a popular food truck enterprise supplied by local farmers, owners Humberto Nieto and Laura Haverkos made plans to move into one of Small Nation’s renovated downtown spaces and launch an authentic Mexican sit-down restaurant.
As people stayed home and supply chains started to strain, an interesting thing happened in Bellefontaine during the early months of the pandemic. Not only did local businesses stay open, their customer base grew. People weren’t running to Dublin or Columbus to work or eat out. They were staying close to home.
Two years later and they are still staying close to home.
Rice, who is a farmer herself and active in the Logan County Farmers Market, recalls the fledgling restaurant’s early but busy days when supplies weren’t making their way downtown.
“We never had to change the menu,” she said. She called friends and asked them what they had to sell, because Flying Pepper didn’t cease operations, so “most of it I brought over in my pick up.”
Whether walking into Flying Pepper, Six Hundred Downtown Pizza, Sweet Aromas – which was around before the rebirth really took off—or many of the other local eateries, food is the foundation of the rebirth of Bellefontaine. Duff said that was by design.
“We take pride in farm fresh and farm to table,” he said. “A lot of food (sold in local restaurants) is raised here. We support agriculture as well.”
They also support local entrepreneurs. Native Coffee is one success story, and an anchor of sorts for the revitalization of one of downtown’s main thoroughfares, West Columbus Street.
Braydon Campbell was a Bellefontaine native who left home to pursue dreams in the big city, a common storyline for kids from rural Ohio. Along the way he got into the coffee connoisseur business, becoming a skilled barista in the process. A chance meeting led Small Nation to Campbell and now his Native Coffee is the cornerstone of a block of flourishing development in his hometown.
What that block has helped spawn is not only a rural renaissance, but one with a chic, upscale style that is as at home in Logan County as it would be in the trendiest neighborhoods in the most fashionable large cities in the nation. The lofts above these refurbished buildings are renting for $800-$1,800. And as commuters continue to work from home instead of driving into the metro, the demand for this style of living is only increasing, even in farm country.
These downtown Bellefontaine residents aren’t missing a thing. The Syndicate is a modern steakhouse. Brewfontaine, which supplies the craft beer for the steakhouse, has won the CraftBeer.com best beer contest four times in a row in Ohio. And a number of retail stores with a unique mix of services and local products set up in a “shop while you wait” model make it easy to shop and eat right where they live.
Impacting a rural community
The ripple effect of Bellefontaine’s success has had a far and wide reach throughout the region. Other rural communities in the state have wanted a touch of the Small Nation magic, while others have tried to emulate the rejuvenation of their own communities by using a similar blueprint. It is a map to success, according to Wildermuth.
“This area was really run down,” he said from his location outside the fitness center. “It’s really fixed up. On a Friday and Saturday night farmers might like to go somewhere to relax. This is really nice.”
It does, however, take a whole community coming together to make it happen, and that is evident in how business owners communicate with each other. A weekend farmers market in the heart of town has helped producers make connections with each other and become suppliers of the busy downtown restaurants. The bakery in the indoor Main Street Marketplace supplies half the town’s baked goods. And no one, it seems, is afraid to try something new. Partnerships forged in making the community better can be found from local churches to ag cooperatives and beyond.
This is a community that has taken a holistic approach in its support of one another, and in turn has made it easy for residents and visitors alike to not only feel right at home, but also like they are on the cutting edge of the next best thing.
All of it also happened with the support of local officials, who have experienced for themselves the good, bad, ugly and back again. Case in point, a simple change in direction of a small, one-way, scarcely used alleyway was agreed to by the city. That alleyway now is part of the drive thru lane for what has become an iconic treats shop in town – City Sweets & Creamery.
“We don’t want to be the stumbling block,” said Wes Dodds, safety service director with the city of Bellefontaine who has watched its metamorphosis over the years. “We want to be the step up. We try to be a good partner. We know we’re stronger together.”
What is Small Nation?
It would be easy to say that Small Nation is just a real estate company, because on paper it is. It has invested in properties no one thought had a shot at being anything but torn down, and helped cultivate business owners with an entrepreneurial spirit to give-it-a-go.
The business model is not built on simply collecting a rent check every month. The team answers the late night phone call that sparks a new idea or the frantic text where a connection with another community member can help put out a metaphorical fire.
Small Nation puts as much sweat equity into manifesting these thriving rural communities as the business owners themselves do in making their own niche a successful one. Duff and company have inspired folks from small towns like Bryan, Ohio, to Old Hilliard, Chillicothe and beyond to model their approach.
Photos by Dave Liggett
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