LIMA — Are there enough “things to do” in Lima? The answer depends on who you ask.
“There’s always something to do,” Gene “Groamy” Frueh said between puffs of his cigarette in front of his record store on Robb Avenue. “You’re just not looking for it.”
“We need more things to do in Lima that takes their mind off of work,” Nate Mackenzie, an Under 40 forum participant, said. “I think entertainment is key because once you’re done working, what do you want to do? You want to relax.“
“I think the mentality is: ‘Wait a second, Lima is not doing much, but if you look in the last year — the 318, Mulligan’s that popped open, Rotary just released plans for the new amphitheater, Alter Ego comics and now Rustgaze Records … I think some people overlook all the great things that people in this community are doing,” said Vino Bellisimo co-owner Marc Reineke.
“Our community is really far behind when it comes to entertainment and weekend activities. We have very few night life options for people other than some run-down bars and couple trendy spots,“ an anonymous respondent from the Future of Lima Regional survey wrote.
If measuring a place’s vibrancy was easy, there’d be no debate on whether Lima provides enough “things to do” for your average resident. But no matter what side someone takes, it would be hard to argue that the debate itself has had no effect on Lima and the surrounding region.
Since Allen County began shrinking, the metro area has lost a small city’s worth of people — roughly 10,000 individuals — in a space of five decades.
And if those organizing the events can’t convince their neighbors that they live in a vibrant area, those from the outside looking in are going to have a hard time foreseeing a future within Lima and its surrounding communities.
Making it work
So what needs to change? Home-grown initiative would help.
When Nick Moeller first pitched his idea to create a brewery in Maria Stein, some warned him.
”I had a little bit of cautionary advice, like: ‘It can’t be done.’ And even like: ‘Hey look, I’m worried you’re going to throw away all your money.’ But I told them I don’t need 100%. I need 20% of beer drinkers to give me a chance,” Moeller said.
With that goal in mind, the Maria Stein native took knowledge gleaned from his years sampling San Diego’s brewery scene and brought it to small-town Ohio. Four years later, he has a destination business drawing people from surrounding major metros such as Toledo, Fort Wayne, Dayton and Columbus.
Moeller’s story is echoed by other successful business owners with similar restaurants. Marc and Carissa Reineke, owners of Vino Bellisimo in Lima, had seen great entertainment spots in larger metros and made their own version when they noticed Lima had a hole in the wine market back in 2009.
“We were born and raised here. Her family’s here. My family’s here. So we never really looked at the community, as, ‘Hey, we can’t wait to get out of here.’ It was, ‘What can we enjoy?’” Marc Reineke said.
Skyler Mayberry, owner of The Axe Handle in Columbus Grove, took a similar initiative in his town. To try to keep young people in town, he created his own restaurant to offer something unique to the community.
“(Columbus Grove) has a couple bars, … but really what was the place where we’re going to serve (young professionals) like they have in a college town, like craft beer. Why can’t we have them here?” Mayberry said.
Like Moeller, they saw some blow-back from the mere idea of providing something new to do. Naysayers pointed out that they didn’t want something new, whether that’s a new recipe, new experience or new beer.
“I might get somebody in who adamantly refuses to drink any of our beers. They don’t like any of our beers,” Carissa Reineke said. “I’ll go out of my way to sample several different ones with them, sample different beer styles. Sometimes, its an eye-opening experience for somebody and sometimes, they are more determined than ever that they really don’t like anything than they normally drink. But it’s always gives us an opportunity to have these fun engagements.”
Mayberry added, “There are always people out there that don’t see your vision, but that doesn’t minimize your vision. You can’t please everyone.”
It’s good that Moeller ignored the advice. The Moeller Brew Barn is thriving, and the business just expanded by adding a new kitchen and additional dining space. As Moeller explained, by concentrating on providing quality, such places were able to tap into a market that desires something new to do.
“If we get people in the doors, then they’ll have a good experience. They’ll stay loyal to the Brew Barn and give us another chance,” Moeller said.
