LIMA — A generation of young people and families have fled Lima for Columbus and other nearby cities, looking for better careers and a place to raise their families.
Persuading those families to come back to Lima will be a challenge.
“It seemed like staying there, it was a trap city,” said Patrick Hullinger, 34, who moved from Lima to Columbus in 2010. “There isn’t a lot to do besides get in trouble. Not a lot of means for people to earn money to do better things.
“It’s a vicious cycle in Lima. Once you get in trouble, you’re stuck in trouble.”
Hullinger is one of the Lima natives who made their home in Columbus. Some have come back, but Hullinger and others who spoke to The Lima News said they still don’t believe a life in Lima is feasible today.
Most Lima natives aren’t going far: The top two destinations for people moving from Allen County between 2012 and 2016 were Auglaize County, to the south, and Franklin County, home to Columbus.
Lima’s proximity to major cities such as Columbus, Dayton, Toledo and Fort Wayne is sometimes sold as a positive aspect to living here, as these cities and the entertainment that comes with them are all within two hour’s drive. That proximity may be encouraging families to build their lives in those cities instead.
Amber Washington, an executive director of support services for Mercy Health-St. Rita’s who recently participated in The Lima News’ Under 40 Forum, described the closeness of those cities as a barrier to keeping young professionals engaged, particularly those who were recruited from outside Lima.
“You can get many places quickly,” Washington said. “They will drive. They will still house in Dayton, and they will drive here every day for work. … In order to really capture that audience and the power that they will bring is power in numbers, you almost have to have those activities and events within the community here so that they don’t get pulled out.”
To Josh Unterbrink, co-director of Activate Allen County and a fellow participant in the Under 40 Forum, the missing ingredient in Lima is vibrancy.
“We need a vibrant community and a vibrant downtown,” Unterbrink said during the forum. “That starts with arts and entertainment. Also, it’s a walkable and bikeable community … Any town that I drive through, when I see people in the streets, I want to park my car, get out and find out what they’re into.”
Looking for inspiration
A real estate revival in Bellefontaine may offer some clues for Lima.
This city of 13,000, located 35 miles southeast of Lima along state Route 117, suffered many of the same problems as Lima 10 years ago.
“Our downtown died,” said Jason Duff, 36, founder of Small Nation, a real estate firm that flipped dozens of once-vacant properties in downtown Bellefontaine. Duff credits this revitalization with helping create more than 200 jobs, dozens of new businesses and millions of dollars in new investment there.
Duff claims more than 70 percent of first floor real estate in downtown Bellefontaine was vacant when he started Small Nation seven years ago.
Now, the downtown is home to a variety of children’s and women’s boutiques, antique shops, furniture stores, specialty gyms, breweries, coffee shops, gourmet restaurants and luxury apartments. The town’s historic theater, the Holland, is undergoing major renovations. There’s even a miniature walk-through mall tucked inside a building on Main Street.
Duff purchased his first property in a foreclosure sale.
“The building had a gigantic hole in the roof,” he said. “It had raw sewage in the basement. But the potential for it was incredible.”
That building is now home to Six Hundred Downtown, a gourmet pizza parlor.
Down the street is craft beer bar Brewfontaine, another property Duff flipped.
“We took a building that did not have a floor, did not have a roof but had awesome subway tiles on the walls, and we created the Brewfontaine in Bellefontaine,” he said. Construction will start soon on an outdoor beer garden and event venue, known as the Syndicate, located in an empty lot right next to Brewfontaine.
Duff thinks this sort of revitalization is possible in Lima, albeit with the right entrepreneurs and support networks.
The key, he said, is “finding local owners who pair up and team up with entrepreneurs who have good ideas and working with your local government to give them a one-stop-shop for speed and efficiency of execution,” he said. It also means “helping navigate the difficult process of building codes, working with local investors or local financial institutions to help them get loans and then working with mentors to give them coaching.”
The Findlay revival
Findlay, located 35 minutes northeast of Lima along Interstate 75, has seen its own revival.
While floods have ravaged downtown Findlay before, the city still maintains a vibrant atmosphere. Music plays outdoors for passersby shopping or dining downtown. Murals uplift the facades of many downtown properties.
The city is now home to popular nightlife destinations such as Findlay Brewing Company, the Bourbon Affair and Alexandria’s, a three-story bar that is home to three individual bars. Other wine bars, restaurants and boutiques are popping up around the city too.
“I’ve been around since downtown wasn’t anything,” said Rob Talpas, a manager at Alexandria’s. “It was one bar here, and it was kind of dead.”
But today, Talpas said an average weekend in the upper deck at Alexandria’s draws a crowd of 100 to 200 people, mostly young professionals.
Aaron Osborne, co-owner of the Findlay Brewing Company, said having the Marathon corporate office in Findlay helped retain the city’s young professionals and drive traffic downtown. He pointed to other events too, such as Rally in the Alley, live concerts held in downtown Findlay on Friday nights in the summer.
“The main portion of our crowd, our patrons, are that young professional, 24 to 35 group,” Osborne said.
Early movement in Lima
There are early signs of momentum to turn downtown Lima around.
The Met is expanding into the old Nitza’s boutique, which closed this spring. The old First National Bank building has been converted into loft apartments. More downtown apartments are on their way with the Metro Building renovation.
But in Lima, the question is whether enough support exists for these efforts to succeed.
Take the Ohio Theatre. The theater’s owners, Kelly and Mike Saddler, are trying to sell the historic theater after acquiring the property in 2013. Kelly Saddler told The Lima News that she’s struggled to keep the community happy since converting the theater into a concert venue.
While the theater holds a lot of potential, it’s in need of cosmetic and roof upgrades. Finding a buyer who will invest the time and money required could be a challenge.
Fear of failure
The fear of failure in Lima has pushed some entrepreneurs out.
That was true for Chanon White, who moved to Atlanta to study fashion shortly after graduating from Lima Senior in 1996. She later changed careers, working for 20 years in the mortgage industry before opening a business of her own, Glow Events, a small luxury balloon boutique located in the Columbus suburb of Bexley.
“I always wanted to come back to Lima, but I felt that the city wasn’t ready for my ideas,” she said. “I always felt like anything I wanted to do in Lima would fail because of a lack of support.”
White said that lack of support is about more than people who don’t believe in her business. In Columbus, White said she works with clients who host parties that can range anywhere from $500 to $200,000. And in a city of 879,000 people, there are plenty of potential customers in Columbus to support her business. But there aren’t enough families in Lima with the disposable income needed to support a luxury event designer, White said.
“It’s hard to build a brand where people don’t have jobs … for me to bring a luxury balloon boutique there would be counterproductive to my business,” White said. “It would survive, but it wouldn’t thrive the way it’s thriving in Columbus.”
That lack of opportunity is keeping Hullinger from moving back.
“We’re homesick, but we’re like, I can’t move back.. There’s nothing there … Every time I go back, it seems like houses are missing more and more or just falling apart,” said Hullinger, who is now a line mechanic for American Electric Power. “(There’s) not a lot of good employment options and not a lot activity wise for people to do. Even when there are things to do, it doesn’t seem like the community gets involved … The people that are leaving the city need to invest in it.”
Reach Mackenzi Klemann at 567-242-0456.