Growing Hamilton: Dozens of new small businesses injecting energy to downtown, Main Street

Business owners in Hamilton’s core areas have been feeling a momentum of growing customers, which the city hopes to continue as it prepares for one of the largest developments in recent memory.

Since 2013, 50 new small businesses have opened in Hamilton, the great majority of them in downtown and along Main Street, officials said.

During that period, 2,526 new jobs were created citywide, officials said, and 1.25 million square feet of space were redeveloped in the city’s urban core, including 23 buildings there.

Hamilton’s total citywide annual payroll in 2018 was $1.07 billion, up from a record $1.03 billion in 2017.

Some long-dormant buildings have been activated in recent years, many of them refurbished by, or assisted by, the non-profit CORE (Consortium for Ongoing Reinvestment Efforts) Fund. Those have included the former Fifth Third building at 2 S. Third St., and the prime real estate of 103 Main St., overlooking the High-Main Bridge and the Great Miami River, which for decades was used only for storage.

That was occupied by the Quarter Barrel microbrewery, and city officials are excited to be announcing a new micro-brewery and restaurant tenant in coming weeks.

Chris Cannon, co-owner of True West Coffee, which has locations on High Street downtown and on Main Street, said both his shops have struggled at times during more than five years downtown, and longer on Main.

Business has been boosted by increasing customers, Cannon said.

“As you see all the new businesses coming in, and people living downtown – there’s more people living around Main Street as well – it’s definitely increased a lot,” Cannon said. “It used to feel like a ghost town some days. But that’s not the case anymore. Especially as the weather gets nice.”

He says Hamilton’s downtown and Main Street have “beautiful potential.”

“You feel a little bit of a buzz, there’s a little bit of activity, and it’s exciting because I think that’s going to keep growing,” he said.

At another Main Street business, Petals & Wicks, owner Sherry Hoskins has increased the size of her business because she believes the mammoth indoor sports complex and convention center called Spooky Nook at Champion Mill, being built a few blocks away on North B Street, will bring many new customers when it opens in mid-2021.

Hoskins recently visited the original Spooky Nook sports complex near Manheim, Pa. — where athletes and their families routinely drive several hours for sports tournaments, and where local teams and families can go to improve their sports’ skills or for fitness classes and athletic training. After speaking with business owners there, she saw great potential for business growth in and around Hamilton.

Since Spooky Nook broke ground in October, developers have been approaching Hamilton, looking for sites for national hotels and other businesses. Some have been speaking with property owners about purchases, said Hamilton Economic Development Director Jody Gunderson. Even before that, people started inquiring about moving into Hamilton’s downtown, he said.

“It only just really started happening, maybe in the last year,” Gunderson said. “We have people call up and specifically ask us to help them find space in our downtown.

“They’re very specific in that they want to be downtown. It’s like, man, we’ve made some progress here if they’re not interested in other parts of the city – and these are from professional to commercial opportunities. That is something to me that has changed dramatically.”

A number of businesses have occupied upper floors of some of Hamilton’s older office buildings, transforming the spaces into modern, airy, well-lit spaces that feel like they’re in newly built places.

Some have complained that Hamilton officials have focused on developing the downtown and Main Street areas at the expense of others, but city officials have said that with limited budgets — city government now spends less than it did in 2011 — the city had to be strategic in where it worked to foster job growth, and those two areas were the best bet.

In the past several years, business on High Street “has stayed pretty steady,” said Mallory Greenham, Hamilton’s small business develoment specialist.

“We haven’t had too much turnover, and the turnover we’ve had, we’ve filled,” Greenham said.

High Street “remains pretty close to full occupancy, so right now, we’re starting to see things starting to pop up on the arteries to the sides,” she said.

One of those businesses is VPcabs Virtual Pinball, which moved from Fairfield to a former Goodyear store at 113 N. 3rd St., where it plans to continue building virtual pinball machines. The company, which was on Season 7 of Shark Tank and received an investment from Draymond John, plans to build a combination of arcade, bar and restaurant in the part of the building facing the street.

New businesses are appearing on side streets, like 2nd and 3rd streets. And the gigantic former Ohio Casualty complex, which once housed 1,000 employees, is being reactivated by its owner, IRG, which now is building apartments to house international students who will be learning English as a second language at Miami University’s Hamilton Campus.

RELATED: New apartments part of rebirth of large downtown Hamilton building

Along Main Street, several buildings that had been empty or nearly so now have businesses. One of them is the Davis Building at 304 Main St. known for housing Hughes Pharmacy. Along with the pharmacy, which occupies a small part, it now has a second location of Lebanon’s iconic Village Parlor ice cream shop, already a popular place in Hamilton. Soon, 12 apartments will open upstairs.

Hamilton officials including City Manager Joshua Smith, Gunderson and Greenham confidently say they expect a few more business announcements in the next couple of months along Main Street.

Investment in Hamilton’s business core has been helped by other businesses nearby that have made Hamilton a more interesting place, officials said. One such business is A Game Knight at 345 N. 3rd St., in German Village, which opened in November and lets families and friends play its hundreds of board games.

Downtown and Main Street have been helped by improvements to the look and feel of the areas, which have seen significant improvements to their lighting and sidewalks in recent years. The development of Hamilton’s Marcum Park, which offers free summer-evening concerts at the RiversEdge amphitheater, also attracted about 30,000 viewers last year. Marcum Park in September was named one of five “Great Public Spaces in America” by the American Planning Association, joining earlier winners, New York’s Central Park and Chicago’s Millennium Park.

Hamilton’s Alive After 5, event, which this year launched on Thursday and happens the first Thursday of the month from 5-9 p.m. April through October, also has drawn people to the business districts and their stores (the July event this year will happen July 11 because the first Thursday is July 4). A new city law allowing sipping of adult drinks in the areas also has helped.

For the first time, Main Street businesses during 2018 became involved with Alive After 5.

Gunderson said he’s heard longtime area residents say, “It’s just so nice to see the sidewalks filled again at night. Just like things used to be.”

Total annual investment in Hamilton, citywide

(Includes private and public money, such as highway projects)

2013: $94 million

2014: $126 million

2015: $42 million

2016: $73 million

2017: $56 million

2018: $230 million*

Source: City of Hamilton

*Includes Spooky Nook investments

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