The dominos tumble as downtown Lima grows

LIMA — “Take a chance; Columbus did.”

The origin of that phrase is uncertain, but the message is clear. Trust your gut, make a leap of faith and never look back.

Be a risk-taker.

A handful of Lima entrepreneurs didn’t exactly set sail for a new world as Christopher Columbus did in 1492, but they nonetheless do share the same adventurous spirit. A decade ago, at a time when downtown Lima was in a state of urban stagnation, some opportunists saw what few others could envision.

As a new year approaches that vision continues to spread throughout Lima’s downtown business and entertainment district.

The Met, a fine dining establishment at the corner of Main and North streets in downtown Lima, celebrated its 10th year in existence earlier this month and is widely credited as one of the driving forces behind an ongoing downtown revival.

Owners Rob and Nicole Nelson purchased the iconic Metropolitan Block building in 2012. Built in 1880 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the popular eatery has become a focal point for downtown redevelopment and revitalization.

A few years earlier Marc Bowker and his wife Angie purchased a building one block south on Main Street as the new home for their Alter Ego Comics business. That building today houses five separate business ventures representing four individual small business owners.

In August 2013 a major downtown project was announced when the foundation board at Rhodes State College announced the purchase of properties on the southeast corner of Town Square as the site of its Borra Center for Health Sciences. Two months later Lima businessman John Heaphy opened Old City Prime, a Main Street destination for fine food and quality entertainment located just two blocks south of Town Square.

Since that time the Lima Rotary Club kicked off a fundraising drive that will lead to the opening of the Greater Lima Region Park and Amphitheater next summer.

With those anchors in place, the development dominoes continue to tumble. Old Town Roast, Jean and Lily’s boutique and Beauty by Jill have popped up along Main Street in recent years. Fresh and Faded barbershop expanded and Hollander’s on Main is currently working toward a reopening.

The site that formerly housed Dome’s Nut Shop will soon be a candy store and The Meeting Place on Market Street is expanding into a second floor.

Eating risk for breakfast

Bowker got in on the ground floor of the downtown revitalization efforts. Alter Ego Comics opened in 2003 as an e-commerce business and transformed into a brick-and-mortar site on Elizabeth Street in 2005. As the niche audience for comic books and collectibles grew, space limitations eventually led Bowker to look for an even larger storefront, which led him to Main Street.

At the time, “there was not a lot going on” along Main Street in downtown Lima, Bowker recalled recently. Making the decision to relocate on Main Street was not without its risks, but Bowker was confident enough in his business model to make that leap of faith.

“Small business owners eat risk for breakfast every day,” he said. “But Alter Ego wasn’t going anywhere; we had a strong online following and strong local traffic. We just needed better visibility on Main Street.”

After nine years as strictly a comic book/novelty card/collectibles business, Bowker started talking with other small business owners “who shared the same idea for the downtown of more foot traffic and more visibility.”

Today the site at 230 N. Main St. houses Alter Ego Comics and a live entertainment venue called Live at the Lab, each owned by the Bowkers, along with tenants Legacy Sounds recording studio/Rust Gaze Records, the NOW Marketing Group and the Purple Feet Wine Boutique.

To the south

Buoyed by projected growth in the downtown area that includes Rhodes State College’s $21 million Borra Center for Health Sciences and the amphitheater/park project, Heaphy some two years ago announced plans to transform properties at the corner of Main and Spring streets into a multi-use facility that could include restaurants and entertainment venues.

“I really feel right now, in downtown Lima is the best synergy, the most exciting time in my lifetime that I’ve seen in downtown Lima. I think it’s a great example right now, of a collaboration in public and private sectors working together,” the president of Good Food Restaurants said at the time.

Speaking at City Hall in January 2021, the developer said he envisioned “a vibrant entertainment district that’s going to be a gateway to the amphitheater and also accommodate the traffic that the college is going to generate.”

