SIDNEY — Wanted: Entrepreneurs, risk-takers, problem-solvers, embracers of the weird.
Those are the people who can make a community come alive with economic and cultural development.
That’s what Jason Duff, founder and CEO of Small Nation, told some 60 civic and business leaders during a presentation, Wednesday, Oct. 24, hosted by the Sidney-Shelby County Chamber of Commerce, the Sidney-Shelby Economic Partnership and Sidney Alive in the Amos Memorial Public Library Community Room in Sidney.
Duff, whose business is based in Huntsville, started and continues to support a development trend in downtown Bellefontaine that has seen $27 million in investment, 30 new businesses and 24 upscale loft apartments created in the last eight years. Twenty-seven historic buildings have been renovated and rented.
“Small Nation develops places and spaces for small towns and small town entrepreneurs,” Duff said.
When Duff was in college — he graduated from Ohio Northern University in 2005 — his hometown downtown died, he told the assembled audience.
Stage, the department story, closed. JC Penney moved. A large pharmacy chain bought out the local druggist and Walmart built its first Ohio store in Bellefontaine.
“But just like your town, my town had things we were proud about,” he said. Although his family owns a stone quarry business, Duff wanted something else. A music scholarship got him a college education in business as well as music and, back home, he began to purchase derelict downtown buildings for $1 a piece.
Then, he went looking for other visionaries like himself who could make profitable businesses happen in those buildings.
A restaurant, 600 Downtown, came first. It was followed by a craft beer restaurant, six clothing boutiques, loft apartments, a coffee shop, a primary care health facility and, now under construction, a wedding and event venue.
“We have the ability to shut down negativity,” Duff said. All it takes is some creative partnerships.
“I find people who say, ‘Yes.’ You guys can do this, too,” he said.
To get the restaurant started, Duff approached a pizza-maker who had customers lined up waiting for his food in Kenton. Initially, the chef told Duff, no, he wasn’t interested in expanding to Bellefontaine.
“But ‘No’ is just a delayed version of ‘Yes,’” Duff said. So, he kept asking and when the chef realized that many of his customers in Kenton had traveled from Bellefontaine for his food, he changed his mind. Once the eatery was up and running, the chef backed out, and the new chef has won national awards for her pizza and, at President Trump’s invitation, spoke during an event in the White House rose garden.
The craft beer establishment was opened by members of the Bellefontaine Body Bearders, a club for bearded men.
“None of them had restaurant experience,” Duff said. But with support and encouragement from him and others, they have made Brewfountaine a success.
“For the last two years, it has been named the No. 1 craft beer bar in Ohio,” Duff said.
The developer advocates using empty buildings for pop-up businesses, which gives small retailers a chance to test the local market in an affordable way and puts life into the buildings.
When questioned about how such usage manages to meet zoning and other regulations, Duff acknowledged that “sometimes you have to be rule-breaker.” However, he also noted that understanding why regulations are in place, appreciating that inspectors are about keeping everyone safe and working with code-enforcers, county commissioners and city councils to change outdated regulations is a win-win for everyone.
“Educating people about the rules and the strategies to change the rules (is important), but sometimes the regulatory wall is so high (it prevents entrepreneurs from trying to open a business.) That’s when you say, ‘Unless we help with the regulatory burden, (that empty building) is a fire risk and a morale risk,” Duff said. “Leadership takes courage.”
He advised that entrepreneurs need a support system.
“They are wired to solve problems. They have to be wired to say, ‘I’m not afraid to make mistakes, to learn, to work hard. But you need government, structure and support. You need a good marriage of that,” he said. He related that when the owner of a coffee shop in one of his buildings feared that he couldn’t afford the rent, Duff didn’t lower the rent. Instead, he went to five industries in town and asked if they could each pay the coffee shop $500 per month to give free coffee to their employees. The shop owner got new business and more than enough to pay the rent.
Another time, city residents swamped a new restaurant; the kitchen manager was overwhelmed and walked out. Duff, with no kitchen experience at all, stepped in to help feed the lunch crowd.
Following Duff’s presentation, a panel of local entrepreneurs talked about their experiences of opening businesses in downtown Sidney. Panelists were Alicia Rittenhouse, owner of the SoMar Agency; Misty Reese, owner of Vin & Joy; Seth Middleton, who has purchased and is developing several downtown Sidney buildings; and Barbara Dilworth, community development director of the city of Sidney.
“Envision this: the word ‘community,’ then a line under it and under the line, the word ‘competition,’” said Rittenhouse. “If you always put community over competition, it will work.” She added that, after years of operating her international, online business from her home, “the legitimacy of my business shifted when I got an office.”
Reese acknowledged that starting a new business was “a big learning experience.” Middleton said it’s exciting to show potential renters what he has to offer in his historic buildings and he looks forward to helping them achieve what they want to make happen in them.
Duff recommended that Sidney and Shelby County people look at what other places, including Bellefontaine, have done, and “rip it off and copy it.”
“Study what others are doing and do it better,” he said. “I found a few people to share the vision. I found government people ready to innovate. There are people in our town who took big risks and worked really hard. I hope we can look back and say, ‘We made it better.’
“There are people here (in Sidney) who are under-used, under-appreciated. Pair people,” he said. “Then get out of the way.”