Major pending developments in the downtowns of Butler County's two largest cities could help spark what the communities need to bring their cores back to life, business leaders say.
Cincinnati State Technical and Community College opened a downtown Middletown branch campus in 2012 and Pendleton Art Center opened on Central Avenue in 2011.
Several more downtown Middletown buildings are under new ownership including the former Manchester Inn, Rose Furniture and Middletown Journal buildings.
Downtown Hamilton redevelopment got another boost this week with the announcement that three new small businesses will open next year along High Street in commercial space available at the Artspace Hamilton Lofts building.
Those shops — Almond Sisters Bakery, Unsung Salvage Design Co. and Renaissance Fine Art Supplies Ltd. — will join Jackson Market and Deli, which is expected to open early next year in the former Elder-Beerman building at 150 High St. and offer freshly prepared food and produce for sale. Just down the street, the owners of the forthcoming High Street Cafe hope to bring a breakfast and lunch restaurant, general store, and catering business to Hamilton by the beginning of January.
“These are exactly the businesses we were hoping to bring downtown with Artspace,” said city councilman Tim Naab, who revealed the news at a Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce event held Tuesday night.
Construction is about halfway complete on the Artspace Lofts, at 222 High St., which is being co-developed by Minneapolis-based nonprofit Artspace and Neighborhood Housing Services of Hamilton. The $11.8 million project will convert the former Hamilton Center into 42 apartments for artist living. The three new businesses and a gallery will fill the 3,000-square-feet of total commercial space in the building, according to Artspace spokeswoman Melodie Bahan.
Once open in spring 2015, Artspace will be added to a growing list of recently completed downtown Hamilton revitalization projects.
“With a growing population of office workers and students downtown, and the 70-plus residential units in the 200 block of High Street, it’s very encouraging to see the retail following suit,” said City Chief of Staff Brandon Saurber. “It’s a sign of Hamilton reclaiming downtown for working, living, and playing.”
High Street Cafe co-owner Phil Wong, who will run the business with wife Alena Wong and brother-in-law Anthony Cianchetti, was happy to see more businesses coming to High Street.
“It’s great to see so much productivity and renovation going on down here,” he said.
The following investments have been made in the city’s core:
• Historic Mercantile Lofts, at 236 High Street, was an $8.6 million project by Canton-based Historic Developers to convert three buildings into 29 residential units and five commercial spaces. Commercial tenants include Community Design Alliance, Art Off Symmes, Millikin and Fitton Law Firm, and ACS Title and Closing Services.
• The former Journal-News building at 228 Court Street was renovated in a $2.5 million project by Historic Developers into the Butler Tech School of the Arts, Miami Valley Ballet Theatre and the Hamilton City Schools ABLE program. The project finished in mid-2013.
• RiversEdge Amphitheatre, at 200 Riverfront Plaza, opened in 2013, along the east bank of the Great Miami River between downtown and German Village. The city is currently seeking funding to develop the park portion of RiversEdge on the former Mercy Hospital property.
• The Consortium for Ongoing Reinvestment Efforts (CORE) Fund is a private nonprofit launched at the end of 2012. It has raised more than $6 million to acquire blighted properties and make non-traditional loans to developers for projects in the area of High and Main streets. Seven commercial and residential properties have been purchased including the former Elder-Beerman building and will be readied for development. Retailer Sara's House, which sells home décor, gifts, jewelry and refurbished furniture and fixtures, opened earlier in 2014 in the former Hungry Bunny building at 254 High Street, now owned by CORE Fund.
• Meanwhile, construction is ongoing for the new downtown headquarters of Community First Solutions. The Hamilton nonprofit is investing $5.8 million in renovations of the former Ringel's furniture building at 223 S. Third St., where it will relocate its headquarters once the project is complete next year.
The Almond Sisters Bakery is owned by Hamilton-area natives Jenni Hubbard and Brandi Carder, who currently operate in Forest Fair Village and sell their fresh, handmade artisan baked goods at Hamilton’s Historic Farmer’s Market.
Hubbard said that since she found out Artspace was seeking commercial tenants, it was the goal to open there.
“We don’t want you to come in and just see a bakery, we want it to be an interactive space for artists and people to be creative,” she said.
Unsung Salvage Design, a local family business, will sell custom furniture and original accent pieces for the Hamilton community, and create custom screen-printed T-shirts, posters, and other digital media under their Unsung Ink label.
Unsung Salvage is co-owned by brothers Justin, Dondi and Jason Carder and brother-in-law Scott Hubbard, relatives of Almond Sisters’ owners.
What started as a hobby is now a new business start-up. Scott Hubbard said Unsung will open temporarily at the Hamilton Mill business incubator this winter until their space at Artspace is ready. “We like to take old things and restore them,” he said.
Renaissance Fine Art Supplies husband-and-wife owners Rick Jones — who plans to retire next year as executive director of the Fitton Center for Creative Arts — and Chris Jones aim to offer an array of artists’ supplies and materials.
“With more and more artists being active and moving into the community, they’re going to need a place to get quality art supplies,” Rick Jones said. “The closest quality art supply store is in the Kenwood area and there’s none before you get to Columbus, Dayton or Indianapolis.”
The art supply store will sell canvases, paint, brushes, drawing materials and other items, Jones said.
He said he was involved in helping bring Artspace to Hamilton along with former Mayor Don Ryan. Artspace will bring a cultural vibrancy to downtown that’s “badly needed,” and help ignite night life, Jones said.
But new development doesn’t happen overnight, said Jones.
“When the arts are allowed to play a major role in revitalizing a community, exciting things will happen,” Jones said. “It takes time, but it’s starting to happen. We’re really excited to be a part of it.”