Gala weekend set for

amphitheater opening

The concept behind the Rotary Club amphitheater and park project was first broached in late 2017. Tracy Sanchez was the incoming club president and recalled how friend and classmate Rich Rudolph said, “We need to do something big in downtown Lima.” Armed with the knowledge that the Rhodes State Borra Center would be constructed on Town Square, Rotarians informally came up with the amphitheater/park concept.

“The club said, ‘Let’s take this on,’ and we started looking at possible locations. We knew we wanted it to be as close to the college as possible,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez said what started as a modest $500,000 fundraising endeavor picked up “tons of support” and the project grew in scale.

“It became a $3 million project, and $2 million has already been raised.”

Phase I of the project — the amphitheater and restrooms — is nearly complete. A park area surrounding the complex will constitute Phase II.

Sanchez said a grand opening is scheduled in August with a “big name country music singer” slated to appear.

No deep pockets, but high hopes

The purchase of the long-vacant Ohio Theater building in 2020 by out-of-towners Michael Bouson and Joe Correll is also seen as a boost to Lima’s revitalization efforts. A well-attended celebration was held last week to celebrate the 95th anniversary of the historic venue.

“We took a leap of faith and here we are. With all the current and pending investments downtown we felt it was a good time to jump on the revitalization bandwagon,” Bouson said recently.

Work continues and most of the venue remains closed, with the exception of the Stage Door Canteen. That venue has been open now for eight weeks, offering a full bar, restaurant and live entertainment on Wednesdays through Saturdays. Attendance at shows thus far has been “spotty,” Bouson said.

“Some nights we’ve had a full house and the other night we had four people in the audience. We’re not quite breaking even, and that’s disconcerting. But eight weeks is a pretty small sample size.

“We don’t have deep pockets, but we have high hopes.”

Growth is not without its hiccups

Bowker said there are a lot of civic organizations in Lima whose stated mission is to assist small business owners but who, in his eyes, have fallen short of that goal.

“The powers that be seem to be more interested in the bigger fish, the companies that will bring in lots of jobs. That leaves the mom-and-pop shops to fend for themselves. As a small business owner, it’s frustrating,” he said. “There are multiple organizations with their hands out, supposedly advocating for the success of small businesses. But the reality is there’s a lot of territorialism among these organizations.

“Are there too many (groups)? Absolutely,” Bowker said. “Small business owners have skin in the game and a lot of the people making decisions about downtown Lima simply don’t.”

He cited the Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area, which allows visitors to downtown Lima to purchase and carry alcoholic beverages within the designated area, as an example.

Lima City Council approved the DORA in April of 2021.

“It’s dumb,” Bowker said. “And it was premature. DORA requires people to pay $1 per cup — on top of the cost of a drink — only to walk around the corner, throw that cup away and pay another $1 to buy another cup at a different establishment.

“People without skin in the game made that decision.”

Likewise, the promise of more foot traffic related to the arrival of Rhodes State in the downtown has failed to materialize, Bowker said.

“A lot of people said (the college) would help the downtown. And while I’m glad they’re here, it hasn’t moved the needle on foot traffic downtown. In reality, what we need are more mom-and-pop shops.”

Amber Martin, Workforce and Small Business Development coordinator for the City of Lima, said Mayor Sharetta Smith earlier this year created a Small Business Roundtable to allow business owners to discuss their needs and concerns directly with the administration through quarterly meetings.

“We are hearing a variety of needs and challenges that small businesses are facing,” Martin said. “The attendance at these meetings has increased steadily.”

It just takes time

“When you look at the downtown as a whole, there is still no guarantee of success,” Bowker said. “The risk is always there, but my passion for Alter Ego Comics and for Lima as a whole keeps pushing us to look for new and fun things for people to do. I love it here; the people … the pace. It’s a great place to raise a family,” he said.

“The potential is there, we just need a plan and some concise leadership in the business community.”

“It does take time,” Sanchez said of Lima’s revitalization efforts. “But I think of lot of naysayers are becoming believers.”