Such similarities between Vino Bellisimo, The Axe Handle and Moeller Brew Barn have even united them in a loose network. As Mayberry said, his waiting staff will often recommend other restaurants across the region to help patrons find their favorite dish.
“If people look around, there’s a lot in the area that we have to offer. There are a lot of neat options, and if we give those local places a chance, they’re going to reinvest in our community,” Mayberry said.
But before such business initiatives can succeed, people are going to need to know that they’re there.
As Executive Director Abe Ambroza is aware, the Veterans Memorial Civic and Convention Center is often targeted as an example of a space not always providing the acts desired by Lima residents.
“We still can’t afford Taylor Swift,” Ambroza said jokingly. “I get that request often.”
As impressive as Crouse Performance Hall can be, there are a few impediments to booking the space. Big names in the entertainment industry, such as Cheap Trick, may not see Lima as a weekend destination due to its size, but they might be persuaded to book a show if they’re passing nearby. Other bands may not like the venue itself. A lack of standing room diminishes Crouse Performance Hall’s attraction to artists performing music with upbeat tempos.
There are also market issues. A band that may be more niche-focused — Ambroza named Nathaniel Rateliff and “Fitz and the Tantrums” as examples — may not be able to fill the room because there’s fewer people who have heard of their names. As for attracting younger audiences, it’s a work in progress.
“I think our foundation is going to start dipping their toes into some things like that. Some ’90s artist, maybe an alternative band that had one or two hits in 2000s that are still touring. We’re going to try to start doing that. Maybe one show a year is more targeted toward 30- and 40-year-olds. We’re still trying to build up that reputation,” Ambroza said
But booking is just one part of the equation.
Another is promotion. Back at Groamy’s record store, it’s a topic that Groamy likes to talk about.
“When you have a band coming through, why don’t you send a poster to your local record store?” Groamy said after literally acting out taking a chip off of his shoulder. It’s an old grievance for someone who has been hosting bands in his space for the past 25 years.
“Lima is very cliquey. They’re like this,” Groamy explained while touching his knuckles together. “They should be like that.” His fingers folded together.
When the Civic Center announced its 2019-2020 season during an upscale gala, the business leaders announcing community events are also many of the same faces that can be seen consistently seen attending Lima/Allen County Chamber of Commerce events. It’s hard to imagine a character like Groamy doing the same thing.
Meanwhile, event organizers in the community have expressed frustration that their events don’t always result in generating crowds.
“We talk to people, trying to promote as much as we can. We try to find out from others what stops them from coming downtown and coming in,” said Sally Windle, executive director of ArtSpace/Lima. “Many people don’t think there’s anything going on.”
The library has similar issues.
“We really love to offer the programs we have at the library. We wish people knew more about them,” Lima Public Library Head of Reference Services Dani Hollar said. “I think a lot of organizations put information out on their social media pages. If community members aren’t friends on Facebook, are they really seeing that information?”
Ambroza added, “We want to be able to show off the fact that we are here, so that you should want to move to Lima, or should want to be in Lima, or want to open up in Lima. Because we have the art, we have a local symphony, we have a local concert band, we have local Broadway. I wish there was a single golden buzzer … but it is really multifaceted – staying involved, staying present and staying visible.”
In Van Wert, Tafi Stober, executive director of the Niswonger Performing Arts Center, said she relies on creating a community, hyping events by word of mouth and encouraging quality of shows to keep people coming through the door. She too sees folks with the complaint that there’s a lack of “things to do.”
“There’s always going to be an element of that sentiment. I think we’ve somewhat overpowered some of that because of our awareness. When I came in six years ago, we needed a brand remodel, and we really worked on brand consistency,” Stober said. “I think people trust it.”
Interestingly, the Niswonger also makes a point to send promotional posters to Groamy’s CDs and Tapes.
“There’s nothing to do in Lima.’ I’ve been hearing the same thing for 35 years,” Groamy said on a sunny afternoon. “Then they say: ‘There’s nothing that I want to do. I’ll give them that. Then you create it. Get off your (butt), and you do it. Maybe you’ll make some money, or maybe you’ll find out that the things you like are only liked by you and your 10 friends.”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.