LIMA — In the mid-1990s, now state Rep. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, worked on Genny McPheron, who lived in Lima but ran a restaurant in Findlay. After some urging, the McPheron family brought its restaurant talents to the city, opening up the Main Street Bistro on South Main Street.
Huffman did a bit of arm twisting again on the mother-daughter duo Genny and Alisa McPheron, who now own Fat Cat Diner. He asked them to stay open past their normal lunch hours tonight for the large crowd expected to overnight in Lima after Gov. John Kasich delivers the State of the State to a joint session of the Legislature at Veterans Memorial Civic Center.
Fat Cat and others open now and in the works are part of a restaurant renaissance in downtown Lima. The city’s center had a distinct dining void. It is now on the edge of an explosion in choices: Fat Cat and The Met are open now. John Heaphy’s planned steakhouse, Old City Prime, is under construction. A renovated Vivace is expected to open in early March. Fresh Downtown Lima is also under construction in the former Basinger’s jewelry store.
When choosing a location in which to invest, the downtown is a natural, The Met owner Rob Nelson said.
“Downtown is the center of commerce and culture. That’s A. And B., you have these beautiful old buildings that tell us a lot about our history,” Nelson said. “They’ve been there 100 years, and we think they’ll be there 100 more. We’re renovating new life in them with these young people who have shown the community that this place can be your future, too.”
The McPherons have lived downtown’s promise, waiting for more, devastation and rebirth. They opened the Bistro in 1998 and grew the business. The promised other development never happened, and the business dropped off. A fire then took multiple buildings, including the new location the Bistro had moved to.
But the McPherons continued to believe in their city and opened at the former Court diner across from the Allen County Courthouse.
“The time is right. We’ve been waiting a long time, it’s been on the precipice of coming together,” Genny McPheron said.”We like doing business in downtown Lima. We like our customers. People are gracious and interested in what we’re doing. We had always talked about a diner and we felt strongly about the potential and had a strong drive for the revitalization.”
Heaphy picked the first Bistro location for his new steakhouse, saying his hometown’s core, with things such as Veterans Memorial Civic Center, Wingate, Lima Symphony Orchestra and Memorial Hall, is a good bet.
“All across the country, especially in large cities the younger generations are flocking back to the downtowns to work, live and play. I really feel there is this desire to feel some 'big city' in this town. Look at the arts, festivals, shows that come to town. Think about the investments corporations, hospitals and small businesses of all kinds make in this town to keep the arts and fun factor alive,” Heaphy said. “To concentrate a good amount of dining, music and entertainment venues in the downtown will draw patrons which could also draw more small specialty shops and retail. I have been in business in town for 30 years and feel the most excitement I have heard in years about downtown. Ultimately, time will tell if the public wants to be supportive and revive the pride of the heart of our community.”
Heaphy supports more attention being paid to the downtown’s aesthetics and said he would support a small fraction of sales tax revenue funding those efforts.
“A successful county trying to sell itself to new investments needs more than a catchy slogan,” Heaphy said. “When people come visit, the proof is in the pudding.”
The Met, not yet open three months, has become a beehive. Nelson took a chance on Lima, offering a wine bar that sprinkled in quality spirits, craft beers and small plates. It’s working wonderfully, but Nelson also loves the variety of other offerings that’s sparking.
“It’s fantastic. Lima is not one person’s place, or one entity’s place,” Nelson said. “We’ll feed off of each other. It’s all about finding more meaning in those third spaces, between home and work. It’s just more support for the downtown, creating opportunities. Wearing my developer hat, I just think we’ll continue to attract other small locally owned businesses.”