HAMILTON — When Brad Baker decided to open Pinball Garage in downtown Hamilton, people asked him, “Why?”
The answer was simple: Hamilton was becoming the place to be in Butler County. And the business community invited him with open arms.
“I’ve never been in a city or had a business in a place where more businesses approached me,” said Baker, who just expanded his combination pinball arcade-restaurant-bar on North Third Street. “All the places around here, we do stuff here all the time. We have events together, we do fun things together.”
The Hamilton business community, especially the bar and restaurant community, has bought into the We>Me philosophy of 17 Strong, a citizen-led advisory board designed to create strength in Hamilton’s 17 neighborhoods.
These business owners have also found truth in the cliché idiom that a rising tide lifts all boats.
“I think it’s important to have options for the community because that creates a destination,” said Jim Goodman, owner of Municipal Brew Works, which opened in 2016. “There’s not just McDonald’s. There are options. And it becomes a place where people want to go. That’s always been the goal, to make Hamilton a place to work, live and play.”
And Goodman, as well as many other businesses, like Fretboard Brewing and Public House, Hamilton’s Urban Backyard, Billy Yanks, Pour House, and the Casual Pint, have bought into that goal.
But this starts with the city of Hamilton, said Ann Marie Cilley, owner of the Casual Pint.
“It starts with the city, the city leadership, whether it’s the mayor or the city manager, or the chamber of commerce,” she said. “I think it is very, very genuine. Hamilton supports Hamilton. And that’s what they expect of the businesses, and that’s what they bring in.”
Goodman said after spending 40-plus hours a week working at his place, ensuring it’s the way he wants it to be, “it’s nice to have options to where you can enjoy yourself, to where you can let off some steam.”
And that leads to further community building and collaboration, he said. “You can talk to other owners to see how their numbers are doing, or say, ‘Hey, I have an idea, let’s do a collaborative event,‘” Goodman said.
In its earlier heyday, Hamilton was a manufacturing town, a paper town. Champion Mill employed thousands of the city’s citizens. But the city was hit by businesses either moving or closing, and jobs leaving the city. But since 2011, the city of Hamilton has been fighting. As it’s been fixing roads pocked with potholes and buying blighted properties, it has worked to bring back jobs and businesses, from major manufacturers to shops and the local bars, breweries and restaurants.
“It’s always good to be a part of the underdog that is winning,” said Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Dan Bates. “We have such a can-do attitude because we have to.”
Hamilton is through and through a blue-collar community, and Bates said the business’s success is because of “hutzpa.”
“It’s about the people,” he said. “We’re not going to lose, we’re in it to win it.”
And they’re winning before the Spooky Nook at Champion Mill is fully operational. It’s been projected, based on the numbers at Spooky Nook’s original location in Pennsylvania, 1 million people will visit the city annually within the first year of operation.
The chamber had surveyed some of the businesses on Main and High streets, and those who can track customer locations, reported that 60% of patrons are from outside Hamilton. Most are from Oxford and Liberty Twp., but people who live in Northern Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky are regularly traveling to downtown Hamilton.
Success doesn’t happen without community support, said Goodman. “Businesses working together are great, but if the community doesn’t respond, it’s kind of a moot point. I think because Hamilton has seen lean times as a community, in terms of options for dinner and entertainment set now when you see these places open up almost all locally owned, they don’t want to see that go away.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Hamilton, these businesses struggled, especially since many were less than a handful of years old. But some rallied together, and with the chamber of commerce’s assistance, formed the Hamilton Amusement and Hospitality Association, or HAHA, in what was a scary time for many businesses as sales plummeted and layoffs were required to stay afloat.
Tyler McCleary, general manager at Tano’s Bistro and a founding HAHA member, said it was about like-minded people early on seeing the vision and where it was headed. It was not about having repeat business for a specific bar, retail establishment, or restaurant, it was about having “repeat business for the whole Hamilton experience.”
“It’s more powerful than us doing it by ourselves,” McCleary said.
“If we’re all successful, and we’re getting talent to come here, whether it would be for us or another establishment, we all profit off that,” he said.
The Hamilton experience includes the city’s other amenities, such as the festivals, parade and concerts. Adam Helms, Hamilton’s director of resident services and organizer of the RiversEdge concerts, said he remembered what it was like when he first moved to the city from Wisconsin a dozen years ago.
“Unless you were going to Hamilton for something like court or to go to city hall or something like that, there wasn’t much of a reason to go downtown,” he said.
When Rivers Edge started up in 2012, they focused on micro-tourism, attracting Fairfield, West Chester Twp., Liberty Twp. and other parts of the county. Then as incremental changes happened, Helms said he believed that helped with recruiting businesses and tourism.
“I think it just put a lot of eyes on Hamilton,” he said. “I think Hamilton’s a unique spot. And when I first moved here — I moved here from Green Bay — and people back home would ask me what Hamilton’s like, I would say, ‘It’s just like Green Bay, but they don’t have the Packers.’”
Both are old industrial towns but the people are the same: salt of the earth and hard-working folks live and work there. “But they just need something to rally around,” he said.